Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A discussion of the elements of viewpoint in fiction.

Fiction Craft: Viewpoint 


Robert Ferrier

Readers ask one question when they begin a story: Whose skin am I in?
Viewpoint enables readers to live the story through a character, rather than observing like patrons at a play. By establishing viewpoint--along with time, place and circumstance--the author prepares readers to begin an adventure. Readers feel every emotion; share every thought; see, feel, hear and taste everything, living moment-by-moment inside the viewpoint character.
In establishing viewpoint, authors use one of three narration methods: first person, second person or third person.

First Person Narration

All story narration filters through the thoughts, feelings and actions of an "I" character. This method provides the closest identification between character and reader. Authors of detective novels often use this technique.

Second Person Narration

In this rare, idiosyncratic technique, a "you" character tells the story.

Third Person Narration

He, she, it or they tell the story, using one of three variations. The objective narrator tells the story only through outward signs--action, description and dialogue. The omniscient narrator knows everything that a god might know, seeing into the minds of all her characters and inserting author comments. In the most commonly used technique, a limited omniscient narrator describes outward events through the mind and senses of a central character.

Elements of Viewpoint

Whether beginning a scene or sequel, establish a single character's viewpoint immediately, using one or more of the following elements:

1. Emotions
2. Thought
3. Intent.
4. Physical Senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell.

Once a character expresses emotions, thought or intent, readers know they are inside that character's skin. In limited omniscient viewpoint, only the viewpoint character can know what she is feeling or thinking. Immediately establish viewpoint using physical senses.
In the following scene the viewpoint character, Jimmy, crawls into an abandoned coke oven in a ghost town to escape a pursuer armed with a crossbow.
When he crawled through the opening, a wall of heat hit him. He felt his way along the bricks in total darkness. Afraid of making noise, he curled up and listened to his pounding heart while he waited and prayed.
Stinging sweat blurred his view of the entrance.
He wrinkled his nostrils at the musty smell. He tried not to think about what might have been here before, or what might be here now. No nukshopa, he thought, remembering his Choctaw father's advice. No panic. Just think of something else, something good. So he thought of how his mother had rubbed his back after football games. He thought of her hands, how good they felt, how much he loved her. How much he missed her since she died.
He waited, prayed and sweated, losing all sense of time.
Then he saw a small boot--the size of a boy's--at the entrance. The leg looked muscular, like a man's.
Jimmy remained still, watching the entrance.
Now he saw both boots. Then both knees. And small, strong hands.
A dwarf?
Now the man would crawl inside.
Jimmy knew he had to move deeper into the oven, yet something made him stop. Some fear. A presence.
But not to move meant exposure, and death.
He inched back deeper into the oven.
Then he heard a deadly buzz, so loud that he felt his skin crawl. That sound....
He was alone in the dark with a rattlesnake.

Common Mistakes in Viewpoint

Avoid common mistakes in viewpoint:

1. Don't allow the viewpoint character to use a physical sense in an impossible way.

Wrong: "Helen's face turned red." (Helen can't see her own face, unless she's close to a mirror.)

Right: "Helen felt her face turning red."

2. Don't allow the viewpoint character to experience thought or intent in a non-viewpoint character.

Wrong: "Helen watched her sister think about the idea." (Helen can't know what her sister is thinking.)

Right: "Helen watched her sister, imagining what must be going through her mind. Would she like the idea?"

3. Don't begin a scene without establishing viewpoint immediately. Physical senses alone may not establish viewpoint. One character can observe another character seeing, smelling or touching something. Thus, reader still doesn't know whose viewpoint they are in until one character expresses thought or emotion.

4. Don't change the viewpoint character within a scene. Readers prefer to remain inside one character during conflict. Use a chapter break or other interruption to shift viewpoint.

In summary, viewpoint ranks as one of the most powerful tools available to the fiction writer. Use this technique in both scene and sequel, enabling readers to live the story moment-by-moment.

Next month: Characterization

Suggested Reading:

Bickham, Jack M. Scene & Structure. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1993.

Card, Orson Scott. Characters & Viewpoint. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1988.

McClanahan, Rebecca. Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1999.

Swain, Dwight V. Techniques of the Selling Writer. Norman, Ok.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

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