Touching Your Audience Deeply through Viewpoint

My friend James Dashner has his movie The Scorch Trials out this week, and the audiences are loving it overall, but I suspect that if you listen in to the viewers as they come out of the theatre, you will hear the comment over and over, “The book was better.”

I was just talking a few minutes ago to a friend of Christopher Paolini, whose novel Eragon was made into a movie, and some fans of the books were so disappointed in the film adaptation, that they actually sent death threats to the author. Sorry folks, but in this case, poor Christopher didn’t have any control in making the movie. Maybe there will be a better adaptation in a couple years.

There’s a huge reason why the book is better, or should always be better. The reason is that the book can transport you into the story better. But it only works if you do it right.

When you write a story, for each scene you need to choose your viewpoint character. Often this is the protagonist. Let’s call him Brad. As an author, you use your protagonist as something like a camera. You show the reader the world through Brad’s eyes, just as if he were a camera. You let us hear the world through Brad’s ears, just as if he were a camera.

But Brad is more than a camera. You show us through internal dialog what Brad is thinking. Now, a voiceover can do that on film, but the technique is not often used. You can also let us smell the world and feel the world—two things that cameras can’t do. You can let us know what Brad is feeling—something that the camera might reveal but only if the actor and the director are talented enough to catch it. You can report on Brad’s motions, give information on what it feels like to jump or run—things that cameras can’t do. You can report on variations in temperature or the texture of surfaces.

In fact, if you think about it, a novel allows you to transport Brad in several ways that a camera can’t, and that tends to make your book a better medium for storytelling than a film.

Here’s the thing. Readers subconsciously recognize the lack. Have you ever gone to the dentist and had your mouth numbed with Novocaine, then gone out to eat afterward? Even the best meal doesn’t satisfy your taste buds when they’re out of commission.

A film doesn’t normally convey the sense of smell, taste, touch, kinetic motion, or the character’s thoughts. Film can be poor at revealing a character’s interior emotions and intent. In other words, watching a film is like being anesthetized. The reader is cut off from so many senses, that really, it’s surprising that viewers get much from it at all.

But the thing that I want to point out is that the book as a medium for storytelling only works if you put it to use. For example, I’ve read a lot of stories where the writer won’t even commit to a viewpoint character. The writer won’t show us the character’s thoughts and feelings, their internal hopes and fears.

Many authors, of course, habitually forget to use certain tools. For example, I see authors who never use the sense of smell, or of hearing. Most authors are great at showing the reader things, but many don’t think about using the sense of touch. Once again, the reader is figuratively anesthetized—cut off from one or more of the senses.

When this happens, the story may still be enjoyable, but the reader feels a subtle lack.

Interestingly, there are a number of mistakes that authors make that exacerbate this problem. I mentioned that if you don’t commit to a viewpoint character when you write a scene, that it can be a problem. It may be that when you’re starting a scene, no one in the story is really going to be important later on, so the author sort of skims over the scene.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery, and a pair of young lovers in a park discover a body. You decide to tell the scene from the point of view of Lola. But Lola won’t be appearing anywhere else in the novel. So you don’t want to create a past for her. You don’t want to get too deeply into her horny little thoughts. So what do you do? You probably just skim. You don’t give her a past or a future. You don’t delve deeply into her thoughts. You might forget to talk about how cold the autumn is, evoking touch. And so the reader wanders through the scene in an anesthetized condition. That’s a mistake. As a writer, you need to round out the scene, create a real character, give us the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, movement, emotions, and thoughts of Lola.

But writers make other mistakes, too. For example, very often the writer wants to hide information. Let’s say that Lola is the killer. She is really leading her lover to the spot where she made her last kill in the hopes that she can get her boyfriend sexually aroused. (I know, she’s a freak.) Okay, if we show that scene from her point of view and we’re hiding that information, then we have to work hard to deceive the reader. We have to hide her thoughts and her emotions. In effect, we have to back off and write the scene as if we were just showing it from the point of view of a camera. That’s weak. The reader will feel it. When a writer tries to hide information by withholding a character’s thoughts and emotions, I always notice. I think to myself, “Aha, here’s the killer.”

Just remember, as a writer, your job is to transport a reader into your world and into your characters so that the reader can become fully engaged. Whenever you forget to report a bit of information or choose to withhold details, the reader will notice at some level.

I was thinking about The Unhappening of Genesis Lee by Shallee McArthur the other day. It really is a wonderful book and I thought I’d give it a little shout out. If you haven’t already read it, you should pick it up. Find it on Amazon.

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