Sunday, July 27, 2014

Choosing the viewpoint character

When you plan a scene you must carefully consider your choice of the point-of-view (POV) character. Before you write the scene, determine its purpose in the story and what information you want to impart, then decide which character will best communicate that to the reader and help to advance the story. The viewpoint character (VPC) should be someone who is important to the story, such as the protagonist or another one of the primary characters, not secondary or third-rank players, and that person should have a significant role to play—a part that fulfills at least one of the purposes of the scene. Maintain that character’s viewpoint for the whole scene.

When you employ just one character’s POV per scene, you’ll find that the scenes will be more compact because you won’t be reporting more than one person’s experiences, thoughts, and emotions through narration, which is a good way to tighten your writing. Professional novelists sometimes write a scene two or three times, using a different VPC in each one, and then decide which one works the best.

Remember: To follow the tenets of scene-framing and third-person limited narration, you must choose just one person in each scene to serve as the viewpoint character. If you know that a VPC is going to be knocked unconscious in a scene, for instance, but want the scene to play longer, then you’ll have to give another character the POV; otherwise, the scene has to end when the VPC conks out.

Maintaining consistency of point of view can be a subtle thing sometimes, but it really separates the pros from the new writers. It serves an excellent purpose by grounding the reader in one space, behind one person’s eyes, in each scene, thereby developing characterization and avoiding reader confusion.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Subtle viewpoint shifts

I have already discussed viewpoint, or point of view (POV), in fiction. The most obvious mistake is shifting the POV from the viewpoint character (VPC) to another character in the same scene. Less noticeable POV shifts are from the VPC to an omniscient narrator—the all-seeing, all-knowing invisible intelligence—which is really the author in thin disguise. Writers often fail to see these inadvertent shifts, but a good editor will catch them. Here’s an example:

Braelynn rounded the berm and headed for the bluff, fistfuls of her skirt bunched in her hands to keep her legs free. But before she reached the crags, more horsemen appeared on the cliffs. The lass skidded to a halt. . . .

This shift occurs when the writer says “The lass.” In the first two sentences, Braelynn is the VPC. After that an omniscient narrator intrudes, because Braelynn would not think of or refer to herself as “The lass.” Only an omniscient narrator or another character—who shouldn’t have the POV—would. To avoid the POV shift, “The lass” should be changed to “She.” That maintains Braelynn’s viewpoint.

Sometimes an omniscient narrator—that crafty bugger—sneaks in here and there with words that describe something that the VPC cannot, or probably cannot, know. One book I edited said a character wore an Armani suit and Italian-made Moreschi shoes and talked to a Bengali sales clerk. An omni narrator could recognize an Armani suit, Italian-made Moreschi shoes, and a person from Bengal, but can the VPC? I doubt it. In most such instances the author has provided these details.

See what I mean? Writers should review their work carefully to eliminate such unintentional viewpoint shifts. Better yet, get an editor to do this for you.

Paul Thayer

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Using the em dash (not to be confused with the M&M dash and the Eminem dash)

Writers need to know how to use the em dash, which is written as one long line (—). This punctuation mark is used to set off a sudden break in thought, an interruption in dialogue, an introductory series, and a parenthetical element (such as an appositive*) in a sentence. Em dashes are often used to set off parenthetical elements within a sentence, like this:
Four states—Illinois, Ohio, Alabama, and New Jersey—are putting up highway signs             in metric language.

As you can see, the words between the dashes can be deleted from the sentence without affecting its sense. Dashes used like this are a lot like parentheses, but they are not as strong. A parenthetical phrase is much more of an aside to the reader.

An em dash can also be used to set off a word or words that come at the end of a sentence, like this:

They had twenty-three murders to solve, no leads, and only one suspect—Hannibal Lecter.

As an interruption in dialogue:

“Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” asked Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith said,  “But I thought—”

The em dash should not be used as a generic form of punctuation.


* The term appositive comes from the Latin, "to put near." An appositive is a noun, noun phrase, or series of nouns placed next to another word or phrase to identify or rename it. Example:

Saint Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, was never married.

Paul Thayer

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Viewpoint in fiction

Aside from grammatical errors, the most common sin I find in the work of new novelists is "head-hopping"—that is, giving the viewpoint, or point of view (POV), to more than one character in a scene. This is a big no-no.

Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. Writers have three basic choices: the first person singular (“I”), the second person (“you”), and the third person (“he”/”she”). In the first-person point of view, the story is told by an “I” who is a character in the story—often the lead character, but not always. In third-person the author actually has two narrative perspectives to choose from—the third-person pure omniscient point of view, which is told by an “outside” voice that has access to any character’s actions and thoughts, and the third-person limited omniscient point of view, which is similar but is limited to the thoughts and perspective of a single character per scene.

First-person novels are popular, but second-person narratives are useless to new writers because they’re mostly considered to be experimental works and are nearly impossible to get published. Most fiction houses today are happiest with the third-person format, believing it to be the most commercial approach. We may also note that many novels on the best-seller lists are written this way, perhaps because stories of action and adventure lend themselves so well to the less constricting third-person viewpoint.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid using the first person. Many first-person novels are published. Despite the limitations of the first-person POV, I like them, mainly because they are a refreshing change from all the third-person novels out there and because I can get to know the protagonist better and identify with that person.

Long gone is the popularity of the verbose, pure omniscient third-person narrator. Many nineteenth-century novelists used and abused this narrative style, pushing the envelope to include a great deal of narrative by an unseen, godlike intelligence who knows all the details of the past, who can see the future, and who loves to comment on the action and the story people with a variety of asides, lectures, and sermons like an Olympian sportscaster. Such writers would frequently insert copy something like this:

            The coach departed in a clatter of hooves and a great swirl of fog, leaving MacGregor standing alone in the dark, gazing apprehensively up the long curve of road leading to the dim mansion, cloistered in oaks, at the top of the hill. It would be a difficult climb, burdened as he was with two heavy portmanteaus, but he was determined to make it. O foolish man! You suspect nothing, anticipate only joy. But ahead, for you, lies more evil than you ever expect to encounter. Pity him, gentle reader, for the unutterable horrors he must soon face, and pray that his moral fiber and his long-held convictions will see him through these tribulations.

I wrote this all by myself. Pretty impressive, eh?

Would you enjoy reading a novel filled with dreck like this? Neither would anyone else. That’s why ninety-nine percent of nineteenth-century novels and their authors have slipped into obscurity—and why today’s novelists should make every effort to avoid such a bloated omniscient prose style.

These days the third-person limited omniscient narrator is much more palatable. In this viewpoint the story is told only in the third person, but it is limited to the perspective of a single character in each scene. That’s the most rigorous view of this form of narration, anyway—and the safest one for new writers. In other words, little or nothing appears in the scene that the viewpoint character (VPC) doesn’t experience directly, and anything that character didn’t experience is still related from his or her perspective, with the explicit or implicit understanding that this information was related to that character by someone else. If your POV character faints, the scene ends. If your POV character walks out of the room, the reader goes out the door, too, and never stays behind with the characters who do not have the point of view. Most important, you should never allow your POV person to be shoved aside by some divine stage manager who comments on the story and its players.

When writers of fiction lose their grip, narratively speaking, on this limited form of viewpoint, then they slip into the realm of the unrestricted omniscient narrator. Considered in the strictest sense, all background information, character sketches, history lessons, travelogues, and such occupy the province of the all-seeing, all-knowing pure omniscient narrator. The only way to avoid that is to couch such material cleverly, offering it to the reader via the intelligence of the POV character.

If you’re limited to the viewpoint of only one person in each scene, how then, you may wonder, can you convey the thoughts of a character who is not given the POV for that scene? Here are a few tips:

  • Put that character’s thoughts in dialogue.
  • Put that character’s emotions on his/her face and have the POV character correctly interpret those feelings after looking at him/her.
  • Wait until that character is given a point of view, then have him/her reflect on the previous scene and relate his/her thoughts.
Please, please, friends, no more head-hopping!

Paul Thayer