Watch the Camera Angle

By W. Terry Whalin

For many years I've reviewed fiction and read fiction and judged fiction, yet I've never written a novel. My storytelling has been in nonfiction books and magazine articles. One of the critical elements to distinguish excellent fiction from average fiction pertains to how the author handles the point of view. I've pulled together some wisdom from various best-selling novelists and editors. I'm including a short quotation from their books and the links to each book so you can read it yourself to learn more about this important aspect of point of view (POV).

My goal through this article is to stimulate discussion and excellence in your storytelling.

The Most Difficult Editing Problem

Penelope J. Stokes, Ph.D. has edited hundreds of novels in addition to writing her own best-selling fiction. Dr. Stokes has a highly recommended book, The Complete Guide to Writing & Selling the Christian Novel where I found this short excerpt:

"I will never forget the first time I was asked at a writer's conference: ‘What is the most common and difficult problem you encounter in your editing?"

"Inconsistency in point of view," I answered instantly…Perhaps the easiest way to understand point of view in your own writing is to think in terms of camera angle. The viewpoint character is behind the camera; everything in the scene, and in the character's emotional response to the scene, is perceived through that character's eyes.

The foundational principle is that every scene in your novel has one, and only one, viewpoint character. During that scene-- whether it's a few paragraphs or an entire chapter--all the action that takes place in the scene is filtered through the perceptions of that viewpoint character. Nothing can happen that the viewpoint character is not aware of….As the viewpoint character, you are the "camera operator," and what you see is what is recorded on film--or in the case of your novel, what is described as taking place in the scene….Most writing books I've read carry limited, if any, information on viewpoint. They may give lip service and brief descriptions of different viewpoint options--usually first-person, third-person, or omniscient viewpoints--but they do not go into detail about the techniques of establishing viewpoint.

Maintaining consistency in point of view, however, is one of the most crucial principles for writers to understand and implement in their work. This concept alone can mean the difference between mediocrity and excellence in your writing."

Advantage of Multiple Viewpoint over Single Viewpoint

In several spots of Dare To Be A Great Writer, 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction by Leonard Bishop, he wrote about point of view. Bishop wrote a number of best-selling novels and has been a writer, editor, teacher and lecturer. Here's some interesting insight from Bishop on viewpoint, "An advantage that multiple viewpoint (the viewpoint of many characters) has over the first-person-viewpoint (the single "I") is in the mobility of the writer's focus. In first person, all that can be known about other characters must come from the knowledge and assumptions of the narrator. He can reveal what is happening within his own vision; but can only assume what is happening to others beyond his vision.

"The multiple viewpoint can explore more characters through their own responses. The characters can be viewed in different places at the same time. The story can develop greater variety through the array of other fully developed characters.

First person I had only 23 more forms to fill. Then home, In 43 minutes. I leaned back and smiled. Bernice was probably before the television set, waiting for me. She needed me so much. She was my slave.

Third person Bernice yawned and glanced at the night table clock. She crimped her mouth in annoyance. Harvey would be home in exactly 32 minutes. She turned to her side and pushed Wayne's bare shoulder. "Darling, it's time for you to leave." Wayne snored contentedly.

The first-person narrator can reveal only his own thoughts and feelings, and assume or guess the responses of another character. The multiple viewpoint allows the writer to explore the consciousness of several people within the same scene. The focus is mobile, it can shift.

First person She stood before me in sheer silk. She was hesitant, afraid my lusty embrace would crush her. I reached to her, lovingly.

Third person She stood before him, hesitant. Can he see the gun strapped to my thigh? He held his arms out. He did not know why she was hesitating. Was it because of the dark bulge on her thigh? Yes. She has a deformity and is ashamed. He reached to her, lovingly. She smiled.

First-person viewpoint is more intimate, more intense in focus, but multiple viewpoint moves with more versatility and into a greater range of character consciousness. Place is not a limitation in the multiple viewpoint."

Which View is best?

For more than 25 years, Oscar Collier was a successful literary agent for many novels that have made the bestseller list. He is a self-proclaimed compulsive reader, having "read many thousands of novels of all kinds during his lifetime." His co-author Frances Spatz Leighton is the co-author of more than thirty books. These two authors collaborated together for their book How to Write & Sell Your First Novel (Writer's Digest Books). Oscar writes about viewpoint saying, "To avoid confusion, most writers try not to shift points of view within a chapter. It is essential to clearly identify which character is viewing what in each part of the book. This is a really important point. Lack of a clear and consistent point of view is one of the most common faults I find in first novels submitted to me.

Critics, writers, editors, even agents, have opinions, often annunciated as divine wisdom, about the best point of view to use in telling a story. My own opinion was expressed by the famous bridge teacher and player Charles Goren: "I never quarrel with success." If it works, use it. And if it doesn't work, even if you have written half your novel, abandon it and switch to a fresh point of view.

A Best-selling Warning

Dean R. Koontz burst on the fiction scene at the age of twenty when he won an Atlantic Monthly award with his short story. He has been writing ever since and his novels have sold millions of copies. He wrote an excellent book (long out of print) called How to Write Best Selling Fiction (Writer's Digest Books, 1981). He also has some words of wisdom about point of view.

"Warning! At least three-quarters of all successful mail stream novels are written from the modified omniscient point of view. The mainstream audience demands a story with greater breadth and depth-in terms of characters, background, and thematic structure-than does the general audience. Most writers find that it is easiest (though never easy) to create a story with breadth and depth by writing ii the modified omniscient voice, for there is total freedom to enter the minds of all the characters, whereas other narrative voices limit the author to the mind of just one character, the lead. The modified omniscient point of view also offers total freedom in placing the reader at all of the major dramatic story events, rather than restricting him to those events witnessed by the lead character.

It is possible to write an artistically and commercially successful mainstream novel from the first person point of view, but you need great skill to pull it off. The new writer would be smart to stick with the safest viewpoint-modified omniscient--if he hopes to produce a novel with the broad scope and rich texture that appeals to the mainstream audience.

Warning! If you choose to write primarily in the modified omniscient voice, as I have recommended, you must understand that it is never permissible to switch points of view from one character to another within a single scene.

How Many Views?

Albert Zuckerman has been a literary agent and book doctor to some two dozen blockbuster novels. He leads Writers House which represents hundreds of leading writers. His book Writing the Blockbuster Novel includes more insight about how many views should be included in a novel. He writes, "I would recommend the smallest number possible, taking into account the story you're telling, but no fewer than three or four. With only one or two points of view, it becomes quite difficult to work up the kind of plot complexity and interpersonal drama readers expect in a big novel. With more than six or seven, the emotional focus tends to become diffused, and reader involvement with your lead characters is likely to diminish.

Determining which characters to select can be done at the very outset if you already have your story solidly in mind. In my experience, however, this choice is best made after an author is well into the outline process. Then you can ask yourself, which characters most vigorously propel the action? Who has the greatest stake in its denouement? These are the characters, more than likely, through whose interiors you should write your novel.

Another factor to consider is your readership. Both contemporary and historical romances are usually written from only one point of view, a woman's, and almost all the buyers and readers of these books are women. Conversely, the same holds true for men with action-adventure novels and westerns. Authors who aim for a broad readership, one that comprises both men and women, and men and women of varying ages, tend to create point-of-view characters who epitomize these differences."

A POV Checklist

One of the greatest writing coaches and editors in publishing is Sol Stein. His classic book on fiction technique is called Stein on Writing and highly recommended for every reader. At the end of a terrific chapter on point of view, Stein concludes with this checklist and these words which form a fitting ending to this article.

• Is your point of view consistent? If it slips anywhere, correct it. If it isn't working, try another point of view.

• Is your point of view sufficiently subjective to involve the reader's emotions? Have you been too objective?

• Have you avoided telling us how a character feels? Have you relied on actions to help the reader experience emotion?

• If you're using the first person, have you used another character to convey in conversation what your first person character looks like?

• Is the "I" character sufficiently different from you?

• Have you told the reader anything that the "I" character couldn't know or wouldn't say? Is the author's voice showing?

• Is there anything in your material that is not likely to be known to someone with your character's background or intelligence?

• If you're using third person or the omniscient point of view, have you used particularity in describing that person?

• Would it pay to narrow your focus so that the reader can identify more readily with one of the characters?

• Have you established limitations or guidelines for your third-person point of view? Have you then adhered to those limitations?

Subjects taught in colleges and universities are called disciplines. Writing is a discipline. And one of its most disciplined techniques is that of point of view. The choice of point of view is yours, but once you've decided, be sure that you stick to it as if your reader's experience of the story depended on it. Because it does."

W. Terry Whalin understands both sides of the editorial desk--as an editor and a writer. He worked as a magazine editor for Decision and In Other Words. His magazine articles have appeared in more than 50 publications including Writer's Digest and Christianity Today. Terry has written more than 60 nonfiction books and his latest is Billy Graham: A Biography of America's Greatest Evangelist (Morgan James Publishing). See more about his writing For more than 12 years Terry has been an ECPA Gold Medallion judge in the fiction category. He has written extensively about Christian fiction and reviewed numerous fiction books in publications such as CBA Marketplace and BookPage. He is an acquisitions editor at Morgan James Publishing. Terry and his wife, Christine, live near Denver, Colorado.

© 2016 W. Terry Whalin

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