How to Write Best Selling Fiction: Entry Four

Continuing with Dean Koontz’s, How to Write Best Selling Fiction…

While Koontz’s discussion of viewpoint takes up only part of his chapter on style, I realized I could not give the subject adequate treatment except via a dedicated post. It’s because of the way that he defines omniscient viewpoint. Nothing he says is wrong, but the way the terms are used has changed and I wanted to do a more in-depth exploration of the subject. If you’re not a writer, this may not be helpful to you in terms of craft, but it may help you understand why that book that someone was so keen on didn’t resonate with you even though it had all the markings of being your thing.

I’ve written about viewpoint before, and at length, not only because I find the subject itself facsinating, but because I think it’s a key component of immersion and a difficult subject to master. It is one of the reasons I dread reading slush or first drafts. It is the number one reason I set a book down and walk away from it, never to pick it up again. Perhaps a scant two percent of books with viewpoint flaws (meaning the mixing and misuse of them) engage me enough on other levels to keep me reading to the end. They are the exception to the rule. Remember, just because [Insert Famous Writer of Your Choice] can get away with it, doesn’t mean your unproven behind can.

I’ve observed, and others have confirmed, that narrative styles/techniques have changed in the last four decades, and certainly since the golden age of science fiction. Some genres are more hospitable to newer narrative viewpoint choices, such as multiple first person present tense, i.e. erotica or YA (young adult) or NA (new adult). “Literary” is definitely more open to choices such as second person and/or future tense. And if you’re writing how-to books or blog posts, then second person is a deliberate and appropriate choice.

I think a lot of confusion about viewpoint stems from the fact that there is no standard terminology. Unlike physics where “work” has a standard definition (work equals force times distance), viewpoint terminology seems to be rather fluid. In more discussions than I care to count, it’s been obvious that when one person uses the term “third person limited” they mean something completely different than another person using the same term.

Koontz starts out by discussing modified omniscient, which is explained as a technique where the author may write one scene from the protagonist’s viewpoint and another from the antagonist’s and another from a third character’s. These multiple viewpoints may be used in whatever order the plot requires. Today, this would be called “multiple third person” not modified omniscient. And the reason I can say that with a high degree of confidence is because Koontz emphatically  (and correctly) states:

It is never permissible to switch points of view from one character to another within a single scene. (p. 204)

Today, many writers would argue that omniscient viewpoint allows them to switch point-of-view multiple times within a scene, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. In fact, when challenged they can present you with reams of works that do just that. They are not wrong. Many stories are written in that manner and when the author’s presence is strong and present throughout, the technique works. But when done badly, it doesn’t. And when it’s done poorly, you have this…

Dropping into the minds of both characters in a single scene is jarring and it shatters the illusion of reality [of the story]. (p. 205)

…when the author dances through several points of view in a single scene, the result is confusion and chaos. (p. 205)

Koontz’s section on “modified omniscient” is a worthwhile read because it goes into the many advantages of it. It has been so successful that at the time he wrote this (1981) it comprised three-quarters of all successful mainstream stories. And he’ll tell you why that is. I’m not sure where that number stands today, but I have read similar statements, i.e. that the most used narrative choice is multiple third-person (what Koontz calls modified omniscient.)

Next, he delves into “pure” omniscient, a narrative style where the writer addresses his comments to the reader. We would call this, breaking the fourth wall. On page 203, he states:

Ninety-nine percent of the novelists who use the pure omniscient viewpoint have passed into total obscurity; their work is now unreadable.

How unreadable? Well, apparently, if they exist at all, modern versions of their work are edited or abridged to eliminate this “stylistic ineptitude.”

Next, Koontz tackles third person limited, where the word “limited” refers to the use of ONE third-person narrator throughout the story (limited in this case does not refer to the other way it’s used, i.e. narrative distance). The main advantage of this choice is that it focuses attention on the protagonist at all times. Koontz sees it as suitable for genre/category fiction, but NOT for a mainstream audience.

First person is defined as a narrative where the hero tells his own story and is deemed as the best choice only if your lead is “fresh, unstereotyped, and individual.” If your intent is to color the story with the hero’s opinion of the events then this is an ideal choice.

Speaking for myself, I think this is where many first person novels fail: they are devoid of opinion and the needed color. And I think there are two reasons why first person fails. Number one is because writers either don’t understand what makes first person a good choice, but use it by some default or for the wrong reason. Number two is that they are afraid to inject color and opinion because of political correctness. Better to have a hollow husk of a character than be accused of any “-ism” because we live in a world where far too many idiots (and that is exactly what they are) attribute the opinions and attitudes of a character to the author himself.

While the discussions of third- and first-person narrative technique are good, they are very brief. If you are interested in better supplements specific to that subject, I highly recommend Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) and Nancy Kress’s Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Write Great Fiction). Both of these references uses different definitions of omniscient, so if this is your first exposure to the technicalities of narrative viewpoint, please make sure you understand which definition is being used.

This highly relevant chapter on style closes with a very memorable quote that I hope all of you will take to heart.

The only thing you really have to sell is your style. All the stories have been told. There are no new plots. (p.207)

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