Writing Tip – POV Switching

The first book I read that switched between 1st person and 3rd person point of view was Charles Stross’s The Rhesus Chart. At first it was the normal 1st person POV I’d come to expect from Stross, but then there were little bits of 3rd person POV that popped up. It threw me for a moment because it was unexpected, but the POV change was handled skillfully enough that it added a dimension to the narrative rather than pulling me out of the story. In a way, it was more like the chorus in Greek tragedies – those folks that told what was happening when the action on the stage wasn’t happening.

I don’t know if this is a new thing – this hopping between the depth of focus that comes from 1st person narrative to the breadth of knowledge that comes from 3rd person – but it seems to be getting more popular. I guess you could make a serious argument that it’s not at all. See the previous comment about the Greek chorus.

We had a little discussion about these swaps in an IASD thread on Facebook last week and it kind of got me wondering about the pros and cons. My Henchmen series is written exclusively in 1st person. Most of the stories and the entire (such as it is) Saxton series is 3rd person. In my limited experience, both have their ups and downs.

The primary con, of course, is switching from 1st person to 3rd person can throw the reader for a loop if it’s not handled well. One second you’re deep in the narrator’s head, feeling their feels and seeing the world through their eyes. The next you’re in a boardroom with a bunch of guys in suits smoking and trying to figure out what is to be done with this situation.

whatamilookingat

And then you’re back in the main character’s head, safely ensconced in his or her understanding of the world.

Writing is an oddball thing, because in addition to telling a story, you’re also teaching the reader how to read it. You have to give them clues about how to interpret the story because even the most avid reader can’t read your mind. If your POV swaps aren’t understandable your readers will get confused and surly. Next thing you know your book is tossed across the room in favor of some lackluster yarn about Bigfoot’s constant need for sex or the trials and tribulations of a harem of women kept by Velociraptors.

Think about this way: let’s say you’ve got a test coming up for your English lit class and it contains questions about calculating the distance between two Latitude/Longitude pairs (use a Haversine formula) and when the Battle of Hastings was (1066). Or think about the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail – that serious WTF moment when they all get arrested.

Those serious WTF moments are things that are best avoided in fiction lest you come to be known as one of those difficult authors and your readers start hyperventilating. Or worse, stop buying your books. Next thing you know, you’ll walk into a used bookstore and see a stack of your books for sale a quarter a pop.

This is kind of what I look like when I try to describe my books.

Does that mean you should never switch back and forth between 3rd person and 1st person? Absolutely not. 1st person POV and 3rd person POV have pluses and minuses. 1st person is great when there’s a limited cast and you want to tell a more intimate tale. Not intimate as in intimate, intimate as in connecting with the reader. 3rd person is great for larger casts and more complex story lines. Think in terms of the spread of information. 1st person is narrow and usually focused, but the narrator only knows what he or she directly experiences or what other characters tell him or her. 3rd person has a larger amount of information available, but is less intimate.

Personally, and this is just my guess here, I think Stross used the intermingled 3rd person scenes in The Rhesus Chart to explain some technicalities without having to resort to information dumps or direct experience that simply wouldn’t fit in with the narrative. He used it in a limited scope and it allowed him to provide information to the reader even if the narrator wasn’t privy to it. That way, Stross could explain why things were happening the way they were in a less obtrusive manner and avoid the dreaded information dump.

lexington-medical-document-dump
What an information dump might look like.

To tell the truth, I’m using a variation on this theme with the Saxton series. Since that’s written in 3rd person, it allows for a larger cast of characters. In a way, the Saxton stories and some of the stories in The Clock Man provide the information dump that the narrator of Henchmen wouldn’t know.

So, are there any hard and fast rules about switching point of view back and forth from 1st person to 3rd person and back again? No, not really. Most people seem to agree that switches like that should handled in an obvious manner: switch at a scene, switch at a chapter break. Whatever you choose to do, make it obvious that a switch has occurred. As long as it’s obvious what’s going on, you’ve done your job as a teller of stories and a teacher of readers. If you switch willy-nilly, things can get confused and that’s a bad state to have your reader in. Especially if you want them to buy more of your books.

tldr

  • It’s possible to switch back and forth between 1st person and 3rd person POV
  • There are no real rules that prohibit it, but you can usually ignore rules anyway
  • The only rule that really matters is make sure you don’t confuse your reader

What are your thoughts? Drop a comment. I promise I’ll respond.

Advertisements

19 thoughts on “Writing Tip – POV Switching

    1. I agree Bryan. There is some cringeworthy stuff out there by authors who thought they were writing something ‘groundbreaking’, which was true because they took the support from under the building. 🙂

      1. Groundbreaking and rule breaking can be good as long as they don’t damage the story. When the support for the building goes, well, we all know what happens to the building.

    2. It’s really easy to mess it up and unless you have someone on the outside telling you, “Hey, this is screwed up,” it’s really difficult to figure out on your own. We tend to understand what we expect the reader to know, but that’s never a safe assumption since they’ve got their own expectations and understandings and ours and theirs don’t always mesh.

  1. An excellent article Eric and timely for me, since I recently read a story where this peculiar idea was used, but not in a good way. I follow your reasoning throughout your piece, and one area I was delighted to see was the idea of using an accepted story ‘break’ for the switch.
    When changing scene, or changing chapter the reader is programmed to accept what’s coming, so if a change of POV happens early in the story, the reader will readily accept they’ve got a two-way thing going on. I’ve read books by top authors who’ve used alternating chapters for Ist person / 3rd person, and it’s a joy to read.
    My recent experience of the 1st / 3rd change was not a good one. I would say the ‘style’ didn’t work, but it wasn’t a workable style because too many rules were broken. If too many rules are broken, the foundations of the story are affected. On occasion, two POV were used in the same paragraph – which is a non-starter. It eats at the reader’s confidence, or at least this reader’s confidence regarding the writing.
    A good story, great characters, superb imagery, and the magic of fiction are all for nothing if on one line we’re in the character’s head, and the next line we’re in a clandestine meeting in a different city.
    On a personal note, I use 3rd person in most of my work, but in a five-part novel I’m producing (where each book is novel-length), I’m writing the entire work in 1st person POV, because there is a need to let the reader experience life with the character – not simply read about the life.
    To return to your article, I’m in agreement with an author like you experimenting with such a style, because you’ve already established your credentials, but the POV switch is not something for the debut fiction author. Of course if such a person did try this style, it would take several thorough edits to weed out the issues.
    Once again, a great piece which I’ll reblog.

    1. Much thanks, Tom. Novel-wise, I’m mostly in 1st person, but I’ve got short stories in 3rd and a novel I’m working on in 3rd. It takes a different way of thinking in 3rd to avoid head hopping all the time. I haven’t done the 1st 3rd switch and I’m not sure I ever will, unless I can find a way to make it work smoothly.

  2. As a reader I’m going to say my rule is never ever in the middle of a sentence. I might go so far as to say never within a paragraph. I read both of these this weekend and if they had been things I could have put down I would have. They were so jarring.

    I have read it done beautifully though. I may have to send this post along to someone with my notes, so thank you.

    1. I concur. Switching in a sentence or a paragraph is really jarring. At the very least make a new paragraph, but it would be best to have a new scene. When it’s done right, it’s amazing. Done poorly and it can push me right out of a story.

  3. Reblogged this on Indie Lifer and commented:
    Good discussion on POV. I think the POV should fit the needs of the story. Readers should have intimacy with some characters, with others, they shouldn’t. Well-crafted POV changes provide the writer with another tool to manipulate the reader’s thoughts and emotions in relation to the story.

  4. I recently read Frank Delaney’s novel,Tipperary, in which he uses multiple first person. I certainly found it confusing at first, but as I got into the book it worked out OK. There’s the first narrator who has discovered a journal; then there’s the journal. The original narrator slips in commentary on the journal entries at frequent intervals (including references to the real historical context). Later two more characters’ journals and letters are presented, also, of course, written in first person.

    1. Interesting. I haven’t read much in multiple 1st person. I would think developing each character’s voice would be a daunting task at best. I’ll have to look that one up. Thanks!

  5. Reblogged this on Frank Parker's author site and commented:
    An interesting article on switching between first and third person in the same work of fiction. If you open the original you will find, in the comments, my note about an author who used several first person characters in thee same novel. As a test of your knowledge of Irish literature, try guessing the book and author before you look!

    1. I think it comes down to personal preference. I’ve done 1st person and 3rd person and, depending on the complexity of the story, both have their merits. 1st person gets tough to navigate when you have things happening simultaneously because you have to shoehorn those actions into the narrative somehow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s