Playing with POV

Tense and point-of-view are a couple things I’ve played around with. To be perfectly honest, had I known where the Henchmen series wound up going I might have considered writing it in 3rd person. As that series gets more and more complicated, keeping it in Steven’s limited point of view gets harder and harder. On the other hand, by limiting it exclusively to 1st person, it allowed me to go a bit deeper into his head than would normally be acceptable in 3rd person.

Now I’m working on what some people would consider my first traditional book: Greetings From Sunny Aluna. It’s the first book I’ve seriously approached that’s outside the Henchmen series and it’s the first book I’m writing in 3rd person past tense. See, old dogs can learn new tricks. Even if those new tricks are actually really old tricks.

Why the switch? Honestly, there’s no real reason other than I felt like trying it out. As I started plotting out the novel, I realized I wanted to explore the world of Aluna through multiple eyes. That necessitated a change from 1st person to 3rd person. The tense change was arbitrary. I figured if I was going to shift things up, I may as well go full bore.

The whole thing has required a change in thinking. 1st person present tense allows for a depth of character that’s largely unprecedented anywhere else. 3rd person past tense doesn’t have that depth, but it does allow more things to happen simultuously. All in all, kind of a mixed bag.

Does that mean I’ll never got back to 1st person? Likely not. There is that last Henchmen novel to write and it would be weird to write one of the four books differently from the rest. For right now, though, I’m appreciating the breadth I can get into with 3rd person.

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For the handful of people out there unfamiliar with point of view and tense, here’s a quick refresher. Pick one that works and play with it. They all have their ups and downs and, no matter what anyone says, none are right or wrong. Never let anyone tell you how to tell the story you’re telling.

Tenses

Past: All the action takes place in the past. Past tense storytelling removes some of the immediacy of the story, but allows an author to manipulate time more easily.

Present: All the action takes place in the present. Present tense storytelling can add immediacy to the story and, if handled well, can draw a reader into what’s happening right now. The downside to present tense is it makes things foreshadowing more difficult.

Point of View

1st Person: The story is told from a single character’s point of view. It uses words like I and we to refer to the narrator. 1st person allows some serious depth of character development because the entire story is told through the eyes of the narrator. The downside to 1st person is it gets difficult to juggle plots where a lot of things are happening at the same time.

2nd Person: Fairly rare in fiction. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever come across one. 2nd person makes extensive use of you and yours. Think about the last letter you wrote to your grandma. And then about reading a letter the side of a novel.

3rd Person (limited and omniscient): 3rd person is, by far, the most common style of writing fiction. In 3rd person the narrator is telling a story and has either limited understand (limited) or complete understanding of the entire story (omniscient). The upside to 3rd person is it allows for complicated plots. The downside is authors tend to head hop and the narrator can seem distant.

What do you think? Do you have a favorite style to read or write in?

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.

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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.

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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.