Tonight a fellow on a Facebook writers’ group suggested I download a free sample of his book. So I did. I’m not going to mention his name, nor offer a critique of his story, which was so poorly written that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.
The first thing that alerted me to expect problems (well, actually it was the second or third thing) was an abrupt viewpoint shift. We were only a few paragraphs into the first scene, a scene of a dramatic confrontation, and suddenly we were offloaded from Bob Smith’s viewpoint to Carol Jones’s. (The names have been changed to protect the guilty.)
Why is a viewpoint shift a bad thing?
It’s a bad thing because the reader would like to become immersed in the story. The fullest immersion happens when the reader is invited, as it were, to play the role of one particular character — to see an entire scene through that character’s eyes, to feel that character’s emotions, to get a glimpse of what drives that character.
When the viewpoint jumps to a new character, the reader is yanked up by the roots and plopped down somewhere else. It’s disorienting. Even if it’s not confusing to the reader — even if the reader can see clearly that he is now in Carol Jones’s head — it’s not satisfying emotionally.
This is not to say that some great writers haven’t employed shifting viewpoint in some of their stories. But shifting the viewpoint in the middle of a scene requires even more mastery of technique than sticking with a single viewpoint. If you’re tempted to shift viewpoint out of laziness — or, worse, if you don’t even know you’re doing it — you’re in trouble.
The standard practice, these days, is to shift to a new viewpoint character only at a scene break. A scene/viewpoint break is customarily indicated in the manuscript by leaving a blank line.
Staying with a single character and really telling us what that character is thinking, feeling, and observing — that’s not easy to do, not easy at all. And until you’ve mastered how the pawns move, you’re well advised not to start the knights hopping around the board.