This post details five crucial aspects of viewpoint often overlooked by writers. We look at viewpoint as a whole rather than its individual parts, and how it becomes one of the most important considerations for the short story writer or novelist.
5 Ways To Look At Viewpoint (Slightly Differently)
Beyond the Basics
You must also understand how these viewpoints ‘show’ up in the text and how readers experience different viewpoints
Many writers don’t always know which viewpoint they are using, and many more don’t know why they are using it. The truth is that viewpoint will probably develop naturally and you’ll only be aware when it is not working.
However, when you know how viewpoint works, it can work harder for you as a writer.
Here are five slightly different approaches to narrative viewpoints, which may help you ‘see’ it in a new light.
1 | A System Of Information
Quote: ‘Stories both are systems of communication and knowledge and about such systems. Good art, as we know, weds form to content – either through the dissonance of irony or the consonance of harmony.’ – James Moffett, Ken McElheny Points Of View.
it’s important not to see each viewpoint in isolation but as part of the whole work. As a writer, you must seek out and recognise viewpoint as part of a system of delivering information – rather than just a narrative device, which can seem merely decorative. It is a way of organising, moderating, and presenting a story.
More crucially, it’s about choosing the right kind of system of delivering information for the type of story you are telling. Part of that decision is scrutinising the role of the narrator –their relation to the events in the story, their relation the characters in the story, and their relation the context of the story itself.
Are they are telling their own story? If not, what role do they play? Are they a confidant? A member of the same community? An eye-witness? Or are they getting this information second hand? And will they identify themselves in the story or remain hidden?
Let’s say you need a plot twist that hinges on the credibility of a key character – then unreliable first-person narration may be the best choice.
If you’re writing a comic short story about a single person in the city, you could choose to write it from the point of view of the character’s cat (who sees things for what they really are).
If you want to deliver dramatic irony in a novel, you will need dual-character viewpoints – or at least change viewpoints between scenes. For example: in one scene you show a spouse lovingly packing for a long overdue island honeymoon, and the very next scene shows their partner is running off with a secret lover to Crete.
Say you wanted to illustrate the impact of World War 2 on Europe, you probably couldn’t get away with just one narrator or viewpoint. A multiple character viewpoint third-person approach would likely be the most efficient delivery system – because it is the most far flung and offers more flexibility.
2 | Character & Empathy
There’s more to viewpoint than using the right pronouns or avoiding ‘head hopping.’ It’s more about the character. (After all, the characters are the stars in the show, not technical narrative details.)
Who in the story do you want the reader to have empathy with? If not the traditional hero, it must be someone you want them to strongly identify with.
This is often achieved through a distilled viewpoint. Which is the best lens through which to see everything in the story – characters, setting, and plot?
Without empathy or emotional impact, the reader simply won’t buy into the story – and will abandon the book. You can only really create empathy by sustaining a viewpoint for a long stretch (a scene, chapter, etc.). You won’t achieve this with a fragmented viewpoint.
Who is our guide into this world? Which character would help the reader best understand it? For example, a political journalist in a novel about a White House scandal.
Of course, the opposite is just as effective. For example, a country doctor who comes to a big city hospital. As he learns about this new world, so does the reader.
|Exercise: First Week For The Newbie
A new employee is given the lay of the land by a co-worker in the break room. Free write the piece.
Choose a viewpoint technique that you believe will best serve the short piece.
3 | Time & Distance
Time and distance are probably the most important elements in all viewpoints, but more so for first-person narrative modes. The distance is not just time. It is also about the narrator’s proximity to the action and other characters in the narrative.
If a character is writing about their own experiences, how much time has elapsed between their present and past selves? This would be a way to show how the character has been changed by events and other characters over that period.
In third-person storytelling, the narrator overcomes the challenges of time and distance in the story by becoming anonymous. In other words, staying outside the frame and not identifying or explaining themselves. In this way, you avoid author intrusion and keep the writer ‘invisible.’
However, as the author of the story, you need to know how they came to know this information. Even if you are employing an enigmatic or omniscient viewpoint, you still need to ‘hold the leash’ of the story.
From where and when you tell a story – when the tale took place and when it was told – can lend it unexpected power.
- An old man in a seaside retirement home reflecting on a love affair in his youth in a bustling city.
- A prisoner in solitary confinement reflecting on the prison yard fight 48 hours ago that got him sent to the ‘hole’ in the first place.
- A passer-by talking about a mugging they saw on the high street a few minutes ago.
|Exercise: The Nostalgic Jukebox
Write about a song you loved as a teenager from your adult point of view.
4 | The Scope Of A Story
When choosing viewpoint for a new story, consider the scope and length of it.
In a short story, you can conceivably only have one or two points of view. To establish immediate intimacy, you could use first-person narration (maybe a diary or journal entry).
In a longer narrative, you can introduce more viewpoints or voices. An average novel of 80,000 words can probably only tolerate four different viewpoints. An epic can have many more, but the delivery system also becomes more complex.
If the story becomes too wide and the perspective too broad, you risk weakening the narrative. It becomes a generalisation and not a tightly-woven fictional work. It is perhaps best not to be too ambitious when writing your first novel.
5 | Structure
Quote: ‘The problem of education is to make children see the woods by means of the tree.’ – Philosopher Alfred Whitehead.
So, instead of looking at the trees let us look at the woods or the forest as a whole, however complex, to recognise ‘its single unity,’ as Whitehead says.
When looking at all the elements of a novel, you need to consider viewpoint when structuring the work – and how it fits into the overall ‘architecture’ of the novel.
You need to find the right symmetry or rhythm, balancing the viewpoints of the protagonist and other characters.
For example: you could tell the first two quarters of the novel from the main character’s point of view, the third quarter from the individual points of view of other characters, and then the last quarter again from the main character’s viewpoint.
You could have a measured cadence in the book (for example, three scenes or chapters from the protagonist’s viewpoint, then one from the antagonist’s viewpoint, before going back to three scenes from the protagonist, etc.)
Perhaps you can ‘bookend’ the novel with a prologue and epilogue in a viewpoint that isn’t used elsewhere (it could be a newspaper report, a post-it note with two words in it, etc.)
|Exercise: The Official Report
Write about your main character through one of these reports:
a) Psychiatrist’s report
b) Police report
c) School teacher’s report
Getting It Right…
Viewpoint is part of how a writer delivers information or ‘downloads’ their story into the mind and imagination of the reader.
The reader here is not one, but a mass audience. This is something you must keep in mind when writing. So, you need to think carefully about how you convey the plot, theme, character development, and much more.
Getting the viewpoint right can help you build the right mood and theme in your story, give it an accomplished style – or voice – and bring your main character into clearer focus.
If you want to reader to follow the adventures of your character, you must meld viewpoint to this character.
The Last Word
In many ways, having an idea of viewpoint structures can help you manage a book – it will improve your sense of plotting and give the work a sense of unity.
More Posts From Anthony:
- 5 Fresh Starts To Your Writing
- 8 Ways To Uncover Your Character’s Motivations
- Which Way North? 5 Methods To Outline A Novel
- Writer In Search Of A Novel – Finding Your Genre As A New Novelist
- Writing For Tweens & Teens? 8 Insights For Middle Grade & Young Adult Authors
- Ready To Save The Cat?
- 5 Simple Steps To Writing A Short Story
- 2 Questions To Find Your Writing Process
- 11 Popular Sub-Genres In Fantasy Romance
- Write Your Synopsis Without Losing The Essence Of Your Story