Using the F-H System to write Viewpoint + Interiority

Just as a movie director works with camera, a fiction writer works with viewpoint.  The camera determines the image on the screen, and the viewpoint determines the perspective of the writing.  In the F-H system, this viewpoint must be subjective.  It must include a “me.”

As far as Foster-Harris is concerned, when writing fiction, the subjective and the emotional are good, and the objective and the intellectual are, at best, a necessary evil.  This is very different from most modern fiction styles, and it is the reverse of journalistic and academic writing.  The argument is that the power of journalistic and scholarly writing is in their objective truth, because we have a stake in knowing the truth, whereas the power of fiction is in its ability to reach our subjective emotions.  The idea is to establish an emotional stake even in the absence of truth.

Basically, we do this by describing the viewpoint character as if he were us.  We put ourselves imaginatively through the viewpoint character’s experiences and write that as our story.  When the reader reads it, he goes through the experiences of the viewpoint character and has the corresponding emotional response.  So it’s really very complicated, especially when you consider that either the author or the reader might or might not sympathize with the viewpoint character.

But we won’t get that complicated here:  this is a basic storytelling system, and the seven following rules are meant for the relatively simple case, described above, where the viewpoint character mediates the author’s emotions to the reader.

Rule One:  There must be one viewpoint character in your story at any time. 

The writer picks one, and only one, viewpoint character, and describes the events of the story as that character sees and understands them.  This character is aware of his own feelings, and therefore the story conveys those feelings.  He cannot see his own face, so his facial expression is never described; or if it is, it is described from the inside of his skin, in terms of how it feels and not how it looks.

Overall, the idea here is to color everything with the emotions that the author-as-viewpoint character is having.

Rule Two:  All non-viewpoint characters must be described objectively, as seen by the viewpoint character.

By “objectively,” we mean we are looking at them from the outside.  Their emotions are described as behaviors, and everything about them is described through the filter of the viewpoint character.


To describe an emotion of the viewpoint character, first describe it as if you yourself were feeling it:

“A swift crimson smoke came whirling across my vision, and I could feel the angry heat in my cheeks as I turned” (Formulas, 32).

Then, take this description of anger, which is from the inside looking outward, and re-write it so it applies to your viewpoint character:

 “A swift crimson smoke came whirling across his vision, and he could feel the angry heat in his cheeks as he turned” (Formulas, 33).

But, when you are describing the same emotion in a non-viewpoint character, you must describe it as you imagine seeing it: 

“He flushed angrily, and I could see the swift red flecks in his narrowed eyes” (Formulas, 33).

Now take this description, of “me” looking at “him,” and re-write it so that it is from your viewpoint character’s perspective:

“He flushed angrily, and Sam could see the swift red flecks in his narrowed eyes” (Formulas, 33).

 The result of this is that “I” — you, the writer — you, the reader — is, by the structure of the writing, put into the role of the viewpoint character, Sam.  It follows that Sam’s emotions will come across more strongly, and the other characters’ are objectified, and come across in spectator-mode.  Therefore, we will usually pick a viewpoint character whose emotions are interesting and useful to the story that we are telling at that point in the story.

Rule Three:  The current moment in the story is always now.

This just means that, even though we’re writing in the past tense, we write about it as the viewpoint character experiences it “now.”  Refer to events which happened earlier than the current moment as the viewpoint character remembers them, and events which will happen after the current moment as the viewpoint character foresees and anticipates them.

Rule Four:  The story gets its power from emotions, not facts.

Therefore, sentences that begin with emotion are more powerful than those that begin with facts.  Begin at least half your sentences with emotion — not necessarily with an emotion word, although you can do that, but with emotional rather that factual content.

Rules 3 + 4 = The Wheel of Now

We’ve said that the current moment of the story is always “now,” that “now” happens in the emotional space of the viewpoint character, and that the story gets its power from emotions.  Let’s say our story is made up of a string of events, which we’ll call A, B, C, and so on, and we’re interested in how the story sees these events, which means how the viewpoint character sees them, at different points, which we’ll call 1 and 2.

How the story sees events

 At point 1, the story sees event B as “now.”  Looking forward, it sees events C, D, and E as “in the future,” just as the viewpoint character sees them, in vague outline, the any of us see things that have not happened yet.  And the nearer event C will loom up and tend to obscure the later events, D and E.  Looking backward, the story will see event A as “in the past,” as being definite and unchangeable.

At point 2, the story sees event D as “now.”  Therefore, event E is clearer, while event C is in the past; and event C has more prominence to the story than events A or B, because it is closer.

F-H viewpoint 2 - Wheel of Now

Foster-Harris writes:

Here we have a magnified picture of that tiny traveling point, P, the present.  We have enlarged it enourg to discover that it is really a little wheel, rolling from past to future across our space line of time.  Now examine the highly significant, simultaneous, yet opposed movements of the rolling wheel.

At the bottom of the wheel, against the hard material of reality of the rad, the direction of movement is actually toward the rear, toward the past, is it not?

Time and reality seem to syin out from the contact, flowing in an unbroken stream toward the remote past, just as they seem to do in real life.  And if you were a dwarf, standing on the rim of the wheel and facing in the direction of the movement (as you naturally would), at the bottom you would be looking to the rear, the past.  And that is also where you would be closest to hard material reality, is it not?

In other words, you would be seeing objectively. …  But what about the top of the wheel, where the movement is in the opposite direction, towards the front, the future?

Here you … would not only be looking to the future but ould also be lifted above … the dusty, obscuring materialism, the reverse “reality” of the bottom.  … how does one look to the future in so many words?

One does it with one’s emotional eye.  …  Always, in natural order, the object comes after the subject, remember.  You push on top of a wheel, not the bottom, to start it rolling forward.  You start with the subjective to get to the objective.  It is the subjective that drives, that makes us be and will and go somewhere and do things.  And this is true also for story.

Subjective, objective — any moving force, including a piece of fiction, necessarily must have them both.  All moving forces move in a closed circuit, a cycle …  And this leads us to a fundamental principle of correct fiction writing:

There must be movement in two directions, a fact (looking and rolling backward) and a feeling (looking and rolling forward) in virtually every sentence of your story.

This is the subjective method of handling space and time.  You do not have to be so mechanically precise, of course, that every single sentence … obeys the law.  … You do it, I mean, something like this:

Angrily he whirled.  The dark figure behind him had not moved, had not made a sound.  But now the sullen lids were wide open and the dull eyes had a chill, basilisk stare to them, like the eyes of a great snake.  Something incredibly evil in that silent stare, something smirking, something filled with cold, nameless horrors.  A thin chill seeping through him, Don grinned back with his lips only, and swung toward the door  (Formulas, 48-51). 

Rule Five:  Hook your paragraphs together:  do not break them up.

In academic writing, which has the goal of objective clarity, we separate our topic out into sub-topics, and sub-sub-topics — like an outline.  We usually give a paragraph to each section, so any one paragraph talks about a particular sub-topic and develops the argument about that sub-topic.  But fiction writing doesn’t work like that:

… Accordingly, in fiction writing, you write what appears to be a formal paragraph, but actually is not.

Each paragraph will “hook” onto the next without any real break (Formulas, 35).

You can see Foster-Harris do it there.

There are two points to this rule:  First, switch topics within a paragraph, and break for a new paragraph with a topic, to prevent the two from lining up.  Second, raise questions in one paragraph which will be answered in the next — and don’t answer that question until you have raised yet another one.

Rule Six:  Change viewpoint to another character cleanly and clearly.

You must confine yourself to one viewpoint character at a time, but you can have as many viewpoint characters over the course of your story as you care to manage.  This is how you switch from one to another:  wrap up the old viewpoint; skip a line if necessary; begin a new viewpoint, notifying the reader about the new viewpoint character.

A bitter tumult of emotions in his brain, Don Dashaway stared at the little Captain for a long moment, then turned reluctantly away.  After all, the little Captain was of age.  And then some!  If he wanted to play the fool, there was nothing Don Dashaway could do about it.


But any wish to play the fool was far from the little Captain’s mind as he watched Dashaway’s broad back merge into the scurrying crowd.  That Don figured he was at least getting senile, that this was going to make him look like an idiot — at least until the scheme worked — the Captain knew very well.  But, stubbornly, the Captain was just not going to let any mere pride and appearance balk him in doing what he considered right (Formulas, 36).

The first paragraph wraps up Don’s thought process, at least for the moment, and brings it to the point where it’s stable.  Most likely, Don will be thinking this same thing the next time we meet him — that is, he will definitely have the same attitude about the Captain; but he also might be actively entertaining the same thoughts about him, as if nothing had happened in between, for a kind of a “When we last saw Don…” kind of effect.

Then there is a physical gap in the text, to notify us of a break.  We’re staying within the same scene and moment, so it’s only a one-line gap (although it looks like more with internet formatting), but if it we were crossing a greater distance (“Meanwhile, the little Captain considered…”) we’d get a two-line gap, or perhaps a three-line gap with the three stars, or a bullet point, marking out the sepration.

After the gap, the camera cuts to the little Captain’s point of view:  we are immediately notified of his state of mind and we are shown an image of Don from the outside.  Further, Don is departing from the scene, which he couldn’t do if the viewpoint was still with him.  And we ease through the final stages of the transition with the little Captain’s lingering thoughts of Don’s attitude, before his attention turns to his emotions around this scheme he’s working on.  Notice that, as we get more of a sense of his personal resolve, he becomes “the Captain.”  The text drops the “little” character tag.

Rule Seven:  Bridge time and space transitions with a continuing stream of emotion.

The implication here is that if the emotion has remained constant, intervening objective facts don’t matter.  The reader will fill in likely events, provided he is given enough information to understand how the viewpoint character made it from one place to another.

This is how you make such a transition:  emphasize the viewpoint character’s emotions; skip a line, or make a break in the text suitable to the distance traveled; pick up at the destination with the viewpoint character feeling the same emotion, and convey that emotion to make clear that the power driving the story has made it across the gap.  (If the emotion has changed, then that’s a significant event you’re not allowed to skip over.)

A bitter tumult of emotions in his brain, Don Dashaway stared at the little Captain for a long moment, then turned reluctantly away.  After all, the little Captain was of age.  And then some!  If he wanted to play the fool, there was nothing Don Dashaway could do about it.


But the worry and the maddening sense of foolishness of it all still rode with him, nevertheless, as Don arrived home two days later.  Two days and one hundred slow miles of thinking hadn’t changed a thing, hadn’t brought a single gleam of light.  What on earth a man should do about such a stubborn old fool … (Formulas, 38)

Next Up

That is the essence of the Foster-Harris writing system.  He has two other sections, one on the process of writing, and the other on tips and tricks.  I may write them up later. 

Published in: on June 17, 2009 at 9:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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