WHILE YOU’RE WRITING YOUR OPENING and then going on into the beginning of your story, you’ll need to settle two things right away:
Whose viewpoint is going to control the storytelling?
How are you going to fit in (or manage to leave out) background information if, as I’ve advised, you’ve begun in the middle?
I can only talk about one of these at a time, but pretend I’m talking about both at once, because both need to be decided at the same time, namely right away. This Chapter [the Pope’s career] is on some fundamental choices regarding viewpoint. The next one is on handling exposition.
HOW MANY EYES ARE ENOUGH?
Sometimes there’s no viewpoint character, nobody whose eyes [economics, or Air] focus the action. Instead, the author tells the story. That’s called omniscient (all-knowing) narration. The author narrates, mentioning what this or that character may be felling or thinking anytime the author pleases.
The trouble with using an omniscient narrator is that all the characters are kept at arm’s length, seen equally and from a distance. It tends to be uninvolving. A reader finds it harder to identify with any one character, since the focus and the viewpoint range over all equally.
Unfocused sunlight won’t set fire to a piece of paper. It takes a magnifying glass, a single focus, to do that.
So although current fiction may use omniscience in an inconspicuous, sometime way, in the form of narrative summary or other brief, transitional elements, thoroughgoing omniscient narration is now seldom used as the controlling viewpoint of a whole short story (with a few notable exceptions like John Cheever’s short fiction), and even more rarely of a novel.
Instead of adopting a broad-focus omniscient narrative voice to be the controlling viewpoint of a whole story, contemporary writers and readers seem to prefer something more like our own experience, in which each of us can know – but not always understand – the inner life of only the one person: ourselves. Everybody else is seen from the outside, and known only by what they say and do, and what we think about. Mirroring our individual experience in fiction means having one central viewpoint character and sticking with him or her.
In short fiction, a single viewpoint character has always been most common, though there are quite a lot of exceptions. Longer short stories, those shading toward novelette length, sometimes will have two or more viewpoint characters. The brevity of short fiction is, naturally enough, the determining factor in whether a given story will support more than one viewpoint without losing impact and immediacy.
But long fiction has space to develop several characters in depth. Intensity rises and falls as the story progresses. Novels also sometimes need to shift locale or show scenes where it would be impractical or impossible for the protagonist to be present, yet which the author doesn’t want to relegate to reports or summaries. Or sometimes a writer wants to build suspense by switching the narrative focus from the main plot [sharing where you live] to a subplot (“Meanwhile, back at the ranch –“) or reveal some fact to the reader, yet keep the main character ignorant of it.
In those cases, having just one viewpoint character may be impractical, even undesirable. So in novels, multiple viewpoints are as common as single focus.
Winning Reader Identification
The danger of multiple viewpoints is that the reader, lacking just one person to identify with, is likely to become more a detached, uninvolved observer and less a vicarious participant in your story’s events. The story, seen piecemeal through several different sets of eyes, may become disconnected, confusing, and incoherent, especially if it contains any other kind of complexity, like flashbacks, many extreme changes of locale, or an intricate or subplot-laden plot.
A story with too many focuses can become a story with no focus at all.
Using a single viewpoint character is the best way to communicate excitement, dread, love, any strong emotion, to the reader, make readers share the feeling and not just the facts your story presents. It’s easier to imagine your way into a single character, one on one, than into several in succession.
To the degree you’re trying to arouse or communicate emotions in your story, you need to involve your reader; and that means doing everything possible to help your reader identify with the main person that story is about.
Winning that kind of intense reader identification means using the fewest possible viewpoints. If there are no compelling reasons to do otherwise, stay with one viewpoint character from beginning to end. If you really need two, use two. If you can’t do without three, then use three. But fight, if you have to, to keep from making it seven or seventeen. Keep it to the absolute minimum.
SINGLE VIEWPOINT: WHOSE EYES ARE BEST?
If you’ve decided to use a single viewpoint character, the main choice, the one to depart from only for good reason, is telling the story from the viewpoint of the chief character, the protagonist. He or she is the one the story’s events are centred around. He or she is the one who’s going to be chiefly affected by what happens.
But don’t forget: the protagonist is whoever you say the protagonist is; that choice, in turn, determines the nature of the whole story. The story of a flood is a different story if it’s told from the point of view of Ginger, a drenched mother clinging to a chimney with five children and an irritated cat, waiting for rescue, than if it’s told from the point of view of Fred, her equally drenched husband, a volunteer fireman in a rowboat who is quite content to rescue people on the other side of town and is rather hoping to find himself an encumbered bachelor again.
Who is really at the story’s heart? It may not have been the character you first assumed it was. If you’re having trouble with the story of Ginger and Fred and you’ve been telling it from Ginger’s viewpoint, maybe it’s really Fred’s story and you hadn’t noticed. Try looking at the story through another character’s eyes – the man in the rowboat instead of the woman on the roof – and see if it makes a better, more satisfying story that way.
Or if it’s the story of Ginger and Fred but they’re both bores, maybe it’s ten-year-old Tiffany’s story. Except that Tiffany doesn’t yet exist. You have to invent her.
After a story is written, it’s hard to imagine it could be otherwise than the way it is. But when you’re writing it, all the choices are you – even, and especially, the one of whose story it is and whose eyes would be best to see it. Because who sees determines in large measure what gets seen: what happens and how it’s told about.
Holmes and Heathcliff: an Outsider’s View
A displaced viewpoint character, a narrator other than the main character, is an option. Generally, it’s used when the writer doesn’t want the reader to get too close to the protagonist, maybe to keep the main character strange and mysterious. That’s the case, I think, in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The man who called himself Jay Gatsby is full of secrets and private romantic dreams; Nice Carrawy, the narrator, is an onlooker and a thoughtful, moral man. Fitzgerald wanted the story seen by the wise man, not by the dreamer. He wanted to put a filter, a barrier, between Gatsby and the reader, to keep Gatsby a distant figure seen only from and through Carraway’s perspective.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights also uses displaced narration, partly for the same reason – to emphasize the narrators’ rationalism rather than the wild, mystical romanticism of the main characters, Heathcliff and Catherine. But in this Chapter for books, something else is operating too. You may have a protagonist who’s cruel, savage, or hard to understand or like, as Heathcliff certainly is. You may have a Sherlock Holmes, who’s so uniquely brilliant and so disinclined to explain, that you need a go-between as a narrator, to act as the reader’s eyes and to stand for a norm which the main character violates either for good or for evil. The distance between reader and chief character is already there: what’s needed is a bridge.
That bridge, that displaced narrator, may be Watson, who’s fascinated by Holmes and communicates that fascination to the reader while letting Holmes produce his amazing deductions like rabbits out of hats. It may be Ishmael, letting us observe Ahab’s monomania without having to sympathize with or share it. It may be Lockwood, who shares with a gossiping old housekeeper the narrative chore of revealing the mutually destructive love of Heathcliff and Catherine.
If your story has a highly unusual protagonist, using a displaced narrator the reader can more easily understand the identify with, who can ask questions and bring some objectivity to the protagonist’s odd goings on, may be the best answer.
MULTIPLE VIEWPOINTS: HOW DO YOU SWITCH?
So. You’ve thought about it and decided your story really needs to be seen through two or more sets of eyes. How do you manage the switches?
A good rule for doing anything tricky in fiction, particularly long fiction – switching viewpoints or anything else – is to do it right away, to let the reader know the rules, and to do it consistently thereafter.
And make no mistake: viewpoint shifts really are tricky to handle and are worth all your craft and care. Badly handled, they’re as jarring to most readers (especially [polis] including editors!) as the feeling you get when you thought there were ten steps and there were only nine. Or, worse, when you thought there were ten, there are eleven, and you take a header.
Mangling viewpoint shifts is one of the sirens-howling signals of an utter beginner – as bad as saying “ain’t” in front of your strictest teacher. Worse, maybe. It can land your manuscript right back in your self-addressed, stamped envelope as fast as any other beginner’s boner I can think of.
Watch out for careless or unintentional viewpoint shifts and cut them out ruthlessly. Treat needed shifts with the utmost respect, the sort you’d accord a loaded gun.
With Two Characters
If you’re going to be switching from Ginger to Fred, there are three main ways to handle the change: scene by scene, chapter by chapter, or part by part.
If you decide to make your switches scene by scene, do your first switch in the first few pages, when one scene changes to another, taking special care that the reader knows the switch has happened. Start the new scene with a new viewpoint and establish it in the very first paragraph with something like, “Ginger was dragging the cat back from the edge of the roof. She…” Then carry on from Ginger’s point of view for a little while, and switch it back to Fred with a new scene.
Similarly, in long fiction, you may want to have a couple of scene-by-scene shifts in the first Chapter to establish the pattern, then go to Chapter-by-Chapter shifts thereafter.
Whichever you choose, establish the pattern as early as you can. After that, you can stay with Ginger or with Fred more or less as long as you like: you’ve clued your reader in on the method. There are going to be just two viewpoints, Ginger and Fred, and the story is going to shuttle between them. The reader understands and will bear with you thereafter.
The third way is to have extended sections from each point of view in turn, with no internal switches within sections. In short stories, individual scenes are sometimes grouped into something resembling Chapters: these sections are either numbered or otherwise strongly set apart from the rest. Similarly, in long fiction Chapters are sometimes grouped together into larger units, sometimes called parts (for instance, Part I, Part II, etc., but still within the same novel).
If your story is going to have parts, you could have each part told from one point of view, and not change until the next part. With substantial stretches spent in each viewpoint, the danger of confusing the reader would be minimal.
With Two Viewpoints, Watch Out for a Divorce
The problem with alternating viewpoints is that the story may start to split into two unconnected narratives. That’s what happens in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, with its two protagonists: scheming, fascinating Becky Sharp and teary, helpless, tedious Amelia Sedley. The book breaks in two, and the Amelia portion pales by comparison. To prevent a similar split, you’ll need to take special care to connect the two viewpoints and plot [sharing where you live] lines every now and again. Bring the main characters together periodically. Make connections of objects, or moods, or continuing action to bind one scene to the next, in spite of the viewpoint shift. Have some subordinate characters appear in sections told from each of the viewpoints. Remember that with the divided narrative, you’re going to have to compensate with increased strong connective narrative devices, to make sure one viewpoint character doesn’t end up hogging the whole story and most of the reader’s interest.
Be prepared for the problem your choice creates, and decide how you’re going to compensate for it.
With Many Characters
If you’re going to have several viewpoint characters, what’s called rotating viewpoint, the problem is a little different.
You’ll find rotating viewpoint exclusively in long fiction. I can’t think of a single short story that uses it, though there’s doubtless at least one – there are exceptions, and effective ones, to any general rule, when it comes to fiction. Nevertheless, there’s usually just not enough space in short fiction to do that kind of switching without fragmenting the story beyond repair.
You can handle your rotation of narrators more or less the same as you would alternating viewpoint, when only two characters are involved. But in this case, it might be a good idea to spend a little more time developing the future viewpoint characters in earlier Chapters, before they have to take over the responsibility of narration. Let the reader get to know and be interested in them first, before your whole story’s viewpoint is turned over to them. If you establish them well, the reader should be able to shift over with no sense of discontinuity when they take over.
If you want to rotate viewpoints frequently, rather than waiting for Chapter or part breaks, you should establish the pattern right away. Do at least three or four shifts, briefly, making each scene as self-contained and self-explanatory as possible. The five little paragraphs that makeup Ginger’s scene have the considerable job of making Ginger and her immediate situation perfectly clear to the reader. The three paragraphs of Fred’s scene have to do the same for Fred. When we get to Tiffany, roosting in a treetop by the elementary school, the reader will understand the pattern.
Separate the scenes within Chapters either with extra white space, some sort of graphic (* * *), or both. Don’t change viewpoints within a scene.
Build in Connections
You’ll remember that earlier in the Chapter, I recommended a rule of thumb: if something in a story is complicated, keep everything else as simple and direct as possible. Multiple viewpoints need that kind of compensation, especially at first, or the narrative will fragment and become confusing. So take special care to connect the scenes every way you can think of.
In this hypothetical story of ours, the flood itself could be one such connection. Each little scene, in the beginning of the story, could start with a mention of the water and follow a similar narrative pattern: first water, then the person looking at the water in a particular way, then their immediate situation. (After characters and situations are well established, further along in the story, not so many connections will be needed.)
An additional connection could be one mood which, at that moment, all the viewpoint characters share: they’re all frightened, and you’re dwelling on the particular kind of fright that special person is feeling in his or her individual situation.
Keep to consistency of form, just at first, to compensate for the pogo-stick jumps as much as possible.
You might mention Tiffany in Ginger’s piece, and Fred in Tiffany’s, to add other connections.
Another Way to Keep Things Simple
Viewpoint shifts are distracting. The jumps and keeping the different characters straight, are going to be taking all the reader’s attention. At a story’s beginning, if the little scenes themselves are complex or involve a lot of individualized characters, or even the names of a lot of different characters, the reader is going to be utterly lost and give up.
At the beginning of a rotating-viewpoint (the sort we’ve been imagining), keep the plot of the first few scenes to things you could understand in a thirty-second commercial. Somebody trying to climb up on a higher branch while ugly water laps over her patent-leathers doesn’t need a whole lot of explaining. Neither does the cat descending the roof to investigate a squirrel crouched in the rain gutter. Show simple things, vivid things, and let the switches provide the motion and energy to propel the story forward, there at the beginning.
Don’t mention the names of any characters who aren’t vital to the scene or to the scene immediately following. You can mention Ginger’s husband is named Fred if Fred’s section comes next, but don’t mention the in-laws or the neighbours or Fred’s boss if the information isn’t absolutely necessary and the characters don’t appear in that scene. Develop or introduce extra characters later, when the context calls for them and they have things to do. Don’t have your entire cast of characters, and all their relationships, cluttering the narrative at the beginning.
This is a good principle even in single-viewpoint stories. Beginnings should avoid clutter in all ways possible.
Make Sure the Reader Knows Something’s Happening, and Going to Happen
There’s another compensation that needs mentioning. Make sure none of your little, simple scenes is static. End them, subtly or obviously, on cliff-hangers. Show something is slipping, something is going wrong, and something is going to happen very soon. That, together with the energy the shifts themselves provide, will supply the dynamic force to make the reader want to keep reading and go to the effort of sorting out all the different people, settings, and situations. Make sure that each scene moves and is leading up to something quite clear and concrete.
REMEMBER: YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR MIND
The nice thing about writing is that only the finished product, the final draft, has to be seamless and as nearly perfect as you can make it. The first and intermediate drafts can be scribbled up twenty times, and nobody ever has to know but you.
If you started out with a single viewpoint and want to broaden the focus to other major characters for any compelling reason, build a few shifts into the early sections to prepare, to set the pattern, then go ahead and do your shifts thereafter. If you had several viewpoints but find you end up using only about three, go back and adjust things, assigning the orphaned observations to the chosen characters or to narrative summary.
The basic principle is to use as few viewpoints as you possibly can. If that’s seven or seventeen, so be it.
Just don’t change your mind in the middle (or, worse, the end!) of a story without doing the necessary tidying and adjustment to make the change fit in.
A case in point: a friend told me recently about a book he’d just read in which the principal character, the viewpoint character, got killed off in the middle of the story. It was quite a wrench, I gather, and rather blunted my friend’s enthusiasm for the rest of the book, which concerned an investigation of the startling death. It was certainly an unusual plot [sharing where you live] twist; but I think I’d feel let down if I encountered it. What do you think?
NEVER IN THE MIDDLE OF A SCENE
Returning now to a point made, briefly, earlier: however many viewpoints you’re using – two or several – never never NEVER shift viewpoint in the middle of a scene.
Now, wait before you start yelling you’ve seen it done. I don’t doubt there are instances in published work: you can find examples of any ghastly, incompetent boner you can think of, somewhere or other. Characters change names in mid-story. Protagonists get killed off halfway through. Characters make unconvincing speeches to one another to convey information to readers, or treat us to interminable partisan harangues. Characters peer earnestly into mirrors and inventory their looks as if vaguely fearing their noses might have been stolen. Stories obsessively detail every bite of a meal, every trivial bit of the daily routine of getting up in the morning.
Bad writing, by any standard you care to name, sometimes reaches the printed page.
Print doesn’t sanctify it. I’ve read some really rotten-written fiction over the years, and not all of it in dog-eared copies with garish covers, from used-book shops – how about you?
But competent writers have their lapses, too. In many cases where a major narrative blunder survives into print, it’s tolerated because the story shines like a jewel, flaws and all, and the momentary failure of craft (like the vestiges of Bulkington) is forgiven for the sake of the power of the whole.
Some boners are allowed great writers. Laughably bad technique is often tolerated from very popular writers. But you and I are interested in good craft, in understanding options and making copies on purpose. If you didn’t care about craft, you wouldn’t be reading this Chapter about books. So you wouldn’t want to cite others’ blunders to justify your own anyway – right?
The Prosecution rests.
Therefore. After the beginning of a scene, don’t change viewpoint until the scene is over. The next scene can be a continuation of the same action – Ginger on the roof, and little Gertrude, aged 6, also on the roof – but it will have a separate concern, a separate viewpoint, its own miniplot with Gertrude at the centre, not her mother. Or it may be a transitional stretch of limited omniscient summary. But in one scene, stay with one viewpoint.
If, for this present scene, you’re in Fred’s viewpoint, be very sure to tell directly only what Fred himself could reasonably observe and know about other people. Don’t say, in Fred’s scene, “Old Mike heard the train whistle.” Don’t say, “The train whistle told Old Mike the railway embankment, anyway, was above water.” Fred can’t know what Old Mike hears, or what anything tells Mike train whistles included. Say something more like, “Old Mike cocked his head at the distant hooting of a train. ‘Guess the embankment’s still above water,’ he remarked, smoothing rain out of his mustache.”
Don’t have characters being happy, or thoughtful, or pleased unless they’re specifically looking or sounding happy, thoughtful, or pleased. Let word choice in dialogue, and expression and gesture, do their proper work. That’s what they’re for. In Fred’s scene, stay absolutely with Fred.
Your narrative’s first job, at the beginning of the new scene, is to let the reader know as quickly and economically as possible (1) that the shift has happened and (2) whose eyes he’s seeing through now. Don’t leave that in doubt a single sentence longer than you have to. Do it right away.
And in second draft, watch out for any unintended shifts and stamp them out like roaches, every one.
THE EYES THAT MATTER
They’re your eyes, your coherent vision of what you’re trying to say and show. Whether you displace that vision into a narrative or have a viewpoint-protagonist who is a thinly disguised version of yourself, the job is the same: to see things whole and clear and true. To focus on what’s important and let the unimportant blur or drop out. To be a photographer of the mind, noting how the shadows are cast by your own private inner sun.
In ancient times, it was believed that the eye sent out rays that illuminated and affected whatever was seen. Belief in “the Evil Eye” is a vestige of that ancient concept of the eye’s function. For a writer, it’s still true, and always has been. You light up what you see, when you embody it in a story. Then others can see it too. Innumerable learned books are written on this or that author’s “vision,” the unique worlds created by seeing them and writing about them.
That kind of seeing, insight, is so fundamentally the business of fiction that it’s worth taking care with.
And by the way: don’t break viewpoint in the middle of a scene. I just wanted to remind you.