The Skill List Project: Viewpoint and Story Experience

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, we talked about Reading analytically. Since that was my third blog post about reading, let’s move on to skills more directly related to writing. It’s time to talk about viewpoint.

Modes of Connecting with a Story

How do we experience stories in everyday life? One of two ways:

  1. We remember or imagine experiencing something ourselves
  2. Another person tells us a story, often about something he or she experienced firsthand

So when do we enjoy these everyday stories? Either when we get a vivid mental experience of being there—when we live out the story inside our heads and viscerally feel what’s going on—or when we connect with the storyteller so well that we just want to keep listening to him or her talk.

In other words, there are two basic ways we get engaged by stories: either through an empathic connection with a character as (s)he experiences images and events, or else by listening happily because we like hanging out with the storyteller. Let’s call these possibilities character-based and storyteller-based engagement.

(There are other ways to get things out of a story. For example, you might be trying to learn something, or you might be listening so you can criticize the storyteller afterward. For now, I want to talk about ways you might truly enjoy a story.)

Usually, I don’t like “either-or” distinctions—my kneejerk reflex is to say, “Why not both?”—but in this case, I believe there really is a dichotomy. If you “embody” yourself in the story, you basically ignore the storyteller (unless he or she messes up and breaks the mood). On the other hand, if your relationship is with the storyteller, the story’s actual content isn’t paramount, it’s just the topic of an enjoyable conversation. During the course of a story, you may flip back and forth between modes (sometimes deep into the story, sometimes more fixed on the teller), but at any given moment, I think readers are in one mode or the other.

Connection Modes and Viewpoint

What does this have to do with the craft of writing? Writers want readers to be engaged by their stories. To achieve that engagement, either you have to make your readers identify with a character in the story (at least to some extent), or else you have to hook them with the way you tell the story:

  • Identifying with a character means getting into that character’s thoughts and sensations. For the reader to do this, the writer has to present the story exactly as that character would experience it. When describing a scene, the writer must only report what that character would notice, and how he or she would react in response. You can switch between characters, generally at breaks between sections or chapters. However, if you deviate from your current character’s viewpoint (e.g. by throwing in some observation that wouldn’t actually cross the character’s mind), you jar your readers out of their connection with the story. It’s exactly like seeing a theatre actor slip out of character—the semblance of reality gets ruined and you’re reminded that you’re seeing a show.
  • Getting hooked by a storyteller means being caught up in the performance. A perfect example is listening to a good comedian: you’re captured by the choice of words, the tone of voice, the timing. You’re also captured by the comedian’s stage presence—a persona constructed to grab your attention. After a comedy act, you remember the persona more vividly than any specific gag-line. It’s the same if you’ve ever listened to a professional storyteller; you may not remember much of the story’s content, but you clearly recall the storyteller’s charisma.

So that’s where I’m coming from when I think about viewpoint. Notice that I haven’t even mentioned “first person” vs. “third person,” even though that’s the usual way that people categorize viewpoints. For me, it’s more important to understand who the reader will connect with: with the characters in the story, or with a storyteller who stands outside.

Either possibility can use “first person” or “third person.” For example, outside storytellers are often associated with “third person omniscient” viewpoint. However, consider the Marlowe detective stories by Raymond Chandler, the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher, or the Laundry series by Charles Stross. These are all narrated in the first person by the central character of the books, but the narrator’s voice has an ironic detachment that separates the character-as-narrator from the character-as-character. I like to read the Laundry books because the narrator is funny and has a colorful way with words. With that voice, the content doesn’t much matter—I could listen to that narrator, umm, read a laundry list.

Similarly, character-based stories can be told “first person” or “third person.” The viewpoint most commonly used in modern fiction is surely “third person limited,” where the prose is written in the third person (“Chris looked out the window at the bleak unfriendly streets”) but the tone is entirely dictated by the viewpoint character’s perceptions. (The streets are described as “bleak” and “unfriendly” because that’s how Chris feels about them; someone else might well see these streets differently.)

Not Done Yet

This posting has gone on long enough, but I have tons more to say about viewpoint—as far as I’m concerned, it’s the key to writing good fiction. A humdrum plot won’t kill a book, but poor handling of viewpoint will. Furthermore, a great many story problems are actually viewpoint problems: fix the viewpoint, and the problems go away.

So next time we’ll return to viewpoint and a more detailed discussion of the related skills. In the meantime, people who want a good grounding in viewpoint should check out Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. It contains lots and lots about the craft of writing, but in particular, it shows the same scene written from many different viewpoints, demonstrating just how much of a difference viewpoint makes. Enjoy!

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There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Jeff Pierce

    Great insights here; I’m now thinking of how that all applies to my favorite reads. I’ll be sure to check out Le Guin’s book!

  2. 2. alex

    fab, thanks, coming across this article is perfect timing, and makes the point clearly. struggled with viewpoint for months, and this nails what I’ve been dealing with.

  3. 3. audrey

    This is a fantastic article, thank you. I will be paying close attention to viewpoints in future readings and writings. I will also add Le Guin’s book to my shopping list.

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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