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Point of View

re: Is First-Person Point of View Off Limits?

in Narrative Voice/Point of View/Publishing Biz by

Dear Editor…

I’m feeling really comfortable using first person for my novel—but “experts” say avoid it. How do you know if third person would be a better choice?

Thank you,
S. B.

Dear S. B. …

That declaration is too intransigent for me. First-person POV is perfect for some projects, and in some markets—like Young Adult fiction—it’s even the dominant choice. Gauge your target market’s expectations by reviewing its current big books. Looking at the story itself, I suspect that “comfort” you’re feeling is your gut saying, “Good choice for your info delivery needs.” First person has a sort of tunnel vision that limits readers to knowing and observing only what the narrator is privy too. You’d feel it if you were battling that limitation while trying to get readers the info they need. In that case, beta readers would complain about awkward or unnatural scenes and dialogue. That’s when I’d raise my editorial flag and say, “Try third.” I suspect you’re also comfortable with the narrating character’s voice—which is huge. If you can’t truly feel like—can’t be—that character while you’re writing, then get out of her head and try third person, which distances you from the character a bit so you can create a narrative voice that’s less her and more you.

Happy writing!
The Editor

 

re: Bad Idea for Multiple POVs to Alternate Between 1st and 3rd Person?

in Creative Process/Point of View by

Dear Editor…

I’m beginning work on a YA thriller. I plan to use multiple POVs. It feels right to use 1st person when my protagonist is telling the story, but 3rd person feels right for everyone else. Do you think it’s okay to switch back and forth or would that bother readers? I plan to identify the person whose POV we’re getting at the beginning of each chapter.

Sincerely,
T.

Dear T. …

Do experiment with this idea. Readers love the mind manipulation of thrillers; you could do some cool manipulating with one 1st person narrator among several 3rd person narrators. Maybe the 1st person POV would establish your protagonist as the most trusted narrator, when in fact readers should be trusting someone else entirely. Maybe timing the switch to 1st person could alter the tone strategically—perhaps allowing readers to pull back from high action for a quiet mull in someone’s head, or maybe increasing intensity as the 1st person narrator pummels readers with a more immediate sense of emotion. I do hope there’s an underlying logic for the single 1st person narrator. I don’t want readers feeling like the author is being clever for clever’s sake. Your concern about clarity and reader comfort suggests you’ll handle this smoothly, so I’m not worried readers will struggle.

Happy writing!
The Editor

Re: How to Not Annoy Readers?

in Characterization/Creative Process/General fiction/Plot/Point of View by

Dear Editor…

I have a story idea: Two strangers’ lives tragically collide in a hit & run accident, leaving the DRIVER with haunting visions of the VICTIM. Driver’s visions of Victim become more desperate and her guilt more debilitating, so she decides to return to save Victim—and herself. My question: What do you think of this non-traditional structure: Book 1: Victim’s POV pre-crash; Book 2: Driver’s POV post crash; Book 3: Victim’s POV & resolution of Driver’s story. I worry about leaving Victim’s story in limbo for all of BOOK 2. Readers won’t know if the protagonist they just spent 100 pages with is dead or alive. Is that enthralling, or just plain irritating? I know I could do alternating POV chapters, but I don’t care for that style. Ideas?

Thanks!
Plotting Author

Dear Plotting Author…

The unknown fate could be cool. Try it! Your awareness of potential irritation means you’ll strive for a story that nails “enthralling.” I have two recommendations for your proposed structure: 1) Keep Victim present in Book 2. Not physically, but through Driver’s story. Perhaps this is a small town and after the crash Driver encounters people that readers met in Book 1. These people are doing business that somehow relates to Victim, none knowing Victim was in an accident. Perhaps Driver discovers a link to Victim, or a hint as to Victim’s identity. The point is to make Book 2 as much about Victim as it is about Driver. Don’t abandon Victim yourself. Keep her with us and even advance her story, building readers’ desire for her rescue beyond basic justice. Then the unknown fate isn’t gimmick but an essential contribution to both characters’ arcs. 2) In Book 1 Victim must have her own story of struggle substantial enough to carry the book to its cliffhanger. Victim’s plot and character arcs in Book 1 should then stoke Driver’s arcs in Book 2, with all arcs merging in Book 3. Like those ideas?

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Can I Start with 3 POVs then Go Down to 1?

in Point of View by

Dear Editor…

In the beginning of my story, the three main characters are hailing from different places. I have a POV for each. As the secondary characters meet up with my heroine, they lose their POV, leaving the only POV to my heroine. Is that too confusing?

Sincerely,
K.

UPDATE: K. sent a clarification of her question, so this wording is different than what was posted earlier today, and my answer has been adjusted accordingly. — The Editor

Dear K….

This seems to be the age of multiple points of view. I don’t recall it being done nearly as often twenty years ago, when I started my editorial career. Writers are telling some fabulous stories using this device nowadays. As for whittling down from many POVs to just a single point-of-view character, I think it could be effective as long as the transitions are synced with the rhythms of the story and you’re very clear about each character being silenced. It’s not uncommon for two characters’ points of view to merge into a single narrator’s POV, and I don’t think your audience will be confused by three if there’s some obvious plot event that seems to cause that silence, or some other distinct justification for the shift. Readers, I’d love to hear of any novels you know about that start with more than two POVs and whittle down in this manner.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: What’s the Beef with Third Person Objective POV?

in Characterization/Point of View/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’ve always liked the idea of writing in 3rd person objective, which never describes characters’ thought or feeling in favor of a cinematic feel. I’m planning to use it for my multiple-quest YA, but considering I’ve never seen a YA novel written in this POV, and that it’s not mentioned in your Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies, I wonder if it’s generally despised by readers/agents/editors.

Thanks for your thoughts on this,
Harry

Dear Harry…

YA readers in particular yearn to connect emotionally with characters. Hence the prevalence of first person (“I”) POV in YA fiction. Third person limited also lets us in on the thoughts and heart of a character. Third person omniscient can drop us into anyone and everyone’s heart and mind. But third person objective stays outside all characters, leaving readers to interpret character moods and thoughts from the action and dialogue. To avoid flat, emotionless storytelling that fails to engage readers, your “show, don’t tell” craftwork needs to fire on all cylinders. If you do pick this POV, use settings with features and props that characters can react to or act upon in truly revealing ways. Imagine two teens arguing, then one storming out a door. Now imagine that teen yanking the doorknob only to have it rip out in her hand. Does she sigh and rest her head on the door? Turn and make up? Kick the freakin’ door down? Force behavior that reveals emotion.

Happy writing!
The Editor

 

re: Refer to Parents by Name in Third Person POV?

in Point of View/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’ve decided to revise a manuscript, changing it from first person to third person. When I’m in a section from Luke’s p.o.v. do I only refer to his father (Richard) as “Luke’s father” or “his father?” Or can I refer to the father as Richard? Normally, a child doesn’t refer to their father by first name.

Thanks,
Margo

Dear Margo…

Stick with “Luke’s father” and “his father.” Anything else will distract readers. Even though you’ve moved the camera out of Luke’s head and onto his shoulder, Luke remains the point of view character so it will still feel like he’s referring to his own father by name, and in our culture, kids only do that when they or the parents are trying to make some kind of statement. Unless a statement is exactly what you want, don’t risk having your readers chew over a relationship issue that doesn’t exist.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Which POV Is Best for Fiction Starring Talking Animals?

in Point of View by

Dear Editor…

Main charac & plot w/talking animals. Secondary: humans. 1st or 3rd ltd?

Trudy

Dear Trudy…

You’re feeling to the point today, aren’t you? Well I’m feeling in the mood to fill in the blanks. The way I figure it, you’re asking which point of view is the better choice for a piece of fiction starring talking animals. Third person POV is probably more common for novels with animal protagonists, but that didn’t stop Elise Broach from choosing first person for Masterpiece, her lovely novel about a beetle who creates fine art. Compare that with Charlotte’s Web, wherein E. B. White used third person to legendary success. Ultimately, your story and style can’t be dictated by others’ choices, so you need to sort out which feels most natural for you to write and which offers you the most promising storytelling options. That calls for experimenting. Write one chapter in third person, then rewrite it in first. If you don’t feel an immediate affinity for one choice, keep writing chapters in both POVs until you find that you look forward to working on one more than the other.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Girl Writes Boy . . . Bad Idea?

in Characterization/Point of View/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I write both non-fiction picture books and boy-centric middle grade novels. I publish the non-fiction under my full name, but should I consider using initials for the novels, since I’m not the same gender as the MC? Will it matter to the reader?

Thank you for your thoughts on this!
Alison

Dear Alison…

Plenty of ladies write male narratives, and vice versa. Don’t sweat that—not for MG fiction, anyway. Now, if you were a guy writing a female lead in a romance for adult women… but that’s another marketplace altogether. Don’t hide your gender. The protagonist for my 1st person MG novel Big Mouth is a boy, and my very girly name is emblazoned across the cover. If anything, the question “Can a girl write a convincing boy?” is great fodder for discussion when I’m presenting to classes. Many people advocate writing what you don’t know. Just confirm that your character’s sensibility is convincingly male by having some fellas read your manuscript. They’ll let you now if your dude’s choices or judgments are too girly.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Are Subplots Off-Limits in 1st Person POV?

in Plot/Point of View by

Dear Editor…

I was reading that subplots are told in the secondary character’s point of view. How do you manage this in a 1st person point of view novel? Can you still have subplots even though you have to see all the action through the main character’s eyes?

Thanks,
Linda

Dear Linda…

Sure you can! Choosing to tell your story in first person doesn’t mean forgoing subplots that don’t include your narrator. Just be sure that your narrator can know and thus mention enough of the subplot’s events for readers to follow that storyline through the book. Or, if you want your narrator to be oblivious to the subplot for most of the book, have him observe or be involved with behavior and dialogue of other characters that somehow reveals subplot clues to readers. This’ll prime readers for the subplot’s eventual full revelation.

Happy writing!
The Editor

Re: Is 3rd Person POV Dead in MG Fiction?

in Point of View/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Many editors say they are looking for MG novels with a strong voice. So many examples they cite are in first person. Is there still room for 3rd person narration? Would you differentiate the strengths and weaknesses of both.

Sincerely,
Sondra

Dear Sondra…

The scale does tilt lower on the side of 1st person POV in MG fiction, but the 3rd person side is by no means empty. The reason for the imbalance is readers themselves: tweens tend to focus inward as they really struggle with who they are for the first time. It suits their mindset to be inside a character’s head, experiencing the story for themselves. Third person POV risks making them feel a step removed from emotions and events. A benefit of choosing 3rd person is that you get to describe things outside the character. Don’t base your POV choice on the tilt of a scale. Write one of your scenes in each POV, then ask yourself which reveals more about your protagonist’s personality. Your comfort writing the POV matters, but not as much as the character revelations.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Writing YA Historical Fiction with a Reflective Adult Narrator

in Narrative Voice/Point of View/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I am in a quandary about a historical novel I’ve started. I want to show how one woman was captured by the Shawnee, rescued, and married her rescuer. But I also want to show how another woman has a burden for her brother and the fate of her tribe at that time. Ultimately I imagine the women meeting again 20 years later. I feel there are 2 ways of life to show. Is it best to write about them from an older age looking back or to take them from youth when one was captured at 14 and the other was about 20? I am old (75) and wonder if I will be able to capture their young voices and feelings.

—Jane

 

Dear Jane…

Adult narrators who reflect back may fall into the trap of filtering their teen experiences through their adult sensibilities. That is, now that they’re wiser, they’ll comment on why they or others chose to do what they did. That’s more likely an adult book than YA. Teen protagonists aren’t that mature yet, so if you write your ladies as young people, they’ll be more likely to just judge, act, and react, without considering their or other characters’ true motivations first. They’ll mature by the end of their adventures, but they won’t start out that way. You can save their eventual meet-up for an epilogue.

Happy Writing!
The Editor

re: Is Your Internal Dialogue Telling You Something?

in Dialogue/Narrative Voice/Point of View/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing a young adult novel in first person that alternates between the 2 main characters’ POV. I’m getting conflicting advice from critiquers about the use of internal dialogue—those not very into YA fiction say I have too much; those accustomed to YA fiction don’t comment on the internal thoughts OR say I need more! Is it a genre thing?

Sincerely,
Beth

Dear Beth…

More intriguing to me than the category split is the fact that all your critiquers commented on the internal dialogue. Something’s off. I.D. is essentially dialogue that reaches the tip of a character’s tongue but gets bitten back (Not in this lifetime, loser); it should spill out as naturally as a verbal comment. Natural and judicious use of I.D. is not so conspicuous. I suspect your characters’ talking voices have more personality than their narrative voices and that’s why you’re writing lots of it—distracting some readers with its overuse while wowing others with its zing. Put that zing in the narrative voice! Try it. Rewrite a scene as if the character is next to you, talking about that day. Not describing it, but talking about it the way he’d talk to himself. Different? I bet.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: What’s the Trick to Pitching a Dual POV Story?

in Point of View/Submissions by

Dear Editor…

I’m wondering the best way to craft a query letter for my new manuscript. It’s told in the 3rd person and there are 2 POVs. It’s also a fantasy novel and the 1st book in a 3-book series. How should I handle this??

Thanks,
Jennifer

Dear Jennifer…

Stop approaching this numerically. Instead of pitching a “manuscript with two points of view,” pitch a story with conflicting points of view. What’s the nature of that conflict? What is one guy not saying/admitting/dealing with that the other guy must handle or shed light upon? How are those characters at odds? How does each push the story forward— and push each other to grow? That’s what makes your story unique and juicy. In your pitch, state the (1) main characters, (2) overall conflict of the story, and (3) way in which the individual journeys conflict with each other for fab overall tension, plotting, and emotional impact. Same with the trilogy fact: Plug the overall themes and arc of the trilogy, then state how Book 1 accomplishes a key task in that arc.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Should I Italicize Internal Dialogue in Close Third Person?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Point of View by

Dear Editor…

In close third person, what are the best ways to handle internal dialog? Italics, “she thought” tags, or just let the reader figure it out?

Sincerely,
Stephanie

Dear Stephanie…

In close third person POV (also called third person limited) the story is told from the protagonist’s perspective but not in her direct words. “She entered the cafeteria, then froze. The place reeked of burnt Tater Tots and fryer grease. I’m so going to barf. She spun on her heel and left.” My italics make it clear that the brief change in the narrative is internal dialogue. Sure, readers could probably work that out because of the shift from “she” to “I”—but why make readers decipher anything when acceptable technical aid is available? YA fiction favors italics to make things easy on young readers. You’re more likely to find thought tags (“she thought”) in adult fiction, where italics are often considered visual distractions. Choose based on your style and your audience’s needs, but do choose something. Let readers focus on the story.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Integrating the POV and Narrative

in Narrative Voice/Point of View/Submissions/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Please explain this comment from an agent on my midgrade historical fiction ms told in first person: “your POV and narrative are not integrated enough.”

Thank you,

Carrie

Dear Carrie…

Sure, I’ll take a stab at translating. Two guesses, which aren’t mutually exclusive:  1) The agent thinks the narrative voice sounds too old for a story told by a tween. Perhaps the words are too fancy for a kid, or the sentence structure too complex, or the insights too sophisticated. Give each of those a look. 2) The agent thinks some of the things mentioned in the narrative were things that your POV character could not know. Make sure your first person narrator only mentions things she can know first-hand.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Pitching a Dual POV Novel

in Point of View/Submissions by

Dear Editor…

I’m working on my logline/elevator pitch. I have been told that it should be one sentence, and no more than 17 words. What about dual POV stories? While they do end up together, they also have their own story arcs.  Do I pick 1 for my pitch or is 2 lines—one for each—okay?

Sincerely,

Rachel

Dear Rachel…

17 seems an arbitrary number, but if it keeps you focused, I’m all for it. And focus is what matters here. If you’ve got two storylines for two point of view characters, there should be some point of intersection for them—that’s where you focus your pitch. What’s the common denominator that allows these two people and stories to exist within the same novel? Do they speak to two sides of the question “What is love?” Do they explore the same theme and come to different conclusions about it? That theme is the anchor for your pitch, as in: “In a school where money means Everything, two freshmen find out what happens when Everything is suddenly gone.” What do you know! If you’ll let me ignore the word “a”, then I hit the magic 17.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Can She Think in 3rd Person?

in Narrative Voice/Point of View by

Dear Editor… I recently read in a self-editing book (fiction for adults) that when writing in 3rd person, the main character’s thoughts can also be written in 3rd person. Is this true for mg/ya or does it depend on the story? Sincerely, Sue

Dear Sue…

Sure, you can write thoughts in third person for a third person teen/tween narrative. It would look like this: “He leaned in but she turned away. No way would she kiss him. She’d rather eat a worm.” But you can also pop out of third person to first, if you’re so inclined, using italics to signal the shift to kids: “He leaned in but she turned away. In your dreams. I’d rather eat a worm than kiss that snout.” Some find that a more dynamic mix. It depends on you and on your story. Gotta love choice.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: When the Limits of 1st Person POV Are TOO Limiting

in Narrative Voice/Point of View by

Dear Editor…

I’m working on the second book in a series of three. The first book naturally flowed in first person and so I went with it, but the second is more challenging as the plot calls for scenes that take place away from the protagonist.  I tried using a narrative voice, but that just feels wrong.  Any suggestions?

Sincerely,

Elizabeth

Dear Elizabeth…

You just spent an entire novel—maybe years in the making—inside a character’s head, channeling her voice. It’s no surprise that trying out an alternate POV was jolting. Thing is, it’d be just as jolting to your readers. It’s for their sake that I recommend against a mid-series shift from first person to the all-knowing omniscient. (That’s what I’m guessing you meant by “a narrative voice.”)

Handling off-stage action is the biggest limitation of first person POV, and you don’t sound particularly wedded to that POV in Book 1, anyway. Try recasting Book 1 in omniscient for series consistency, or in a mix of third person and omniscient (third person being more amenable to such blending than first), as in the vivid and complicated His Dark Materials trilogy. Just do so with this in mind: Giving up the first person POV doesn’t mean giving up immediacy or emotion. Perhaps your discontent with the alternate POV stems not from the shift but rather from your rustiness with techniques like ‘Show, Don’t Tell,’ and using setting/props to influence/reflect characters’ feelings, and choosing dynamic words and sentence structure. While you’d no longer have direct access to a character’s thoughts and feelings, mining those techniques to their fullest would make your non-first person narrative just as immediate and emotional.

If first person still seems a must for your series, then tricks for Book 2 would be to bring in ancillary characters that can update your protagonist on outside events, or to have interlude chapters or scenes that use omniscient narrative. Both are common in thrillers, mysteries, and fantasy. In the end, you may need to accept that there are things you can’t tell your readers. They’ll be in the dark with your protagonist, reacting and piecing things together with her. But who says that’s bad? Stumbling through the literary darkness with a hero-in-the-making sounds pretty fun to me.

Happy writing!

The Editor

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