Friday, August 03, 2012

Friday Night at the Questiom Emporium-bonus round

I have a question about point of view. I’ve done some research about it but I only get results about advantages and disadvantages for using first person or third person... I was wondering if I wrote a book where I switched from writing from one person’s perspective in one chapter and wrote the next chapter from another person’s point of view, would that be strange?

Chapter 1 – Her POV
Chapter 2 – His POV

Would that be considered strange? Would it be accepted, or would I have to rewrite everything and make the whole book from either “her” point of view or “his” point of view? 

You can do anything you want, you just have to do it well.

In my opinion it's VERY hard to write alternating first person POV.  The only time I've seen it done so well it made me weep with joy is on an unpublished novel by a client of mine.  And yea, unpublished should be a clue there.  Even written well, it's a tough sell.

Less tough but still hard to do: alternating first POV for one character and third POV for the second main character.

These kinds of questions about style though are better answered by actual writers.  I am not a writer, I just play one on Blogger.

Excellent advice can be found in a variety of sources not the least of which is

There will be other suggestions in the comments column of this blog post. Research all of them. Don't discount any advice until you've tried what is suggested.  I'm often surprised that other people know more than I do.  Often enough that I've had to stop thinking I know it all. Talk about a shock.


anya* said...

I recently read The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater {adored!} and it does just this. Alternating 1st person POV each chapter, guy/girl to boot! So, it is done, and in my opinion, this author did it very well {read: I was crying alone in my bed at the end}.

Morgan Hyde said...

There's also always the option of writing third person for it all, but alternate who is the "main" character - the one whose head you're inside.

Anne-Marie said...

The Pigman by Paul ZIndel did it beautifully. Still one of my favourite books of all time.

A.J. Cattapan said...

A good example of an alternating first-person POV book is the YA romance Flipped by Wendelin van Draanen. It's a great "He said/She said" story that even eighth grade boys like. No joke! I had two eighth grade boys in my summer reading class who chose (of their own free will) to read this book, and they both told me they really enjoyed it!

Unknown said...

M.J. Scott does it with the "Half-Light City" series. Each book starts a romance for a particular couple and the chapters alternate in first person between the male and female characters (who, of course, eventually fall in love). It is published through Penguin (Roc).

Kari Lynn Dell said...

I may be misreading but I didn't see where you specified alternating first person POV, which seems to be the question everyone is answering. Alternating third person POV is more common, depending on the genre, but the story should dictate the POV. There has to be a compelling need to get inside a particular character's head, not just that it's easier to convey information that way.

Lately I've managed to pick up several books that not only alternate POV but pass it around amongst multiple characters. In the Louise Penny book I read the only character who didn't get a POV was the dog, and that was only because there wasn't a dog. Probably not something you want to attempt at home, though.

Dale Bishop said...

There are so many different opinions on this, and a lot of people...editors...hate the idea of head hopping. But I've written novels in the third person and switched from one POV to the other in different chapters and it helps explain the story and move it forward in many cases. But I kept the POV the constant in each chapter and didn't head hop. An excellent example of this would be Anne Tyler's "Digging to America."

Unknown said...

I wrote half a book from one person's perspective (a sixteen- year-old girl), and then I realized I was only telling half the story. I went back and rewrote the first half of the book to include alternating third person POV between the boy and the girl, and the book sold. If you want to tell the story from both sides, you can definitely do it, as long as both people have a story to tell.

Joelle said...

I can't recall if Sara Zarr's latest, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE is in first person POV or not, but it does alternate between two characters and it's beautifully done. I'll second the FLIPPED recomendation, although I listened on audio, so it was pretty obvious when it changed as it had male/female narrators. Also, A.S. King's novel PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ has several POVs and that is a brilliant novel.

BP said...

I second A.J.! Van Draanen's "Flipped" is an incredible, inspiring piece of work with a double POV. I'm thinking it works so well for Flipped because the PLOT is ENHANCED by being inside the minds of two teens of whom we normally would be thinking: What the heck were/are they thinking!

If a particular plot LENDS itself to being told in double POV, it will probably turn out better than a double POV just written for the heck of things. My two cents! ;D

steeleweed said...

Two distinct POV work very well in Robert Gover's "$100 Misunderstanding", largely because the opposing POVs constitute the premise of the novel, or at least the mechanism that drives the action. It's also worth reading as an example of dialect, since each POV is uniquely expressed.

Consider the reader when contemplating POV:
In a short story I once had a young man approaching a house in the middle of the night:
An owl hooted.
He opened the door.

I commented that I was dissatisfied with the sentence, since technically the 'he' referred to the most recent noun: 'owl'. My brother scoffed that nobody would take 'he' to refer to the owl. I replied that an owl might.

Wendy Qualls said...

The most important thing about POV is that it make sense to the reader. Nobody outside the publishing industry is going to sit down and say "Wait, you've been in the heroine's head for three chapters in a row! You need to switch now!"

That said, there are some conventions which do make POV easier to follow. Don't swap from one POV to another several times in the same scene. Don't use language your POV character doesn't know or wouldn't use. Don't describe things your character couldn't see/know while in that character's POV. (Example: "Sue felt her cheeks warm" versus "Sue flushed" - the former is in Sue's POV, while the latter has to be the POV of someone who can actually see Sue's cheeks.)

I was surprised recently - I went back to re-read a series by one of my favorite authors. I hadn't read her books since I started my own first novel. These books - these wonderful books I had loved so much - head-hopped all over the place! I didn't notice before, but now I'm paying attention and it really did detract from the story. So the moral of the story is even though a casual reader may not notice, it's good to learn the rules before you try to break them.

Anonymous said...

Justine larbelestier (sp?) did differing POVs really well in her MAGIC OR MADNESS trilogy

Fiona Paul said...

I am going to add THE LIST by Siobhan Vivian as a book to check out. It has EIGHT POVs and they all move the story along. (Admittedly, they are 3rd person, not 1st person, because that would be insane.)

Other dual POV books you might want to check out: Under the Never Sky, Legend, the Shiver trilogy

Jane Lebak said...

I don't see where the questioner specified that it was alternating first person POVs. It could just as easily be two third-person POVs, and that's perfectly fine.

Personally, I dislike alternating first person POVs, but I've seen it done well. It would not be considered strange in either first or third, though. Alternating first person with third person makes me retire to the fainting couch, though. :-)

The key with alternating first person POVs is to make sure the voices are sufficiently different that the readers know whom they're listening to, and at the same time to make sure one narrator doesn't know what the other one knows, especially if they're very distant and you've got them echoing one another.

Colin Smith said...

Let's face it: we've all read books that break "the rules." Alternating points of view, multiple points of view, telling and showing, prologs out the wazoo, starting with dialog--you name it, it's been done. How do they get published? Why did we read these books? Because they were great novels. Everything I've read from agents and writers, as well as the books I've read tell me that really the only rule is: write the most excellent piece of literature you can. Everything else is just guidance and suggestion.

That's my tuppence. :)

Anonymous said...

This person is asking about two different things.

Deciding which point-of-view to use is not the same as deciding whether to write in first person or third.

You can write a scene from the POV of any character in the scene, if you have a good reason. It's difficult to tell a story from just one POV because that character has to be in EVERY SCENE. But if you have too many POV characters in one book, it can be confusing to the reader to see things from so many different perspectives. Depending on the story, it might be more effective to see/feel things from just one perspective. Or two. Maybe three or four. I've heard many writers say that deciding *which* POV to use for a scene depends on which character has the most at stake in the scene.

First person vs. third is an entirely different issue. It's the difference between using "I" and "she/he."

A couple quick examples off the top of my head, because even silly examples are sometimes more instructive than, well, instructions:

Joe's POV in THIRD person:
Joe stepped onto the wooden staircase, hesitant in the dark, and heard the low-pitched growl of a dog. He froze for a moment, not knowing were the dog was or whether it was chained. The growl grew louder and he heard the scrabble of nails on the worn deck boards above him, then the thundering weight of the dog as it charged down the stairs, barking. He turned and ran toward the fence, imagining he could feel the hot breath of the dog on the back of his bare vulnerable legs.

Joe's POV in FIRST person:
I stepped onto the bottom rung of the staircase, slowly, because I couldn't see a thing in the dark. Was that a growl? I stood very still, listening. Sam hadn't told me the Martin's had a dog. Did they chain it? The growl grew louder and I could hear the dog's nails scraping the wooden deck boards right before it came charging down the stairs at me, barking to wake the dead. I turned and ran. I could almost feel the hot breath of the beast on the back of my legs and hoped the damn thing wouldn't follow me over the chain link fence.

Fluffy's POV in FIRST person:
I heard the intruder put a foot in my space right before I smelled him. Sweat and fear. I growled a warning. The intruder didn't leave. He just stood there, waiting. Idiot. They didn't call me "Fluffy" for nothing. That bastard was going down. I heaved myself up from the rug and scrabbled across the weathered wood and threw myself down the stairs, growling and barking a warning to my owners. I raced after him across the lawn, feeling the recent lack of my daily walk, and hoped he didn't get to the fence before I could sink my teeth into the back of a leg.

Very rough, but you get the idea. Making those choices depends on the story and what you think is the best way to tell it. Personally, I don't want to read an entire novel from Fluffy's POV. Unless you do it really really well. Then, you know, I might.

Hope that was helpful. And not merely pretentious.

[Huh. Preview window looks really weird. Hope this doesn't break the blog.]

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

I've read many many novels with alternating points of view and the majority of them by far do so quite successfully - even if it is 3rd to 1st.

The most recent novel I read that shifted POV was a YA novel by Madeline George - The Difference Between You and Me - where she not only shifted POV from 1st to 3rd, but would also throw in tense (past vs present). This, admittedly, did not work quite as successfully. (Eleanor Brown, author of The Weird Sisters used 3rd person plural, btw, although it didn't shift - I am still uncertain about how I feel about how she used that POV.)

I really feel the narrative shift works quite well as long as the characters' voices come through.

arsenio ball said...

I am afraid I'm going to have to break my tradition of blog-lurking-but-rarely-commenting to disagree.

Alternating first person has been around for quite a long time, and been done quite successfully. (Success is subjective, of course, because frankly most books don't make me want to weep with joy.)

Somebody already mentioned THE PIGMAN above me, and that book is a damned classic and Paul Zindel is possibly flawless in every way.

But even in more modern YA, just off the top of my head I'm thinking of the ACROSS THE UNIVERSE series, WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON, Michael Grant & KA Applegate's upcoming EVE & ADAM, Katie McGarry's PUSHING THE LIMITS, and more (including a title I don't want to name because the POV could be a spoiler).

Alternating first person with third, on the other hand, strikes me as WEIRD, and I can think of very few books that do it - and no YA off the cuff. (This doesn't mean it doesn't exist! But I would consider it far more radical than dual-1st.)

KayC said...

Marie Lu's LEGEND is from alternating first person POV and is very entertaining.

Stuart Neville said...

A good novel that plays with POV is The Prestige by Christopher Priest. If you've seen the Chris Nolan adaptation, you'll understand why the trick was employed.

For novels, I tend to stick with third person, and I'll have between three to five POV characters. In a couple of cases, I have a single chapter from one person's POV where they get bumped off, but that's kind of a different case. I very often alternate chapters between POV, but I very, very rarely switch within a chapter (usually if a character is relating what someone else has told them, and I switch to make easier reading), and I never, ever switch within a scen, which is often called head-hopping. Mind you, Dan Brown head-hops constantly, and it doesn't seem to have harmed his sales.

Nancy Lee Badger said...

I read one book in our romance book club by a well-known author. Each chapter was 1st person and she went back and forth. The problem? As a reader I had no idea who was speaking! I writer 3rd person and make sure readers know when POV has changed AND I do it 'cause I LOVE writing from a man's POV.

Anonymous said...

One of my all time favourite books, The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy does this beautifully. A family story told by three family member's point of view.

Bukash/ Lyudmyla Mayorska said...

I'm thrilled to see this post, because that's exactly what my manuscript looks like (four characters telling the same story as it unfolds)! I'm a little bit nervous to find out that it is a tough sell.

Shaunna said...

Barbara Kingsolver's THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is another great example to check out. Four distinct narrators with 1st person POVs. Masterfully done.