Wednesday, November 03, 2010
A QUESTION OF VIEWPOINT
I know a lot of writers and writing tutors insist that you should never change viewpoint in the middle of a scene and there are sound reasons for that, the major one being not to confuse the reader.
I have to tell you that I recently read a crime novel from an important mainstream publishing house where the mid-scene viewpoint changes were so bad that I had to keep back-tracking to catch them and whoever edited it needed a slap. This is actually rare in crime fiction, but the two detectives (both male and heterosexual) were so closely involved over a past case that their thoughts were entwining rather like a pair of lovers and I suspect that was the author’s reason for using this technique.
My first twelve books were written from the heroine-only view point, which was the norm back then. I broke out with Eloping With Emmy but stuck with one viewpoint per scene until, four books later, I wrote Dating Her Boss.
I was in the middle of a scene in which they were dancing; it was a big scene — one of those pivotal scenes that were part of the recent Mills & Boon New Voices competition — and I wanted the reader to know what they were both feeling. Not her now and him remembering later, or vice versa. It was important for both of them and I wanted the reader to feel that in the instant it was happening. So I switched viewpoint mid-dance.
Re-reading the whole scene now I can see that in places it was a little loose in execution but at no time is the reader in any doubt whose head they’re in. And that’s the trick of it. Make it clean, make it clear and you’ll keep the reader with you.
Here’s how I did it —
Putting her arms about his neck, laying his head against his chest was by no means a penance, and her lips softened into a smile as he put his hands about her waist and pulled her closer so that she was listening to the slow thud of his heart overlying the sensuous beat of the music. Two hours ago she’d been enduring hell at the hands of Rich Blake; quite suddenly she was being transported to heaven.
Max shifted his hold slightly, so that his hands rested on the soft curve of her hips. It was heaven and it was hell too. Like the pain when frozen fingers began to thaw, and for just a moment he felt dizzy…
I did this intuitively but it’s a writing technique and therefore something that can be learned.
Using a character’s name, as I did here, is one way of doing this. Writing a short paragraph, no more than a sentence, describing something neutral such as a sound – something outside the internal thoughts of the characters – to divide two viewpoints will also help.
I confess that having once started I did get a little carried away, changing backwards and forwards with abandon. These days I think carefully about it and don’t do it nearly as much but in what is basically a two-hander romance (as with Harlequin Mills & Boon) I think it has a place, adding internal movement to what would otherwise be static scenes. As long as you make it clear whose head you’re in, because sloppy changes won’t get past an HMB editor.
But don’t just take my word for it. Nora Roberts, who’s sold more romances than most of us can ever dream of changes viewpoint at the drop of a hat and the millions of readers who love her books, send them flying up the bestseller charts time after time, don’t complain. The only people who tut are those who are obsessed with rules rather than telling a brilliant story.
Rules are for grammar. The rest is imagination.