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SCENE IT! Working with Multiple Viewpoint Characters

Monday, March 18, 2013

When discussing the idea of “scenes,” the definition can become a little confusing/hazy. You see, there’s “scene” in the broad sense—it’s a particular action that happens in a story taking place in a finite time and specific location. But then there’s a narrower sense—and that’s when we have to take in account viewpoint characters.

“What I told you is true . . . from a certain point of view.”

When we work with multiple (two or more) viewpoint characters in limited POV writing, it means that we are showing the story from the viewpoint of a limited number of characters, and we stay inside ONE character’s viewpoint for the entirety of a scene. However, this does not mean that (after giving that character a substantial/meaningful amount of page space) we cannot switch to another character’s viewpoint within the same scene. Confused yet?

I guess to try to define it, there are two types of scenes we need to consider: story scenes and viewpoint scenes. Story scenes can also be defined as plot points. It’s the occurrence that is going on that moves the story forward. However, these story scenes can be broken down into more than one viewpoint scene if it better serves the structure of the story.

Story Scenes

If you are an outliner—or if you were to outline your story after you pants your way through to the end—you will (hopefully) discover that your story breaks into plot points—these are story scenes. They take place among a certain group of characters at a certain place at a certain time. They are finite and contained. Yes, they lead into more story scenes/plot points (or else they’re vignettes and not story scenes).

Think of story scenes as floors in a high-rise building. You cannot build the penthouse (your climax/ending) without first building all of the other floors to support it. Your story scenes are what give your plot its structure and build to the ending of the book.

Viewpoint Scenes

Sometimes, the floor of a building is wide open, with no walls to break it up. Most of the time, it’s going to be divided into different rooms. Each room has a function, but each room is still a part of the same floor. These are your viewpoint scenes.

Typically, scenes are written from the viewpoint of the character who has the most to gain or lose in a particular scene—or a character who has a lesson to learn or discovery to make. Conversely, you can show a viewpoint scene from one character’s POV when you don’t want to reveal the internal reaction/thoughts of another viewpoint character who has a lot to gain/lose from the scene but it needs to be concealed from the reader.

see also: Make POV Work for You: POV Begins with Character

While your story scenes give the overall plot its structure, your viewpoint scenes are what give it its aesthetics and pacing.

Let’s Build Our High-Rise

Think of our high-rise as a condo building. Because of the size and structure of the building, we can have a maximum of four condos on each level. (Four viewpoint characters.) Obviously, the more condos we have, the smaller they will be.

Each condo on each floor is going to follow standard guidelines determined by the structure of the building/floor, and as the designer, we’re going to follow the guidelines we’re given for designing them (craft guidelines, genre considerations, market/publisher expectations, etc.). But once the tenants move in, the aesthetics of each condo will change—paint color, furniture, wall hangings, window treatments, etc., will reflect the tastes and talents of the person living in that condo (character voice).

In our novels, each story scene (floor) may have room enough for a viewpoint scene (condo) from each of your main characters. This doesn’t mean you must have a viewpoint scene from each character in each story scene. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. With multiple POV characters, it’s going to be important to spread them out, to ensure than each one has his/her own set of conflicts (story scenes) to work through individually as well as with the group. This is what will give your viewpoint scenes diversity and keep your story from becoming a monotonous warren of same-size, same-color, same-design cubicles that no one wants to get stuck in.

Having Characters Make Scenes

One of the best parts of using multiple viewpoint characters in a book is the ability to use our viewpoint scenes to generate tension and pacing in the story. And one of the main ways we do this is by employing the cutaway.

We’ve discussed before how our scenes should end with the character making backward progress or with a “disaster” (something that knocks the viewpoint character off the track of achieving his/her goal)—and that it’s important to end a scene at a point at which the reader needs to know what happens next. And with multiple viewpoint characters, we can enhance this by cutting away to another character’s viewpoint. This can be within the same story scene or switching over to a different story scene (a subplot or parallel plot happening at the same time but different location) in order to increase the tension of having that first scene as yet unresolved.

We must be careful with cutaways, though, that we don’t allow the intervening scene to last too long, though, or else we forget what was happening with the previous character.

This is one of the main reasons I gave up on reading the second Game of Thrones book. Each chapter was a story scene from one viewpoint character’s POV. Unfortunately, with the number of viewpoint characters and each chapter ending being a cutaway, it took far too long to get back to the “cliffhanger” of what had happened eight or nine characters ago, and I found myself constantly having to turn back to that character’s previous scene to remember where they’d been and what they’d been doing—and that’s much harder on a Kindle than in a physical book. So when you employ the cutaway technique, don’t stay away from that “dangling” character too long, or you lose the tension you created with it in the first place.

What lingering questions do you have about story scenes vs. viewpoint scenes and how to employ them?

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