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Monday, April 16, 2018

Minor Viewpoint Errors

I've covered point of view and viewpoint penetration before on my blog, but I wanted to do a simple post about common viewpoint errors because they are something I see a lot from new writers.

Let's build from the ground up.

The common "rule" these days (or decades) is that you should really only be in one viewpoint character's head at a time. This means that if I'm writing from Rosie's viewpoint in the opening scene, that I stay in her viewpoint for the entire scene, chapter, or in many cases, book. She is the viewpoint character, and therefore, everything we see and experience should be what she sees and experiences, and if it deviates, it's considered a viewpoint error.

Here is an example.

Rosie scraped frost from her windshield in the freezing winter air. She felt as if her very eyeballs would freeze. Can't wait for spring, she thought. She should have come out sooner and started her car, melt all the frost off so she wouldn't be late.

"Hey Rosie!" It was Ms. Trumble, Rosie's talkative neighbor.

Rosie pretended not to hear.

Ms. Trumble came closer, pulling her coat tight around her. She could feel the icy wind against her neck and hoped she wouldn't catch a cold like Rosie had last month.

"Hey," Rosie said halfheartedly. She continued to scrape.

Yup, there it is. A line about what Ms. Trumble is thinking and feeling. If we are truly in Rosie's viewpoint, we shouldn't know exactly what Ms. Trumble is thinking and feeling, because Rosie doesn't. Everything should be from Rosie's point of view.

So the error?

Ms. Trumble came closer, pulling her coat tight around her. She could feel the icy wind against her neck and hoped she wouldn't catch a cold like Rosie had last month.

(Note: It is possible to have the viewpoint character interpret or guess at another character's feelings and thoughts based on body language and how well they know that person, which is slightly different than this example.)

Viewpoint errors can be sneakier than this. Remember how I talked about blocking a few weeks ago? If the viewpoint character can't see something visually from the angle he is standing and looking, it can't be on the page. So here is another error.

Mack sat in his cubicle. He hated working customer service, but he'd needed a quick job, so here he was, listening to stupid people day after day, phone call after phone call.

"Mack!" Stephanie popped her head around his cubicle wall.

Mack's heart skipped a beat.

Stephanie had worked adjacent to him for weeks, but they hardly talked.

Her phone went off. She looked back at her desk where her phone vibrated next to her mouse.

If Mack is sitting in his cubicle, and Stephanie's is right next to him, he can't see her desk to know that her phone is next to the mouse. It's a viewpoint error.

But perhaps the most common viewpoint error I see has to do with how the writer references the actual viewpoint character. For example:

When done scraping enough frost off, Rosie put her hands in her pockets. Her blue eyes looked into Ms. Trumble's brown ones.

Rosie can't see her own eyes. So using "blue" is considered a viewpoint error. You have to figure out how to get that information to the reader in a different way. At least weave it in a way where it would be natural that Rosie would have a passing thought about the color of her eyes.

But it can get even sneakier.

"That Michael fellow ask you to marry him yet?" Ms. Trumble asked.

Rosie reddened.

Rosie can't see herself blush. So that's a viewpoint error.

She can, however, feel herself flush.

"That Michael fellow ask you to marry him yet?" Ms. Trumble asked.

Rosie's cheeks went warm.

See? Because we are in the scene as if we are Rosie, we can feel what she feels, but we can't see our own face (Rosie's).

If you think this sounds too nit-picky, trust me, it's real, and professionals are aware of it.

Must you always write that consciously? Well, yes . . . if you want to write professionally. . . . and even if you want to break the rule, you need to be conscious enough to know where and why you are breaking it.

Minor viewpoint errors can be difficult to learn how to see, after all, nothing is grammatically wrong with the sentences. But once you learn them, you can't unsee them.

If you are new to this concept, you might be wondering what the point is and if it really matters that we said "Rosie reddened." The idea is that we want the audience to be fully immersed in the story, to feel as if they are the main character and that they identify with the main character. Viewpoint errors take away from that. Other than that, they are simply considered amateur.

I'm not as stingy about this stuff as some others are, but the reality is, if you aren't following this rule, I need to be able to see why. If you are serious about writing, this is something that needs to be mastered if you are writing in first-person or third-person.

If you are writing in straight-up omniscient, where the narrator is taking us into people's thoughts and minds left and right in a scene, that's different. But again, it's so unpopular in the modern day and age that many people will still chastise you for it. I'm not against omniscient, but just be aware that if you are going to write that way, it needs to be intentional, and you will probably get flack for it even when you do it right. If that's the way you feel you need to write a story, personally, I'm open to that.

But if you are writing in first-person or third-person, most of the time, you should be in one viewpoint at a time.

These days, many people argue that you can only switch viewpoint characters at the start of a new scene or chapter. I don't necessarily agree with that. I think it's possible to switch mid-scene and be fine, as long as you are smart about it, and remember to only be in one viewpoint at a time. Unless you really know what you are doing and have established it at the beginning of the story, 99% of the time you shouldn't be head-hopping--jumping from one viewpoint to another to another and back again. One viewpoint character at a time.

I hope this short post cleared some things up for you, if you've ever been criticized of viewpoint errors. Otherwise, I hope it was a nice refresher, or reference to send others to.


  1. Great post. I'm so guilty of the cheeks reddening bit, as you've so kindly caught. The distinction is so subtle but important. I also draw comments of POV shifts when my POV character comments (internally) about another character's body language. The POV assumes he or she knows what another character is communicating or feeling or thinking the way I assume these things about others in the real world. It can be tricky to write and come across as deep POV versus narration, and I think that is the key for the reader. Great stuff. Thanks for posting!

    1. Hi Ryan,

      Yes, I probably should have pointed out that you can have your POV character interpret another character's thoughts and feelings based on their body language and how well they know that person, etc. I do that too, and it works great sometimes, but it can be tricky. Thanks!


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