Monday, June 22, 2009

Choosing a Point of View

ROBERTA: So far all of my published books have been written in the first person. This made my job pretty straightforward. As long as I stuck to my character's point of view, stayed in her head, I couldn't write a word unless she heard, saw, or thought it. It was like writing with blinders on.

I'm trying something different in my new book. The book has two POV protagonists who alternate chapters. This of course widens the possibilities of where I can take the action, but it also raises lots of questions. For example, does it work if the chapters are not balanced between the two characters? Will it work to tell the story as one character sees it, and then back up and tell again from the other's POV? And when I reach points in the story where both characters will be present, whose head I should be in?

So I'd love to hear your opinions about point of view--how do you prefer to write and what do you prefer to read?

JAN: It really depends on the story and the author. I think if the author has a great voice the narration is often stronger in the first person. I loved Scott Turow in first person, like him less whenever he writes in third.

Like you Roberta, I'm trying to escape the prison of first person -- sort of. The story is told by an unseen narrator who writes in the first person, but can see everything. So the effect is ominiscient -- almost. I tried allowing my narrator to go into everybody's head whenever I felt like it, but my writers's group got confused. Now I allow the narrator into only one viewpoint at a time and shift it by section - much like you are doing. I'm making mistakes, but I feel there's no point writing if I'm not going to try to experiment and grow!

HALLIE: I confess I love a single narrator. But it does mean when your character gets stuck in a dungeon the reader's stuck there with him. Writing Never Tell a Lie, I started to feel claustrophobic when I got myself locked in an attic with my character Ivy.

The book I'm writing has occasional scenes narrated by different characters, so the reader knows more than my protagonist - it feels like a good way to build suspense. But I'm not sure those scenes will survive.

In the last Dr. Peter Zak book, Guilt, I alternated between two characters' viewpoints -- and then in the final crescendo short scenes snapped back and forth between them. It was hard, when both of those characters were in a scene, to decide who gets the viewpoint. How do you decide??

ROBERTA: Oh Hallie, I was hoping you'd answer that!

RHYS: When I conduct workshops I teach that every book has a point of view that works better than others. If the story is stalled or not going well, I tell them to try writing it in the first person to see where the characters themselves want to go. I have written in first and third and multiple points of view and I have to say that both Molly and Georgie's voices came so easily to me. I almost sit back and let them write. My only pet peeve in books is a story written in the present tense. It annoys me.

ROBERTA: Watch out Rhys--Hank's series is in the present tense:).

HANK: Oh, sorry Rhys. It's because of writing for TV news, I think. I love first person present, because it allows the reader to make mistakes along with the main character. To misjudge and misread and then make decisions based on those wrong perceptions. Because of course, as the author, I know what's correct and what's really happening. But I don't have to tell Charlie McNally.

But I wondered if I could do it another way--not sound like Charlie McNally, not be in present tense. SO I wrote a short story in third person, just to see, you know? And it was a completely different experience. And so--empowering.
I think--the story decides how it's written.

RO: As it happens, the manuscript I just delivered has two POVs. The second POV only occurs in a few chapters, but I felt I had to do it to tell the story I was telling. I think it works..we'll see what my editor says. It's challenging to write in the first person, and I like the idea that my character knows things just a few moments before the reader does, but it can be exhausting to keep coming up with new ways for her to get information she needs to solve the crime!

ROBERTA: Ok JR readers, please pitch in with your opinions. And then come back often this week--we have a great line-up. On Tuesday, visit with Chris Knopf, author of the Sam Acquillo mysteries, who will talk about setting books in the Hamptons and writing for a small press. On Wednesday, visit with Chester Campbell to learn everything you need to know about blog book tours. And on Friday, listen in as literary agent Paige Wheeler talks about the book biz right now.


  1. Great topic, interesting experiences from all of you. Thanks for sharing.

    I am currently reading a series - NOT from any of the JR authors, mind you - featuring a quilting group, a topic that I thought my mother would like (I'm reading through quickly before I hand them off to her in person in a couple of weeks in California), and it's driving me crazy, because the POV sometimes shifts within a paragrah! Somehow we always know what everybody is thinking. I hope I'm not being reactionary by thinking, "Hey, that's breaking all the rules." They end up being pretty good stories, although all the main characters are WAY too nice.

    I like writing in first person, but the book I'm working on now is in third and always the protagonist's voice. Seems to work better.


  2. Hey Edith, I can't think of any writing teacher I respect who would recommend shifting POV within paragraphs. Though I suppose the more skillful the writer is, the more rules she can break:)

  3. I've tried both, and they definitely feel different. For me, first person comes out a lot snarkier (is that a word?). Third person is more detached. I think Rhys is right that the story may tell you which way to go. How close to it do you want to be?

    The first "real" book I wrote (still on a shelf) started out with three third-person POVs. I rewrote it--and added two more. I enjoyed the process, but I'm afraid to go back and look at it now.

  4. I enjoy reading either 3rd or 1st if done well. I read a lot of memoir, so 1st-person gets a lot of my attention, but some of my favorite fiction writers use only 3rd and do so masterfully.

    Patrick O'Brian, a particular favorite, writes in 3rd but has segues where we see letters or journal entries from his characters written in 1st, so there is a shift there -- and gracefully done. He also very, very occasionally jumps POV in a particular scene, but always to provoke a response from the reader. No amateur head-hopping from O'Brian. It's quick and deft as a knife thrust.

    I actually prefer to write fiction and typically frame stories in 3rd, limited omniscient, usually with a narrator tightly aligned to the protagonist -- some direct and free indirect discourse, to get as close as possible without *being* the protagonist. (In cinema,think tight over-the-shoulder shot vs. POV shot)

    As a reader, tense doesn't really matter to me. Lots of memoirs use present tense (mine does for a greater sense of immediacy -- a nod to Hank's perspective on this), and I'm happy reading in any tense that has a whole construction and isn't just a writer with an agreement problem and an editor napping.

  5. I'm so glad you brought up this topic, Roberta. My background and training has been in non-fiction, always sticking to facts and the who, what, when, where, why and how of a story. I'm working on a mystery now, and I found myself "cornered" by my female protagonist. I enjoyed writing the romantic scenes and conflicts so much, that I lost direction. I didn't know which way to turn, then - out of desperation - I realized that I had to switch scenes, and let another voice take over. The second voice is a secondary character, but key to the plot. I treated it like a movie - switch scenes to another character, and see the events from his perspective. That allowed me to escape my "box" and continue. It feels good to know that this issue affects professional writers as well.

  6. I prefer to write in 3rd, but don't mind reading in first. It's tense more than person that will bug me -- I've had trouble getting into a 1st person present unless it's masterfully done. I feel alienated, as if I'm on the outside, for some reason. Deep third doesn't do that.

    And I really don't like omniscient -- pulls me right out of the story almost every time, especially when it's something like, "If she'd known then what that action would cause", etc., etc.

    In a mystery, I prefer a single POV -- or at least no villain. Knowing what's going to happen, or what has already happened, makes it a suspense and takes the puzzle solving out of it.

    My first books were romantic suspense, so the two character POV was virtually "required." And I agree, trying to decide how to choose POV, or even more troubling, how to handle things when the characters were apart, because that gave the reader information the other character didn't have, and the real challenge was the timing. How do you play 'catch up' when important things go on for each character at the same time.

    My current WIP was going to be RS, but it's turning out to be a mystery, and now I have 3 POV characters. Still no villain, though.

  7. Whoops, sorry Hank. I haven't had a chance to read one of your books yet--I hardly ever get a chance to read these days as I can't read when I write and I am writing all the time.
    My peeve about present tense is that often these books come across as contrived. Yours, I know, will be brilliant. Hey, it won the Agatha. Enough said.
    And I promise I'll get to the first one soon.

  8. I think that "if only she'd known what was coming..." trick is almost always unnecessary and assumes the reader is dumber than necessary:)

    Sheila, funny you mention your first person coming out snarkier than third!

    Oh my gosh, Susannah, you mean Patrick O'Brian of sea captain fame? My hub adores those books but we had one on tape for a drive a few years back and I very nearly fell asleep at the wheel. Though I like your description of how he brings first person into a book.

  9. Yep, that's the O'Brian, Roberta, though I don't think he's writes well for listening. I know O'Brian enthusiasts who are rabid book-on-tape followers of his work -- particularly as read by Patrick Tull -- but for me he's all about the intimate read. Sentences are too long and complex for listenability. But that's just me.

    O'Brian was a smart, smart writer with strong roots in the 19th-Century literary form, and probably the most brilliant dialogue I've ever read.

    One strategic sidebar to his inclusion of journal entries and letters in 1st person -- he gets away with a shocking lot of telling rather than showing this way, but since the telling is heavily influenced by the character doing the writing, what we're shown is a deep insight into the character, even while events are being told, compressed and not shown as play-by-play. So O'Brian gets away with all that telling, creating a deeper connection to the characters involved. And he needs to get away with it. That 20-volume Aubrey/Maturin canon spans years and years.

  10. Great topic. Does anyone know if there's an unspoken limit on how many points of view are allowed?

  11. My two series are written in the first person, but I've written in third as well. I'm comfortable in first, but third allows for so much more storytelling.

  12. Oh, my husband has read all of the Patrick O'Brian books, too! (I just don't see it...)

    But of course, I loved Master and Commander.

    And yeah, Rhys-y. (Hank standing hands on hips.) But you know--isn't that the little secret? How difficult it is these days to just--read?

  13. Sometimes I think a shifting point of view bothers we writers a lot more than it does pure readers. My book group never seems to notice it. And heavens knows great writers of the 18th and early 19th century used to do it all the time.

    I think Roberta hit the nail on the head though -- if the story is flowing, you don't even notice the point of view.


  14. Sheila asks if there's a limit on how many viewpoints a novel can sustain...and there really isn't. Doesn't the Da Vinci Code have five of six? What matters to me is that there's a main story line that's moving forward, and that there's a protagonist, a character for the reader to root for.

  15. I really like the third person where you're in the head/on the shoulder of one person per scene, usually the person who begins the scene. I think that's subjective third person. I'm trying to write in it, but not always succeeding.

    Because I'm trying to avoid putting in something that's almost first person narration into a third person manuscript, there are times when I have pointlessly avoided saying what a person thinks. I think this might be an error. On the other hand, when I do that, I tend to describe the action instead of the reaction. If I work it right, it could end up being a way to "show, don't tell".

    Or I'm full of crap. I don't know...

    TELL NO ONE is in first person when the hero is in the scene, and third when he is not. It works, but I'll bet writers who do not have Harlan Coben's skill might not be able to pull it off.