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Viewpoint Writing 1: Seeing Through Your Character's Eyes

Aug 17, 2007
Of the many different writing styles, viewpoint writing is probably the one that works best for aspiring writers - but what is it?

Viewpoint writing is used extensively in modern novels, especially ones that contain fast-paced action. As its name suggests, it's written from the active character's viewpoint, telling the reader what the character sees, how they feel, what they know, and so on. We'll look here at seeing through your character's eyes.

Maybe you think this is easy. Well, it is - up to a point. It's surprising, though, just how many writers unconsciously lose control of what they are writing and wander off into other writing forms. In viewpoint writing it is essential that you, the author, are 'not present' in the scene you are describing. What does that mean? Put simply, you must never, ever use phrases like 'little did he know that later...' or 'he had no way of knowing that the killer was just next door'. Why?

By writing intrusive sentences like the ones above, the illusion of experiencing the story through the character's eyes - as it happens - is shattered. You're reminding the reader that you, the author, know exactly what's going to happen and that this is, after all, just as story. When readers pick up a work of fiction, even though they know full well that it is just that - make-believe - they enter into what's called a 'state of suspended disbelief'. Now this isn't some weird mental condition. It just means that, while reading your book or short story, they're quite happy to accept that Captain Jake 'shoot-'em-on-sight' Bullet of the 6th. Precinct is indeed a real person. Why else do people happily read fantasy fiction? They know it's not real but are willing to forget that in order to enjoy the story. The last thing they want is to be reminded that it's not real - hence viewpoint writing.

Let's run with Jake Bullet. He's just about to enter a bar where he goes on a regular basis. What he doesn't know is that there's a gunman waiting for him. How can this be written? Well, for a start you don't describe the bar. Jake knows it well and he would only really pick up on something different. So this is wrong -

'Jake walked into the bar and took a seat at one of the barstools. He looked at Henry, the barman, who was a big guy and looked as if he'd been in a few brawls. The mirror behind Henry revealed the other drinkers who sat at the tables Jake knew so well. Looking up and down the length of the bar Jake thought how polished it was, as usual. Then he saw the man standing at the end. Little did Jake know that this man was one of Big Mike's torpedoes, sent to shoot him.'

What's wrong with it? Well, Jake goes in the bar every day. He wouldn't notice, on a conscious level, Henry's appearance, the tables or the polished bar. He'd just see the man, who is a stranger and have no idea who he was. Compare it to -

'Jake walked into Henry's and sat down on one of the barstools. 'Give me a beer, Henry.' He tossed a bill to the barman. Glancing up the bar has saw a heavyset guy watching him. He saw the guy suddenly pull out a gun from inside his jacket.'

Jake only sees what he sees and only knows what he knows. All he knows in this scene is that a stranger sat at the end of the bar has suddenly pulled out a gun. What happens next is up to you!

It would have been fair for Jake to look around and describe what he saw if he had never been in that bar before. As it is, it's his favourite bar, a place he knows well, so there's no need - from his viewpoint - to describe it. Maybe the previous scene was written from the gunman's viewpoint. In that case, you could have 'introduced' Henry's bar to the reader through the gunman's eyes - it would be new to him and you can bet he would be looking around pretty carefully.

By writing these two scenes you would have accomplished the introduction of the bar, the entrance of the gunman and, in the next scene, Jake's entrance, setting the stage for what is to follow - but the really important thing is that your reader will be immersed in the action without your intrusion.
About the Author
Steve Dempster writes fiction, copy and informative articles such as the one above. His website can be found at I Want To Write!
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