First, an announcement of sorts: my webmaster has gotten the handout I use on viewpoint put up on my web page. It’s accessible through the “links” page, or directly from here.
That handout covers some (not all) of the types of viewpoint – first person, epistolary, stream-of-consciousness, second person, tight-third person, camera eye, etc. Plus multiple viewpoint, which I consider a structure, rather than a type of viewpoint, but which there’s so much confusion about that I felt I needed to include it.
One of the things I did not include is something I ran across years ago in a how-to-write book that I think raised some interesting points, while also totally missing the boat when it came to what was actually going on.
The author was discussing uncommon viewpoints, starting with second person (“you do this”) and stream-of-consciousness, both of which were well and good. But then he got into what he called “combined viewpoints,” things he said were mixtures of first-person and second- or third-person, and I wanted to throw the book across the room.
Because “I thought of you” is not a combination of two viewpoints (as the author claimed); it’s solidly first-person. It does something unusual in fiction by dragging the reader directly into the story as the character “you,” but “you” is not a second viewpoint, any more than John would be if the sentence were “I thought of John.” The story is presented by the “I” character; that’s whose eyes it’s seen through, and no matter how convoluted and lovely the sentences addressed to “you,” “you” never becomes the viewpoint.
The second example, which was supposed to be a combination of first- and third-person, was muddled enough that I couldn’t tell whether what he had was a first-person narrator telling a story (“Let me tell you what happened. Bob walked up to the house…”) or whether it was a true mid-story change in viewpoint type (“I fell asleep. Jenny slept until midnight…” where “I” and “Jenny” are the same character). Even if it was the latter, I still wouldn’t call it a combined viewpoint, though, because the types of viewpoint aren’t ever truly combined. They come one after the other; it’s a shift, not a combination.
But the whole thing has been nagging at me for years, and I finally figured out that it’s because some stories do change viewpoint type and/or viewpoint character one or more times in mid-story. These aren’t combined viewpoints, though, any more than stacking two Lego blocks together makes them somehow a new, single Lego block. They’re stuck together as a unit, which is useful, but they’re still the same two blocks you started with. What these stories do is nesting viewpoints, one inside another, for different parts of the story.
Foremost among the viewpoint-shifting techniques is the frame story, which has largely gone out of style these days. In a frame story, the author starts with one viewpoint character, who at some point meets another character who tells the original POV character the main story. Frequently, there’s a shift in viewpoint type when the storytelling starts; if the frame was in third-person, the body of the story will be in first-person, for instance. This helps set off the “frame” part of the tale from the rest of the story.
But there are also tales-within-tales; the Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights Entertainment) is probably the best known and most complex of these, but you see the same sort of character-telling-a-story-to-other-characters in many other novels. This can range from the detective’s summing-up at the end of a murder mystery to one character bringing the others up to speed on a critical incident they haven’t heard about to someone reading a book or newspaper clipping to a character telling bedtime stories. Sometimes, the viewpoint and/or voice of the tale-within-the-tale is the same as that of the main story; sometimes it’s not.
There are also times when the writer wants to shift the viewpoint type just slightly – from a standard first-person to epistolary when the POV character writes a letter, or from standard first to something closer to stream-of-consciousness for an action scene. Usually, the reason is to show the reader exactly what was said in the letter, or provide more of a feel for the internal chaos the POV character is going through in a fight.
Multiple-viewpoint is another angle of approach. While the most common type of multiple-viewpoint uses an ensemble cast of viewpoint characters, one per scene, all in tight-third-person or camera-eye third-person, it is equally possible to give one or more characters a different viewpoint type, so that the main character’s scenes are all in tight-third, the sidekick’s viewpoint is a series of letters to his sister, the love interest’s viewpoint is in first-person, etc. This has to be handled with care, or it gets confusing, but done right, it can be extremely effective.
Once in a while, I’ve run across a story where the author either couldn’t make up his/her mind whether to write in first-person or tight-third, or else started it one way and switched to the other somewhere during the writing process…and missed a line or two in the middle of the story somewhere, so that you have “He swung the sword” in the middle of a first-person narrative, or “I just couldn’t do it” in the middle of a tight-third one. This always jars me right out of the story, because it’s a mistake, and an obvious one at that.
On the other hand, I’ve run across one or two stories where the author deliberately shifted viewpoint type in mid-story, and made it work. Every time, they’ve done it by including some sort of transition, making it obvious that the change was deliberate and easing the reader quickly into the new viewpoint. Again, this is something that has to be handled carefully to avoid confusion.