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August 24th, 2005, 06:28 AM

I keep coming across sections in (how to) books which all state the importance of staying with the viewpoint of a single character within a scene.

However, I keep coming across scenes which seem to contradict this. I'll give an example. I'm sorry, it's not SF or fantasy but from a classic spy novel by Le Carre, called 'The Spy Who Came In From The Cold'.

On the first page the scene is Leamas (The English agent), and a young American official waiting at a West Berlin checkpoint for an agent to cross from the East Berlin border. The viewpoint is this scene is clearly that of Leamas.

At the bottom of the page though there is a narrative sentence which shows the thoughts of the other character after Leamas angrily snaps at him.

Leamas turned on him.
"Agents aren't aeroplanes. They don't have schedules. He's blown, he's on the run, he's frightened, now, at this moment. He's only got one chance. let him choose his time."
[Young American official]
The younger man hesitated, wanting to go and not finding the moment.

I'm not criticizing this book, it is a truly great novel. However, I'm a bit confused by the last line showing that the young American feels uneasy and would like to leave the room. Am I being too picky here or are we supposed to believe this is what Leamas senses from the other character?



August 24th, 2005, 07:58 AM
I think that the agent deciphers the body language of the young man and comes to that conclusion.

As a novice writer myself I can recommend that you write as you feel and when doing a second draft you'll be able to spot if staying with the single character all the way through or changing to a second character is working or not. How-to-books are wonderful but thay cannot compltely dictate how you should be writing, more guidelines rather then rules.

August 24th, 2005, 08:31 AM
I agree with Julianag - in that particular example, it seems to me that Leamas has interpreted the American's thoughts, so it is still from Leamas' point of view.

Changing viewpoint mid-scene could lead to confusion if you've been specifically with a single character for a long period. If the narration is entirely detached and omniscient then it might work fine - the narration could flit around the location and characters as it wished. I seem to recall Catch-22 has a very loose narrative that jumps all over the place, and it feels perfectly natural.

Personally I prefer to write from a single viewpoint (although remaining in 3rd person) as I find it easier to get into a character's head that way, plus it opens up interesting opportunities to show the character (mis)interpreting the actions and intent of other characters. It can be quite fun to mislead the reader due to the lead character misintepreting somebody else! :) You can then change viewpoint at key plotpoints to cast a new light on something the reader thought they already knew about.

Hereford Eye
August 24th, 2005, 08:31 AM
Oh, boy, this will be good as Rocket Sheep is the world's leading expert on how I screw up Point-of-View - she provides the same service to a host of others but mine give her the most pleasure - by switching in mid-thought from one to another.
It isn't that you change POV through a story; that can make it more interesting and afford the author the opportunity to explain things the main POV character could never know. It is more of when and how you do it.
Now, watch as the Sheep corrects me. :D

August 24th, 2005, 09:11 AM

Actually, the section is too short actually tell what the PoV is in that section. [Edit: What a horrible sentence! :eek: I'll leave it like that as an example how NOT to write.] But from the snippet you gave me, I'd say there is no PoV-change, and we don't get Leamas PoV at all.

"Leamas turned on him," is simple description. The only inside few in there is actually from the Young American Official. It's entirely possible to construe the snippet from this perspective only.

Also, bear in mind that there is something like a 3rd person omniscient narration that allows for "head hopping". There's a difference between the narrator and the Point of View character; and the more distant the narrator is from the point of view character, the easier it is to shift from one to the other. Imagine your narrator shining a spotlight on various characters in turn.


Edit again: Close reading suggests that this is 3rd omniscient. The language is quite detached; "The younger man" seems to indicate that there is someone looking at them both and making a comparison. If someone is significantly younger than the PoV-character, I'd expect to read "the young man".

August 24th, 2005, 09:27 AM
Thanks for your replies. I guess if authors like le Carre can get away with changing viewpoint mid scene it can't be that bad, if used effectively. After reading a few 'how to' books I now find myself reading novels from a different perspective - looking between the lines for breaks in writing conventions such as..., you guessed it, viewpoint. I then go back to my 'how to' book, become slightly confused and write about it on a forum.

To Tarn, I particularly liked what you said regarding the misleading of readers:

plus it opens up interesting opportunities to show the character (mis)interpreting the actions and intent of other characters. It can be quite fun to mislead the reader due to the lead character misintepreting somebody else! You can then change viewpoint at key plotpoints to cast a new light on something the reader thought they already knew about.

Something I'll remember



August 25th, 2005, 06:14 PM
One famous novel that breaks the POV/viewpoint rules: Frank Herbert's Dune.

Stephen King also tends to go into omniscient narrator mode from time to time.

So it's possible to get away with rule-breaking. You just have to write so well that the editors don't care. :)

August 25th, 2005, 07:05 PM
I think the reason that "how to write" books harp on this is because there are more often than not written with the novice writer in mind. Often when people start out writing they can run into difficulty keeping the point of view constant and as a result, the story can become confusing.

I don't think maintaining a constant POV through a scene is a "hard" rule either. When critiquing something, I will mention it only if it jars me from the story. If things flow and I don't get confused - I don't think there's anything wrong with jumping around a little.

Perhaps the trick is to be conscious of when you are doing it.

August 25th, 2005, 09:14 PM
I don't think maintaining a constant POV through a scene is a "hard" rule either.

Sometimes I think the only function of such "rules" is to sell "how to" books. ;)

If you want to keep the PoV constant, write 1st person narration. 3rd person narration is tailor made for shifting PoV midscene (even "limited" can do that; though the "jumps" are more closely controlled).

To complicate matters, there's such a thing as an "objective narrator"; the PoV can best be described as a "camera". We get no character's point of view at all, but are only shown their behaviour.

I'm not so much amazed that authors get away with PoV-jumps; I'm more amazed that "how to" books get away with silly rules.

August 26th, 2005, 06:45 PM
It's not the objective narrator, Dawnie, it's the omniscient narrator.

The guidebooks you are reading, uk, which you should throw out immediately, are insisting that you write in the first person or third person limited viewpoint formats. There are quite a lot of books written in these formats. There are also tons and tons of novels written in other viewpoint formats. In addition to first person and third person limited, the most popular format is third person omniscient, which is the one that John Le Carre uses. He is not breaking any rules, simply using a particular structure.

In the 3pomni format, you have an omniscient narrator -- usually the voice of the storyteller -- who conveys all the information and pov's in the book. Because of this, the omniscient narrator can convey multiple character pov's in a scene and also provide information and observations outside of any character's pov and knowledge. This is particularly handy for the complicated political spy thrillers Le Carre writes. The third person omniscient format offers a great deal of variety -- you can set it up in any number of ways, from very little use of the omniscient narrator and multiple character viewpoints, to all omniscient narrator and no character viewpoints (camera obscura.) An sff example of this flexibility is Douglas Adam's bestselling Hitchhikers satirical sf series, which uses the omniscient format to do bits from the supposed Hitchiker's Guide.

So when you run into multiple character pov's in a scene, you are simply reading a novel written in the third person omniscient format. A brief list of some of the commonly used viewpoint formats:

1) First person (the I's have it)
2) Revolving first person (different first person pov characters in charge of different sections of text)
3) First person semi-omniscient (first person pov character acts sort of like an omniscient narrator but only on the basis of what other characters have told him or her later -- Stephen Dobyns, "The Church of Dead Girls")
4) First person omnsicient (first person pov character acts as an omniscient narrator)
5) Third person limited or tight (no omniscient narrator, no multiple character pov's, third person pronouns and verbs)
6) Third person omniscient (offers an omniscient narrator who can provide outside information and the opportunity to do multiple or group character pov's -- only one feature needs to be used to be considered an omniscient text.) Writers who use 3pomni include Tom Clancy, John Grisham, J.R.R. Tolkein, J.K. Rowling, Isaac Asimov, John Le Carre, etc.
7) Second person (similar to first person except "you" is used instead of "I" -- Stewart O'Nan's "A Prayer for the Dying")
8) Mixed format (usually a mix of first person sections or chapters with third person limited or omniscient sections or chapters)

So now you know the horizons are wide and if you want to try a story in third person omniscient, Le Carre isn't a bad guy to study.