I recently read a dual-viewpoint story that I nearly put down right in the middle, even though I’d been thoroughly enjoying it up until that point, because of the way the author handled the viewpoints. Specifically, the question of which viewpoint to use to tell the reader important information and events.
The events in question went something like this: The main viewpoint character, Ann, was laid up in the hospital after assorted adventures. The second viewpoint character, George, with whom she was developing a romantic relationship, had to go off to a family event for the weekend. As a reader might expect from this sort of book, the family event ended up in a shootout in which George was wounded, though not seriously. When Ann finds out what has happened, she is seriously upset by the risks George took and chews him out fairly comprehensively.
The problem the writer faced was how to handle the events of the shootout. George is there; George is already a viewpoint character; obviously, the reader ought to see the scene through George’s eyes, right? But there were some problems with this alternative: first, George had already had three scenes in a row, which was already unbalancing the viewpoints. Giving him another big scene (possibly two or three, in order to cover the lead-up to the fight, the fight, and the aftermath) would seriously disrupt the way the viewpoint alternation worked. Second, the romance between Ann and George was at a critical stage; showing Ann’s emotional reactions to George’s actions and to him being in jeopardy would move things along nicely, but to do that in detail would take a blow-by-blow description of the fight. That would leave the story with two detailed descriptions, one from George as it happened and one later when the story is told to Ann. Third…well, this one is conjecture based on the rest of the book, but I definitely got the impression that the author wasn’t comfortable writing fight scenes, and would take any halfway decent excuse to avoid writing one.
So the author chose not to show the actual fight from George’s viewpoint. But he still gave the reader two versions of the fight, both as-told-to Ann. The first is when non-viewpoint-character Sam gives Ann an abbreviated version that makes it sound like a scuffle instead of a firefight – “We had a bit of trouble at the picnic, but everybody got away and we got some important new information, let me tell you about that part.” The second is when George arrives in Ann’s hospital room with his arm in a sling, so that she realizes that the “bit of trouble” was a lot more serious than Sam led her to believe. She then pries a blow-by-blow description out of George, and since it’s her viewpoint, the reader gets all her emotional reactions first-hand.
This solves the viewpoint-balance problem, allows the author to avoid writing a scene he isn’t comfortable with, and moves the romantic subplot forward as well as complicating it nicely – all good things. But I still put the book down, because I felt cheated. The firefight was a major plot event on several levels, and George was there. I didn’t want to hear him talking about it later. I wanted to see it when he was in the middle of it.
Which led me to start thinking about how the author could have handled this situation to solve most of his problems and still do the fight scene from George’s viewpoint. (The one “problem” that this cannot solve is “the author doesn’t want to write a fight scene; he doesn’t like writing fight scenes.” Sometimes you just have to suck it up and write the annoying scene you don’t want to write.)
There are a couple of different possibilities. The first and simplest would be to start in the hospital with Ann grilling George about the fight, then drop into a short flashback in George’s viewpoint to show what actually happened. This solves both the viewpoint-balance problem and the too-much-repetition problem, but it wouldn’t work in every story or with every set of characters. It’d work best where George’s account is significantly different from actual events, whether he’s downplaying or exaggerating his part in the fight, and the author wants to point up this aspect of George’s character.
Another obvious solution would be to put in George’s scenes at the firefight and write a couple of new scenes with Ann as viewpoint to alternate with them (“Meanwhile, back at the hospital…”). This is obvious and simple to say, but hard to do, because you have to come up with something to happen at the hospital that is of equal emotional weight and plot-importance with George’s new fight scene(s), and not only will this be hard to come up with, it will almost certainly affect the plot rolling forward.
Once the firefight scenes are in place, George’s retelling to Ann can be much less detailed, or even partly summarized while still giving Ann’s important emotional reactions (which become the primary focus of that scene). (“Ann listened impatiently as George described the beginning of the picnic and the arrival of the black limousine. ‘I knew it was the villain, so I grabbed Hetty, and – ‘ ‘Wait a minute, you said Hetty was playing in the fountain. You ran halfway across the park with the bad guys shooting at you?!?’ She didn’t know whether to shake him or hug him.”) One can also get a fair amount of characterization out of the way George chooses to describe the events, especially if his description differs from what the reader has already seen.
The keys to making the two-versions-of-the-same-event thing work are to do different things in each version. The first version, where we see the firefight through George’s eyes, is mainly about the action – who is where, who does what, who hits whom. In the second scene, where we see through Ann’s eyes as she hears about the firefight, the details of who and what and who shoots/hits whom are of secondary importance; they’re the vehicle that provokes Ann’s emotional reactions and realization that she cares more about George than she was pretending. If the author is careful with the focus, the two scenes can be sufficiently different to remain interesting, even though they’re covering much of the same event.
The way the author did it – trying to do both a detailed report of George’s action and getting all Ann’s emotional reactions in, in the same scene – would have worked fine if 1) the firefight scene hadn’t been as plot-critical as it was, and 2) the author hadn’t already ducked a couple of other fight scenes and given me the impression he didn’t want to write one. There are ways to leave out critical information, scenes, and even major chunks of plot, and still allow the book to work, but they require that the author know exactly what he/she is doing and have a much better reason for leaving stuff out than “I don’t want to write that bit.”