Friday, April 15, 2022

Do You Get Tense When Dealing with POV? by Josh Stallings

Q:  Do you have tricks for writing multi protagonist stories?

A: Confession, I am a self taught writer. My dyslexia and contrarian personality made the odds of getting into a good writing program, or surviving had I conned my way in, down somewhere below zero. 

As a result, I panic  when I hear things like 1st person? Wait, I know that one, 1st person is like voice-over in classic detective movies and books. 

“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” - Raymond Chandler - Farewell, My Lovely. 1st person, got it. 

2nd person? Two people speaking in their heads at once? Nope. Um…(I check my Garner’s Modern English Usage… not under POV, or point of view… sends me to viewpoint… doesn’t help… Google…Got it.) 2nd person speaks to the reader as if describing them as the protagonist, “You walk into a room and pick up a pen…” never used it… yet.

3rd person, I have heard this called “God’s eye view,” but which god? Odin’s raven eye? Thor’s? Freja’s? Maybe better to leave theology out of it and just say it’s a POV that allows you to see beyond your character’s brain. “Josh sits typing, wondering if he has made this all more complicated than it needs to be.”

To write a novel I need to discover a small hand full of things. Two biggies are; why this book, what in it calls to me loud enough to sustain a year or more of work? And what technically is in it that I haven’t tried before? This second part is what I want to talk about. Think about a writing career as an extended graduate school. 

In the first Moses McGuire book (Beautiful, Naked & Dead) it was easy, what I had never done was write a novel so I did that. Being a fan of Chandler and Crumley I naturally wrote in first person past tense. “I have found that a barrel in your mouth forces you to pause, take a moment, ask that all important question.”

With the second Moses book (Out There Bad) I wanted a mysterious hunter character. To differentiate their voice from Moses’ I wrote them in 1st person present tense,“Down a fresh alley. Deeper into the labyrinth. Broken hollow-faced girls stare out of the shadows. Olive skin, brown eyes. Broken. I must keep on point. Solve what I came to solve. Fight for all and you will win none. Simple math.”

In the third and final Moses book (One More Body) I mixed 1st person for Moses and 3rd person for other character’s story lines. When writing a young woman who had been trafficked it was important to be in her skin, but with the slight distance that 3rd person gives. This got me to the key learning. Even in 3rd person, it needs to have a clear POV.

Young Americans was written in 3rd person past tense but it was told from Sam and Jay’s POV. Whether it changes chapter to chapter, or paragraph to paragraph isn’t important, but without a POV it feels unmoored. Even though I’m not speaking in Sam’s voice, I insure that the “narrator” doesn’t use language she wouldn’t. In that way I guess I write in a hybrid of 1st and 3rd person. 

Fine… Why the hell does POV matter? In Tricky I wrote in 3rd person, but tightly from Detective Madsen’s POV. I am not comfortable writing from an intellectually disabled person’s POV, particularly a character I’m basing on my son Dylan. He is bright and wonderful and can do many things brilliantly, but he wouldn’t be suited to read and comment on my work. He couldn’t tell me if I got it wrong. I know how he behaves but not how it feels to be in his head. The difference between writing Cisco as seen from Madsen’s POV and writing Cisco from his own POV is huge. Besides the ethical questions, it also creates suspense by not letting the reader know if Cisco is intellectually disabled or a brilliant killer who is faking it. 

My big takeaway - Everything we write has a POV, intended or not. It is important for me to decide A) Who is the protagonist or key character of any section? B) How close do I want the reader to be to this person’s inner thoughts?

A great way to play with this is to write a scene from one character’s POV then write the same scene from another character’s POV. I’m always amazed by the difference a POV shift makes. And the great thing about being a writer is, we get to decide which we like and delete the one we don’t before anyone sees it. 


Terry said...

What a brilliant idea to write a scene from two (or more) different points of view. I always come to a point in my books where I suddenly am not sure why the villain did what he/she did--and sometimes even who it was. It would probably help me to write a piece from the villain's point of view to nail that down.

The idea that you are self-taught and dyslexic makes me more in awe of your writing!

Naomi Hirahara said...

I needed this. Thanks, Josh.

Josh Stallings said...

Thank you Terry and Naomi, I stand in awe of you both, and proud to call you colleagues and friends.