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Perfecting your viewpoint

Getting your viewpoint right in your fiction is a key element of good writing – and one of the most common things that an editor will comment on.


Which character?


Getting your viewpoint right involves deciding which character’s perspective you’ll use to tell the story. It can change from scene to scene, but readers will feel less connected to your protagonist and key characters if you have too many viewpoint characters through the book, so it’s best to stick to one or two. The Jericho Writers’ blog explains this point well here.


So, if your scene is being told from Jane’s viewpoint, you can only write about the things that Jane would know – the things she sees, thinks, hears, smells, touches or tastes. You can’t say that her friend Jill thinks she’s looking tired – unless, of course, Jill says that aloud for Jane to hear. If Jane and Jill part, we can’t then follow Jill to see what she does next – at least, not within the same scene.


I know that sounds quite strict and pedantic, but not only does it reduce confusion about who is experiencing which things, it also gives you as a writer a much greater opportunity to show the reader what the character is like and how they’re experiencing the world, and to make your reader feel close to them. Isn’t that what we all hope for in our creative writing? Louise Harnby illustrates this perfectly in her blog here.


You can, of course, change to the viewpoint of a different character at intervals through your story, but unless you’re using omniscient, you really need to use a section break or new chapter between viewpoints.



Avoiding head-hopping


But, some people say, if you call your viewpoint ‘omniscient narrator’, then you can jump between people’s heads, right?


Well, if your omniscient narrator viewpoint is only about head-hopping, then you’re still running the risks that the quality of your writing will suffer, as described above. To me, a good omniscient narrator is about so much more than head-hopping. This kind of narrator is, in a sense, a separate character to the story – they have their own view on events, they describe characters in a way that character would not describe themselves, they can attribute motives that the character would not acknowledge. They can also make general observations about the world at large that the characters would not consider, because the narrator doesn’t have to limit what they say to what the character would say. You can see great examples of this in 19th and early 20th century literature, but it’s not popular with publishers nowadays for most genres, hence editors guide their writers towards limited viewpoints.


Distance


One of the reasons that ‘omniscient’ isn’t popular these days is because it holds the reader at quite a distance from the characters – the reader has more of a relationship with the narrator than with the characters themselves. You can think of a third person ‘limited’ viewpoint as one in which the story is told by a narrator, but which gives the experience of only one viewpoint character within any given scene. A ‘deep’ third person story is told by the character themselves, in their own voice – there’s no narrator. Jane Friedman’s blog gives a really useful explanation of this here.


You can use a varying degree of distance from your character when using a limited or omniscient viewpoint – have a look at what Emma Darwin says on this subject here.


First, second or third person?


Deciding on whether you’ll use first person (‘I’), second person (‘you’) or third person (‘he’ or ‘she’) to tell your story is another key factor – Reedsy has a great resource on that subject here.


A potential pitfall


I’ve been seeing more of another viewpoint problem lately, one that I think of as ‘neutral viewpoint’. Perhaps a scene starts off from Jane’s point of view, but it then shifts into neutral – the reader sees lots of actions, hears lots of speech that both Jane and Jill can experience, and the reader gets no sense of being ‘with’ either of them. Not only does this miss an opportunity of being close to Jane and understanding her as a character, rendering the scene somewhat colourless, it’s also dangerous ground. The writer, with no strong sense of connection to Jane’s viewpoint, might begin describing the action more in terms of how Jill would see things.


‘Jill thanked the shopkeeper, put the change in her pocket and walked back over to where Jane was standing.’


Jane might be able to see and hear everything that just happened, but if we were ‘close’ to Jane, wouldn’t we hear about Jane waiting until her friend had finished her purchase, and then seeing her come back over?


Let me know what you think about ‘neutral viewpoint’ – do you see this used or find yourself using it? Do you find it a problem?


Happy writing, everyone!


Originally posted on 28 May 2020

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