Sunday, January 10, 2010

Point Of View Redux


I had a whole different topic in mind for today’s blog, but Jennie’s Friday subject intrigued me.  You see, I don’t think writers just starting out even think about point of view.  I know I didn’t.  Good writers make it so seamless that readers don’t even realize it is a device used in writing.

When we read a well-written piece, we instantly know the narrator.  We should know whose mind we’re in.  A writer can really jar a reader right out of a story by inadvertently switching POV in the middle of a scene. 

On Friday, some of you discussed how you like to write and I found it interesting how different we are.  As an example, Jennie mentioned that she automatically writes 1st person.  I, on the other hand, automatically start writing in 3rd.  Several of you mentioned that switching from 1st to 3rd in the same piece could interesting and I mentioned I thought it was a bit of a cheat.  So, while there are many ways to attack it, I thought I’d explore how change in POV can affect structure.

My work in progress is a Suspense.  Because I automatically think in 3rd person, my first chapter starts on a serene morning with a highway worker mowing the sides of a lonely stretch of road.  She jockeys the mower to work around one of those roadside memorials that people erect to remember the spot on a highway where someone they loved died, only to uncover a shallow grave with the remains of a young woman in it.  If I do it well, it should give the reader the feeling of horror and surprise one would experience stumbling on something unexpected and horrific, while drawing in the reader with a dead body that sets the tone of the story.   My outline has me alternating between my detective protagonist and the killer.  At this point I don’t want to give away too much, sorry.

However, if I opted for 1st person, the entire plan would have to change.  I can’t have the opening scene with a highway worker unless the worker was the protagonist.  I would have to have my protagonist responding to a call, where she finds out how the body was uncovered by the mower.  I would also have to get rid of all those scenes that I plan where the Antagonist kidnaps and kills, leaving the trail.  I’d have to concentrate on the protagonist uncovering clues as she goes.

Of course when a writer uses 1st, you put yourself in the head of the narrator and write what comes to mind.  For me it’s very natural and very personal.  Using the word “I” makes it personal.  It takes a bit more work using 3rd to get the thoughts of the POV character out there.  Because you’re using He and She, it doesn’t seem as personal, not as close.  But, 3rd does allow a lot more flexibility.  Which is why I call switching in the same book a bit of a cheat.  Switching allows the author to write close and personal from the mind of the protagonist, but gives the flexibility of letting the reader know something the protagonist doesn’t.  I think it’s a lazier way of writing.  You don’t have to work as hard writing your way around 1st but the reader can get to know what is in your protagonist’s mind a lot easier.

I have to admit that the 1st/3rd mixes I’ve read, didn’t hit me in a good way.  POV is something to definitely give some thought to well in advance of sitting down and beginning a story.  I know we’ve discussed this a bit, but I’d like to hear any additional thoughts you have on the subject.

Jennie's can o worms.


Joyce said...

Good summary, Will.

You're right--a good writer can make 3rd person every bit as close and personal as first. I think it all comes down to showing instead of telling. (A topic for another day, maybe?)

What POV to use really does depend on what type of story you're writing. So far, my protagonists have had very distinct voices--the books had to be written in 1st person.

I used 3rd when I wrote a short story called "Agatha." Although it's entirely in Agatha's POV, there had to be a little bit of distance because Agatha is a conniving little murderer.

I strongly dislike switching between 1st and 3rd in a book. I think it's a cheat, and shows laziness on the part of the author. It screams "gimmick" to me. All it does is call attention to the writer when the focus should be on the story instead. If a writer wants to use other POVs, he should just use third.

ramona said...

I'm enjoying these posts about POV. Very enlightening.

I often start a short story in first person, present. About halfway through, I discover I've moved into past tense. Sometimes, by the end, I've switched back to present. This happens most often in stories that I don't have clearly mapped out in my head; I have a spark/idea and start writing. Because I'm a "just keep going" kind of girl, I ignore the tense changes until I'm done with the draft. It makes for some interesting editing challenges.

I'm not sure how I feel about the switching. If it's done in a pattern, and there's a legitimate need, it's okay. But it's a challenge to make it feel organic.

Good post--got me thinking early on a Monday.

Wilfred Bereswill said...


Present and Past tense is something I don't think about until I', in the review/re-write mode. But it is worth discussing.

I received my hard lesson on POV from an established author who I coerced into reading the first three chapters of my first novel. She pointed out several very suble POV breaks and told me I better fix them because it looked amatuerish.

Now, one of the passes I make through a manuscript once it's completed is POV, to make sure POV is consistent in every scene.

Joyce, I guess cheating is a bit harsh, for switching POVs from 1st to 3rd, but I can't think of a better term. Probably those who would defend it would say it's another way of writing.

Joyce said...

I don't think it's harsh, Will. There is absolutely no good reason to have 1st and 3rd POV in the same book. To me, it looks like the writer is saying, "Hey, look what I can do!"

And don't get me started on books written in present tense.

Jennie Bentley said...

You wanna talk about cheating? I think pinch hitting and pinch running is cheating. You get the good batter out to hit the ball - hopefully far - but because the guy is big and strong, he can't run fast, so you send in the little, light guy to run the bases for him. Apparently it's legal, because they do it all the time, but if you ask me, it isn't right.

Absolutely I agree that it comes across as a bit of a cheat in books, too. You get the relative ease of writing in first person POV, with none of the limitations of having to write only what the protagonist knows. It kind of takes the point of first person narrative away, doesn't it?

One exception I'll mention is Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody books. They're written in first person, from Amelia's point of view, with an extremely strong narrative voice. One of the best around. Round about book ten or so, when Amelia's son grew to be sixteen, he started contributing to the books, but he writes about himself in the third person. She makes it work, in part because she's a fabulous writer; in part because it's just a whole lot of fun to see Amelia - who can be a bit of an opinionated female, and quite often wrong - through someone else's eyes, especially when her assumptions are totally erroneous; and in part because it makes sense in terms of the series to do it that way.

Looks like I opened a can of worms... ;-)

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Hmm, well Jennie, let me explain the whole pinch runner. When you replace a baseball player for any reason, that player is done for the game. He/she cannot return to the same game. So, that bench player is really a role player, much like the character you introduce to the reader and then kill off.

No, I see the analogy, although, I wonder now where the term can of worms came from. I've never seen an unopened can of worms.

"You get the relative ease of writing in first person POV, with none of the limitations of having to write only what the protagonist knows. It kind of takes the point of first person narrative away, doesn't it?"

Perfectly said.

Paula Matter said...

I'm stuck on the can of worms. I've never seen one period. :)

Gina said...

Jeez, Wil, I just got a chance to read this as I'm sitting down with lunch, and there's that can of worms . . .

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Blame Jennie on the can of worms.

Patg said...

Okay, okay, here comes a can opener. What's wrong with mixing it up? I'm a good girl/boy, I don't cheat! Liar, liar, pants on fire. It makes for an interesting book and so what if you have to stop and think for a while. Stopping and thinking demands being pulled away from something and if it's a story, big deal, you can get back into it. Not giving readers credit to do so doesn't sound like a good thing to me.
We are human, thinkers, and mimicers for everything else.
Think about it Authors, MY voice, My characters, the right POV. That's us the writers doing what we do and wanting to do it the way WE believe is correct. Big O O. What's wrong with letting the readers have their chance. Frankly, I love the reader knowing more than the protagonist. Isn't there another writing belief that the characters have to have flaws and you have to show her/him overcome them? Well, having the reader see how and why your character is making mistakes because of these flaws also helps you, the writer, see when you are overplotting or making your protag do dumb things the reader sees plainly and say she/he is just being stupid for no reason.
This helps us write a better story because it should make us feel like someone is watching over our shoulder and asking if our mystery isn't a bit thin.
Good writing comes in a multitude of forms. Right and Wrong are thin outer edges, we exist in that huge grey area in between.

Wilfred Bereswill said...


Of course writing is extremely subjective. One man's heaven is another man's hell.

Personally, I'm not very forgiving when I read a book. If I'm jarred out of a novel by a writing style or technical error, I usually put the book down and don't go back. I never finished the one Women's Murder Club novel I picked up. I am also not going to invest my money in additional books by an author that cause me to put a book down unless there are extenuating circumstances.

I believe there are quite a number of readers that will not go back if the writer rips them from the story for some reason.

Have I missed out on some good reads due to my habit? Probably so. But the competition is fierce out there and there are plenty of good books to read.

Joyce said...

I'm with you, Will. When I read, I want to be lost in the story. The author should be invisible.