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ASK THE EDITOR Viewpoint: The Most Important Element of All

by Susan Malone

October 2002

A plethora of elements go into the makeup of good writing.  Under the broad umbrella of characterization, plotting and pacing, organization and structure, voice and tone, literary devices, and stylistic issues, a whole host of these elements work to fashion a good book or story.  None function independently; i.e., all the points of good writing work in a symbiotic manner, weaving in and around each other, feeding off of each other, to form the whole.  So, you can’t just extricate one point and say, “This is what’s wrong with this book.” Even though the plot may seem off—it may sprawl without focus or the pacing drag—that won’t be the only problem the story has.  That lack of focus in and of itself will relate to other elements, being both due to and affecting the other points.  Which is one reason that in order to write well you must (or your editor must) be able to see both the forest AND the trees, simultaneously. 

All that said, one of the elements of good writing does carry more weight than the rest. In fact, it’s sort of the stationary sun around which all of the other planets revolve, and affects absolutely everything in the story.

That element is Viewpoint. 

Now, Viewpoint is different from Point of View, although the latter is part of the former.  Point of View is whether a story is told from first, second, or third person.  Every story has its natural Point of View, and your job as a writer is to be sensitive to that.  A story will let you know from which POV it wants to be told.  While this is somewhat trendy in the fiction market (right now, editors are shying away from first-person narratives, although that will change), Viewpoint is a much more all-encompassing issue. 

And, it’s a tricky one as well.  I see more problems with Viewpoint than with any other element of writing.  It’s the least understood, and the biggest roadblock, for writers everywhere (even well-published ones sometimes stumble over the nuances).  But rest assured, the success of your story depends upon your grasp of it. 

In a nutshell, Viewpoint is the perception of one character; the eyes and ears the reader must use to experience the story.  Sounds simple enough.  And really, it is.  But as with all truly effective rules in this life, the profound, although simple in concept, proves difficult to implement. 

Different varieties of Viewpoint exist as well.  Omniscience, single-character Viewpoint, multi-character Viewpoint—all have their places.  But even within these sub-lists, your understanding of their usage is vital.  Because this is where it gets tricky. 

For example, if you’re using multi-character Viewpoint, and jumping into everyone’s head at random, your story gets completely watered down.  We lose the focal point around which the story is told, causing the Plot to stall and the Pacing to falter.  In point of fact, what we lose is focus.  And from there the story spirals out of control. 

Without effective use of Viewpoint, the characterization becomes shallow as well. Rather than CREATING the characters—their expressions and emotions—through actions filtered through the eyes and ears of your designated Viewpoint person, the writer just jumps in and tells what everyone is thinking and feeling.  Easy.  But the power of the story becomes muted; the filter moving from fuzzy to obtuse.  The reader is left basically with a laundry list of character traits, rather than characters created on the page. 

This also leads to a virtual menagerie of plotting threads, which may or may not lead back to the main tapestry of the story.  It’s easy for the writer to then go down roads of character minutia, leaving the reader to think points are very significant to the story when in reality they comprise the writer’s ramblings down a dirt path with very little meaning to the Plot. 

I’m not saying multiple-viewpoint is ineffective.  Many genres require it.  My point is just that you still must follow some basic rules if you want your story and people to come across clearly and powerfully. 

Omniscience brings a lot of problems, and causes the most watered-down effect of all. Still, some stories are best told through Omniscient voice—where the author is in effect God, able to jump into any and all of the characters’ heads.  Just know that you lose immediacy when doing so; you lose focus; you lose punch.  As with all the elements of good writing, the point here is to know the rules and use them to YOUR benefit.

Single-character Viewpoint is by far the most focussed (whether you’re using first- or third-person Point of View), and is by far the strongest. It is also the most difficult in which to work (especially first-person, which brings along a host of problems too numerous and deep to get into here).  But it keeps that sun around which all your other planets are revolving clear, stable, and easy for the reader to connect to. 

It also forces the writer to create on the page, rather than just describe, tell, etc.—the old Show Don’t Tell rule. 

Even if you’re writing a multiple-Viewpoint story, you still have to remain in one person’s head to relate each scene, effectively creating the rest of the folks from that person’s perception.  How easy it is in multiple Viewpoint stories to jump from one to another at will.  Again, how watered down this becomes, to downright confusing.  And once again, the story spirals into the cosmos, leaving your reader to wander away to another book . . .

I could talk about Viewpoint for days.  The main thing in beginning to understand it is to think of it as a lens—the lens through which your reader will experience what you are creating.  And as all of your term-theme teachers used to say, narrow that lens until the focus becomes clear and sharp.  Then, within those perimeters, your creativity can surge forward, rather than riding out into all four directions at once.


Susan M. Malone is author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; and Five Keys for Understanding Men, and owns a successful editorial service. Fifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! Malone is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com. http://www.maloneeditorial.com