Sunday, August 2, 2009

View Point

The Queensland Writers Centre offers Editorial Consultancies. As an editorial consultant I would read 10 pages of a manuscript and give the person feedback, suggest markets etc.

In one particular writer's ten pages there was something like 16 View Point changes. On one page alone there were 4 VP changes between 3 people. So I sat down the with the writer and began to explain how important it is to let your reader know which character's VP they are in, to give the reader time to get to know the character and empathise with them, and to signal clearly when you're changing VP. We spent an hour and a half together. At the end of this, the author stood up, thanked me and asked what View Point was.

So I'm going to start out by explaining it.

View Point (VP) for short, is when you are in a chracter's head telling the story through their eyes. There are many levels of VP. Here are the basics.

Omniscient VP is like a movie camera. The narrator is the author who knows everything. This is a very distancing VP because the reader isn’t intimately involved with a particular character. And there is no sense of threat, because the Omniscient VP keeps the reader distanced from danger. It is an old fashioned VP because of the tone it gives a book.

The most intimate type of View Point is First Person. This is often used for Children’s books because it is very immediate and drags the reader in and also for Mystery stories, because the narrator can only uncover facts by experiencing events while they are trying to solve the murder. This creates suspense.

Second Person is rarely used eg. 'You're walking down a street, when ...'

The most common VP is Third Person. eg. 'She did this, he did that.' To make a story gripping you can use Deep Third Person VP. It is almost like First Person, but you use ‘she/he’ instead of ‘I’. If you immerse your reader in the protagonist and give them a challenging problem you’ll engage the reader. They will have to keep turning the pages to find out what happens to the protagonist. Deep Third Person VP will make events feel immediate and involve the reader.

Don’t chop and change VP.

Once you are aware of VP you’ll notice how other writers use it. Sometimes they limit each scene to one VP and telegraph clearly at the beginning of a scene which VP they are in. Other times they will change VP within a scene, but this must be done sparingly or the reader will get annoyed because they’re not sure whose head they are in. This is called Head Hopping. Best selling romance writer Nora Roberts head hops but because she can weave a good story, the reader forgives her.

When you change VP within a scene there should be a good reason, ie. you change VP to reveal something that only this character could know, or to show how this new character has misinterpreted something the other character said or did.

For an in-depth look at the various levels of VP borrow a copy of Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft of Writing’ and read her chapter on VP. It is excellent.

In a children’s book limit the VP to one or two characters and signal clearly when you change VP.

In an adult book select 2/3 VPs and limit your book to those primary VPs. Of course George RR Martin breaks this rule and does it well in his Fire and Ice series. But he uses only one VP per chapter and telegraphs this with the character's name.

Mixing VPs.

Some writers mix their VPs. They will have characters whose story they tell in third person VP and another character whose story they tell from first person VP. Personally, I feel there has to be a reason for doing this. In the current book I'm writing one of the characters is deformed and has no gender. I couldn't use third person VP, because we don't have an intelligent non-gender specific pronoun in English. So I'm using first person for this character and third person for the other two characters. I've seen writers invent an intelligent pronoun but for some reason this always jars with me. I can accept an invented noun like Wookie, but not a prounoun like he, she, ve.

Using VP to raise tension.

Just because we write SF, Fantasy and Horror doesn't mean we can't use a technique Thriller writers use to crank up the tension. You can choose to use a brief VP to tell something that the main protagonists wouldn’t know. Thrillers often dip into the VP of a character who gets killed by the villain.

If you have three VP characters and all three of them are in a scene together and you're not sure which VP to use to reveal the scene, ask yourself, Which character has the most to lose? And tell the scene from that character's VP.

Witholding information from one VP character, while other VP character/s know (which means the reader knows) is another way to raise tension. As long as there is a logical reason for the first character not knowing certain crucial information, the reader will accept this and worry for them. You want to raise the Worry Factor as much as possible. While a reader is worrying about a character, they'll keep turning pages.

If you're worried that your third person VP isn't gripping enough, consider rewriting the scene in first person VP. You'll find this changes the Authorial Voice and and makes the telling more immediate. Once you've done this, try to incorporate elements of this in third person VP to make it deep third Person.

Have you read any books recently that did interesting things with VP?


KylieQ said...

Rowena, how is switch between 1st and 3rd person working for you? I'm writing the main story in a book at the moment in 3rd person and am going back later to pick up the other threads. One of them is niggling at me because I can only hear that character in 1st person. So I've been wondering whether it's too confusing to try this, particularly when this isn't my main character (although she does feature substantially in this book and will pretty much carry the next on her own). I'd be interested to hear how your attempt is going and whether it's caused any major problems along the way.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kylie, I feel much more comfortable writing this character from first person.

They are meant to be an outcast, living int he crevices of society. Because they were born 'Twisted' they have no gender, so I can't write them from third person.

In the other two characters' narratives there are other Twisted. This creates linguistic gymnastics as I try to avoid referring to the Twisted with either he or she.

Have you read Liane Hearn's 'Across the Nightingale Floor'?

Book one in this series had first and third person narrators. Take a look and see if it bothers you. The book is worth reading.

I figure if she can use this device (for no reason that I could see), then I can use it for a very practical reason.

KylieQ said...

Thanks, Rowena, I'll check out that book. I'm quarrantined pending whooping test results so I have plenty of time at the moment!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Whooping cough, oh dear.

No one in my family has had it, but I've heard it can be nasty.

My husband caught Chicken Pox when our children had it. The virus went to his lungs. He was in so much pain and so sick he had a couple of months off work and dropped from a 92 trouser size to an 84.

Hope you keep well. And, as you say, it is a good excuse to read!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I know when I was starting out, even after having read extensively, I had no idea about VP. When I was bludgeoned over the head with the concept and began following it, my writing transformed over night into something actually readable.

I'm currently shopping around an urban fantasy where I swapped first and third VP between characters. I had several reasons for this...

1. The main character simply had to be in first person. His voice came through so strong I couldn't concieve of taking some of that personality away from him by putting him in third.

2. When I first had the idea for the story, I had heaps of trouble working out the events of the plot until I decided to have a second VP character. Once I had decided that, I could see future books in the series introducing more third person VP characters and the whole idea exploded into vibrat life. I then decided that it would less troublesome for the reader to deal with first and third VPs as opposed to multiple first person. (I loved it in Time Traveler's Wife but didn't feel I could pull it off)

3. I wanted to be different. Urban fantasy is the current big trend and even though I've had this idea for a long, long, long time but only recently found the skills to write it, I didn't want it to disappear amongst the growing masses.

Fingers crossed that my reasons are sound and don't turn editors off.

Cheers, Lisa.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Lisa, you are so right about your writing skills needing to grow so that you can do justice to ideas. I've found this.

I can totally relate to why you would choose to write one character from first person, if their 'voice' was that strong.

And sometimes without a third person VP to show other events, you just can't tell the story you want to tell!

That was the point I was making about using VP to raise narrative tension.

Good luck with your urban fantasy!

Lynne Jamneck said...

When I initially started writing the first book of the Strickland series it was in first person. 40 000 words later I decided it wasn't working. Changed to Third. Then changed again, deciding to switch between first and third. Right. Set. Then I started writing and I seemed to be writing from Third third -- crap. The problem is, I frequently suspect that my characters know about something and it turns out they have no idea. I have put that little critic's voice in my head in a barrel and stoppered its mouth with cotton wool - you know, the one who keeps telling me that I should write properly, not mix my viewpoints and causing the reader a head rush. But I think that might be the whole point. Hopefully.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Are you talking about unreliable VP?

This is where your character states something to be true and the reader assumes that it is.

Then, as the story develops the reader realises that the character is misleading/lying to them self or the reader and all the assumptions they've made have been wrong.

Or are you trying for some deep psychological exploration of self and identity????

Lynne Jamneck said...

Rowena - Yes, I went back and looked again and it is in fact unreliable VP. But there is definitely a lot of self exploration going on, the lines of which get blurred in all kinds of fascinating ways because the characters exist at different levels/parallel worlds. Lord knows if anyone's going to GET the damn thing in the end.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Character across parallel worlds???
Oh, Lynne, you do believe in making it hard for yourself. But interesting!

I mention a technique in my latest post on Book Structure that might help. It's really simple but effective, to help keep track of multiple VPs over different time lines and would work for a parallel worlds story, too.