How a viewpoint Tells the Story

 

     Whose story is it? Which character is giving the reader the gateway into the book? Decide early. Trust me, it saves hours of rewriting. Usually, the story is told from the protagonist’s point of view. We want our readers to empathize with the protagonist and feel as if they were travelling through the story with her. Occasionally, we may want to show another character’s point of view in order to add complexity of the plot, or explain the depth of emotions surrounding our main character.

 

Some writers swing back and forth between two characters, assigning alternate chapters to each. Moira tells us what her life is like in one chapter and Jason tells us how he sees it in the next. With this technique, we need to be careful to make the points of view clearly distinctive with unique speech patterns and choice of words so that it is obvious who is telling the story. We don’t need to label the sections “Moira” or “Jason;” the difference in the writing should alert the reader. If the point of view continues in every second chapter, the reader will quickly understand this pattern.

 

Alternating points of view can set up an energetic conflict throughout the story until the two points of view meet at the climax. By then, the tension created could be exciting and the climax inevitable. However, two points of view can be irritating if they break the tension and slow the pace. As well, with two points of view we run the risk that the reader won’t feel empathy toward either character.

 

If we want to give a secondary character more importance, we can give them a section of the book to tell their story. We can write a chapter from the point of view of the villain in order to tell the reader how implacable the villain is and how relentlessly he or she will be in creating trouble for the protagonist. We can also switch point of view for paragraphs within a chapter if we want to highlight a particular character and increase tension in the plot. This needs to be done carefully as it runs the risk of confusing readers. If we have two points of view in one chapter, they are usually separated by a few blank lines. Whatever point of view technique we work with, we must know which is the most important and which is going to carry the plot toward the climax.

 

Sometimes we change the point of view without realizing it.

 

My first draft of The Hidden Gold Mystery included the following bit of dialogue. Megan speaks with her neighbor, Corporal Jim Randall:

“Is it hard, being a policeman?”

“Like any job. It’s hard sometimes.”

“What would I have to do to be a policeman? I mean, a policewoman?”

Corporal Jim Randall resisted the urge to say, “Don’t be one,” and tried to think of something helpful. “You’d have to learn to be observant…”

 

Wrong! Big mistake! This story was supposed to be written from Megan’s point of view; so she couldn’t know what the corporal was thinking. I rewrote this piece.

 

“Is it hard, being a policeman?”

“Like any job. It’s hard sometimes.”

“What would I have to do to be a policeman? I mean, a policewoman?”

Corporal Jim Randall looked down at her and rubbed his big finger across the cleft in his chin, back and forth, back and forth.

Finally, he said, “You’d have to learn to be observant…”

 

I could write only what Megan could see, hear and speculate upon. I couldn’t write about what the corporal was thinking because Megan couldn’t know it. In this story he was a secondary character and his views were much less important than Megan’s. Adding his point of view would have been unnecessary and would have run the risk of confusing the reader.

 

Most of us have a problem with letting our readers know what our protagonists looks like when the story is from her point of view.  We don’t want the character to tell the reader “By the way, I’m eleven years old and a little tubby.” Usually, we don’t want our character to speak directly to the reader; it breaks the illusion of a separate world. Many writers have their character look in a mirror and comment on what he or she sees. An agent told me this is overdone. We can have other characters comment on his or her physical appearance. Our character can compare himself or herself to someone else: “I’m only an inch shorter than Julie and she’s got to be six feet,” or “We looked like a picture with a negative: she was the bright, blonde picture and I was the dark negative.” We do have to describe your character at some point. I have been reminded by many editors, that, while I may have a good idea of what my character looks like, the readers needs a description as well.

 

The more points of view there are in the story, the more distance we may create between us and the readers until the readers are so removed from the story that they treat it as an intellectual exercise, a puzzle where different points of view fit together in a plot.

 

One of the more interesting aspects of writing for children is imagining ourselves as that child. We carefully construct a world that makes sense to our character. Stories for five-year-olds need to reveal the way a five-year-old sees the world. Stories for fifteen-year-olds reflect their world. We need to be careful we don’t add information or comments that we know, but that our character couldn’t know, or wouldn’t care about. For example, for your five-year-old audience, this means imagining yourself at the bottom of a Ferris wheel gazing upward as the seats rise high overhead into the sky like magic carpets soaring above you. It doesn’t mean viewing the Ferris wheel as a lucrative machine grabbing five dollars for every three-minute ride. A five-year-old wouldn’t care about that view. You may be well aware of the many ways to view a Ferris wheel, but, when you write your story, you must select the aspects of the world that your characters would notice and those that would be important to them.

 

Vigilant attention to point of view can impose a beautifully crafted manuscript. An author I know read me her story for three to four-year-olds in which the little girl had to get to school without getting her new boots dirty. (She didn’t manage it.) The power of the author’s carefully chosen words kept the story strictly to the child’s point of view in a world that encompassed the one block walk to school and managed to have character, plot, setting and climax in a few short pages. Masterful.