To be honest, it may be the camera/movie analogy that causes authors confusion with viewpoint when they write in any tense or POV, because the action in movies usually moves effortlessly from face to face and scene to scene, capturing emotions that aren’t necessarily viewed by the narrating character but must be viewed by the audience for significance in the storyline. When we use words to put all of that emotion and action on a page, we have tighter rules regarding flow to keep our story seamless for our readers. The POV narrator will choose characters to drive readers through each scene. This character becomes the viewpoint for the action as it plays out in relation to that character, his or her thoughts, feelings, observations, etc.
In a book, if the narrator chooses Darla to carry the scene, as her attention is captivated by one suitor, the narrator draws our attention to the action as it relates to Darla. We'll know what's making her blush, we can get insights from her observations, but we won't be able to know what the other suitor is thinking or feeling so long as she's not observing him.
If Darla is our viewpoint character, we will read the scene as it affects her; the scene will move as though bending and revolving around her. What her eyes observe in the dining hall will be what the narrator can offer comment on. The suitor she interacts with will be the focus of the narrator; the narrator will ignore the jealous suitor until Darla gives him notice. If the narrator enters the scene with Darla's viewpoint, to keep readers in the flow, the POV must stay fixed on Darla's presence and interactions.
Here's what an unwarranted viewpoint shift would read like if we started in Darla's viewpoint and suddenly entered Alfalfa's:
When she heard Waldo's voice, Darla turned from speaking with Alfalfa to greet him. She found it rude that he so obviously interrupted their dinner, but politely extended her hand as he bowed stiffly from the waist. Alfalfa couldn't believe Waldo would intrude on such a special moment.The bolded phrases in that paragraph demonstrate how we enter two different sources of feeling/reaction during one scene. The reactive, observational, or internal feeling of the action should only be narrated through one character at a time, the character chosen as the viewpoint lens. Below is another example of what not to do.
Harry couldn’t believe what Ron had just said to him. He wanted to ring Ron’s stupid neck, but stupid Hermione stood between them with arms outstretched, keeping the boys apart. Ron looked back at Harry with smug satisfaction knowing his words had cut Harry deeply. Hermione loudly sighed with exasperation, impatient that her two friends would be such dolts over nothing.Here, in one brief scene, we entered three different minds. Don’t do that. If you don’t see a problem with the flow in these paragraphs, your homework is to study up on POV and viewpoint.
One last example of viewpoint: Think of the Sherlock Holmes movie, A Game of Shadows. We mostly follow the action as described and put in motion by Sherlock, and every now and again we enter his mind to preview how he’s about to take down his opponent. He narrates a play-by-play of each blow the opponent will receive at his hand. That action unfolds from Sherlock’s viewpoint.
Well, in the ending struggle scene between Moriarty and Sherlock, we watch how the action will play out first according to Sherlock, but then Moriarty says in his mind, “Come now, you really think you’re the only one who can play this game?” Moriarty interrupts the Sherlock viewpoint, and where normally that could be a faux pas, it works because of the directing style and character development of the film.
When in Moriarty’s mind he succeeds in pushing Sherlock over the ledge, he raises his arms victorious. We get to partake of his emotion; we are suspended in his viewpoint. Then we shift back to the “present” moment before any of the envisioned fighting happens, back into the Sherlock viewpoint.
See how effortlessly the camera gets to move through viewpoints? We don’t even realize it as we watch movies unless we’re looking for it. And while movies can get away with this, books can’t. We’re so used to seeing it happen and some authors mistakenly mimic movies and try to pinball between viewpoints to cover everyone’s emotions in each scene. The problem is, we read differently than we watch. In film, we can only interpret by what we’re allowed to see, so movies have to show it all. There’s no expository paragraph that explains how Watson is feeling in the film; we watch his eyes stare in shock and slowly close in disbelief.
To take a peek at the differences between written and visual POV, I wrote out what that scene from the movie might read like as a scene in a book. We'll start right after Moriarty believes he will come out victor of the pretend fight scenario.
With pipe smoke pulsing from his mouth, Sherlock Holmes stared his nemesis down, cautious not to let his mind reveal his next move. He cracked a wide, uncertain smile and led his opponent to believe his thoughts surrendered with, “Conclusion inevitable . . .” Moriarty’s face broke with a satisfied sneer. Sherlock shifted his pipe around his teeth. “Unless—”
Whipping the pipe from his mouth, Sherlock blasted a puff of breath at the still-burning lighter in Moriarty’s hand. Tiny sparks flew at the professor’s face and instinctively he turned away. Locking Moriarty’s arms and body into a hold, Sherlock braced himself against the stone banister and kicked his foot up to the chess table to launch the pair of them over the edge.
In the instant before Sherlock pushed off, Watson hurried through the balcony door from inside the mansion. If any word of warning had been prepared on Watson’s lips, it instantly vanished as he took in the scene before him. Sherlock tossed his friend one last familiar smirk, closed his eyes, and pushed backward with all his might.
Sherlock knew that two were falling, but with eyes closed he regained his cherished solitude. He preferred to think of himself as purposefully taking an unconventional shortcut to the bottom of the mountain. He heard only the air rushing past his ears, felt only the stinging kiss of the raging waterfall mist. His opponent released him and they plunged into silence.In writing, it made more sense to follow Sherlock off the cliff and complete the action from his viewpoint before returning to finish the scene from Watson’s viewpoint. In the movie we watch Watson’s reaction for a few seconds before witnessing the two men falling. To do that in writing would cause readers to ping-pong between perspectives and it isn’t natural in the reading setting. But when the scene breaks naturally, switching to Watson to wrap up the emotion and observation is a seamless move in writing.
Watson stood by the door staring at the emptiness where an instant before his friend’s eyes stared back. He slowly blinked, daring not to believe. He stepped toward the banister, absently rounding the chess table with unfinished game. His eyes fixed on the ledge where the soft layer of snow had been abruptly swept away by the fallen. With his body rigid, Watson leaned out of the balcony shadows, his wrinkled brow catching the moonlight. He peered down the torrential falls at the tight canyon walls disappearing below the icy mist. He did not trust to hope even his cunning friend had survived such a drop.
POV Points to Remember
1. Choose your story’s overall point of view according to the most important information that you’ll need to share.
If you’re going to need to include several scenes from the past or happening simultaneously to the main character’s storyline, don’t choose 1st person. If you need help finding out which POV might be best for your story, pick an important scene that involves multiple character and write it in each POV. You may discover you prefer one presentation of the scene over the others.
2. Choose your viewpoint character per scene and stick to it.
Whichever character will be introducing us to the scene and directing the “camera” around to capture the action they observe, remember to keep their lens as the only one you narrate and describe the action through.
3. Execute changes in viewpoint at clear and natural scene, chapter, or section breaks.
If you have questions or any other tips that helped you practice POV and viewpoint, leave a comment!