Monday, March 28, 2022

Two or More Brains in Viewpoint

 "Keeping the Reader Reading," (Part 7 of 13)

Another very common problem with viewpoint is writing a scene from the brains/viewpoints of two or more characters at the same time. We are privy to what each character is thinking. Here is an example.

"Did April come with you?" Austin asked. He whispered a prayer that his daughter wasn't in the hands of the children's kidnappers.

Pleased to tell the old man good news, Faith said, "No. The doctor wouldn't allow it. That's one reason I was sent."

"What do you mean the doctor wouldn't allow?" Alarms ringing in his head, Nick sat up. "What's wrong with April?"

Boy, he's not going to like this news, Austin thought. "She's pregnant."

In this short bit of dialogue, the effect of multiple viewpoints isn't too bad, but in a scene, it can be very annoying or confusing as it becomes a mental ping-pong match among multiple players. The reader ends up with mental whiplash or nausea from all that back and forth between brains.

Other viewpoints also take away the reader’s interest and emotional investment in the important character or characters.

When I point out the multiple viewpoint error, the most common comment I get from new writers is, "But I have to explain what the other characters are feeling about what is happening."

My answer is, "No, you don't. Give the reader clues by describing the physical actions of the characters, or their tone of voice, or by trusting the reader's knowledge of the character, then let the reader fill in the blanks. Filling in the blanks is an important part of the enjoyment for the reader."

If Nick's expression goes flat with shock when he hears his ex-wife is pregnant with her new husband's baby, the reader can figure out what is going on emotionally with him without being privy to his thoughts.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Viewpoint as a Camera

 "Keeping the Reader Reading," (Part 6 of 13)

The most common mistake in viewpoint new writers make is they become a camera rather than the actor in the scene. In other words, they are sitting in the corner scribbling away as they describe the movie going on in front of them.

As a camera, the writer would write:

Faith struck at him with the edge of her hand, but he caught her wrist and held it.

"Don't," he said harshly.

She clawed at his eyes, but he dodged. Yanking free, she came to her knees but paused.

He took advantage of her slowness by throwing himself on top of her and pinning her to the bed.

She kicked at his groin and missed. Screaming and twisting, she tried again.

The correct place for the writer to be is in the brain and body of the viewpoint character. She should describe what the viewpoint character SEES and FEELS to make the scene come alive. Here's the same scene through the filter of Faith Cody

Faith struck out with the edge of her hand, but the self-defense blow which should have smashed his windpipe was as clumsy and slow as the rest of her drugged body. He caught her wrist in steel fingers.


His hard-voiced command spurred her from her hopelessness, and she raked at his eyes with her free hand. His hand loosening her wrist, he dodged. 

Yanking free, she came to her knees in bed. She wore only a large man’s tee shirt.

Shocked by her vulnerability, she paused before attacking again or fleeing. In that moment, he threw himself at her, pinning her to the bed, his hands manacling her wrists to the sheets.

Her knee seeking his genitals, she twisted, but her knee glanced off his inner thigh. Screaming like an angry jungle cat, she writhed beneath him as she tried to hit him again with her knee.

Being in a character's head rather than watching from the outside creates a reality for the reader. Use visual and sensual language. Make the reader see what the character sees. Make the reader feel what the character feels.

Don't say, "Pamela was afraid." Say, "Shivers ran like cold fingers down her back." In other words, show, don't tell. If a character is angry, don't have him shout dialogue or "say angrily." Use his actions instead. If he's grinding a wadded paper to pulp in his hand while he's talking, you can be darn sure he's mad.

If the reader is in the viewpoint character’s head, they will be hooked.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Viewpoint and Narrative Distance

"Keeping the Reader Reading," Part 5

For a writer, viewpoint is more than the standard list you learned in English. We not only have to choose from first, second, third, and omniscient viewpoints, we also have to choose narrative distance.

The standard viewpoint for genre fiction is third person where the viewpoint character is referred to as "he" or "she." 

First person “I” is acceptable in some mystery fiction and romance, but it's not seen as often in sf and fantasy with the exception of urban fantasy.

In omniscient viewpoint you read the thoughts of all or most of the characters' heads. It has fallen out of favor in the last twenty years, and you will only rarely see it in genre with the exception of Regency romances where the writer is attempting to mimic the style of Jane Austen and her contemporaries. It’s also used in some epic fantasy.

Why is it out of favor? Narrative distance. The current trend in writing is for warm or hot viewpoint in popular fiction, and omniscient is by its nature cold.

The simplest example of cold viewpoint would be a novel written from Spock's viewpoint. Emotion doesn't cloud the events seen by the narrator. Books of high epic fantasy like THE LORD OF THE RINGS are primarily in cold viewpoint because the books have a sense of a great story being retold, and the individual is less important than the story itself.

Warm viewpoint allows emotions from the viewpoint character, but the emotions aren't always center stage. Most sf, fantasy, and mysteries are written primarily in warm viewpoint.

Hot viewpoint is most often seen in romance, and I'm not talking just about the sex scenes. Hot viewpoint allows the emotions to be emphasized. What the viewpoint character feels is just as important as what is happening.

Even romances are not told only in hot viewpoint which is reserved for scenes of emotional importance.

All three forms of narrative distance can usually be found in a novel. In my novel, STAR-CROSSED, for example, I wrote the heroine primarily in hot viewpoint because she's a loving and giving person who thinks as much with her heart as her scientist's brain.

The hero was written primarily in warm viewpoint because he's a guy, dang it, and guys tend to think in cold or warm viewpoint with occasional careful forays into hot. He also doesn't trust his emotions so he keeps them in check.

My villain I wrote in cold viewpoint because she was emotionally cold and frightening in a reptilian way, and, frankly, I had no desire to get that deep into her sick psyche, and I knew most of my readers would feel the same way. 

Monday, March 7, 2022

Character Motivation as a Hook

 "Keeping the Reader Reading,” (Part 4 of 13.)

In one of my first stories, I had the main character in a surly mood in the opening scene without telling the reader why he was acting the way he was. A friend who critiqued the story wrote in the margin, "Who pissed in his oatmeal this morning?" It's a comment I hear in my head every time I discover I need to rewrite an under-motivated character.

Characters should have very good reasons to act as they do, and we must give them motivations that the reader can understand. 

In THE GAME WE PLAY, Nick’s motive for stealing the ransom from a very dangerous person is obvious-- he’s the father of the two kidnapped children, but Faith is hired help so I had to create a back story reason for her decision to risk her life to save the kids-- she has known them for over a year because she teaches children’s gymnastics at the Y, and she’s formed a deep bond with these two special kids.  She’s also a childless widow who is desperately maternal.

If a character’s motivation is strong enough, the reader will want the character to succeed and will continue reading.  The strongest motivation is personal and emotional because it speaks from the character’s heart to the reader’s.  That’s a very strong reader hook, indeed.