Inspiration for Writers
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The green print shows lines from Gary's point of view, while the purple print shows the lines from Ray's. In this example, the bold print shows the word (or words) that prompts the viewpoint change. In most cases, either a verb or internal dialogue will move the viewpoint from one character to another. The trick is to recognize when the reader actually enters the character's head. The writer needs to stay in a character's viewpoint until something prompts a move elsewhere.
Ray walked the mile from the hospital to Bob's Sunoco. He found Gary in the bay, changing the oil on a pale blue Cadillac. He kicked his brother's feet until Gary rolled from beneath the car. "We gotta talk."
Gary wiped sweat from his eyes. It wasn't like Ray to interrupt him at work. "I get off at three."
Gary stood and wiped his hands on an oily rag. "What's up?"
"Let's walk." Ray feared his brain was going to explode. Too much was going on, too many things were changing. He'd read the front page of the newspaper over and over while waiting in the doctor's office. The Apollo 7 astronauts were heading home after eleven days in space. President Johnson was negotiating for the release of fourteen North Vietnamese POWs. And Jackie Kennedy, the dead President's wife, was marrying a Greek billionaire the very next day. He didn't even know if it was legal for the President's widow to marry a foreigner.
Gary followed Ray outside and toward town. He didn't like it that Ray was so quiet. "What did the doctor say about Mom?"
Ray hated to break the news. "He put her in the hospital."
Gary watched colorful leaves swirl around their ankles, the drier ones crunching under their heavy steps. He kicked them out of his way. "Why?"
"He got the tests back."
A young mother, her sweater flapping in the wind, pushed a baby carriage over the uneven sidewalk with one hand and pulled a stubborn toddler with the other. Ray stepped into the street to let her pass, wondering if she realized the world had changed that day.
"What did the doctor say?" Gary repeated.
"She's got cancer."
Gary stopped walking. "Cancer?"
Ray slowed down until Gary caught up. "Something about a mass in her brain."
Gary's hand automatically went to his own head. He looked at Ray, waiting for more, waiting for reassurance that it would be all right.
But Ray was silent.
"Does she need surgery? Does she have to take chemo? Or radiation?"
"He says there ain't nothing they can do. He says it's too late." Ray remembered that part very well. He'd argued with Dr. Brown, insisting there had to be something. She had three young boys who needed her.
"Too late? Too late for what?"
"Dr. Brown says . . ." Ray rubbed his head. "He says it's too late. He says she ain't coming home."
They walked slower, silently, past
the library and into the park. Pre-schoolers played on the swings
and slide, laughing and shouting.
Gary took a new pack of Marlboros from his pocket and tapped it against his palm. "The boys."
Ray watched the children play. "I guess we gotta pick them up from school and fix them something to eat."
"I don't mean now," Gary said, opening the cigarettes. "Until they're grown. Who'll take care of them?"
Gary stared at his older brother.
The dull, distant look in Ray's copper
Ray scratched the five-day-old stubble on his chin. "They made a mistake. We just gotta find Dad and get this all straightened out. Dad will know what to do."
Gary lit a cigarette and slowly exhaled.
Ray watched the smoke disappear into the October-blue sky. A foreigner. Two hundred million people in the United States and the President's widow was going to marry a foreigner. No wonder the world was so screwed up.
As you can see, hopping from one head to another allows readers to see everything each character thinks. However, it also makes it hard to empathize with any of the characters, and, when overdone, leaves the reader feeling like he's watching a ping-pong tournament at close range. This scene could be much more powerful if it concentrated on only one person's viewpoint.
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