View Point 101

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 Factoras 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?

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