Friday, June 1, 2018

If I Had Two Heads I’d Have Two Points of View

Question: Point of view is pesky. What's the hardest aspect of POV you deal with in your storytelling with one or more POV?

by Paul D. Marks

I'm not too proud to admit that when I first started writing prose I didn't get Point of View. I had come from a screenwriting background where POV isn't generally a big issue. Basically in a screenplay your POV is the camera. You are the camera. You can shoot over someone's shoulder or be a fly on the wall. You can view everything from a 360 degree aerial shot or from under a glass table. Hell you can walk through walls if you want. But prose POV is trickier and the key I've found is just keeping your readers in mind.

In my early attempts at writing prose my POV would be all over the place, switching from character to character even in the same scene. I guess you’d call it omniscient, but I didn’t realize that omniscient POV was archaic. Then I started to realize how confusing this was to the reader. When it's your own writing you don't see this right away because you know in your mind who your characters are and what each one is thinking and doing but you forget that your readers can’t read your mind.

I think some early writing advice I received was to write in one POV and only change POV at a break or chapter break. This can work sometimes but you always have to step back and read it as if you’re reading someone else's writing and make sure you aren't filling in the missing identifiers in your own head. You have to ask yourself is it clear that Mr.X is thinking this? And Ms. Y is the one feeling anxious?

These days, I often find it is easier to stick to one POV at a time, like the first person narrative in my Duke Rogers detective series (White Heat and Broken Windows). Though there are sections – the B stories or subplots in both – where the story is told in third person. But the shift of POV is very clear. One reason I wanted to tell the story from Duke’s POV is so I could filter Duke’s sidekick Jack through Duke’s point of view. Jack is a bit of a difficult character and I needed my readers to see that Duke was fond of him despite his flaws. Without that POV people might have ended up hating Jack and not understanding him the way Duke does. But I also wanted to step out of Duke's POV from time to time to see other things happening outside his perspective and that’s where a second POV can be useful. So in both White Heat and Broken Windows (it’s sequel dropping – love to use those hip words or is that already archaic – in the fall) there are subplots or B stories that Duke isn’t present for. And this allows us to see things that Duke can’t see or know at the time.

Of course there’s also omniscient POV and 3rd person. The former is still used these days, though maybe not as often as it once was. The latter is used often, but more often than not it’s over the shoulder of a particular character, so, in essence, we see the action from that character’s POV, though not in first person as if they’re recounting the tale.

Often, the type of story I'm trying to tell will dictate which POV to use. For my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series the use of the ghost’s POV helped me be able to tell the story from a distance so the reader could feel the historical perspective of the fictional and historical people influencing Howard Hamm's (the detective’s) view of the world. That POV works for HH but wouldn't have worked for Duke Rogers.

Sometimes the length of the piece will limit the POV. For example, in a short story you really don’t have the space to write from the POV of 3 or 4 characters (maybe not even two, though that’s more plausible), but in a novel you can. Like in Robert Crais’s novel The Promise that has chapters in the POV of various characters. It can heighten the suspense when you move around from different POVs, when one character knows something that the others don’t. On the other hand, if you write from too many POVs your reader can feel disconnected – who am I supposed to be rooting for? And confused. So sometimes you might  go for the first person single POV to keep the reader in sympathy and connected to your character. Tana French is a good example of a writer who can do multiple POVs with her Dublin murder squad and it adds some nice layers to the story when you get different perspectives of the same thing (sort of Rashomon type of thing).

The bottom line is do what’s right for the story and to find out what’s right you might have try it different ways.


And now for the usual BSP:

I’m thrilled – I’m Doubly Thrilled – to announce that my short story “Windward,” from the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (edited by Andrew McAleer and me) is nominated for a Best Short Story Shamus Award – and that the anthology as a whole is nominated for a Best Anthology Anthony Award. Thank you to everyone involved!


And my Shamus Award-Winning novel White Heat was re-released on May 21st by Down & Out Books. It’s available now on Amazon.

Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a "...taut crime yarn."

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website


Jacqueline Seewald said...

The unreliable first person narrator has become a major tool in crime writing of late. I find first person narration works well in my YA novels but I generally prefer third person narration for mystery where I can shift point of view.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. It does seem like different points of view work for different kinds of writing. It really seems that whatever's best for the story will come out.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Paul — do what’s right for the story.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dieter.

GBPool said...

I pick the POV that fits the story I'm telling. The three P.I. series that I write are all First Person because it's their story they're telling, but in other of my books there are too many characters to stick with one POV. I like the idea of going from First Person to Third Person in a book. That lets the writer and the reader have the best of both. A fellow writer, Bruce Cook, told a story from several people's POV, each seeing an event from a different angle. He even had a crow and a dog have a POV. Quite good and fun.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Gayle. And I agree, we should pick the POV that fits the story. However, I think if I was reading a serious story and there was a POV from a dog or a crow it would throw me out of the suspension of disbelief and I'd probably stop reading.