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Viewpoints

At the beginning of the story we need to make sure we know whose point of view is going to control the story and also how are we going to fit in background information.

One option is to use an omniscient narration. In this case there is no main character that has a viewpoint; instead the story is told by the author and it’s the author that tells everything. The problem here is that all characters are kept equal and the reader doesn’t get really involved because it cannot focus on a certain character. This is why, with some exceptions, not too many authors use omniscient narration in modern fiction writing.

The most common method is the single viewpoint character. But in longer stories, it is not uncommon to have multiple viewpoints.

With multiple viewpoints there is a danger of confusing the reader because we have multiple characters that the reader must identify with and he/she looses focus. And a story with too many focuses can loose its focus completely.

Using one viewpoint is the best way to communicate excitement, dread, love and any strong emotion. We already know that we need to involve the reader to keep him/her interested in continuing with the story. So making the reader identify with the main person is paramount. Therefore the goal should be to try as much as possible to make a story to be a single viewpoint story. However, if that is not possible, we can have 2 or even 3. But any more than that will dilute the story.

Let’s assume that we are working with a single viewpoint story. The next question that arises is: who’s eyes are we seeing through? The story may seem totally different when seen through different eyes, even though the material facts are all the same.

The first option we have is to use an outsider’s view. This is used when the author wants to keep the main character a little distant and shadowed by some sort of mistery. The main protagonist may be so strange or unique that the only way for the reader to understand how different he/she is, is by having him looked through the “normal” eyes of a different character.

If we select a story with multiple viewpoints, we have another question that we need to answer: how do we switch and when do we switch the viewpoint? One important thing is that if we decide to switch viewpoints in this story, we must do it right away. In this way we let the reader understand the rules of the story and not be surprised and confused later on. Viewpoint shifts are dangerous and must be handled carefully. If too abrubt and unexpected they will confuse the reader and make him loose his focus. This being said, keep only those viewpoint shifts that are absolutely necesary for the story and remove any of them that are actually not needed.

A common case is when we have 2 or 3 characters. This is an good amount of separate viewpoints that a reader can track without loosing focus. So generally we can switch the viewpoint in 3 ways: scene by scene, chapter by chapter or part by part.

When you use the scene by scene switch it is very important, as I mentioned above, to do this switch right away so the reader can understand how it works. Usually we switch the viewpoint, keep it going for a while, then switch back.

With chapters and parts we make the switch when we change the chapter. Make sure that the reader can understand immediately that you switched the viewpoint otherwise the story may make no sense.

Another trap that needs to be avoided when dealing with 2 viewpoints is to resist the temptation of creating 2 different stories inside of the main story. You must somehow connect the two viewpoints everynow and then to add structure to the main story. Either have the two characters together observing eachother, or using objects and moods that both experience and talk about in their own time.

There is also some other type of special handling when we are dealing with a large number of viewpoints. For example, we may have to use this in really long complicated stories, that may span generations and various geographical areas. In this situation, multiple viewpoint shifts are common but need to be handled also carefully. One way is to introduce some of the characters first and let the reader understand that they represent some kind of interest to the story and later on give them the right to narrate by switching the view to them.

While switching viewpoints it is very important to make a bridge, a connection between them. For instance we may have one character narrate the story, then move to a common mood or feeling (like fear, or anger) that both characters experience, and then slide into the other character’s viewpoint. In this way, the reader will not feel the abrupt switch, but will take it as a natural change.

When dealing with multiple viewpoints it is also very important to keep things simple in the beginning. Don’t introduce all characters and more importantly don’t give them all names and a full resume. The reader cannot remember that. You must introduce the characters slowly as they mingle into the story and have the reader remember them by what they say or do. By keeping things simple, vivide and direct we compensate the confusion that may be introduced by the viewpoint switching. As a general rule that applies not only to viewpoints: keep cluter out of the beginning. The reverse medal of keeping things simple in these scenes is that the scenes may become static and boring. So, to compensate that make sure that every scene has some kind of suspense into it, somehow indicating that something will happen soon. So, in a nutshell, we keep it simple in the start, but still give the reader the impression that something really interesting will happen. Therefore we hook the reader into getting deeper into the story and prepare for the rollercoaster of the viewpoint switching.

One very important issue: NEVER, NEVER change a viewpoint in the middle of a scene. This is very tricky because we tend to do it, thinking that it adds information to the scene. But that is because we are the authors and WE KNOW what happens. The reader doesn’t know and it will seem confusing to be told that “somebody feels happy” when the inner thoughts belong to somebody else. We must make sure that when the viewpoint belongs to a character, all that he thinks, sais, feels, looks, does are things that only he/she can think, say, feel, look, do and so on. The reader must immediately understand in any scene, through whose eyes is he/she looking through and stick with that view.

So, points to remember: establish viewpoint, make it clear from the start if there are going to be shitfs, never change the viewpoint in a scene.

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