Swamp Survival Strategies 4: Managing Viewpoint, Part b

Some writers–including the late mystery author Tony Hillerman–consider single viewpoint to be the perfect POV. It is by far the easiest to manage, and keeps your plot focused.

However, if your story is one that requires multiple perspectives, then you need to know

when to switch,

where to switch,

to whom to switch

for your story–especially in its middle section–to achieve its full potential as reader-enthralling entertainment. In genre fiction, multiple viewpoints means you’re shifting from one limited viewpoint to another at strategic points for specific reasons. Viewpoint is not shifted at random or just because you can’t think of anything better to do with your story.

By limited, I mean you stay in one viewpoint at a time, for the duration of a scene, or a chapter, or a section of the story, and then you change to another.

Viewpoint shouldn’t jump at author whim.

Viewpoint shouldn’t float, uncontrolled, meandering from the perspective of several characters within a scene or conversation.

Limited viewpoint means that you maintain the illusion and integrity of any given viewpoint as long as you are inside that character’s skin.

Now, for any character in your cast to be given a POV, that character should meet the following criteria–even if only temporarily:

*Will this character be at the center of the story action?

*Will this character have everything at risk?

*Will this character’s struggle toward a goal be the fuel driving this portion of the plot?

*Will this character be altered or changed by the scene’s outcome?

If a character in your story lacks leadership qualities, is not a doer, is not someone who gets involved, is passive and stands aside from what happens to others, is dispassionate, and is content to watch the world go by, this individual should NOT be a POV.

Therefore, only proactive characters should carry viewpoints.

Viewpoint Rules

#1–Never switch POV just to show what another character is thinking.

As you write a book, you develop an idea of how well a the protagonist’s viewpoint is working and whether you need more perspectives.

A careful selection of POVs will help focus the story and keep you on track.

One or two viewpoints is sufficient for short books.

Up to four viewpoints are enough for longer, complex books.

Remember that each viewpoint you add to your story serves to expand the plot and render it more dimensional. That, in turn, makes your job in writing it more challenging.

Consequently, with multiple viewpoints you should plot and graph where and at which key, dramatic points these different plots will intersect because each viewpoint constitutes a subplot. That’s why you should limit your POV selections to characters with whom you can empathize, understand, or care about. Even more importantly, limit your POV selections to a number you can comfortably handle.

If you can’t find some emotional link between you and a character, don’t include that perspective just for the sake of variety.

#2–Change POV to follow the story.

If you story bogs down–possibly during the dismal middle–then perhaps you need a viewpoint shift. It will perk up a story that’s losing momentum. It will give you fresh material, and it will intrigue readers.

Anytime your protagonist must be sidelined for a short time in the story world, if exciting events are taking place, shift to whatever character is at the center of those events.

It can be fun also to put your protagonist in a tough spot, then shift away to a different character. You follow this second perspective through a setback and leave Character 2 teetering on a metaphorical (or actual) cliff edge, then shift back to your protagonist’s POV.

#3–Change POV to heighten danger or suspense in your story.

For example, when you shift to the villain’s perspective, and this individual is busy planning some way to foil, defeat, or harm the protagonist, then threat is immediately heightened because readers are now aware of impending danger while the hero is not.

This tactic carries with it advantages and disadvantages, which should be weighed.

Advantage:

Shifting viewpoint to show impending danger will cause readers to turn pages more quickly. They’ll read faster with heightened involvement. They want to warn the protagonist, but, because they can’t, anticipation rises within them. They read anxiously, not wanting to miss a word of the approaching danger.

Disadvantage:

Shifting viewpoint to the villain destroys the element of surprise. When danger strikes the protagonist, there’s no plot twist.

Also, if readers know too much more than the protagonist for too long, they tend to grow impatient. They unfairly expect the protagonist to solve problems more quickly.

#4–Change POV to show character motivation.

This isn’t the same thing as jumping between characters from paragraph to paragraph to share what they’re thinking. Instead, you limit yourself to a single perspective from start to finish within a scene. Then shift POV after the scene ends to show Character 2’s reaction in viewpoint.

For example, in a romance story, doing this serves to keep the hero sympathetic early in the plot when he might be acting rude, arrogant, or unhelpful. Shifting into his viewpoint shows readers why he’s behaving the way he is, and also that he’s really a decent guy.

#5–The most effective POV shifts occur at the end of chapters.

You gain the advantage of a natural break point with a structural separation that helps readers transition smoothly into the perspective of the new POV character.

Most chapters end at the setback of a strong, conflictful scene. That setback provides a powerful hook where things look bleak for the protagonist. Then, when you switch chapters, shift to a different POV character. Doing this entices readers to keep going instead of putting the story down for a while.

#6–Viewpoint can also be shifted between scenes within a chapter.

I don’t see this technique used much these days. Chapters have become very short, thanks to the influence of writers such as James Patterson. But in older fiction, you’ll see a long chapter separated by a space break and possibly a POV shift.

#7–NEVER shift viewpoint within a scene.

Doing this disrupts reader suspension of disbelief. It splits the scene’s focus. It also muddles the identity of the scene’s protagonist. Finally, this muddles the scene setback because who wins and who loses? Shifting perspective within a scene creates a diffused goal intention, split focus, confusing stimulus/response, and a weak or missing setback that fails to firmly resolve the scene or set a hook for what’s to come next.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Swamp Survival Strategies 4: Managing Viewpoint, Part b

  1. What about Nora Roberts and her floating viewpoints?

    • I think readers put up with it because they like her stories. Ditto for Danielle Steel. I personally find a floating viewpoint annoying and unnecessary to carry a story well.

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