The last area I want to discuss in my series regarding breaking reader suspension of disbelief is the mistake of poor viewpoint management.
Generally, viewpoint is indicated through three techniques: through the internalized description of a character’s thoughts; through the internalized description of a character’s emotions; and through the internalized depiction of a character’s physical senses–including sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.
Therefore, when you write subjectively–that is, from a character’s viewpoint–you are sharing these three types of subjective perspectives.
Thought: John wondered why no one was working at the lab today.
Emotion: Shaking, John stared at the oncoming T. Rex. His brain was screaming for him to run, but his feet remained frozen. He tried to scream, but his breath was trapped in his lungs. His throat felt constricted, and sweat popped out all over his body.
Physical senses: John smelled something rotten in the flowerbed, like a rodent had died there.
Viewpoint brings a character alive. It provides readers with a story person to inhabit, to become, either for the duration of the story or for a portion of it.
Viewpoint puts readers into a story in ways the film or television screen cannot. Vicariously, through imagination, readers can experience the story as it unfolds from inside a character.
Consequently, because readers are given this psychologically intimate experience, the management of viewpoint takes on significant importance. Select a correct viewpoint character and handle his or her viewpoint well, and the reader goes on a marvelous journey of the imagination. Select the wrong viewpoint character or fumble how viewpoint is utilized, and the reader will be jolted back into reality.
How, then, do you select the best character in your cast to be the viewpoint?
Answer the following questions:
Who has the most to lose?
Who has the most at stake, or at risk?
Who is at the center of the action?
Who has the most to learn?
The character that qualifies is the person that should carry your story’s perspective.
However, should you choose to write from the viewpoint of a character with only a small stake in the story’s outcome or who happens to be absent during the most exciting or dangerous story events, you have not chosen wisely and will encounter increasing difficulty in persuading readers to believe in–much less follow–your plot.
Once you’ve selected an active viewpoint character that is in trouble, with much to learn, and participating in the very heart of the story action, you sustain this viewpoint through the individual’s emotions, thoughts, and physical senses. Again and again, over and over, through a page, a scene, a chapter, or a complete story.
It’s not sufficient to establish viewpoint once and then never provide that character’s perspective again. You, writer, are responsible for keeping viewpoint clear.
Also, beware the temptation to share thoughts and internal reactions from other characters present in a scene. Stick with your chosen one … at least until a scene concludes.
Am I saying that you shouldn’t change viewpoint in a story? Not at all. Multiple viewpoints can be effective, dramatic, and thrilling for readers. However, you shouldn’t allow viewpoint to wander from head to head in an exchange of dialogue without any control or direction.
While writers should always know what all their characters are thinking, feeling, and experiencing, readers don’t need to know.
Give readers one perspective at a time. They will not be confused, and their vicarious reading experience will be stronger.