Who’s on first? Who’s on third?

Just to let you all know, I’m copying the latest comments for the blog that came in to the website here rather than with last week’s post so they’re more likely to be read. Reminder, if you can post directly to the blog, please do because it’s easier for me, but if not, I’ll keep copying your comments over.

Now here goes with two questions about point of view (POV). On June 3, 2011, Rina wrote, I have a question regarding first-person narrators. In one story I’m writing, I worry about how I can possibly get my narrator to observe everything important to the plot. She’s not the most useful or important person. Should I use another narrator, change to third person, or just try to have her hanging around whenever something important happens?
And on June 10, 2011, ToNature wrote, …I usually write from first person but I decided for a new story I’m working on… that I would try to use third person. My problem is that though I’m writing about a person, my story sounds more like a dry biography than anything. I’ve read excellent books from 3rd person and have found it just as easy to get to know a character as when an author writes from 1st person, but I’m having trouble doing this myself. Do you have any suggestions?

Choice of POV character is one of the most important story decisions we make, and I sometimes take a long time making it. When I wrote Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right. I wrote about 300 pages from each of two wrong first-person POVs and another 300 from an omniscient third-person narrator before I found my final first-person POV character.

I wouldn’t wish this 900-page misery on anyone, but sometimes we have to fumble around for a while before we get the POV right. In Beloved Elodie, which I’m working on now, although I know that Elodie is my main first-person narrator, I’ve recently decided to add a few more first-person narrators who will chime in now and then. Part of my purpose is to solve exactly the problem Rina mentions. These other narrators will be able to report on events Elodie can’t be present for. However, until I thought of using other narrators, I didn’t plan for there to be important action at a distance from her.

Additional narrators can not only  inform the reader of what takes place elsewhere, they can also provide another perspective. In Ever, the chapters alternate between two main characters. Sometimes they’re separated, but often they’re together, and the reader (and I as I wrote) experiences what happens through two different sets of senses.

I’ve mentioned before that I love Terry Pratchett’s novels. He sometimes tells snippets of his story from his villain’s POV. These are usually teasers and don’t tell much, but the reader gets a glimpse into an evil mind, and the tension is heightened.

So using multiple first-person narrators is one way to present plot moments to your reader when your first-person narrator can’t be there. Writing in omniscient third person is another, of course. You can take a stretch of your story and try one way and then another. You need length for this, say fifty pages (maybe less), so you can narrate a few events and see how the perspectives work for you. Testing may bring clarity.

Rina writes that her POV character isn’t the most important in the story, and this is another decision to consider. A narrator who’s on the periphery can be fine. It works in The Great Gatsby and in the Sherlock Holmes tales, for example. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby doesn’t seem reflective enough to tell his own story, and there is the matter of the ending. In the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, author Arthur Conan Doyle may have decided that there would have been no suspense if Holmes himself had narrated. Doyle may even have tried to make Holmes the narrator. He may have attempted third-person, too, and may have torn out chunks of his hair deciding. I’m not a Sherlock Holmes or Arthur Conan Doyle scholar. Maybe he knew what he was doing from the start, or maybe he struggled like the rest of us.

If we choose a peripheral character’s point of view, however, there are challenges. This character may not be as emotionally engaged in what’s happening as the major players are, and she may have less at stake in the outcome. Then the reader will have less at stake too, and we may lose him.

It’s likely to be awkward to force our first-person POV character to be on the spot whenever plot developments happen. Luckily there are myriad other ways to keep her informed. If you’re writing a contemporary story, you have snail mail, email, texting, tweeting, cell phones, land-line phones, Facebook and the like, as well as news reports on radio and television. You can even make blogs convey information. If you’re writing a historical novel, you can use period methods: telegrams, messengers, smoke signals, whatever. If your genre is sci-fi or fantasy or the paranormal, the options are legion, and you can invent more. In Ella Enchanted I gave Ella a magic book to clue her in about events she wouldn’t know of otherwise.

A character’s absence can ratchet up the tension. Say for example that Marcus is under house arrest. His cell phone and computer have been confiscated. He found out just before his detention that his friend Michael is a spy. He needs to warn his pal and secret cellmate Millicent, who is to  meet Michael this afternoon – but he can’t. Will she reveal secrets Michael shouldn’t know? Aaa! She’ll endanger everyone and their cause. Marcus worries and the reader worries.

What’s more, in terms of tension, the main character can question the reliability of the intelligence he’s getting. Marcus sends a verbal message to Millicent through his neighbor’s young daughter. The daughter returns with a note from Millicent. Marcus is surprised that Millicent would put anything in writing. He wonders if the daughter actually delivered his message or delivered it to the right person, Millicent.

ToNature, I’m assuming you’ve chosen third person for plot reasons. You might try switching back to first person for the beginning of your story so you can get into your main character’s thoughts and emotions. Then, when you’re comfortable in her skin, translate what you’ve got back into third and keep going. If the writing gets stiff again, revert to first. If you have to, you can write a whole book in this back-and-forth way.

Or, you might pick a different first-person narrator, as I suggested before. Try choosing one who feels strongly about your main, an interesting character in his own right who can bring your story to life with his particular take on your main.

It’s also possible to shift between a first and third-person narrative. For those parts when your main can tell her own tale, let her. But when she can’t, have your third-person narrator step in – or a different first-person character.

Here are three prompts:

∙    Read or reread a Sherlock Holmes story; some are short. Tell it from Sherlock Holmes’s POV. He has a strange mind and is probably not a linear thinker. Reflect his thought process through his voice. What does he think of Dr. Watson?

∙    Continue the story of Marcus, stuck in his house while events swirl around him. Help him find out what’s going on and influence events.

∙    Tell the fairy tale Snow White from several points of view: the evil queen, the hunter, a dwarf, Snow White’s father, her pet gerbil, as reported in the castle gazette. Or pick a different fairy tale and other points of view. As I suggested before, rewrite a swath of one of your stories from several POVs.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. From the website:

    Sorry, I just realized I have one more thing that I'd like some advice about–from Mrs. Levine or otherwise. I often write stories that are based on traditional fairytales. This I know is fine. I have two questions. The first is that my NaNoWriMo novel is going to be based on Swan Lake, the ballet. Hypothetically, if somehow, someday, I ever polished it up and shipped it off to a publisher, would it be a problem that I based it off the ballet? The second is, when I base my stories off of stories that already exist, I tend to go off the beaten path a ways and sometimes I end up changing things quite a bit. I realize that that's part of the point of a retelling, but sometimes I'm concerned my story is too different from the original tale. How far is to far?

  2. Also from Elizabeth, which I responded to on the website:

    Mrs. Levine, thanks for your excellent book Writing Magic! It's the best! I've been wondering, what books do you like to read? Who's your favorite author?

    But on a completely different note, I've been wondering some things about publishing. When you get a book published, how does it work? Do you get to help choose the cover art or does the publisher do that? Do you get free copies for yourself and your family? I'd like to learn more about the process.

  3. Also from the website:

    Charlotte: sorry, I was really in a hurry when I wrote that (two punctuation errors!) What I meant was that if you don't introduce the technology early on, your readers are going to be really confused if they had assumed it was an ordinary fairytale and suddenly you put in a car or something. My friend wrote a story very similar to that scenario, and she waited until about the second chapter to introduce the technology. It was a bit of a shock! Of course, now that she put it in a little earlier, I really like it! It's kind of different from the norm, you know? Something new!

    And for Jenna Royal, I've never written a long historical fiction, but what I've found worked just fine was checking out all the books at the library about the certain time period and simply researching – like doing a research report for school. Learn the basics of the time period and what they had, and you've got your world! That's what worked for me, anyway.

  4. Elizabeth–I can't answer your SWAN LAKE question because I'm not an expert in copyright, a complicated topic. As for your second question, you can depart as much as you like from a known fairytale. If you tell a good story the reader won't care what your inspiration was. That's my policy!

  5. I love your Sherlock Holmes prompt! Sir Arthur Connan Doyle actually did write two (I think) short stories from Holme's point of view, and one story in third person, but they were never all that popular. Holmes is a brilliant detective, but he's never had the way with words that Watson does. 🙂

  6. @ Chicory yes there are two short stories written from Holmes's point of view, check out the adventure of the blanched soldier and the adventure of the lions mane . (The titles might be slightly different)and in them you will find that Holmes wishes Watson had been there and thus be able to record the story!

  7. The book I am currently writing is a first-person narrative, but sometimes I have points where the narrator is not present for events that need to be related. I chose to write then in third-person rather than inserting a new POV, and it works super well. I'm just always careful that I begin a chapter with these parts, rather than inserting it at the end or somewhere in the middle.

  8. Thanks so much for the post, Ms. Levine! I've been revising that story ever since, and my narrator's still not the most useful person… she seems to have developed a habit of eavesdropping, but then it rather fits for her because she worries easily and likes to know what's going on all the time.
    (I wish I could say it was being published sometime; well, hope springs eternal…)

  9. Chicory and Agnes–Thanks for letting me know about those two Sherlock Holmes stories!

    From the website:

    Thanks, great post! I find myself unconsciously switching to first person, so it will end up 'Lana licked my lips' and I have to go back and change it. 🙁

    How much conflict is too much/not enough?

    My story has one main conflict— Lana's parents are killed and she finds out she has powers. The problem is nothing else ever happens.

    This happens in all my novels— there is a huge, tragic conflict that I really enjoy writing, and then it's all perfectly easy to fix it by using a spell, fighting the king, etc, after ___ pages. I find myself keeping on saying 'Have Lana's flashlight
    blink out. Make Brielle's wings unusable. Make Demi too tired to fight' and as a result, my story is a lot more interesting, but my reviewers say it's "Laying it on a bit thick" and that it "Seems forced". Please help!


  10. Letters, journal entries, newspaper clippings, and stuff like that are really helpful for adding information that you might otherwise have never known about. For example, your story could be set in third-person, but you could add journal entries and letters regularly to highlight a character's thoughts and feelings in important scenes. I recently read a book that had old newspaper clippings before some of the chapters to let you know what was happening at the time, and to foreshadow the coming events in the narration. I read another book where the MC's journal entries were used for more personal narrations, as well as drafts of letters to her absent brother.

    @Lexa – I agree with Rina, more complicated conflict might help.

  11. From the website–

    @ Lexa–I agree with Rina–complexity is great for your plot. Complex characters are also a great way to make your plot better, especially if you write the character's feeling out well. The balance between problems and happy things is hard to manage. You probably don't want a depressing book, and yet you of course don't want everything to be sunshine and daisies. Try to figure out what kind of book you want to write, and go form there. Hope this helps.

  12. From the website:

    Fantastic post, and very helpful:-)
    But, of course, it leads me to a question: you see, I’ve been writing in first person, but my MC dies saving her friends in the end (although she is revived). The only thing that happens while she’s dead is that her one friend is weeping over her body while everyone else is celebrating a victory; then the fairy queen helps the friend use special magic to save my MC. The trouble is, how do I show what happened while she was dead? I know you got around sort of the same thing in Fairest by making Aza go in the mirror, but I don’t have a mirror in this story. Any advice? Should I just switch over into third person for that section even though the rest of the book is in first?

    Oh, and here's one other question I've been struggling with:in my new book, one of the SCs is a very lovable, nice man, but his appearance is far from normal – so much so that most characters in the book can’t see past it…and my worry is that the readers won’t be able to, either. I have to admit, he’s pretty much awful-looking, but that’s essential part to the story, so he has to be that way. My question is, how do you make a hideous (to put it plainly) or otherwise strange character lovable instead of revolting? I’m stumped!

  13. Emma–It may be disconcerting for the reader if you switch POV for the first time near the end of the story. Others may have more suggestions, but your MC can ask, as she probably would, what went on during her death.

    For your second question, check out my recent post of July 27th. Again, other writers on the blog may have suggestions.

  14. From the website:

    @Emma–For your first question, I agree with Mrs. Levine. For the second, maybe dull the grossness of your character a little, and you could have there be a point where your main notices his compassion, how helpful he is, how eager he is to please the others.
    @Heather Dixon–I think you're right, I looked it up. You're certainly right about the music–as long as you record it with your own orchestra yourself, it's fine to use.

  15. @ Emma – That is the big trouble with first-person narration – it makes it look like someone's telling the story from a long time ago! I've seen and used first person present tense to solve this problem and bring more immediacy to the story. It's my "anything can happen" style, and I used it twice when my protagonists die at the end of their stories.

  16. I know you mentioned this book somewhere on your website but I don't remember where. It's a book on English or something for people that like reading and writing but not the grammar part. And I know that there's a kids version and an adult version. Can you remind me what it's called?

  17. melissa–The books are WOE IS I and WOE IS I JR. by Patricia T. O'Conner.

    Brianna–I'm not an expert on publishing, but there are many books on the subject. Your school or local librarian may be able to help you too. And you might try googling "young writers."

    About stretching a story to make it longer, I have my doubts about the wisdom of that, but I have a blog post coming up on the subject, so stay tuned!

  18. From the website:

    (Sorry, Gail, I was going to keep my comments down to 1 per week to make less for you, but I couldn't help putting my 2 cents worth on the length question. My sincerest apology)
    To Brianna: I’m not really any sort of authority on the subject, but I’ve come to a conclusion based on the post about short stories from 8-3-11 and from my writing buddy’s stories. First off, if your story fits into the definition of a short story (single theme, limited setting, limited characters), than you’re fine. However, my friend has very active plots that are full of at least three themes, cover huge territory, and contain many, many characters – thus putting them well out of the scope of short stories – and yet they are extremely short. I’ve noticed, however that the reason they are so brief is because, in her enthusiasm, she skims details – details that I and most readers probably need or at least enjoy. In her most recent, her MC’s sister has a birthday, his entire family dies, he falls into a well, and he spends four days adapting to life in the dark cavern of the well, for a grand total of four half-size pages with a size 18 font. The problem? She only tells what happens, nothing else. I still don’t know if the MC was really happy for his sister on her birthday, I only have a vague impression of his sadness when his family dies, I hardly have any idea of where he lived or what his new cave looks like, and I’ve gathered only that he must be an expert at surviving life in caves, because that’s the only thing I know he’s done in his new subterranean home. I guess my point is, you should probably try to evaluate your story and see if you’ve included enough information so that we readers know as many delicious, precious details about your story as you do. Do you delve into your main’s thoughts often enough to understand him? Do you include the details that help us readers envision the scene, like the soft green of the trees and the chipped paint on the door? Do you show how things happen instead of just saying they happened? Do you let us know what the MC tastes, feels, hears, smells, ect., and how he reacts to things that happen to him? I may be wrong, and I'm sure I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, but that is what I’ve gathered, and, well, I had to share. I can’t wait to hear Miss Levine’s take on the subject. Hope that helps, Brianna!

    (Oh, and PS, thanks Gail, Elizabeth, and Rina for your comments on my questions. Very helpful!

  19. Elizabeth, I think there's a book called Black Swan, by Mercedes Lackey, that's based on Swan Lake.

    Brianna, if your story is Fantasy or SF, Beyond Centauri and Spaceports and Spidersilk both take work by younger authors. I don't remember what their maximum length is, though. You might have to revise your story to make it shorter. (Sometimes that makes it more powerful, anyway.)

  20. I hope this is the right place to ask a question about the POV post.

    How important is it to space out points-of-view evenly? I have a book that starts out with several POV characters, and gradually focuses on just the main character? Is this too awkward? The other characters add some helpful insight in the beginning, but bringing them in later feels forced. I'm not sure of the best way to work around this.
    Thank you.

  21. melissajm–There's no rule. If it works, it works, but if it's feeling awkward, it may not be working. You may be able to think of unforced ways to bring back your other POV characters, possibly at the end for their perspectives or during the climax to heighten the tension. Or maybe you can think of ways to provide the insight without the other POVs. Others may have more suggestions.

  22. At 52, I'm a little older than most of your questioners, but I'm on my second writing career. I took a long break to raise and homeschool my children. Since returning, I've had one book traditionally published and have one on the way. However, they're both non-fiction and my goal was always to write fiction. I published short fiction the first time around, but honestly…I can see now it was awful. I'm trying not to be awful this time.

    My question: If you wrote a novel about a character who was religious–a realistic, modern character–how would you deal with the religion? Would you stick to a cultural look at it, or let the religion impact the character? Would you specify the religion? What if the religion was not a popular one? (An author told me bluntly never to make characters Mormon, which is what I am, unless they were bad.)

    I love the way Madeleine L'engle integrated religion naturally into her novels, but it seems these days, there isn't much tolerance for that sort of thing. What is your feeling on this subject? Thank you! I am finding your website and "Writing Magic" so helpful and I'm learning just as much reading your books. I'm about 2/3 of the way through them.

  23. I wasn't sure where to post questions, so I will just put them here:

    I am a young writer and I have a plethora of ideas for novels, yet I have only finished one The leader of the writers workshop that I wrote it in is a published writer, and she said that my story could get published. As much as I doubt this, I was wondering how a teen could get their short story published by a reputable publishing company– I know you have written a post on 'teens submitting manuscripts' but I haven't seen anything particularly on this subject.

    Also, the aforementioned story is exactly 8650 words. It was written for ages 10-14, but I wasn't sure what constitutes a 'children's book' and how long it must be to be published. And how do you continue a story to make it a publishable length, if so obviously is FINISHED?

    Thanks so much for taking the time to answer questions such as these. I wish you would bring a writer's workshop to near where I live! I recently found your blog, but I have been wanting to see more on publishing and the publishing process. Thanks so much!

  24. @ Terrie Lynn – I'm a Christian myself, so I rather appreciate when authors speak respectfully of aspects of faith. A character's religion doesn't have to affect the plot, but it ought to affect some parts of their lives (values, behaviors, etc.).
    I haven't noticed a frowning-upon of religious discussion in novels these days… I wish more characters _would_ consider the deep issues to match their deep and dangerous circumstances.

  25. Brianna, the Nebula awards use these definitions:

    Novel = a work of 40,000 words or more.
    Novella = between 17,500 and 40,000 words.
    Novelette = between 7,500 and 17,499 words.
    Short Story = under 7,500 words.

    (Novelettes can be a hard sell. You might want to see if you can edit into short story range.
    I also haven't seen many publishers that want novels under 60,000 words or much over 100,000, but maybe it's different for children's books and YA.)

  26. Terrie Lynn–If my character’s religion were central to the story, then I would let it be whatever it was and follow her through her obstacles and crises. If her religion were peripheral, I might be influenced by market considerations, but I bristle at the advice you were given. You don’t have to pander to people’s prejudices. Anyway, whatever religion you choose, be accurate! You’ll certainly offend readers if you get their faith wrong.

  27. Rina and Gail, thank you so much. Very wise advice. I'm working on two projects–a serious one and one that is just for fun until I figure out how to do it right. For one, the religion is integral, so I'll leave it. The other doesn't absolutely require it, so I'll see how it feels without it.

    I'm always cautious about using real religions I don't belong to, since it's so hard to get the nuances right. I earn a living trying to explain those details to others about my own, so I'm more aware of it than most.

    Gail, I get more from Writing Magic than I do from any other book on my shelf. For the hardest topics, you give me the essential information without any distractions. Thank you so much for writing it.

  28. @melissajm, thanks so much! That really helps. I'll have to look up YA and children's books.
    @Terrie Lynn, my favourite author, Wendy Mass, integrates religion in most of her books, but in indirect ways– ie, just what some characters are told by others reveals their religion or beliefs without coming out and saying, "I'm a Christian/Mormon/Catholic/Jewish" or by having them go to church, etc. She does it masterfully, and I've always appreciated that.

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