The Intruder

Point-of-view characters tend to try to overstep their boundaries. It's your job to keep them in check.
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Good writing streams from beginning to end without reminding readers of your construction. But both beginners and seasoned writers sometimes sabotage that flow when they allow in a writer's nemesis—The Viewpoint Intruder.

When you constantly reinsert the point-of-view character into the narrative, you make readers feel as if they keep going back to "Start." Read the following two examples of the same scene to see what I mean:

Sally sits at a table in the restaurant, hoping her boyfriend, Jeremy, won't be late again. She notices the waiter looks tired. She turns to see a pair of Japanese men talking quietly in a booth near the corner. She watches as a baby in a high chair flings a spoonful of rice onto the carpet and sees the waiter sigh.

Sally sits at a table in the restaurant, hoping her boyfriend, Jeremy, won't be late again. The waiter looks tired. A pair of Japanese men talk quietly in a booth near the corner. A baby in a high chair flings a spoonful of rice onto the carpet, and the waiter sighs.

When you allow viewpoint intrusion—letting Sally see the waiter and notice the baby—you haven't moved the reader into the story; you've diverted the narrative and shown the reader that someone is writing. Remember, it's understood that once you're in a character's viewpoint, you stay there until the end of the scene, and there's no need to place her in every sentence. With that in mind, here's how to find and eliminate The Viewpoint Intruder.

TAKING NOTICE

The word that opens the door to viewpoint intrusion most often is "noticed." Recently I read a student manuscript that said:

The others were laughing and talking as they sat down at the table. As Kirk reached across the table for the bread, he noticed his hands. His fingers were long and brown, and he noticed how the light gleamed on his wedding ring.

The writer has inserted not one, but two intrusive "notices." He noticed his hands and noticed the gleam on his wedding ring. Was that the first time in his life Kirk realized he had hands? The scene would be smoother if she wrote it more like this:

Kirk reached across the table for the bread. His fingers were long and brown, and light gleamed on his wedding ring.

The Viewpoint Intruder doesn't attack only fiction. Here's another example, this one from an essay:

I looked over at Jenny propped up on the hospital bed. I could see her bright smile, but I knew she was in pain.

"I looked" and "I could see" are both unnecessary intrusions (and we might even include "I knew"). The point-of-view character had been in the hospital room for some time, thinking about Jenny's circumstances. So all she needed was, "Jenny was propped up in the bed. She was smiling, but I knew she was in pain." Or even, "Jenny was propped up in the bed, smiling in spite of her pain."

SENSORY OVERLOAD

When you write about sensory impressions, the Intruder might try to take over the text. Look at this example:

Rob opened the door. He could smell fried chicken and onions, and he heard the butter crackling in the skillet. His mouth watered from hunger.

Rob's senses are great in the narrative, but you can use them better by implying, not reminding us of, his presence until you need it:

Rob opened the door. The aroma of fried chicken crackling in the skillet with onion slices made his mouth water.

This way you begin and end with Rob, but you take him out of the description.

MEMORY LANE

When writers allow their characters to remember the past, Viewpoint Intruders can run rampant. To catch them, be on the lookout for adverbial phrases. For example: "As I stopped in front of the old house, my mind reeled back to how hard it rained the day Jim shot me." That passage would be stronger as, "I stopped in front of the old house. Rain had fallen in torrents on the day Jim shot me." This passage has more zip and we don't notice the author creeping around in the bushes near the old house.

Avoid the phrase "I remember" whenever possible:

I remember that when I was five, I used to hide from my father in the linen closet. I crawled under an old lavender quilt on the floor, and I could hear his angry footsteps.

This passage has some good elements in it. But if you take out "I remember," you have a stronger scene:

When I was five, I used to hide under an old lavender quilt in the linen closet, listening to my father's angry footsteps.

We don't have to see inside her head with every move or sound.

IT DOESN'T STOP HERE

Don't assume you ever outgrow the tendency to intrude. The first draft of my 20th book, Beyond Words, was full of intrusions:

I took a break at a retreat in northern Idaho. I walked outside and sat on a log, where I watched a fat honeybee roving around a big blue pasqueflower. I could see her tasting its petals, and I heard her buzzing around the opening. As I watched, she drew back and literally hurled herself at the flower's center.

After recognizing the intrusions, I edited it down. The final copy read:

During an afternoon break at a retreat in northern Idaho, I sat on a log and watched a fat honeybee roving around a big blue pasqueflower. She tasted its petals, snuffled at the opening, and then drew back and hurled herself at the flower's center.

That second version uses stronger verbs, and I've also eliminated my first-person viewpoint intrusions.

You may continue to write with Viewpoint Intruders, but with practice, you'll be able to weed them out. Once the "notices" and "remembers" are gone, you—and readers—can focus on your story.

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