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Changing Viewpoint Cogs

I've mentioned before my current considerations (struggles? issues?) with changing story viewpoint from the omni used in Sword and Chant to the multiple third used in Sand and Bone.  It's akin to shifting from sparring to self-defense.  Both use many of the same tools, but in different ways directed by a different mindset.

I'm working with seven viewpoints in Sand.  There are very good reasons for this, even though it presents a pile of challenges.  But if there is one thing I've taken away from a ton of workshop hours, critique sessions and conversations with successful writers and editors, it is this: a writer can get away with anything she wishes as long as it serves the reader.

I can choose to reduce the number of Sand's viewpoint characters—narrowing the story's scope, cutting out subplots, and changing points of tension—or I can find a way to make multiple viewpoints serve the reader.  And I am nothing if not (selectively) stubborn.  So if I've already established answers to the basic "which character has the most at stake" piece of writing advice, and I'm clear on the standards of changing viewpoints at chapter breaks and the like, what then?

Here are the first three tools I've used to make it work:

The no-brainer is first: each viewpoint must be distinct.  The character must have his own voice and her own motives, his own reasons and her own needs.  These are separate and distinct from the protagonist's/antagonist's plots and needs and motives.  The protagonist wants to win the war; her servant wants to get laid.  The antagonist wants to slay his enemies; his guard wants to get home to her farm.  Then, those distinct character motives impact the main plot.  The servant performs acts of valor for the protagonist in the hope of impressing potential bedmates.  The guard feeds information to the opposition so she can see the war's end come quickly.

Certainly those points could be achieved without establishing the servant or the guard as a viewpoint character, if that's the sole reason for the character to exist.  But there also lies the risk of convenience.  A guard-turned-spy showing up with the right information at just the right moment can tilt toward deus ex machina in an instant.


Second, all viewpoint characters must have a distinct view of the same thing early on, preferably when the reader first meets them.  Think of the blind men describing the elephant.  Or people of different ages watching Sesame Street.  Or people of different cultures describing the experience of eating at a Chinese buffet in Oklahoma.  What will be noticed, enjoyed, ignored, mocked?  What will be pointed out as missing?  (One of those most telling character details, in my opinion.)  It's this integrated experience that not only distinguishes each viewpoint, but grounds the reader more deeply in the story.  Continuity exists even though the viewpoint changes.

Here's an example:

A sees Purgatory as a horrid place certain to make B repent.

B, in Purgatory, sees it the safe place where A can't assert power.

C, with A, sees Purgatory as the place she'd go if she could because D is there.

D, in Purgatory, focuses on how to maintain order and discipline there.

E, who is D's friend, knows where to get the best damned moonshine in Purgatory.


Third, the reader's mind must be able to flow from one viewpoint to the other.  Because I'm working with so many viewpoints introduced in very short order, the chop-chop method—titling chapters with distinct character names or locations—of changing viewpoints didn't work for me.  I didn't want to tell the reader, "And now for something completely different!" five times in a row.  So, in a variation of the integrated experience, each viewpoint has a thought/action/interaction that introduces an upcoming viewpoint character.  It's all about the transitions.


A focuses on B, interacts with C, and mentions D.

B focuses on A, and interacts with D.

C interacts with A, mentions B, longs for D.

D interacts with B, C, and E.

E interacts with D, mentions A, B, and C.


Lastly, I'll know I have a major problem if a beta reader returns comments of skimming one viewpoint character in order to get to the next.  Uneven tension is a surefire way to lose the reader's attention at best and piss her off at worst.  More than once I've read a multiple third novel that makes me groan when I realize an awesome tension and buildup is being interrupted by a suspense-deflating scene in a different viewpoint.


Well.  Hopefully I haven't bored anyone to this point. :)


Anyone else have tricks and tools for multiple third?


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 27th, 2012 03:26 pm (UTC)
Nodding all the way through--though sometimes the viewpoint character that one beta hates is the bee's knees for another.
Nov. 28th, 2012 01:25 pm (UTC)
Very true on the beta-hate. Been there... :)

And I've always loved the expression "bee's knees."
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Blair MacGregor

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