Friday, 2 March 2012


About ten years ago, when I was still trying to get my first novel published, I received a surprise phone call from an editor at Orion. She liked my book, she said, but wasn't able to publish it. Would I like to come into her ofice and she'd explain why.
"You need to understand about viewpoint," she said, sitting me down at her desk which was piled high with books and manuscripts. "It's like this ..."
For the next ten minutes, she explained something which I hadn't thought about before. And when she'd finished, my eyes were open. Never again would I see my own writing - or anyone else's - in the same light.
I didn't realise in those days, that it was highly unusual for a high profile editor to take the time to explain a complex writing technique. And I am very grateful to her. Now I make it a staple building block both in my own novels (I've had eight published since that conversation) and also in my writing courses.
The very word 'viewpoint' tends to send shivers down would-be writers. But it doens't have to. Imagine you are standing in someone else's shoes. Anyone's. It could be the man next to you on the train who is reading your paper.
If you were writing a story from his point of view, you might say something like: 'John craned his neck to scan the headline. He knew it was rude - normally he hated it when someone tried to read his paper. But this was different. Surely the journalist had got it wrong?'
Hopefully, you will be seeing this scene as though you were John himself. I personally feel rather worried for him. Obviously, he has thrown good manners to one side because this story in the paper has a special significance for him.
However, if I described the scene from the point of view of the woman whose paper was being read, it might look something like this. 'Janey could feel herself seething! The man next to her was leaning so close that she could smell his breath. And it wasn't pleasant! "Excuse me," she said, turning to him. "Do you mind?"'
Now I'm in Janey's position. And so hopefully are you! That's because I've tried to write as though I'm in the her head. But if I ran those two paragraphs one after the other, the reader might feel confused. Why? Because in the first, we are being asked to see the world from John's point of view and in the second, from Janey's.
"The trick," explained the editor all those years ago, "is to stay in one character's head so the reader knows whose story they are following. If you want to change viewpoints, you need to do so by having a line break in the text or a row of stars or start another chapter.
And that's when the lights came on for me! That was the moment when I realised that my natural 'voice' was a multi-character viewpoint one. If I wrote a novel in which three or four main characters all had their own viewpoints, it would move the plot along by allowing me to get close to a wide cast.
I started - rather ambitiously - with seven characters all on the same route to school. My book was called The School Run and was a best seller. The first chapter was from Harriet's point of view. The second from Evie's and so on. I soon discovered that if you could find a setting which was a stage for lots of different characters, it allowed me to cover lots of different problems. And as we know, problems are great on the page because they lead to conflict, tension and eventually resolution.
Since then, multi-character viewpoints have become my trade mark. My latest book The Playgroup, written under my new pen name Janey Fraser (published by Arrow £6.99) has three main characters. The first is Gemma (chapter one). The second is Ed (chapter two). And the third is Nancy (chapter three). Then we go back to Gemma's world in chapter four. And so on.
The best way to understand how this works is to read novels that are written in this way and analyse them carefully. But if you want a taster, visit my website where you can read the first chapter free! Do let me know if you enjoy it. Meanwhile how about standing in someone else's pair of shoes? Just for practice ...


  1. Excellent description on how to display different POV's, and I'm so pleased you made the point that you also need to guard against 'head hopping'. There's nothing more irritating to a reader than feeling they are being forced to jump from one person's POV to another, and then to another, on every page, so eventually they don't know whose story they are supposed to be following, and who is a 'central' character, and who is not
    Maggie Kingsley

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  3. I loved this book, and coincidentally read it just after I'd had a conversation with my niece about POVs. So I was particularly aware of the multiple POVs here. It's a device I like, because it reminds me that there is always more than way of looking at things, in real life as well as in novels.

    But I'm a bit confused now. As I remember it (and I have just checked, because there's nothing worse than picking the wrong nits when you're nitpicking ... ) the first two chapters are written from Gemma's POV, the next two (3 and 4) are from Nancy's, and only in Chapter 5 do we get inside Joe's head. You said Ed, but I'm not sure that Joe's ex doesn't get her own POV, and of course the 'real' Ed Balls is far too busy in the House of Commons!

  4. I think this is an excellent lesson for all writers. It makes me wonder how often I have changed POV without considering the reader. I shall be more aware in future.