Sunday, 5 February 2006

There has been a fair amount of discussion of viewpoint in the last few days on ROMNA, the mailing list (or, as it calls itself, the cyber chapter) of the Romantic Novelists' Association. Hilary Johnson, who runs a highly respected Authors' Advisory Service, has said that viewpoint is the single biggest source of problems in the typescripts that she is sent.

I know that some writers have trouble with viewpoint, but until today I had thought that I found it easy enough to understand, and to handle. It is, after all, simply a matter of deciding through whose eyes you are seeing the action, and only writing about what that character sees, feels or knows.

The important part is sticking to the same viewpoint through a whole scene. In some cases, of course, it is a matter of sticking to the same viewpoint for the whole book. With the fairly convoluted plot of Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth I knew that I would not be able to manage this.

So, what has been my problem today?

I was rewriting a scene early in the book, and I wanted to use it to cast a bit more light on Lord Alexander, without going in for too much internal reflection - I need to keep the pace up at this point in the story. I therefore chose to use the other character in the scene as the viewpoint character. This made it easier to describe our hero, in terms of his dress, his manner, the colour of his eyes. However it became much harder to drive the action forward.

My viewpoint character's role in the scene was rather reactive. He knows things that Lord Alexander needs to learn, but he doesn't do anything to drive the story along. This turned out to be a problem, because I couldn't use his knowledge directly. It was no good his thinking about what he knows; he still had to tell Lord Alexander, and the repetition was killing the pace. If he didn't think about it, then the whole scene became a load of telling, not showing, and that made for dead prose too.

In the end I had to scrap the whole rewrite, after about 2,000 words, and start again, with Lord Alexander as the viewpoint character. Once I made that rather painful decision everything started flowing much more easily, and I am sure that the result will be much tauter.

I just can't afford to make this sort of mistake too often, because I have at least a soft deadline ahead of me.


Douglas Hoffman said...

Funny thing, I never had that particular problem. I adhered to a single POV per scene, since I don't like head-hopping. No, I had a different problem. Here and there throughout the novel, an omniscient voice kept wanting to creep in -- usually to tell a joke. I've had to axe all of it.

Nell Dixon said...

Sandra Marton who writes for Presents M&B gave me a great piece of advice which I've always stuck to because it works. She said always write the scene in the pov of the character that has the most at stake.

Susan said...

Sometimes you have to write what's wrong in order to know it's wrong. There are often times when I write a scene only to scrap it or change the vp character. But without writing it in the first place I wouldn't have been able to move on to the pukka material. It's useful that you can analyse and know why something doesn't work. Mine's all down to gut feeling and instinct!

nina said...

Head-hopping is my besetting sin ... I'm fascinated by the way the image we project is distinct from the one we think we project, or intend to project. As an example, take the scene in Cousin Kate where Philip proposes marriage in an open carriage, and Kate thinks he's offering her a carte blanche. But, however, you've got to be a dashed good writer to pull it off, so I'm trying to stifle the impulse to switch pov after every single utterance :-).