Advanced Fiction Writing Blog

What Are The Rules on Mixing Viewpoints?

Can you write a novel mixing first-person and third-person viewpoints? Is that too stupid for words? How do you decide?

Dezaree posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’m trying to write a book with my main character being seen through first person, and my second main character from third person. I separate them distinctly in the book and when they are together the story stays in my main characters first person. Can This Work? I tried writing it with them both in first person and without the second main character being separated that way. Both ways made me feel like it was either too confusing or missing to much information. So I want to write this book from two different points of view.

Also while I call her my second main character I really only want my readers to connect with the Main character.

If you don’t fully understand what I mean email me and I will try to better explain.

Randy sez: This is a good question that I’ve heard several times over the years. Before I can answer it, we’ll need to clarify some terms.

What is a “Main Character?”

When we talk about the “main character” of a novel, we mean that there is one single character who is most important within the story. The novel is this character’s story. The Story Question for the novel is a question about whether this particular character will succeed or fail.

Do you have to have a main character? No, of course not. Some novels don’t have a main character. You can write a novel with several characters that are all important, without any of them being the main character. But I don’t recommend that for beginning writers, because it’s hard enough to make your reader care about your story when you HAVE a main character. It’s much harder when you don’t. That’s my advice—follow it or don’t follow it, as you like.

What is a “Viewpoint Character?”

What Dezaree is talking about here is having two “viewpoint characters.” This is a common strategy.

What’s a viewpoint character? This is explained in great detail in Chapter 7 of my book Writing Fiction for Dummies. I’ll summarize it here briefly. When you put your reader inside the skin of a character for a scene, that character is called the viewpoint character for that scene. The reader sees what the character sees, hears what the character hears, smells what she smells, tastes that she tastes, feels what she feels, and thinks what she thinks.

The viewpoint character is also known as the “point-of-view character” or the “POV character.” These terms all mean the same thing.

Notice that you can have many viewpoint characters in a novel. You can also have none. You can switch viewpoint characters within a scene (this is called “head-hopping” and most writing teachers frown on it.)

Your viewpoint character is not necessarily the main character of your novel. For example, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock is the main character, but Watson is usually the viewpoint character, with only a few exceptions.

What is “Point of View?”

Now we need to clarify a related term, which is “point of view” and is often just called “viewpoint.” The viewpoint character can be shown in various ways, each of which is called a “point of view:”

  • First-person point of view:  “I walked to the store and shot a space alien.”
  • Third-person point of view:  “Luke walked to the store and shot a space alien.”
  • Second-person point of view:  “You walked to the store and shot a space alien.”

Third person is the most common viewpoint, and first person is the second most common (in most categories). Second person is rare in fiction, although it’s been done. Obviously it’s very common in user manuals.

The Question: Is Mixing Viewpoints OK?

So now we can clarify Dezaree’s question a bit: Is it OK to have a novel with two POV characters, using a different viewpoint for each: first-person for the main character of the novel, and third-person for the other viewpoint character?

The Short Answer

The short answer is “yes it’s OK.” As an example, Diana Gabaldon did exactly this in her novel Dragonfly in Amber. It worked great.

The Long Answer

The long answer is that you can do anything you want in a novel, as long as it works. What do we mean that it “works?” A little review is in order.

I have always taught that the reason readers read is to have a Powerful Emotional Experience. Different categories will deliver different kinds of emotive experiences, obviously. A romance novel is punching different emotive buttons than a horror novel or science fiction or a murder mystery.

You, the author, get to decide what emotive experience you want to give your reader.

Your reader gets to decide what emotive experience she’s looking for in a book.

If a reader is looking for the kind of emotive experience that you’re trying to deliver, then that reader is in your Target Audience. Your book is designed for her. That’s all great, except …

Except that trying to deliver an emotional experience and actually delivering it are two different things.

When I say that a novel “works,” I mean that it’s actually delivering the Powerful Emotional Experience that its author intended.

I believe that all issues of craft in fiction ultimately come down to this: does it “work?” Does it deliver emotively?

So while I think it’s perfectly fine to mix first-person and third-person POV characters in a novel, the larger question is whether you can deliver the emotive goods using both techniques. Writing first-person fiction is slightly different from writing third-person fiction. If you can’t do both of them well, then mixing them is going to be a problem. But if you can, then it’s not a problem.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

More Than Mere Dialogue

So you’re writing a novel and you want your dialogue to be more than mere dialogue. You want actions. You want thoughts. You want the scene to feel natural. How do you do that?

Andrew posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have been writing for a few months, and I am still in the beginning stages of my hobby. I try to integrate actions, gestures, and thoughts with my dialogue, but I am having a great deal of difficulty. I normally have to look at Books I read and copy ideas from there. Is there an easy way to find list of different ideas or better yet examples of this kind of information? If I actually knew the technical term for what I was asking for it would be a big help too. Thanks!

Randy sez: Good question, Andrew. It’s not a bad idea to read books and see how they’ve done it. That’s a great way to learn things, because it’s fun to read fiction. What I’ll do here is to summarize all the core ideas for showing your story. Take these ideas and see how your favorite authors put them into practice.

Let’s remember what our goal is in writing fiction: We want to create a movie in our reader’s head. We want to “show” the reader our story, not merely “tell” the story.

That wasn’t the goal of writers 150 years ago. But we’re competing with movies, so that’s our goal.

First, you asked for the right terminology. Here are the terms I use, which are fairly standard. You have five tools for “showing” your reader your story:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Interior Monologue
  • Interior Emotion
  • Sensory Description

Yes, there are other tools you can use, such as Narrative Summary or Exposition. There’s a place for these in every novel, but these are called “telling” your story, rather than “showing” your story, and generally it’s a good idea to use “showing” as much as possible—for all the exciting stuff. You can use “telling” for the boring things that have to be told, but need to be told efficiently.

I could write fifty pages on exactly how you use Action, Dialogue, Interior Monologue, Interior Emotion, and Sensory Description in a novel. In fact, I have written  just about that many pages already in my book Writing Fiction for Dummies. It would be a stretch to put that much detail in this blog post. But here are a few guidelines that will help you get rolling:

  • Each scene can have as many characters as you want, but your scene will typically happen in one place and cover just a short period of time.
  • In every scene, there is one character that’s special—you are going to take the reader inside that character’s skin. This character is called the Point of View character, often abbreviated POV character. Your goal is to show only what the POV character can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, or think. You are trying to create the illusion that your reader is your POV character.
  • You can switch POV characters when you switch to a new scene, or you can keep the same POV character if you like. It’s up to you. But don’t change POV characters inside the same scene.
  • Each paragraph should focus either on one character or on the environment.
  • If a paragraph is focusing on the POV character, then you can show that character’s Actions, Dialogue, Interior Monologue, and Interior Emotion. You can use as many or as few of these tools as you like in the paragraph.
  • If a paragraph is focusing on some other character, then you can show that character’s Actions and Dialogue and possibly some Sensory Description. But you should only show things that your POV character can see or hear or smell or taste or touch.
  • If a paragraph is focusing on the environment, then you can show Action and Sensory Description of the environment. Again, only show the things your POV character can see or hear or smell or taste or touch.
  • If you need a paragraph or two of Narrative Summary or Exposition, put them in, but make them as interesting as you can, because they’re interrupting the movie in your reader’s head.

These are not “Rules.” There aren’t any Rules in fiction. These are rules of thumb that guide you. You can violate any of them that you want, as long as you think it makes the story better. Usually, violating these rules of thumb makes the story worse. Part of the art of fiction is learning when to use the rules of thumb and when to break them.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Writing a Series Using the Snowflake Method

Can you use the Snowflake Method to write a series of novels? Or does it only make sense to use it for each individual book in the series?

David posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:


Can the Snowflake method be extended to tie together a series of philosophical message/romantic literature novels?

My motivation: Self-interest to save me and those that I care about from the evils of Gov Goliath and coming economic, political and social collapse.

My Goal: Write a series of romantic literature novels starting with a controversial break-through that sells in sufficient numbers to be an efficient education tool, inspires readers to yearn for more and prompts readers to action to save themselves and those they care about by replacing compulsory territorial majority rule government with non-compulsory, non-territorial spontaneous order voluntary free market societies based on the actionable Golden Rule social contract and the non-aggression principle (NAP) that prohibits the initiation for force except in self-defense.

Target Audience: 20-year-old’s who are inspired by Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and enjoy romantic literature like “The Godfather” but yearn for more.

Word-of-mouth Audience: Same as above except those of any age.

Comment: The Snowflake method looks like the tool of choice for the individual novels in the series but the question is: Can the Snowflake method be used to tie the individual novels together into a coherent series that continues to build suspense by leveraging the backstory in previous sequels.

Randy sez: This is a good question, David, and people have asked me this several times in the past. I’ve also asked myself the question, because I’m currently working on a series.

For those just joining us on this blog, a little context might be helpful: What is the Snowflake Method? The Snowflake Method is a series of steps I created years ago for helping set up a roadmap for a novel. The purpose of the Snowflake Method is to make it easier to write the first draft of the novel. Some of the steps ask you to develop the plot; some ask you to develop the characters. Many people around the world are using the Snowflake Method, and my article on it has been viewed over 5 million times, and has been translated into several languages. For those who want to know more, I have a book out on the Snowflake Method, written as a fairy-tale business parable.

It should be clear that the work you put into character development using the Snowflake Method will be useful for all the books in your series. Since a big part of your character development is finding the backstory of each character, this won’t change from book to book.

But what about the plotting work? Are there elements of the Snowflake Method that you can use for the series? And will that save you work when plotting each book?

Yes and no.

Yes, you can use some elements of the Snowflake Method to help you define the overall plot of the series, as long as the series actually has an overall plot. I’d say the main element you’ll want to use is the Three-Act Structure. A series can often be divided into this structure, at least approximately. I think you can argue that the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games series both fit the structure well. I suspect that the Twilight series also roughly fits the three-act structure, although it’s been a while since I read it, so I’ve forgotten most of the details.

Note that some series don’t really have an overall plot—they’re just a sequence of books without much structure. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series is an example of a set of novels with no overall plot. Likewise Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series has no macro structure. This is neither right nor wrong. It’s just a decision on how you want the series to be, and authors typically make this decision early.

But no, it won’t save you any work on plot development for the series, because each book needs to stand alone as its own story. This means that the plotting aspects of the Snowflake Method need to be worked through for each book. And then you still have to work through the overall story arc for the series, which adds more work. But the main extra work you have to do is to define a Three-Act Structure, and this isn’t an unreasonable burden.

One final comment, David: You’re writing a series of message novels. These can do fantastically well in the market, if they’re done well. Ayn Rand’s novels were all message novels. So were the Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. So are Dan Brown’s recent works. William Paul Young’s book The Shack was a message novel. And it’s easy to find more examples of megahit message novels. But it’s also easy to find examples of message novels that are poorly done, where the message overwhelms the story. Anyone who’s ever taught at a writing conference has seen plenty of these, and they’ll tell you that when a message novel is bad, it’s awful.

So be wary here. Make sure that your story is strong and that the message serves the story. When the story is forced to serve the message, things don’t work out so well. Work hard, and good luck!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Backstory From the Remote Past

In your novel, how do you include backstory from the remote past? Is that even legit? If so, how do you do it? And is that called a flashback or something else?

Eric posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, I’m trying to learn how to word flashbacks for a fiction, mystery and adventure novel I am writing. There is a woman that inherits a castle/estate in England which has a long history dating back to the 14th century. The story takes place in 2016. In chapter two she starts to explore the estate and one of the places she goes into is one of the remaining towers of the castle remains. I wrote a great chapter more than a year ago which describes a fictitious battle that takes place in a real place of a real battle between England and France.

I have been advised by writers not to use it as my first chapter but use it to show the reader flashbacks to indicate backstory and in the end of the book have the main character find an ancient document describing the battle.

So my question is: how to word it? How do I word transitioning the reader temporarily to talk about the 14th century of this place then bring them back to the present?

Can you provide an example? Once I get the hang of it I can proceed. Hard to find how to word these things online.

Randy sez: The immediate question is a “how-to” question, which I can answer pretty quickly. You want to show a scene from the remote past (before any of the characters in your main story were alive). You can easily do this using a “dateline”. This tells the year and possibly the calendar date of the story, and also might include the location. Typically, you put a dateline at the very beginning of a scene, usually centered or right-justified.

Here are some example datelines:

  • Oxford, September 16, 1325
  • June 21, 2035, 13:05 Mars Local Time
  • Friday, April 3, AD 33
  • Captain’s Log, Star Date 31.41.59
  • 18 years earlier

A dateline is simple and clear and quickly puts the reader exactly where and when you want. Some novels have a dateline for every single scene. Most novels don’t use any datelines at all. You get to decide which scenes, if any, need a dateline, and how you’ll format them. There aren’t a lot of rules here. I recommend you keep it as simple as possible, but no simpler.

It’s not uncommon for novels to begin with a prologue set much earlier than the main story. In this case, the chapter is explicitly labeled “Prologue” and the author may include a dateline.

Eric, if you really want your battle scene at the beginning of your book, a Prologue would be a simple and effective way to do it. Then Chapter 1 could use a dateline (which might be as simple as “Present day”), or you might choose to not use a dateline because the way your characters act and talk makes it clear that they’re in the present day. You really have a lot of latitude here.

There are a couple of other issues to discuss here.

About Flashbacks

First is the meaning of the word “flashback.” I don’t know if this has an official definition, but I’ve always understood this word to mean a scene or partial scene written in the point of view of one of your main characters but set in an earlier time.

Usually, the way you handle a flashback is that your character is in the middle of a scene in the main story. Then something triggers a memory from some earlier period. You show this trigger, then write a transitional phrase or sentence or paragraph that indicates that the character is about to experience a memory from the past. Then you show the flashback using all the immediate-scene techniques that you normally would—the flashback happens in real-time, and the reader lives it through the eyes, ears, mind, etc. of the point-of-view character. At the end of the flashback, you write another transitional phrase or sentence or paragraph to show that the point-of-view character is coming back to the main story. Then you just continue on.

The Harry Potter series used a number of flashbacks with a slight modification of this technique. Professor Dumbledore had a “Pensieve” in his office that allowed Harry to experience a flashback using the memories of some other character.

Flashbacks are a valuable method of giving the reader essential backstory by “showing” rather than “telling.” It’s possible to misuse flashbacks or overuse them, but they’re a powerful technique that should be in every writer’s arsenal.

So for your example, I wouldn’t use the term “flashback” because it’s not experienced by any of your point-of-view characters in your main story. It’s just a scene written in an earlier time period.

Showing Versus Narrative Summary

The second issue is the advice you’re getting from other writers. I don’t have enough information to know if I agree with their advice. You’re proposing to show an exciting battle in real-time. They’re proposing that you tell this in narrative summary in an ancient document at the end of the book.

I don’t see the reason for this advice. It might be based on good reasons that I don’t know. I don’t have much information about your story. But let me spell out the issues for making a decision.

Narrative summary is boring. It has its place in your toolkit, because narrative summary is efficient. But it’s boring.

Showing a scene in real-time is exciting. It’s not an efficient way to give the reader information, but it’s still exciting.

So your decision of whether to show this battle as a scene or to tell it as narrative summary in a document comes down to questions like these:

  • How essential is that information to your readers?
  • How important is that ancient battle within the story?
  • In giving that information, is it more important to be efficient or to be entertaining?

I can’t answer these questions because I don’t know your story. But you do, so the decision is on you.

Have fun!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

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