Six impossible things

Viewpoint switching, part 2

So, you have a story in which you have two characters in a scene, and each of them has information that you want your reader to know, and which you think (at least initially) that you can only let the reader know by being in that character’s viewpoint, which would mean switching viewpoint character in mid-scene. You don’t want to do this for various reasons mentioned in the previous post. What are your options?

The first, and simplest, is to decide that upon reflection, the reader really doesn’t need both bits of information right here, right now. You then write the scene in tight-third-person with your primary POV character as the viewpoint. This works far more often than you might think, for one simple reason: your readers do not actually need to know everything you know about why a scene is playing out the way it is, not right then, anyway. It works just fine for George and Bill to have an oddly tense conversation on page 30, and for the reader to find out on page 60 or 90 that at the time Bill had just come from the doctor’s office, where he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In fact, it often works exceptionally well, because it means that if and when the reader re-reads the story, knowing that piece of information will make that scene play differently. This makes the story more re-readable, and also makes the writer look clever.

A somewhat trickier option is to find a way to convey the non-viewpoint-character’s thoughts and reactions without dipping into their head. Usually, this means using Bill’s body language and/or the POV character’s knowledge of Bill (or just George’s assumptions about what is going on in Bill’s head). A writer who wants the reader to know everything right now will probably be unhappy with this, because one cannot usually (for instance) convey that Bill has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer without Bill actually mentioning the fact. One can, however, mention that Bill looks a bit pale, or show that Bill is not really paying attention to George’s rant about the lousy fast food from the corner deli, or give other indications that Bill has something important on his mind. There are very few scenes that actually need the reader to know more than that in order to comprehend the scene well enough to go on with.

Probably the simplest alternative is to abandon the notion of tight-third-person and write your entire story in omniscient viewpoint. “Simple,” however, is not the same as “easy.” Omniscient is difficult for most writers to handle well. It is also out of fashion and not as well understood as it ought to be, which means that your will almost certainly still get plenty of annoying comments from readers, critics, editors, and agents about how you really shouldn’t head-hop. (A really amazing number of people mis-identify omniscient viewpoint as either head-hopping tight-third or else as multiple viewpoint. It is neither, but if you have any doubts about your own ability to correctly identify omniscient viewpoint, don’t try it.) In addition, the usual reason for wanting to do mid-scene viewpoint switching is that the writer wants to get across the emotions of both characters, and omniscient viewpoint is almost always more emotionally distancing than tight-third-person.

If you are writing multiple viewpoint and have already established both characters as viewpoint characters, you may be able to write the scene twice, once from each point of view. This really only works when there is a truly major discrepancy between the way the two characters understand what is happening, because you are making the reader wade through the exact same events twice, and unless each of them knows something really significant that affects the scene and the reader’s interpretation of their personalities, it is very likely to bore the reader silly. It isn’t enough to just let the reader know that Bill is really upset by what George is saying, but is carefully not showing it.

More often, in a multiple viewpoint story, it works if the writer can provide two not-quite-identical scenes: the one from George’s viewpoint, where we get the oddly uncomfortable conversation, and another one from Bill’s viewpoint an hour or two later, when Bill is pondering whether he should have told George about the diagnosis during that previous conversation and/or worrying about how to break the news now that that opportunity is gone.

The key to making any of these alternatives work, though, is to begin by figuring out exactly what it is that want the reader to know – the thing that makes your first reaction be “The only way I can tell the reader this is to show what the non-viewpoint is thinking/feeling.” Once you have that nailed down, you have to decide whether the reader actually needs to know that piece of information here and now, or whether hinting at it will be enough. (Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, hinting is not only enough for the scene, it is actually more effective than laying out the information, because it gives the reader something to wonder about and thus keeps them involved in the story.)

Sometimes, the thing you want to let the reader know is not something major, like “Bill has cancer” or “Sue is in love with George.” Instead, it’s something like “Sue is tall and has dark, curly hair” or “Bill is wearing cowboy boots, grubby jeans, and a Rolex watch.” The problem isn’t that the information involves the non-viewpoint-character’s innermost, unrevealed feelings or knowledge; it’s that the viewpoint character wouldn’t spend time thinking about what she looks like or what he’s wearing. (Or that thinking about it makes them sound unpleasantly self-obsessed.) The writer’s initial reaction is that it’ll be much easier to just switch to somebody else’s head and describe the viewpoint character that way.

This really doesn’t work very often. If you’re going to break viewpoint, you want to have a really good reason to do it, and there are oodles of other ways to work in descriptions of the POV character without breaking viewpoint. These range from having a non-viewpoint character comment on it (“A Rolex, Bill? Since when do you wear a Rolex to muck out the barn?”) to having the POV worry about whether he/she is making the right impression, to doing description-by-implication (“George was not a short man, but Sue towered over him. She sat down quickly, wishing she hadn’t worn heels.”)

If the information is a chunk of backstory, it is, once again, seldom necessary to actually explain it in the scene, even if that seems like the logical place for it. If George doesn’t know the backstory, it is easy enough to have him ask Sue a scene or two later “What’s up with Bill?” The reader can then find out when George does.

Ultimately, that’s the real key to revealing information in tight-third-person: the reader almost never needs to know something until the viewpoint character finds it out. So the writer doesn’t have to jump into Bill’s head to reveal the cancer diagnosis; they just need to write Bill as oddly distracted or tense or however he would behave if he’d just gotten that news, and the reader can find out a scene or a chapter or a section later, when Bill finally tells him.

  1. If I’m writing multiple viewpoint, and I need to do something like this, then my first instinct is to chop the scene in two. Find a suitable point for the switch, put in the scene break, and carry on with little or no overlap. It may make for a pair of short and choppy scenes, but this might not be a disadvantage.

    Maybe one the other ways of handling it would be better, in a particular situation, but “split the scene” it the one I reach for first.

    I don’t have this problem as often as I might because my current WIP is in first person, and is book 3 of a series that’s in first person. I keep considering if maybe I should switch to third, but I keep deciding that I need to keep carrying on in first, with this protagonist. The problem I have here is working out what the other characters are thinking and doing, especially the antagonists, as part of the “iceberg” of story stuff that doesn’t get put into the manuscript.

    That may be why I went wild with “thriller” multiple viewpoint third with my one novel (so far) that’s in a different setting. I had one character with a deliberately split personality as part of her backstory – does it count as head-hopping if you’re in a character’s head when the other personality takes over? But the character I had too much fun with was the crazy old coot who called the police every day with reports of a Dread Conspiracy. Then he found real clues of a real crime, and jumped to the paranoid conclusion that the Dread Conspiracy had tapped his phone. This twigged the police to something being up, when he didn’t make his usual daily call.

    Just a minor character with one scene, used to convey information to the protagonists, and written in tight third because it was too much fun.

    • That crazy old coot sounds like fun. Did he make it into a published story (if you don’t mind me asking)?

      • Well, for low-rent kinky pr0n publisher values of published. (It was that kind of novel).

  2. There’s a reason I usually write in first – I suck at omniscient. So I stick to one character and let readers see things through their eyes. It works for me 🙂 (most of the time…)

  3. Interesting articles, thanks.

    Off-topic, but came across this this morning. I guess any publicity for the backlist is good publicity? 🙂

    • I think goodshowsir is stretching for material — that’s not the greatest cover ever, but it’s really not that bad.

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