Thursday, April 29, 2010

Viewpoint Writing


I mentioned in a previous blog posting that I’d come to talking about viewpoint in fiction one day. That day is here. I don’t intend to delve into the real nitty-gritty of what is one of the biggest (and heaviest) subjects in the world of writing novels. Instead, I’ll give an outline, and I’ll conclude by pointing you in the direction of my favourite reference material.

Viewpoint – or point of view – refers to the eyes through which the reader ‘sees’ a story unfold.

If I told you a story about a trip I made to town to buy shoes with my wife (don’t get me started), I’d be telling you that story from my point of view. In literary parlance, that’s called ‘first person viewpoint’ (FPV): the person who is relating the story is the person who experienced it first hand.

There are a couple of other ways to relate a story, though. One is called ‘second person viewpoint’, (SPV) and the other is ‘third person viewpoint’ (TPV). Just like FPV each has its advantages and disadvantages, and I’ll discuss these briefly.

First Person

We drove to the store, the same store we were in last week, and the week before that, hunting for those God-awful shoes. Sparkly, spangly, patently heeled and winkled. Shoppers jostled me, unaware I was on a knife edge. Just one more pair, one more pair and I’ll...

The big advantage with FPV is that the reader gets into the character’s head almost immediately. That brings the reader closer to the character, and empathy with that character (the holy grail of the fiction writer) follows on pretty quickly. For example, when we read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, we’re reading the story from young David’s point of view – first person. Almost as soon as we start reading, we begin to get a real feeling of sympathy for David’s plight, and we start rooting for him. Bingo! Dickens has his readers onside and they’re easy meat after that major hurdle is overcome. We care about what happens to David, so we keep reading to find out how he fares.

One major disadvantage with FPV, however, is that writing style is more noticeable. Because you’re getting more personal with your readers, they’ll pay more attention to your ‘voice’ and be less forgiving if they find they don’t like it.

Another major disadvantage with FPV is that the writer must find some credible means by which to keep relevant information from the reader without having that reader exclaim in frustration, ‘But how could this character not know that?’ For example, in a murder-mystery it would be inconceivable to have a scene from the murderer’s first person viewpoint – for where would be the mystery in that? A writer could, technically, keep information back from the reader to increase and maintain the mystery to the end, but would you really want to read another book by that author if your bubble of anticipation was burst with some fact that must have been known earlier on? I doubt it.

Second Person

You drive to the store, the same store you drove to last week, and the week before that, hunting for those God-awful shoes. Sparkly, spangly, patently heeled and winkled. Shoppers jostle you, unaware you’re on a knife edge. Just one more pair, one more pair and you’ll...

SPV is an ‘in-your-face’ way to write, I find, and it really packs a punch when it’s done right. That’s the biggest advantage of writing in SPV – your writing stands out from the crowd... a bit like the stinky kid in the high school playgrounds.

And therein lies the problem. A huge slice of your readership pie won’t like reading this kind of writing because they’ll probably feel like they’re being dictated to by Moses or some snotty TV chef (actually, cook books are a great example of second person viewpoint writing). If you want to write like this – if you really, really enjoy the challenge that’s inherent in writing SPV - then go for it. Be aware, though, that just because you make direct short addresses to the reader (you’ll do this, and you did that...) doesn’t make your writing SPV.

Third Person

Jack drove to the store, the same store he drove to the week before, and the week before that, hunting for those God-awful shoes. Sparkly, spangly, patently heeled and winkled. Shoppers jostled him, unaware he was on a knife edge. Just one more pair, one more pair and he’d...

TPV is where the story is narrated by someone who wasn’t present as a character. There are a couple of ‘sub-modes’ in relation to TPV: omniscient (where the narrator knows and can relate anything that goes on in any character’s mind at any time); and limited (where the narrator narrows what information is divulged by keeping thoughts, feelings and attitudes to one viewpoint character in each scene or chapter.) And in limited, there are even more divisions – referred to a levels of penetration (i.e. how deeply into a character’s mind we can penetrate.)

The great advantage of third person viewpoint is that the narrator can more directly control what information is available to the reader. For example, in first person viewpoint, unless you’re Lwaxana Troi, you can’t usually tell with any great accuracy what’s going on in people’s minds when you walk into a room. But with TPV (omniscient) the narrator can get into those minds and let the reader know what’s relevant. Equally, with careful planning and execution, the writer can hold back information with a higher degree of credibility – and that can lead to increased tension and suspense.

That’s why TPV limited is the viewpoint of choice for writers of mysteries, thrillers and horror stories: readers find out what the writer wants them to find out, exactly when the story needs them to, for best effect. What’s behind the scratched wooden door? What will happen if our main character doesn’t jump off the train right now? Who was it who really planted the bomb? All of those questions can be answered after drawing out the maximum tension and suspense from the story, and TPV limited gives the greatest flexibility towards that end. Better still, in TPV writing style takes a back seat and lets the reader concentrate on the story.

There are disadvantages, of course, to writing in TPV. There’s a temptation to ‘head-hop’ – start a sentence or paragraph telling the story from one character’s viewpoint and end up telling it from another’s. That leads to confusion in your readers’ minds – never good.

The biggest disadvantage, however, is common to both first and third person limited viewpoint: controlling what your characters do and do not know at any given time. For example, if you’re narrating a TPV story using limited point of view, you can’t have that character thinking or talking about something he can’t possibly know about.


Whatever viewpoint you choose to write your story in, make sure it works best for the story you're telling. Try out a few paragraphs, or even a whole chapter, in each viewpoint that takes your fancy and go from there. Some viewpoint modes work best for certain story types – first person for comedy, for example, and third limited for thrillers and suspense. The big question is: what works best for the way I want my readers to enjoy this story?

Reference Materials

I found Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card (ISBN-10: 0-89879-927-9) to be very helpful in demystifying the subject of viewpoint.

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