So. You've thought about it and decided your story really needs to be seen through two or more sets of eyes. How do you manage the switches?
A good rule for doing anything tricky in fiction, particularly long fiction—switching viewpoints or anything else—is to do it right away, to let the reader know the rules, and to do it consistently thereafter.
And make no mistake: viewpoint shifts really are tricky to handle and are worth all your craft and care. Badly handled, they're asjarring to most readers (espaciaiy including editors!) as the feeling you get when you thought there were ten steps and there were only nine. Or, worse, when you thought there were ten, there are eleven, and you take a header.
Mangling viewpoint shifts is one of the sirens-howling signals of an utter beginner—as bad as saying "ain't" in front of your strictest teacher. Worse, maybe. It can land your manuscript right back in your self-addressed, stamped envelope as fast as any other beginner's boner I can think of.
Watch out for careless or unintentional viewpoint shifts and cut them out ruthlessly. Treat needed shifts with the utmost respect, the sort you'd accord a loaded gun.
If you're going to be switching from Ginger to Fred, there are three main ways to handle the change: scene by scene, chapter by chapter, or part by part.
If you decide to make your switches scene by scene, do your first switch in the first few pages, when one scene changes to another, taking special care that the reader knows the switch has happened. Start the new scene with the new viewpoint and establish it in the very first paragraph with something like, "Ginger was dragging the cat back from the edge of the roof. She . . . ." Then carry on from Ginger's point of view for a little while, and switch it back to Fred with a new scene.
Similarly, in long fiction, you may want to have a couple of scene-by-scene shifts in the first chapter to establish the pattern, then go to chapter-by-chapter shifts thereafter.
Whichever you choose, establish the pattern as early as you can. After that, you can stay with Ginger or with Fred more or less as long as you like: you've clued your reader in on the method. There are going to be just two viewpoints, Ginger and Fred,
and the story is going to shuttle between them. The reader understands and will bear with you thereafter.
The third way is to have extended sections from each point of view in turn, with no internal switches within sections. In short stories, individual scenes are sometimes grouped into something resembling chapters: these sections are either numbered or otherwise strongly set apart from the rest. Similarly, in long fiction, chapters are sometimes grouped together into larger units, sometimes called parts (for instance, Part I, Part II, etc., but still within the same novel).
If your story is going to have parts, you could have each part told from one point of view, and not change until the next part. With substantial stretches spent in each viewpoint, the danger of confusing the reader would be minimal.
With Two Viewpoints, Watch Out for a Divorce
The problem with alternating viewpoints is that the story may start to split into two unconnected narratives. That's what happens in Thackeray's Vanity Fair, with its two protagonists: scheming, fascinating Becky Sharp and teary, helpless, tedious Amelia Sedley. The book breaks in two, and the Amelia portion pales by comparison. To prevent a similar split, you'll need to take special care to connect the two viewpoints and plot lines every now and again. Bring the main characters together periodically. Make connections of objects, or moods, or continuing action to bind one scene to the next, in spite of the viewpoint shift. Have some subordinate characters appear in sections told from each of the viewpoints. Remember that with a divided narrative, you're going to have to compensate with increased strong connective narrative devices, to make sure one viewpoint character doesn't end up hogging the whole story and most of the reader's interest.
Be prepared for the problem your choice creates, and decide how you're going to compensate for it.
With Many Characters
If you're going to have several viewpoint characters, what's called rotating viewpoint, the problem is a little different.
You'll find rotating viewpoint exclusively in long fiction. I can't think of a single short story that uses it, though there's doubtless at least one—there are exceptions, and effective ones, to any general rule, when it comes to fiction. Nevertheless, there's usually just not enough space in short fiction to do that kind of switching without fragmenting the story beyond repair.
You can handle your rotation of narrators more or less the same as you would alternating viewpoint, when only two characters are involved. But in this case, it might be a good idea to spend a little more time developing the future viewpoint characters in earlier chapters, before they have to take over the responsibility of narration. Let the reader get to know and be interested in them first, before your whole story's viewpoint is turned over to them. If you establish them well, the reader should be able to shift over with no sense of discontinuity when they take over.
If you want to rotate viewpoints frequently, rather than waiting for chapter or part breaks, you should establish the pattern right away. Do at least three or four shifts, briefly, making each scene as self-contained and self-explanatory as possible. The five little paragraphs that make up Ginger's scene have the considerable job of making Ginger and her immediate situation perfectly clear to the reader. The three paragraphs of Fred's scene have to do the same for Fred. When we get to Tiffany, roosting in a treetop by the elementary school, the reader will understand the pattern.
Separate the scenes within chapters either with extra white space, some sort of graphic (* * *), or both. Don't change viewpoints within a scene.
You'll remember that earlier in the chapter, I recommended a rule of thumb: if something in a story is complicated, keep everything else as simple and direct as possible. Multiple viewpoints need that kind of compensation, especially at first, or the narrative will fragment and become confusing. So take special care to connect the scenes every way you can think of.
In this hypothetical story of ours, the flood itself could be one such connection. Each little scene, in the beginning of the story, could start with a mention of the water and follow a similar narrative pattern: first water, then the person looking at the water in a particular way, then their immediate situation. (After characters and situations are well established, further along in the story, not so many connections will be needed.)
An additional connection could be one mood which, at that moment, all the viewpoint characters share: they're all frightened, and you're dwelling on the particular kind of fright that special person is feeling in his or her individual situation.
Keep to consistency of form, just at first, to compensate for the pogo-stick jumps as much as possible.
You might mention Tiffany in Ginger's piece, and Fred in Tiffany's, to add other connections.
Viewpoints shifts are distracting. The jumps, and keeping the different characters straight, are going to be taking all a reader's attention. At a story's beginning, if the little scenes themselves are complex or involve a lot of individualized characters, or even the names of a lot of different characters, the reader is going to be utterly lost and give up.
At the beginning of a rotating-viewpoint story (the sort we've been imagining), keep the plot of the first few scenes to things you could understand in a thirty-second commercial. Somebody trying to climb up on a higher branch while ugly water laps over her patent-leathers doesn't need a whole lot of explaining. Neither does the cat descending the roof to investigate a squirrel crouched in the rain gutter. Show simple things, vivid things, and let the switches provide the motion and energy to propel the story forward, there at the beginning.
Don't mention the names of any characters who aren't vital to the scene or to the scene immediately following. You can mention Ginger's husband is named Fred if Fred's section comes next, but don't mention the in-laws or the neighbors or Fred's boss if the information isn't absolutely necessary and the characters don't appear in that scene. Develop or introduce extra characters later, when the context calls for them and they have some thing to do. Don't have your entire cast of characters, and all their relationships, cluttering the narrative at the beginning.
This is a good principle even in single-viewpoint stories. Beginnings should avoid clutter in all ways possible.
Make Sure the Reader Knows Something's Happening, and Going to Happen
There's another compensation that needs mentioning. Make sure none of your little, simple scenes is static. End them, subtly or obviously, on cliff-hangers. Show something is slipping, something is going wrong, and something is going to happen very soon. That, together with the energy the shifts themselves provide, will supply the dynamic force to make the reader want to keep reading and go to the effort of sorting out all the different people, settings, and situations. Make sure that each scene moves and is leading up to something quite clear and concrete.
The nice thing about writing is that only the finished product, the final draft, has to be seamless and as nearly perfect as you can make it. The first and intermediate drafts can be scribbled up twenty times, and nobody ever has to know but you.
If you started out with a single viewpoint and want to broaden the focus to other major characters for any compelling reason, build a few shifts into the early sections to prepare, to set the pattern, then go ahead and do your shifts thereafter. If you had several viewpoints but find you end up using only about three, go back and adjust things, assigning the orphaned observations to the chosen characters or to narrative summary.
The basic principle is to use as few viewpoints as you possibly can. If that's seven or seventeen, so be it.
Just don't change your mind in the middle (or, worse, the end!) of a story without doing the necessary tidying and adjustment to make the change fit in.
A case in point: a friend told me recently about a book he'd just read in which the principal character, the viewpoint character, got killed off in the middle of the story. It was quite a wrench, I gather, and rather blunted my friend's enthusiasm for the rest of the book, which concerned an investigation of the startling death. It was certainly an unusual plot twist; but I think I'd feel let down if I encountered it. What do you think?
Returning now to a point made, briefly, earlier: however many viewpoints you're using—two or several—never never NEVER shift viewpoint in the middle of a scene.
Now, wait before you start yelling you've seen it done. I don't doubt there are instances in published work: you can find examples of any ghastly, incompetent boner you can think of, somewhere or other. Characters change names in mid-story. Protagonists get killed off halfway through. Characters make unconvincing speeches to one another to convey information to readers, or treat us to interminable partisan harangues. Characters peer earnestly into mirrors and inventory their looks as if vaguely fearing their noses might have been stolen. Stories obsessively detail every bite of a meal, every trivial bit of the daily routine of getting up in the morning.
Bad writing, by any standard you care to name, sometimes reaches the printed page.
Print doesn't sanctify it. I've read some really rottenly-written fiction over the years, and not all of it in dog-eared copies with garish covers, from used-book shops—how about you?
But competent writers have their lapses, too. In many cases where a major narrative blunder survives into print, it's tolerated because the story shines like ajewel, flaws and all, and the momentary failure of craft (like the vestiges of Bulkington) is forgiven for the sake of the power of the whole.
Some boners are allowed great writers. Laughably bad technique is often tolerated from very popular writers. But you and I are interested in good craft, in understanding options and making choices on purpose. If you didn't care about craft, you wouldn't be reading this book. So you wouldn't want to cite others' blunders to justify your own anyway—right?
Therefore. After the beginning of a scene, don't change viewpoint until the scene is over. The next scene can be a continuation of the same action—Ginger on the roof, and little Gertrude, aged 6, also on the roof—but it will have a separate concern, a separate viewpoint, its own miniplot with Gertrude at the center, not her mother. Or it may be a transitional stretch of limited omniscient summary. But in one scene, stay with one viewpoint.
If, for this present scene, you're in Fred's viewpoint, be very sure to tell directly only what Fred himself could reasonably observe and know about other people. Don't say, in Fred's scene, "Old Mike heard the train whistle." Don't say, "The train whistle told Old Mike the railway embankment, anyway, was above water." Fred can't know what Old Mike hears, or what anything tells Mike, train whistles included. Say something more like, "Old Mike cocked his head at the distant hooting of a train. 'Guess the embankment's still above water,' he remarked, smoothing rain out of his mustache."
Don't have characters being happy, or thoughtful, or pleased unless they're specifically looking or sounding happy, thoughtful, or pleased. Let word choice in dialogue, and expression and gesture, do their proper work. That's what they're for. In Fred's scene, stay absolutely with Fred.
Your narrative's firstjob, at the beginning of the new scene, is to let the reader know as quickly and economically as possible (1) that the shift has happened and (2) whose eyes he's seeing through now. Don't leave that in doubt a single sentence longer than you have to. Do it right away.
And in second draft, watch out for any unintended shifts and stamp them out like roaches, every one.
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