Points of view

Jun 14, 2013

And here we are with today’s update.

No, I’m not quite this formulaic.

We’re at 61,476 words against a target of 60k. It was great to break the 60k barrier this week and I’m just finalising chapter nine. The main characters have hit rather a low ebb in their personal story arcs; they’re at rather a difficult point. This is where desperation and individual flair mix. It will be interesting to see how that develops.

Writing is a slightly curious thing. Although I’ve written the synopsis in detail, this really only contains the high level themes, the key events, the inputs and outputs to and from a scene. Only when you write the scene does it ‘come alive’ and I’m often surprised by how it transpires myself. Little details, snatches of conversation which you haven’t planned spring into your mind and end up on the page. That’s the creative process, impossible to bottle or predict. Which is why it delights and frustrates in equal measure!

I’ve also worked to incorporate editor feedback from chapters 7 and 8, so that has also been done. I got quite a lot of red ink this time around. Why? Well, it gives me this weeks’ topic.

Points of view.

Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells?

No, not the BBC show with Barry Took or Anne Robinson, but the point of view from which the story unfolds. A writer has to decide how the point of view is going to work in a story. Many stories are written from the first person. In other words the narrator is the main character. This is, perhaps, the most straightforward way of writing, frequently used for ‘real-life’ story telling.

As I stepped out onto the road I turned, hearing the car heading towards me. Where had it come from? The screech of brakes reached my ears and I froze. It was going to hit me!

In first person mode, the narrator is just a character, they’re not omniscient – they don’t know the plot until it occurs to them in the story. They don’t know what’s going on in other peoples’ heads. You can only experience the story from a single perspective. Contrast this with the next most common alternative, third person. This is where you do have an omniscient narrator who can ‘see all’ and knows what is occurring outside of the view of each character.

Joe stepped out onto the road and turned, hearing the car bearing down on him. Where had it come from? He heard the screech of brakes and he froze. It was going to hit him.

In third person, I as the story-teller, can select a ‘viewpoint’. I can tell the story from Joe’s perspective as above or I can tell it from somewhere else, such as the driver of the car.

Andy stared in horror as the guy on the pavement stepped out onto the road. He didn’t even look. Andy slammed on the brakes, feeling the car starting to slide. There was nothing he could do.

Or I could be the omniscient narrator, floating above the scene. This gives me the advantage of being able to describe things that the characters themselves can’t see…

A man with a white cane walked out onto the road without looking. The driver of the car slammed on the brakes, the wheels locked and his car began to slide, tyres leaving black streaks on the tarmac. Nothing was going to stop the accident.

Different viewpoints will reveal different things…

As you can see, third person is much more flexible, but it’s also more tricky to manage. Is there a right or a wrong here? No there’s not. It’s a choice. As the story-teller I may have an agenda. Do I want you to sympathise with Joe or Andy for example? Do I want the fact that Joe is blind to be a ‘reveal’ or obvious from the start? Am I more interested in showing you the accident in a technical fashion, or from the perspective of those involved? That’s going to depend on the purpose of the story.

The error I committed, which my editor quite rightly red-penned me on, was mixing up the viewpoints. Consider this.

Andy stared in horror as the guy on the pavement stepped out onto the road. He didn’t even look. Andy slammed on the brakes, feeling the car starting to slide, tyres leaving black streaks on the tarmac. There was nothing he could do.

As a piece of text this is fine, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it, pacing is good. It’s the POV that’s mixed up. I start in Andy’s viewpoint. He’s driving a car. There’s no way he can see tyre streaks on the road unless he looked in his rear view mirror, and it’s very unlikely he’d be doing that at this point in the action. I’ve suddenly jumped outside into omniscient narrator viewpoint. This works in a film, but it doesn’t work in a book. I need to make sure that if I’m changing the viewpoint that I telegraph this to the reader clearly.

I love a good wreck. Don’t know why, I just do.

In Elite Reclamation I had a situation where the pilot of a ship is disoriented by an impact that wrecks the ship. I described precisely what had happened during that impact. No good, the pilot can’t see that. Red ink! Lesson? Choose a POV for the scene and stick with it.

It’s also bad form to swap the POV too often, it just makes the reader dizzy. The rules are to stay with the POV for as long as you can, unless there is a very good reason to change.

When I’m writing I have a tendency to visualise the scene rather like a film. A director can swap camera angles and viewpoints at will. Because you’re watching something, it’s obvious when the viewpoint changes. In the written word, that’s more difficult. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s one of the many differences between amateur and professional writing.

So that’s it for this week, comments in the usual fashion. Next week I hope to have a little announcement to make, so stay tuned… 😉

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