Jude Hardin

Author, Drummer, Turtle Whisperer

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Location: United States

Monday, September 11, 2006

Splitting The Scene, Part Two: Point Of View

Here's the deal: Unless you're Larry McMurtry, you probably want to stick to one point of view per scene. Some novels are limited to a single point of view throughout. Revelation: THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. The trend in modern thrillers is to have multiple points of view, but unless you've developed some serious writing chops it's better to keep it simple.

Question: What's the difference between first person point of view and limited third person point of view?

Answer: Nothing.

That's right. In both cases, you're limited to the perceptions of a single character. Only the proper nouns and pronouns are different. Here's an example of first person narrative:

I entered Brittney's cell phone number as a speed dial on my phone, reached into the glove box and pulled out a package of nylon strap ties. I put the package in my pocket and walked to Duck's front door, phone in my left hand and shotgun with no name in my right. The house was quiet. I knocked. Duck answered, smiling as though he'd been expecting someone. I pressed the barrel of the shotgun against his double chin. He stopped smiling.

Let's say I want to write in third person instead:

Colt entered Brittney's cell phone number as a speed dial on his phone, reached into the glove box and pulled out a package of nylon strap ties. He put the package in his pocket and walked to Duck's front door, phone in his left hand and shotgun with no name in his right. The house was quiet. Colt knocked. Duck answered, smiling as though he'd been expecting someone. Colt pressed the barrel of the shotgun against Duck's double chin. He stopped smiling.

In both cases, we're limited to what Colt sees, hears, feels, etc. So the choice between first and third is largely personal preference and, sometimes (as in the case of my PI novel), tradition. If you start getting into another character's head, then it's time for a scene break or a chapter break.

Can you mix first and third in the same novel? Sure. J.A. Konrath does it successfully in his debut Whiskey Sour. The heroine's scenes are in first person past tense, and the villain's scenes are in third person present. James Patterson mixes POVs in his Alex Cross novels too. Mostly, though, it's better to stick with one or the other throughout, especially for beginning writers. If you're going to use multiple points of view, the book should all be in third person, in my opinion. If you're writing in first person, that's the voice you should stick with throughout.

Everybody knows what omniscient point of view is, right? That's where a detached narrator sees all and knows all, like an eye in the sky. If I'd written the above excerpt from an omniscient point of view, the reader could have seen what Duck was doing before he opened the door, etc. Omniscient point of view is rarely used these days, and I think it's because readers are more sympathetic toward a character if they see the world through only that character's eyes.

What's your point of view on point of view?


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Jude:
For me, it all depends on what I am trying to convey. I couldn't have pictured writing THE ROOFER in anything but first person because the only way, to me, to show her flattened affect and the true chaos of that life in the Irish mob was for her to tell it.

Sometimes, I want to be wry or funny--and sometimes because of that the first-person viewpoint lets me slip in some observations in a more natural way.

Other times . . . I like getting to show the narrative in different POVs. It's a very conscious thing, before I get started, I think. Do I need the "voice" to be telling the story, or can I use POV shifts.


6:07 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Very well said, Erica.

Sometimes the story itself dictates which POV is most natural.

7:24 PM  
Blogger lainey bancroft said...

I have to agree, unless you are very skilled, mixing 1st and 3rd is a boo-boo. I've seen it done well, but I've seen it done horribly more often. Never tried it myself.
Erica, "before I get started, I think." hmm, could be where I go wrong, maybe when I've got a bit more experience under my belt? I have an annoying tendency to begin everything in the first person and charge merrily along until the story 'tells' me its mandatory for multiple pov, which forces me to go back...sometimes way back and ditch all the 1st person. But I do agree that if you listen carefully to your own story, it does tell you what works better.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Lainey:

My first novel went through several incarnations. At one point, I had around three hundred pages with several different POVs, and I read through it and thought, "Damn. Whose story IS this, anyway?" I scrapped all that and went to first person. The story was still there, it just unfolded in a different way. It's not a very good novel, but it taught me some invaluable lessons about how to proceed with my next.

I don't know how experienced you are, but for people just starting out--like me--I think it's best to keep the plot linear with a single POV. I like first person, and since I'm working on a PI novel it works well.

10:21 AM  
Blogger lainey bancroft said...

Hi Jude,
It just occurred to my much wandering little mind that at one point you were struggling with getting into the head of your 15 yr-o-gal, since you are writing in the first person, you don't have to do that. You need to go sit in a mall or on a park bench (please, no Jethro Tull Aqua lung type behaviors) and interpret teeny gal type actions through your PI's eyes. In first person, what she's thinking won't matter. It's what he thinks of her!

p.s I wouldn't call myself experienced, but I have written more than I care to admit for someone who has virtually done nothing with it. I'm most comfortable in the 1st person, but it doesn't always work. The trick for me now is figuring out if it's pov troubles I can 'cure' or if the entire damn story needs pitched?? On a good day, I'd say fifty-fifty on my completed mss, on a bad one, the recycle can runnith over ;-0

11:52 AM  
Blogger Kathy said...

What about the first person, present tense trend? I sit down and scoop up a pencil. Looking out the window, I see.....?

I'd like to tackle a first person, past tense POV, and have added that to my to-do list.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...


I think I still need to get inside my fifteen year-old's head. Even though all the perceptions are through Colt, I need to know how Brittney might act and react in certain situations. The only way to do that is to...think like a teenage girl.

One good way to get inside the head of your major characters is to write a few journal pages from their POV. The journals never make it into the finished product, of course, but they open a window to those characters' thoughts and feelings.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Kate:

I browse the bookstore a lot, and I've noticed that present tense trend. I've never bought a book written in that tense, though. To me, it's a bit unsettling. Call me old fashioned, but I think the way to tell a story is in past tense.

5:51 PM  

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