An easy pop culture reference for you in the title. Especially because I explained it last week. My apologies this is running a bit late. Glad to see you all made it through the Mayan Doomsday with no problem, though.
This week’s topic is kind of timely because I just got notes back from my editor and he’s called me on this in a few places. I’ve also recently read two books by other people that suffered a lot on this front, and it kept good stories from being really great stories.
So let’s see if we can work through this together.
You might remember when your junior high school teacher would talk about first person and third person. And third person would get divided up, too, with phrases like omniscient or objective or limited. If you’re anything like me, you probably erased most of that from your internal hard drive as soon as the quiz was over.
If we’re going to take this whole being-a-writer thing seriously, though, it means going back and re-learning this stuff and knowing how these rules work. More to the point, we need to understand how they work so we can use them without confusing or frustrating our readers. A lot of otherwise good stories I see get ruined by an erratic, irregular point of view… or by a complete lack of one. They jump from character X to character Y to an omniscient point of view to Z’s first person point of view and then back to X’s journal.
For a reader, this is a lot like trying to watch a movie while riding a Tilt-A-Whirl.
For those poor folks who didn’t get that last reference, a Tilt-A-Whirl is a carnival ride that spins the riders in one direction while moving them up and down on a circular track that’s spinning in the other direction.
Let’s do a quick recap.
First person is when the narrator is a character in the story, usually (but not always) the main character. Everything I see or read in this story is filtered through that character. I see what she sees, hear what she hears, feel what she feels, know what she knows. That knowing bit’s important—in a first person story I’m getting access to all the narrator’s thoughts as well. This can be very freeing, but very limiting and challenging as well.
I’ve mentioned epistolary style here a few times. It’s a form of first person where the writer tells the story through letters, journals, and other “existing” material produced by the narrator (or narrators). Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel, and so are Tony Faville’s Kings of the Dead and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
Second person is very, very rarely used, but I’ve seen it done a few times so I thought it was worth mentioning. It’s when the main character is you and the writer projects all the action and emotion onto you. “You walk down the hall and a feeling of unease begins to creep up your spine.” Second person is tough to work in because I’m forcing my reader into the story and taking away all their control. It’s not my story or Wakko’s story—it’s yourstory, and you’re going to do these things and feel like this and react like this. That tends to be kind of awkward.
If you remember the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, those were usually done in second person. And you may remember that they were a bit odd to read, especially if you picked one up later in life. If you’re a bit geeky, second person is like having a dungeon master who takes control of the whole game.
Third person is still the most common point of view for fiction, even with the rise of first person stories in the past decade or so. It’s an independent, non-involved narration of the events of the story. In a third person story, the reader is just a spectator. There’s still a question of how much they see, though…
In a third person omniscient story, the reader gets access to everything. I see Yakko, Wakko, and Dot’s actions—no matter where they are—and I also see inside their heads. I know what they’re thinking and how they’re reacting to things, even when they don’t show it. I don’t have numbers to back it up, but off my own experience I’d guess most stories get written this way.
A third person limited story keeps the reader as a spectator but limits how much they see. I may decide we’re only going to focus on Wakko and not wander away to see what other characters are doing. Or perhaps I’ll only let the reader see actions and not get access to what the characters are thinking.
The trick with limited is that it’s like looking through a telescope or a pair of binoculars. I can see certain things very clearly, but not other things—even if they’re very close. And if I try to switch targets abruptly, it gets very confusing.
So, it’s clear that a big part of storytelling is the point of view. It affects how the narrative unfolds. It also determines what kind of things the writer can tell you or explain during the course of the story. If I have an inconsistent point of view, it’s going to be jarring and break the flow of my story. If I’ve chosen the wrong point of view, things may come crashing down around me right from the start.
Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering how can there be a wrong point of view? Sure, it may change the story a bit one way or another, but how can the point of view be wrong? It’s just an arbitrary decision, right?
Consider this example…
Let’s say I’ve decide to write a mystery novel in third person omniscient. I start off with my detective (let’s make her a female). So for the first few chapters I’ve got access to what’s going on around her, what she thinks of the various people she meets, what they think of her, and so on. Then we get to the crime scene and… well, hang on. Maybe the murderer’s here. If she is (yep, the killer’s female, too) the reader will know instantly because we’re seeing what’s going on inside her head. I mean, it’s kind of a cheat if the murderer’s here at the scene of the crime and not thinking about the murder, right?
So maybe it’s better if we just never peek inside her head. Of course, any savvy mystery fan is going to wonder why we’re seeing inside everyone’s head except Phoebe’s (yep, it was Phoebe all along), and they’re probably going to assume it’s because she’s the killer. And they’ll be right. In which case this isn’t a mystery anymore, it’s just withheld information… and poorly withheld at that.
Of course, I could just decide to see inside Phoebe’s head from the start, but now this isn’t a mystery. If we know she’s the killer from the start, this is more of a suspense-thriller. And it’s a tricky one, because now the detective is going to be playing catch-up with the readers for the whole book.
It’s worth mentioning that Alfred Bester pulls off a wonderful third-person omniscient mystery in his book The Demolished Man. But it’s kind of a trick. The mystery in his story isn’t who the murderer is, but how he managed to pull off his crime in a world where all police are telepaths.
So, choosing the right point of view is important in a story. At best, the wrong one can mean a lot of extra work. At worst, it means I might find I’ve written myself into a corner.
Another important thing to remember is that my point of view needs to be consistent. If ninety-five percent of my book is focused on Phoebe and her thoughts and her actions and what she sees, it’s going to be very jarring on page 324 when the narrative suddenly jumps into Wakko’s head for a few paragraphs. If I switch viewpoints five or six times in the same chapter, it can get confusing real fast. If I’ve been doing an epistolary novel for the first three-quarters of my manuscript, switching to third person omniscient for the last quarter is going to take some adjustment. And as I’ve pointed out many times, odds are the way readers will probably deal with this is deciding to put the book down and get caught up on all those Person of Interest episodes on their DVR.
If you want to switch points of view in your story, here’s a couple of tips that might help…
Chapters – Writing different chapters from different points of view has been a standard for centuries. Mary Shelly did it in Frankenstein. Faulkner did it. Heck, even William Shakespeare did it. It was fairly common for different scenes of Will’s plays to jump to different locations and focus on different characters. If it was good enough for him… well, who am I to say that doesn’t work?
In the Ex-Heroes series I switch from third person to first-person every third or fourth chapter. That first person point of view is entirely contained within the chapter, though.
Markers – This is like the chapter method but on a smaller scale. Stephen King uses this one a lot. He’ll be writing from one character’s point of view and then use a set of markers or flags to make it clear a shift has happened.
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The readers continued to scroll down through the page, gleaning small clues and hints. Some of the tips were subtle, other direct, and everyone took a little something different. A few of the readers shook their heads and scoffed at the ideas being presented, convinced that they had a better grasp of what writing really involved and how it should be treated. They mocked the idea of limiting creativity with rules or even loose guidelines. But most of the readers saw the simple truths the blogger was trying to get across, and they got some useful tips from the post.
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See how the narrative shifted there? But you accepted it—both times—because of the markers. They let you know what was coming next was different from what you were just reading.
In a way, this is one of the oldest methods. Lots of old novels were done in the epistolary style, and this gave the reader an automatic, familiar marker for the start and close of each viewpoint. I try to use this method in the non-flashback chapters of the Ex-Heroes series.
Do It As Little As Possible—Some people think switching viewpoints is hip and edgy, so they do it as often as possible, in as many ways as possible. There’s nothing wrong with this in theory, but—like flashbacks—there needs to be a real reason for it. If I’m just switching viewpoints to switch viewpoints… well… that’s going to get old really quick.
Lots of books have three main characters and spend alternating chapters with each one. As mentioned above, though, these characters rarely come in halfway through the manuscript. It’s clear from the beginning that these are the points of view the book will use and it sticks to them.
Don’t Do It At All– this is a bit challenging, but if you can pull it off your readers will love you for it. Just stay in one voice—one viewpoint—for the entire story. No cutaways or cheats.
There are certain drawbacks to this method. If I never switch viewpoints everything has to come from the same direction. If I’ve chosen to tell the entire story from Yakko’s first-person point of view, then everything that happens has to meet Yakko’s language, his experiences, his knowledge base. But this can make for a very, very powerful story if done right.
And there you have it. A quick (well, not that quick) overview of different viewpoints, and a few tips on how to use them in your stories.
Next week… well, later this week, really… it’s Christmas. I’m enjoying some time off, to be honest. But maybe I’ll put up something about the year in review and we can all see how well my time was spent. And maybe talk about yours, too.
Until then, have some eggnog. And try to write a little bit.