Monday, January 19, 2015

Query question: POV questions

My adult suspense/thriller WAS 3rd person, multiple characters. In revisions, I saw the error in my ways and cut back to two characters. Many Critique Partners recommended putting the main character in 1st (something I toyed with anyway). Now, yet another CP suggested putting my other POV character in 1st.

I have not seen many adult thrillers with alternating 1st POV characters (other than GONE GIRL). But I HAVE heard that lots of editors HATE the 1st/3rd combo.

What is your opinion?

My opinion should not matter here. I haven't read the book. You should do only what the story requires. Do you absolutely need the intimacy of first person in both points of view? Do you need distance in one POV and intimacy in the other?  What the story needs is what drives the structure.

That said, I think it's extremely difficult to carry off two distinct points of view in first person in a novel. Yes, Gillian Flynn did it brilliantly in Gone Girl.  Yes, that was the brilliant exception to a lot of very bad manuscripts I've seen over the years.

There's a lot to be said for straight forward third person omniscient in a suspense novel.  I like close third person a lot because it gives the writer lots more flexibility with getting plot on the page.

But again, this is YOUR story, and you should do what the story needs.   It's easy for critique partners to suggest changes and sometimes they can see things you didn't but for structural things like POV, absent a huge gaping problem, you should decide and stick to it. Be confident in your choices.


french sojourn said...

"You should do only what the story requires."

Absolutely love the purity of that truth. When I read a book, I release myself to the writer. I let the writer take my inner eye and travel the path they lead me. If I have to fight the path, chances are I detach from the book and start another.

In my writing, I form the story and plot minefields and try to direct the reader close enough to the mines without triggering them. But not so far away that they feel isolated. Great post as usual.

Cheers Hank

Kitty said...

Whenever I read a post on tinkering with the 'normal' POV, I think of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City. It's as famous for its 2nd person POV as the story itself, which was supposedly something of a roman à clef.

I've often wondered if McInerney had to really sell the 2nd person, because some people have a knee-jerk reaction to it, or did his writing sell it for him?

If my experience reading his book is any indication, I say his writing was the selling point; the novelty of 2nd person POV was a bonus. Because, it was years before I realized it was written in the 2nd person, and it was even longer when I realized the protagonist had no name.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Problem for me, (first person is my drug of choice), regarding fiction, I don't know what the story requires.
I am so used to what goes on inside my own head it's hard to stand back and rule the world any other way.
However, even though my column, and all the rest, are always about me, I am easily able to summersault into someone else's head.
Maybe it's simply my comfort zone or maybe I have perfected a new kind of psychoanalytical brain surgery via keystrokes and imagination. (Nah)
Like I said, I am not sure that's what the story requires but it sure feels good to escape my brain for someone elses.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Yes, Hank, that sentence resonated with me too.

And Janet, I so appreciate your affirmation of authors--Be confident in your choice--to do the best we can. A writer's attempt to balance our gut instinct with crit partners input alongside the continual learning of our craft is, I find, a tricky proposition.

Anonymous said...

When I began the third project, I was comfy using 1st person POV, and I immediately began that story like I'd done the first two. I popped a hundred pages over to The Editor, and she gave this feedback, "this character sounds like your others. Try third person."

I scrapped the pages and started over, in close 3rd person, while also alternating POV's between the protagonist and antagonist.

I really can appreciate this comment by The Shark, "be confident in your choices," because once the project was finished, The Editor still wanted quite a few other changes. I made only a few of her suggestions, but not all. Based on feedback I received from a group of unbiased Test Readers, as well as my agent's, I feel I made the right choices for the story. This may not seem like much, but this was a HUGE step for me. I mean, to NOT make changes The Editor recommended, The Editor I'd viewed with the same awe and reverence as The Shark?

Dang. Didn't I feel brave. Now I'm just nervous, but I still feel those decisions were right for the story.

Susan Bonifant said...

I love the subject of confidence, something that comes with practicing a thing so often we can't remember being bad at it. But learning to trust our instincts is part of that, and it's not easy or quick for the writer dog paddling in the sea of what-agents-really-want.

When I was a wee woodland creature, I changed the genre of my book on the advice of one agent at a conference. I rewrote, submitted the full at her request and never heard from her again, despite (very polite) follow up emails.

The book had other problems, and she might have been right, but I still recall how easy it was as a beginning writer to trust a stranger's advice over my very fragile instincts.

Today, I believe that the best book evolves of knowing when to honor advice, but when to trust instinct to keep us true to our work.

SiSi said...

"Be confident in your choices" is sometimes at war with "Be willing to take constructive criticism and kill your darlings." I am not good at knowing the difference, but I'm getting better. I think the point you make about the needs of the story is the key. If I can step out of my own ego and focus on the needs of the story I often see the "right" answer clearly.

Until later when I start worrying if that really is the "right" answer.

Dena Pawling said...

CAVEATS: All legal briefs are third-omniscient [because we're trying to sound like gods, that we know it all] and all trials, by necessity, are first person, alternating between the MC POV and minor character's POV. Also, I am not yet published, so what do I know?

I have two MS right now. The one I'll be querying in about two months is written in first person. I wrote the first chapter both in first and in close third, and the first was a much better read, so that's what I used. [I also like Janet Evanovich, so that might have been a factor.]

My second MS is sitting right now, for several reasons, not the least of which is that, despite this story being much different than what's currently published, urban fantasy/paranormal is saturated right now. It also needs “something”, which something I haven't yet figured out. But anyway, it is alternating POV, one being the alien [it's a fish out of water story]. She starts out NOT thinking in English, so I can't use first person with her chapters, it sounds much too strange. Her chapters are close third. The other MC right now is also third, altho I might consider writing a chapter in first and see what that does to the feel of the story.

A few months ago, Larry Brooks [] had a really interesting sample on his site, of “what's wrong with this manuscript”. I read the sections of the manuscript he'd posted, and they sounded fine to me, but his analysis was “your writing style lends itself better to third person”. She'd written in first. And re-reading the section again and making the changes mentally, he was right, third sounded so much better.

So that's what I recommend. Write your first chapter in 2-3 different POV, read it, ask a few other people to read it, and see which one sounds best. Then go with that one.

Anonymous said...

Holy rolling armadillos. What a timely topic. We're having the same discussion on Books and Writers. One of the writers has been posting snippets from her wip and she's having problems with her pov. What makes it even more difficult for her is she's deaf and English is her second language. Given these drawbacks, she does remarkably well, but she hits a few speed bumps. POV is one of them.

Diana Gabaldon does an alternating 1st person and 3rd person. It was hard for me to get used to it when I started reading her. I beta read for someone else who does that also and it's still disconcerting for me. It's beautifully written, but it jerks me out of the story when the pov switches from 1st to 3rd. My little red pencil comes out and starts mentally correcting.

I like close third because it gives me the intimacy, but it's not so confusing when I switch pov characters. Hey, epic fantasy, don't judge me.

" you should decide and stick to it. Be confident in your choices."

Money line.

Colin Smith said...

"But again, this is YOUR story, and you should do what the story needs."

That's the advice you need to hear, writer friend. If the story is screaming at you in a particular POV, then go with it. If you're not sure, ask yourself questions like:

* How emotionally intense is the story? How closely do I want the reader to feel what the MC feels?

* How important is it that the reader is as surprised by plot developments as the MC?

* Do I want the reader to have a broader perspective of the story than the MC? Perhaps there are multiple plot threads with minor characters that your MC isn't aware of, but play into the main plot.

* What's the focus of your story: solving a mystery step-by-step, knowing the solution to the mystery and seeing how your MC solves it (like Columbo), the hunt for a bad guy, or the unraveling of a deadly scheme? I think you can use pretty much any POV for these scenarios, but some favor particular POVs more than others (e.g., Columbo-style is probably best as 3rd Omniscient; the step-by-step would be 1st or 3rd Limited like Harry Potter).

Bottom line: Listen to the story and do what's right by it.

Janet says she likes close third, but...

* Gary Corby's Athenian Mysteries are 1st person.

* PURGATORY CHASM by Steve Ulfelder is 1st Person

* NUMB by Sean Ferrell is 1st Person

* EVEN by Andrew Grant is 1st Person

* INDEFENSIBLE by Lee Goodman is 1st Person

And she repped all these. I venture it's not because she's lying about preferring close 3rd, but because these are great stories, and the POV fit.

There's my tuppenceworth for the day. :)

Alice Gabathuler said...

I have 3 First in one of my YA thrillers. Call it gut feeling. It just felt right. Became one of my best sold books (yes, I expected the publisher's veto, and no, there was none).

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Jodi Picoult also does multiple POV novels (except her first couple, I guess?) and I think they're always in first (and with a font change to help you out too!). I'm not a terrific fan of her books, but we can hardly keep them on the shelves at the library.

Anonymous said...


"So that's what I recommend. Write your first chapter in 2-3 different POV, read it, ask a few other people to read it, and see which one sounds best. Then go with that one."

Agreed. My beta reader who is spot on 99.999% of the time told me I wasn't going deep enough with the pov character in some scenes and recommended I rewrite them in 1st person.

Now I'm not going to rewrite the whole manuscript with her in 1st, but the exercise did take me deeper in her head.

Karen McCoy said...

Brilliantly timed post! I'm wrestling with this in the novel I'm editing. It started with five POVs (yikes), and I shaved it down to three. On this next go-round, I'll be shaving it down to two. (Or I may have to do what Dena suggested.)

So far, it seems to work in first person, but this reminds me to keep an discerning eye in case it becomes too jarring (I am definitely not Gillian Flynn, after all).

Charlotte Levine Gruber said...

As usual, Janet Reid gets great questions, and offers spot-on advice. Jodi Picoult, Diana Gabaldon and Gillian Flynn ALL do multiple POVs--but not in debut novels. At least not in alternating 1st POV.

IMO, GONE GIRL worked so well because we first met Amy in a diary.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure Diana Gabaldon has always written in an alternating POV.

Kyler said...

Ah, finally had my novel published with 4 pts of view (first person narrators) - and one respected editor (who praised it, but declined) said this is something that most writers can't achieve. A few people said the characters sounded the same, but I never trusted those comments. I had read the entire thing out loud, and I know they were distinctly different. You, Janet, were one of my early champions! You encouraged me so much. I don't think I'll ever write a novel with multiple POV's again, but glad I tried it this one outrageous time.

James Ticknor said...

Janet is correct. As with the query question this week, use what works. For my trilogy, the first two books are limited 3rd person, focusing on only the MC. However, the third book MUST be written from multiple POV. I see no other way around it. As sure as I am of this move, I have never read of a series that has done this. I'm sure I'm not the first, but Google yields no results to my question. Regardless, I know it's right, and I press on.

Anonymous said...

"As sure as I am of this move, I have never read of a series that has done this."

Game of Thrones is written in multiple close povs.

James Ticknor said...

Julie, what I mean is a series where the first book is entirely singular POV. Then, it changes to multiple POV later in the series.

Laina said...

Oh, hey, I know a thing.

Lori Landeland's Nightcreature series switched from 1st to 3rd like 10 books in. I was not a huge fan of the switch.

I reviewed a couple books recently that had both 1st and 3rd in the same book, and I generally felt the 1st was stronger. Something to keep in mind.

RobCeres said...

40K into 1st person POV I realized that I was too passive. I said "I thought... I did... I felt... I saw..." way too much. Also, I was telling way, way to much, and I was turning into a terribly unlikable Narcissist.

He switched to 3rd and stripped all that stuff away. He did this and they did that. All the inner thoughts vanished, speeding up the plot and leaning out the writing. But the critique partners objected to the finished novel. The main character was now too detached, too blank, and they couldn't figure out the inside of his head.

I went back to first (UGH!) But the stripped style, the active vice passive, the showing vice telling, the fast clip to the plot, all still there. The main character lost all his vanity. And (thank heavens) just enough internal monolog came in to flesh him out.