Viewpoint Writing is Certified Organic

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The first fiction I read as an adult was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I was drawn in by a mysterious guy, Phaedrus, whom the viewpoint character kept veiled in his faulty memory. (Incidentally, this is different from an author playing games and holding back information that the VP character knows.) As the book jumped from story to philosophy and back, a bit more of Phaedrus emerged, making me finish the book before I learned the disturbing truth about who he was. I felt kind of sick.

Even so, I loved the book, especially the philosophical sections.

A few years later when I was learning to write fiction I ran into a “viewpoint” discussion and remembered how the author of Zen had used a strictly limited viewpoint to suck me in and string me along.

The opposite of a strictly limited viewpoint is an “omniscient” viewpoint. The terms have evolved over the years, but even in omniscient (all-knowing) viewpoint, the authorities who still think they run things don’t want us “head hopping.”

“Head hopping” is moving the viewpoint from one character’s head to another’s within the same scene. The dividing lines between scenes can be vague sometimes, but to illustrate, here’s an example of head hopping:

Oinkie-Jim settled back on the couch with a chill in him. I’ll shoot it if it gets out of the box. The front door burst open with a bang.

Blake carried in a greasy car battery and eased it down on the lid to keep the critter inside. Then he scratched his head. These cats got teeth up in there. It’s sitting in a flimsy cardboard box.

Louise was on the phone looking out at the moon, admitting she and Jim was in a pretty swell place back in Baton Rouge. Not big, but… A gun went off and Jim shouted bloody murder like he’d shot his own self again. That poor dumb man. She laughed but stopped. What if he shot his self dead this time?

OK, now here’s roughly the same scene, limited to one viewpoint character, rather than hopping from one head to another.

Oinkie-Jim settled back on the couch with a chill in him. I’ll shoot it if it gets out. He stroked the handle of his gun as Blake stumbled in, lugging a dirty car battery. What the? Blake set the battery on top of the box before there was time to stop him. The lid caved in and the battery landed on the cougar’s head, setting him off but good. The cat came out claws and teeth but Oinkie, nobody’s fool, pulled his pistol like he’d planned, and ba-bam! Shot his own self. This time in the left foot.

To make things worse, Louise was laughing her stupid college-girl head off in the kitchen. But Oinkie had to be nice. Somebody was going to drive him to the ER and it weren’t going to be Blake. Not that moron.

There are two points. First, “head hopping” versus staying in one character’s head or point of view. I hope I made the difference clear in those two version of that scene.

Second, the way some writers use viewpoint, it’s as if the VP character were literally writing the story. In this case, I’m pretending that the VP character, Oinkie-Jim, is literally doing the writing. It’s as if there’s no infallible hack involved, just Oinkie whose English ain’t so good. This means that I can’t be blamed for the grammar unless it becomes distracting and takes the reader’s attention off the story…. which probably happened here in retrospect.

When you let the VP character “write” the story, there can be an interesting effect that’s a lot of fun to write, and also a pleasure to read if it’s done well. But you have to be careful not to get carried away like I just did. A great example of this technique is the best-seller, The Fault In Our Stars, which I talk about here and here, as well as in the e-book I’m working on, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners.

Limiting yourself to one viewpoint character is a little like a straitjacket when you first learn to do it. At least it was for me. Even after it becomes a habit, it limits your plotting, especially if you stick to one POV character for the whole story.  But it’s also a lot like real life because it makes everything subjective and linear.

Head-hopping, and even a legitimate omniscient viewpoint to some extent, can distance the reader from the raw emotion of the main character, allowing objectivity to murder the magic.

But omniscient viewpoint gives you huge plotting freedom, among other advantages. To bridge the gap, many novels start with an omniscient perspective in the early going, then switch to limited viewpoint. This was done well in the Potter series, which I discussed in, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners.

M. Talmage Moorehead

If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” my in-progress novel may be a fun read. The protagonist, Johanna, is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 19,000 word pdf will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell someone beautiful and intelligent about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks! I appreciate your help and thoughtfulness.

Talmage

14 thoughts on “Viewpoint Writing is Certified Organic

  1. It’s only called head-hopping or omniscient IF it occurs within the same scene– that’s the important part. If you switch scenes or chapters you can certainly switch POVs. I doubt
    (m)any successful authors use more than one POV within the same scene. At least not any I’ve read. And listen, not everything you read in how-to books are hard and fast rules. This subject is, yes. If you ever want to be traditionally published I wouldn’t break this one. Unless, again, you are in a different scene. However, most things are “rules” that you must learn, and then feel free to break. Interesting topic to blog about, though. And thank you for stopping by my Murder Blog, and for the follow. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors. I’ll be stopping by often.

    • Thanks for that excellent clarification. I’ll work it into the post soon. I seem to run into multiple POV’s frequently in popular fiction, but I can’t say I’ve seen them in the same scene that often. I’m probably not fully aware of scene changes, I guess.

      I agree the How-to rules are not hard and fast. In fact, that’s the main point of this blog. Check out the page, “What’s the point?” for a look at where I’m coming from.

      Thanks for stopping by. Best of luck to you, too.

    • I just thought id jump back.in to this discussion. I think that Point of View can easily change within an individual change if, in narration, you ask the question “who to?”, and treat your answer to that as the point of view of a piece of writing. Ill give a brief example from Austen’s Persuasion, ive opened the book randomly and get:

      The brow of the hill, where they remained, was a cheerful spot; Louisa returned, and Mary finding a comfortable seat for herself… was very well satisfied so long as the others all stood about her

      Thatll do. The characters here are Anne (the heroine) Louisa, Mary, and Captain Wentworth, we might also include the narrator asa character. So at each point of opinion if we ask “who to?” we can see that point of views are not easy to separate: ‘a cheerful spot’ who to: could be any of them, could.be all of them, it might be both a cheerful spot in reality for Anne, or just a chance to gush and attention seek for Louisa and Mary, etc.

      ‘a comfortable seat’ again who to, well obviously Mary, but presumably the others as well, we can easily infr that the comfort is being expresed loudly by Mary, so again the POV is not easily identifiable as belonging to one person.

      The final part ‘was very well satisfied so long as the others all stood about her’, changes slighlty. My assumption is that this is primarily an observation by Anne, but equally it could.be the narrators, filling in details the characters are unaware of. It could be Mary’s showing some of her self-awareness, it does not however belong openly to the group as the first two points could. There is not open agreement between them all of this aspect of Mary’s behaviour, even.if perhaps they observe it as indidividuals.

      You can see that in narration it can be difficult to pinpoint precisely whose point of view is being expressed, even within a sentence. I think this works on basically any text, at any point of opinion. As i said before, thinking in these terms it is more of a challenge to write with one point of view than multiple, unless you use the first person.i guess.

      • I find it helpful to make a clear distinction between classic literary fiction and current popular fiction. Persuasion was written in 1816. Even current literary fiction seems to have a set of writing guidelines that differs markedly from those of current popular fiction.

        I only read popular fiction because I’m afraid that if I read literary fiction I’ll develop a taste for it and will feel that it’s better or more “serious” than popular fiction. Then all I will want to write (or try to write) will be literary fiction, and my potential reading audience will shrink to the exclusion of “average” readers like my current self. Plus I don’t have the wordsmith/ poetic talent for writing literary fiction, so there’s always that. 🙂

        When I write, I find that if I inhabit the mind of a single character, I don’t have any trouble “seeing and knowing” only what she sees and knows, whether in first person where it feels natural, or in third person where it took a little practice. In third person, I find a tendency to not be as “close” to the POV’s identity as in first person. Since it seems to bring the reader’s empathy into the mix when things are closer, I try to write as close as possible in 3rd. Some people call that “Third person close POV,” as I understand it, although the whole discussion of POV continues to evolve. In the 1990’s when I started trying to learn to write fiction, there was little agreement on terminology, and the whole notion of the “narrator” and/or “author” being the POV character was scarcely recognized or discussed.

        Now I’m rambling. Where’s my coffee? 🙂

  2. By the way, why the reaction to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”? I read it at the same stage as you and although the philosophy was way over my head, I loved the plot. Why “sick”?

    • It’s been over three decades, but I seem to remember that Phaedrus turned out to be the genius who was literally the point of view character before he underwent some sort of treatment for depression that ruined his memory, made him less intelligent but hopefully cured his depression. Electric shock therapy, if I remember right, but maybe not. I was young and not accustomed to reading anything but schoolbooks, mostly science.

      The idea of losing yourself, your talents and your identity, and yet still being around to realize and feel the loss was horrifying to me. Like living the rest of your life at your own funeral.

      But maybe I misunderstood the ending. I remember feeling confused.

      • To be honest, so to has it been s long time for me. I think I liked the book because I recall having a sense that Phadreus was at the end reemerging, but without the issues that he had before. I’ll have to put it on my read list and see what I think of it now. Good blog, by the way, very interesting essays.

        • Thanks! I still have my copy of Zen on the shelf. It looks older than I do! I’ll get it out one of these days.

          I like your interpretation of the ending infinitely better than mine! Thank you for that thought.

  3. I find the head hopping technique a bit confusing at times. Sticking to one POV is much more easier to follow. Besides, you can always switch up the POV character at each scene.

    • I agree. Omniscient viewpoint or head-hopping works well in the movies. It’s distracting to me in books. But that’s mostly because I’ve been programmed to not like it by all the How-To books I’ve read.

  4. Thanks for your follow! Ive actually studied “point of view” a bit, so thought id chime in. In academic terms its sometimes called focalization and im amazed that how to write books would try to limit the viewpoints which appear in writing.

    It, i think, is one of the most subtle ways of controlling the reader’s reaction. I always find it a useful exercise to take a book, in particular later Beryl Bainbridge such as According to Queeney, and read a few paragraphs and try and decide who the opinions in the narration belong to, it cN be tricky but i find it helps a lot inthinking about my own narration.

    All the best,

    Jonathan
    http://www.jedenham.com

    • “Focalization” does have an academic ring to it. I’ve never heard the term before, so thanks.

      “Focalization” can be the chemical name and “point of view” the generic. Now we need a brand name. How about “Focavu?”

      Sorry, it turns out that wasn’t funny.

      In the “How To” books I’ve read, they often give conflicting opinions on POV, naming complex categories and then, depending on bias, tell you they’re all viable options but if you want to get published and reach a large number of people outside academia, your chances improve if you stay in one character’s head per scene, per chapter, or per novel, depending on the audience or genre.

      It’s kind of a self-perpetuating limitation on a writer’s creativity if she wants to sell and eat. We all do. Unless we have tenure.

      Academia is where idealism thrives because professors get paid outside of the marketplace. That’s a valuable thing. It’s so pure. But I doubt that the average expert in an ivory tower is wise about writing for the average reader. I get the impression they feel they’re above capitalism and average readers. They tend to focus on great works that average readers like me avoid because we’re not sophisticated enough to enjoy them. <== Honesty, right there! 🙂 I Love it!

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment! Ain't this fun!

  5. “Certified Organic.” Yep.

    I used two POVs, and I only switched at breaks in the action, when it seemed that the other MC’s POV ought to take over (nobody but the current POV character got to have italicized rumination).

    For all the others, we only found out what was inside their heads when it came out of their mouths, or when the unidentified narrator described their behavior in a summary passage. Otherwise, we had to draw conclusions based on observable behavior.

    In my current WIP, I’m trying three POVs, used the same way, and I think that’s the limit. Human psychology can’t comfortably cope with reading rapid, unlimited head-hopping, “inviting objectivity to murder the magic….”

    BTW, I felt kind of sick after “Zen,” too.

    • “or when the unidentified narrator described their behavior in a summary passage.”

      This is the part that confuses the hecque out of me. Everything I read in the “How To” books warns against doing this (if I understand what you’re saying), and yet the successful fiction that I’ve read is often full of narrators giving omniscient information to readers.

      I actually liked the philosophic parts of Zen more than the story. Especially after the ending. My sick feeling was akin to how I felt after “One Flew Over the CucKoo’s Nest.”

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