The Skill List Project: Viewpoint Selectivity

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 Viewpoint and Story Experience…but since I consider viewpoint to be the #1 key to story success, I want to dig into it more deeply. In this posting, we’ll look at viewpoint selectivity: how viewpoint controls what you do and don’t write down.

That Famous Invisible Gorilla

By now, every self-respecting SF reader/writer should know about the Invisible Gorilla experiment: a psychology experiment at Harvard in which subjects were shown a video of people passing a basketball and were told to count how many passes the people made. In the middle of the video, someone wearing a gorilla suit ambled into the picture, waved to the camera, then ambled off again…but half of the test subjects didn’t notice the gorilla. They were too busy watching the basketball.

This experiment demonstrates selective inattention. Every second, your senses flood your brain with far more information than it can process and bring into consciousness. As a result, your brain is selective: your subconscious filters out anything it thinks isn’t important, so that you’re only conscious of what your subconscious decides is “meaningful.” (This has interesting repercussions, many of which have been explored in SF novels—see, for example, John Brunner’s The Stone that Never Came Down or my own Vigilant.)

For writers, the point is that people only notice a tiny subset of what’s around them. Furthermore, what they notice is dictated by their conscious and subconscious predispositions. If they’re consciously looking at or looking for something, their attention will obviously focus on the target object…but also, if they’re in the habit of paying attention to something (or if they’re just innately sensitive to that sort of thing), their subconscious is more likely to let that kind of information rise to the surface. Your subconscious delivers what it’s habitually asked for.

Usually this process is straightforward. Architects notice architecture, botanists notice plants, police notice “suspicious behavior.” If an interior decorator walks into a room, he or she will likely notice the décor, possibly to the exclusion of other significant details (such as the people in the room). A decorator’s subconscious is accustomed to placing importance on interior design, and will therefore give the décor more weight than other sensory input. If a carpenter walks into the same room, he or she will also pay attention to the furniture, but probably with a different emphasis: perhaps noticing small qualities about the woodwork rather than caring about the room’s overall look.

Selective inattention dictates how writers should and shouldn’t write scenes. Your viewpoint character will notice some things and ignore others; your viewpoint character will care about some things and be indifferent to others. This applies to all viewpoints, whether first person, third person limited, or even third person omniscient. What you put down on the page must be completely dictated by the character’s sensibilities within the context of the story.

How This Plays Out

Let’s take an example that’s fresh in my mind. I will name no names, but a few days ago I abruptly stopped reading a book which had SF content but which was written by a li-fi writer. The passage that made me slam the book shut was supposedly an email message written from one medical researcher to another. It described gory events that threatened the message-writer’s life…but the message didn’t contain a single word of medical terminology. It was (shudder) poetic. It was top-heavy with metaphor, and also with that maddening li-fi proclivity for characters dwelling on childhood memories, even in life-or-death situations when most people would be screaming, “What do I do now?” rather than having flashbacks to when they were six. (Honest to God, li-fi writers, it’s perfectly possible to characterize adult human beings without giving chapter and verse on their traumatic days in kindergarten. Give up the formula, folks!) To get back to that email message, it struck me as a bullshit authorial intrusion from someone who wasn’t even trying to depict a real medical researcher.

Look, I’m sure the real world contains at least one poetically-minded medical researcher who can’t let go of his childhood. But if that kind of man ever flashed a satellite transmission to a colleague saying, “My research has gone to hell and I don’t think I’ll survive,” surely he wouldn’t go into reveries and try to evoke an atmosphere. He’d try to convey as many solid facts as possible, using whatever technical jargon is necessary. It’s the writer’s job to simulate the feel of such specialized jargon while making it comprehensible to non-specialist readers. (Hmm, another skill to add to the list.)

In other words, if your viewpoint character is an expert speaking on his/her subject of expertise, the character had better sound like an expert and talk about the things an expert would care about. Otherwise, you cease to be convincing…and you make readers like me throw your book across the room.

Long story short:

  1. Think about what your viewpoint character will pay attention to in a particular scene.
  2. Write it down using the language that your character would use.
  3. Don’t write down anything else.

Not Done Yet

There’s still a lot more for me to say on this topic—just wait till I start ranting about characters who seem compelled to mention the color of their eyes and hair. But this posting is long enough, so as usual, it’s time to turn the floor over to you. Comment away!

Filed under For Novelists, language, learning to write, reading, the business of writing, writing process. You can also use this URL to trackback.

There are 10 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. A'Llyn

    “Don’t write down anything else.”

    I love that. Good advice, and an interesting reminder to focus. I’m going to have to keep that in mind.

  2. 2. NewGuyDave

    Great stuff. I practiced this in writing my first novel, since I had one POV character, Falinor, chasing two others, Drohan and Talia. I didn’t want to re-tell the same information and bore the reader, so I concentrated on what made each POV different. Drohan, the former assassin, see’s the world in a grim, dangerous, and almost paranoid POV and is most comfortable in an urban setting. He notices weapons right away. Falinor the leonnyr (lionman) priests, sees the world as divided, ever-changing, longs for the day to show his mettle. He is more in tune with nature and dislikes humans and cities.

    One of the things I see a lot in early manuscripts is characters saying and noticing things that they shouldn’t only because the author wants them too. I note, “Would they really notice this?” or “Would they really say this now?” In the margins for my critique partners and try to remember those same sort of things when writing and revising my work.

    Thanks for the post.
    -NewGuyDave

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    NG Dave, great insight. I’ve only attempted 3rd person singular but I have an idea rolling around for a multi POV and your demonstration intrigues me to the possibilities of action scenes with three distinct takes on the conflict.

  4. 4. Jarvis

    Interesting point about the invisible gorilla. Never thought to apply it writing.

  5. 5. James Alan Gradner

    I couldn’t summarize it well in the posting, but Samuel R. Delany says a number of interesting things on this topic in the introduction to his collection “Distant Stars”. Delany references something from Theodore Sturgeon who said that you should envisage scenes as completely as possible, then only mention those elements that your viewpoint character would actually notice and care about. Putting in any more would be overwriting, not to mention breaking the illusion of being in the viewpoint character’s shoes.

  6. 6. Tom

    <>

    Blue eyes narrowing, I wonder what he means by that comment. I scratch at my salt and pepper mustache, and decide it has nothing to do with me.

    Oh, and a very interesting and informative article.

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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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