Back in 2011, I put together a list of rules I'd been collecting over the decade prior to that as a writer. It was a list of 50 things I'd put together to remind myself to keep in mind as I wrote. You can check out that original list here. Over the last five years, I've slowly been breaking out each "rule" into a more detailed essay for me to explain just what the hell it was I meant.
Before we start, I want to remind you that "rules" of writing are largely guidelines to help you figure out what to do and what works for you. If something I said doesn't work for you, it doesn't mean I'm wrong or you're wrong, per se, it means that didn't work out for you. So, take all of these with a grain of salt.
If you want to catch up on the series: You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, Part 5 here, Part 6 here, Part 7 here, Part 8 here, Part 9 here, Part 10 here, Part 11 here, Part 12 here, Part 13 here, Part 14 here, Part 15 here, and Part 16 here.
Today, we're looking at number 51 on the list:
51: Pay attention to whose perspective you're writing from and why.
Paying attention to whose perspective you're writing might not be the most intuitive thing in the world. Especially if you're consuming more movies than novels. It's really easy for a viewer of a film to tell whose perspective they're supposed to be seeing the story through. Any time you're witnessing something and the camera cuts back to the reaction of a person, you're seeing things from their perspective. That can happen with every single character in a scene and, as a viewer, you have no problem tracking the change in perspective.
In prose, it's a little different. Yes, there are ways to do it (particularly with a 3rd person, omniscient narrator who knows all and sees all and is almost a character in and of themselves), but for most genre work, you're working with a 3rd person limited story. This means that you're in the head of one person for each section of your novel. That section can be as long as the entire book or as short as a single paragraph, but you need to let the reader know whose perspective they're viewing things from. Sometimes that's a simple paragraph break or an image breaking up bits of text. If you switch between chapters, it's important to name the character in the first sentence or two.
As a reader, it's something I look for, especially in a book with a number of point of view characters. If I get the first two lines of a chapter from one character's perspective and it switches to another quickly and for the rest of the chapter, it feels more like a mistake than style.
It can also be frustrating for a reader, to try to guess whose head they might be in without a clear answer. Confusion is the last thing you want for a reader. Unless that's the point of the story, but there are better, more intentional ways to confuse a reader.
This is something I struggled with at the beginning of my writing, back when I was putting this list together. I'd come from the world of screenwriting.
My first (published) novel, Lost at the Con, was told in the first person, so these issues didn't present themselves at all. But my second novel, Operation: Montauk, was a more straightforward science-fiction story, written in the third person with lots of different point of view characters.
When I got to my first major action sequence, I staged everything the same way I would in a screenplay. I thought I had come up with an elegant solution to make the action flow. One character would see and perceive some bit of action, then look back to see what another character was doing. That character would act and see something else going on that another character was doing, and this process would continue, passing through each of the five or six characters involved in the action. Through the course of the entire action sequence, there must have been thirty moves like this.
Coming from the world of screenwriting, it was easy for me to track, but it was only until I drew the ire of Aaron Allston that I knew what a mistake I had made. "I can't follow this," he told me. "And no editor will ever let you get away with this."
Aaron was in my writing group then and was more than happy to sit down and explain to me what I needed to do. It was difficult, but simple, all at the same time. I needed to whittle down the perspectives used and instead of picking all six characters, I needed to cut it down to the major two or three. And instead of hopping from one perspective to another by lines of action, I needed to keep the action consolidated to one point of view at a time. For this particular scene, I had a tracked military vehicle with three different situations going on. The first was the driver's compartment, the second was from the sides of the vehicle, and the third was the rear of the vehicle, where dinosaurs were chasing the vehicle. It made sense for the flow of the scene for me to set up the chapter where we start and end from the driver's point of view, and then the two points of view from the chase situation alternated in the middle. It created a much more streamlined situation with a much more clear beginning, middle, and end.
It made the writing better and the story better.
Yes, it was difficult to re-visualize what the scene would be like from the heads of fewer characters and still get the same actions to come across to a reader, but it was worth it because a reader would actually be able to track it this time.
Sometimes, you can tell VERY interesting stories and imply things by when and how you change points of view. If you take one character all the way to the brink of a situation, end the chapter, and the next chapter starts with a different character, naturally readers want to race through the chapter to learn the fate of the other character. Keep stacking this and you have a page-turning book on your hands. Or you could use perspective to radically alter events.
Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is a must read in this department. The book is divided into thirds, the first third is in the first-person perspective of the main narrator, reeling from a series of events. The second third begins when he gains possession of a diary from a different character involved in everything. Because we see all of the events we've just been through in her voice and through her eyes, the story takes a whole different shape. The last third documents the fallout from the combination of knowledge we've just received.
Another book to check out plays with perspective in fascinating ways is Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.
Pay attention to it every time you're reading. Ask yourself why the chapter of the book you're reading is told from the perspective it is. How does it add to the drama? How does it make the scene more interesting? Is it from the perspective of a passive observer? Or an active participant?
Pay attention to perspective and you'll find ways to use it properly in the first place, and then ways to manipulate it once you're better at it. It's honing craft. That's all it is.
The biggest news I have is that I've started writing for Fantasy Flight Games and their website. My first piece was about getting a character like Ahsoka Tano into your roleplaying game. I've already turned in another piece and have ideas for many more. It's great to combine my love of gaming into my writing and this will give me some great opportunities.
For StarWars.Com, the latest in my Cinema Behind Star Wars piece is about Hell in the Pacific.
For Howstuffworks.com, the latest in my Ridiculous History series is about that time people used to think they were made of glass.
And finally, the folks over at National Novel Writing Month asked me to write a pep talk for CampNaNoWriMo and it's about silencing that voice of doubt for writers.
I'm also this close to done with my 12th manuscript, and I can't wait to get cracking on it. My short film is also moving ahead swimmingly, too. It's a great time to be creative.
As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.
Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process.
As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you.
And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!