Sometimes the metaphorical camera in a scene drifts away from the viewpoint character and focuses on somebody else. Not a problem for an omniscient viewpoint, but in limited third person, a drifting viewpoint is a smell of bad writing.
What is a drifting viewpoint?
There are a number of narrative voices from which a story can be told: first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. In the first three of this list, the viewpoint is fixed to a specific character. Sometimes, however, a writer will make a mistake, and accidentally write a sentence from the wrong viewpoint. This is called viewpoint drift.
The mistake might not be immediately obvious, but disturbs the reader’s immersion in the viewpoint – if only unconsciously. This leads to less engagement with the story. This kind of error usually comes in two forms: the writer accidentally reveals something about other characters’ thoughts, or makes a remark that can only come from the writer themselves.
First, an example of the writer accidentally revealing the thoughts of a different character.
I walked into the hospital waiting room. I hated hospitals, but for Mary I could endure it. As I marched into the room, the nurse jumped up. She had been texting with her mother, but quickly put her phone away .
The viewpoint above drifts from the protagonist to the nurse. There is no way that the protagonist could know who she was texting. There are some reasons that this could be a valid statement, for instance, if the main character was a mind reader, but those cases aside, it’s an error.
Note that in third person limited, the above error is even less visible:
John walked into the hospital waiting room. He hated hospitals, but for Mary he could endure it. As John marched into the room, the nurse jumped up. She had been texting with her mother, but quickly put her phone away.
This is – of course – only an error in third person limited, in an omniscient third person view the above is perfectly valid.
Another example, this time a remark by the writer.
John walked into the hospital waiting room. Little did he know that he would come to hate it in the coming months. As John marched into the room, the nurse jumped up.
Note that the first and third sentence in the example above are from John’s point of view. The second sentence can only have come from the writer. If this is the style you are going for, for instance in a comedy, this can work, but if you only do it in one or two places in the entire story, you’re being sloppy.
How to fix it
The simple answer: don’t drift. More precisely, stick to your viewpoint and only look into their thoughts. Let’s repair the three examples from before.
I walked into the hospital waiting room. I hated hospitals, but for Mary I could endure it. As I marched into the room, the nurse jumped up. She was playing with her phone, but quickly put it away.
Now the nurse is no longer texting her mother, just playing with her phone. Something that John might very well remark upon. The same can be done to repair the second example.
Of course, you could also switch the entire story from third person limited to third person omniscient and be done.
Or, in the case of writer’s remarks you can switch from third to first.Let’s put the third example in the first person:
I walked into the hospital waiting room. Little did I know that I would come to hate them in the coming months. As I marched into the room, the nurse jumped up.
Now the aside in the second sentence is still by the writer, but the writer has become the protagonist looking back. Problem solved.
A drifting viewpoint can be an insidious problem in your writing. Make sure you choose a fitting viewpoint for the story you want to tell, and make sure you stick to it.