A New Thriller from the author of LAST STOP FREEDOM.
Question: One year at Skidmore (yes, it was that long ago) you gave me a handout on point-of-view. Do you still have a copy of that one, too?
Answer: Sure thing.
Viewpoint, A Conundrum
The best way to choose viewpoint is to ask yourself whose story or scene it is. Once you know who the story is about it’s safe to assume that most of the story will be told from that character’s viewpoint, either in first person “I” narrator, or third person “She or he” narrator.
There are several kinds of viewpont. "First Person" is written with an "I" narrator, as if the story happened to you. "Third Person" limited, is written in third person, but limited to a single point of view. This is the viewpoint chosen for most short stories. Also most Gothics (girl in danger like Mary Stewart and Meryl Sawyer) stories are written in first person limited, while Harlequin and most genre romances are written in third person limited. In either case “limited” means limited only to the main character’s viewpoint. The reader cannot know anything the character doesn’t see, think, or feel.
One way to get emotion across for a character, when we're in another character's viewpoint, is to use body language to express the character’s inner feelings. Describing the body language will get the character’s emotions across to the reader, whether the observing character understands them or not. Remember the classic romance ploy where the heroine thinks the hero is mad because his teeth are clenched and the inevitable muscle in his jaw is jerking, but the reader knows it’s only because he’s in the throes of desire. We all read body language all the time. It does no good for someone to tell us, "I'm not upset at all," if their face is red, and their arms are crossed firmly on their chest, while one foot taps the floor.
"Limited Omniscient," is written in third person, and limited to a single viewpoint in any one scene, but is considered omniscient, because it can shift from one character's viewpoint to another's at scene or chapter changes. This is used in most mainstream novels by everyone from Margaret Mitchell to Stephen King to Larry McMurtry. True "Omniscient" viewpoint is the godlike view of a story told by a narrator who knows all, including all the characters innermost thoughts. This is the familiar viewpoint of fable and fairy tale.
Finally, there is the "Camera-eye" or what is sometimes called the "Exterior Dramatic" viewpoint, in which no single character's thoughts are revealed and every part of the story is told only with described action. This is the most difficult viewpoint in which to write, but it forces the writer to produce images. It's a good learning viewpoint for writers who are poor at description, but has been said to produce cold and "unfeeling" stories.
The advantage of using “Limited Omniscient” viewpoint is that you can sometimes show things that happen when your main viewpoint character is not present -- and you can have more than one viewpoint character with the focus character's identity shifting at scene or chapter breaks. This is the viewpoint I chose for both the novels KILLRAVEN and GHOST DANCER as I wanted to have scenes from both the man’s and the woman’s viewpoint and to show what one was doing while the other was elsewhere.
If you limit yourself to one character’s viewpoint in either first or third person, it gives the reader a closer involvement with the character, but you can only show the reader things that character sees or knows. The limitation is exactly the same as in first person, where the reader can only know that the “I” narrator sees and knows. If you choose that viewpoint, you can have a scene of your main character cleaning out the school and having a heart to heart about Love with her best friend while they work. But you cannot have a scene with the villain watching them from behind a bush and planning rape and murder. With the second option, the reader knows the two women are in danger, even though the villain slinks off when the hero appears. The reader knows what he intends to do and that he might Come Back anytime. With the first it’s only the heart to heart talk that is at stake. With the second you have set up tension and suspense that should last through several scenes and chapters in the back of the reader’s mind.
In every viewpoint, you have to be careful, too, not to show anything your viewpoint character can't see. For instance if an embarrassed viewpoint character describes her own "blushing red cheeks" she can't see that unless she’s looking in a mirror. On the other hand, you can describe gestures and inner feelings and emotion in a viewpoint character. For instance, the protagonist can "hope her shame didn't show on her face," or "feel the heat of embarrassment burning on her face". When we show a detail only other characters can see, it's called "author intrusion" because the writer is telling the reader something that the viewpoint character can't possibly see.
One way around this problem (I still catch myself doing it, so I surely know how to fix it) is to use one of the character's other senses, to get the point across. Your protagonist can't see her cheeks blush without a mirror (and that's done too often, and too often badly), but she might "feel her cheeks grow hot" or her "try to swallow back the tide of embarrassment and wished she could drop right through the floor." This was the hardest viewpoint lesson of all for me.
Now I’m going to give you some examples of the same scene, written from several different viewpoints.
Jacqueline's viewpoint third person limited: (We only know what J. is thinking and feeling).
Feeling tired after one of the toughest days on the job in weeks, Jacqueline let herself into the apartment and shut the door. She wasn't surprised to find the breakfast dishes still on the table, but stopped astonished, to see her husband, Bill, still in his undershirt and kicked back in his recliner with the evening paper.
"I thought you had that job interview this afternoon." Trying to control the sudden spurt of anger that made her hands shake, Jacqueline put down her bag and picked up the mail. More bills.
"I didn't go. It was too hot."
Jacqueline's viewpoint first person:
Feeling tired after one of the toughest days on the job in weeks, I let myself into the apartment and shut the door. I wasn't surprised to find the breakfast dishes still on the table, but stopped astonished when I saw my husband, Bill, still in his undershirt, kicked back in his recliner with the evening paper.
"I thought you had that job interview this afternoon." Trying to control the sudden spurt of anger that made my hands shake, I put down my bag and picked up the mail. More bills.
"I didn't go. It was too hot."
Bill's viewpoint: third person (limited)
Bill watched as his wife, Jacqueline let herself in. Her shoulders were slumped as she came through the door. Jacqueline looked mousey and worn-out. How could a woman let herself go like that? That wasn't the worst, though. Ever since he'd lost his job, Jacqui meddled all the time. She'd had no right to set up an interview for him at her company when they advertised for a mail clerk! Did she think he wanted to be a mail clerk? Surely he was above all that.
Bill watched her glance at the dishes still on the table. She'd had plenty of time to do them before she left for work, but she'd left them for him. Well, he wasn't anybody's mail clerk and he wasn't anybody's housemaid, either.
"I thought you had that job interview this afternoon." Jacqui put down her bag and picked up the mail with fingers that trembled
"I didn't go. It was too hot." Bill rattled the paper. Let her stand there and stare at the damned bills all day, it wasn't going to change anything.
Bill is mentioned first, because HE is the viewpoint character. But do you see how Bill’s thoughts and feelings come through, while Jacqui’s are only shown through her gestures and body language?
True omniscient viewpoint:
Once upon a time in a city far far away, a young married couple were experiencing problems, because the husband had lost his job. (Notice all the “telling.”) Feeling tired Jacqueline pushed into the apartment. Seeing the breakfast dishes still on the table and Bill kicked back in his recliner made her mad. (More telling.) Surely, he could do a little around the house.
Bill (hops into Bill’s head) watched her glance at the dishes still on the table. She'd had plenty of time to do them before she left for work, but she'd left them for him. Well, he wasn't anybody's housemaid, and he wasn't anybody's mail clerk, either.
"I thought you had that job interview this afternoon." Jacqueline fought to control her anger (hops into Jacqueline’s head) as she put down her bag and read the bills ( more telling).
"I didn't go. It was too hot." Bill said, angrily. "I told you, you were wasting your time. You practically kill yourself working for that company. What makes you think I'd want to do the same?" Let her go ahead and get mad, (Hops into Bill’s head) it wasn't going to change anything.
(Now this gets into both peoples thoughts, but it is ill-favored with editors who call it “head hopping” and because of that and all the “telling” it almost certainly would be rejected.)
Exterior dramatic -- or camera eye -- pov:
Jacqueline's shoulders were slumped as she came through the door. She looked mousey and worn-out. She glanced at the yolk-encrusted plates and cups half full of cold coffee that were still on the breakfast table.
Bill looked up from his recliner and rattled the newspaper, shaking the pages into position with an impatient gesture.
"I thought you had that job interview this afternoon." Jacqueline frowned, put down her bag, and picked up the mail with shaking hands "You've been out of work for weeks. What are we supposed to do about these bills?"
"My life's ambition isn't to become a mail clerk in a company where you're a vice-president, so forget that. Besides, it was too hot." Bill's eyes narrowed when she glanced from him to the dishes. He rattled the paper again, but said nothing.
Notice in the last scene how, because of all the images, you can see everything. Nobody has to say Bill was angry, his “narrowed” eyes, and “impatient” rattling of the newspaper tell us that without going into his thoughts at all. I think this particular scene might work better in exterior dramatic viewpoint, although I usually don’t recommend it.. All emotions have to be shown through gestures and body language, rather than letting the reader in on the character’s thoughts and feelings. Unless it is done very well indeed, it can produce work that comes across as “cold” and “unfeeling.”