Posts Tagged ‘point of view’

woman writingMost romances are written in third person. It’s not a requirement, mind you. There are first person romances, some of them classics (Jane Eyre springs to mind). But using third person allows you to use multiple points of view, switching back and forth between hero and heroine, for example, with the villain thrown in sometimes for a little variety. First person tends to be somewhat hermetic, locking the reader into a form of deliberate tunnel vision. Since romance delights in showing what both partners in a relationship feel, third person frequently works best.

Mysteries and thrillers, in contrast, use first person more often. It gives mystery writers the opportunity to play games with narrators, including the ultimate unreliable narrator, the murderer himself. And since mysteries can benefit from having a limited point of view (more opportunities to overlook vital evidence and to be deluded by preconceptions, for example), first person can work well.

But things start to get murky when authors want to introduce more than one point of view. If getting one voice right is tricky (and it is), getting more than one right is a real balancing act. Still, both romance and mystery writers have found interesting ways to experiment with multiple narrators—as well as some familiar ways to fail.

One recent mystery example is Margaret Maron’s Long Upon the Land, part of Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. The series began as simple first person, all narrated by Deborah. But at a certain point, Maron decided to add another point of view through Deborah’s husband, Dwight. Rather than having two first person narrators, however, she writes Dwight’s chapters in third person and Deborah’s in first. Long Upon the Land also adds another third person point of view, a series of flashbacks showing the love affair between Deborah’s parents. The great advantage of using both first and third person comes in making a clean demarcation between points of view: if the chapter is in first person, you know it’s Deborah; if it’s third, it’s either Dwight or a flashback. Maron succeeds in making these three voices distinct and readable. Judith Merkle Riley does something similar in Serpent Garden. The heroine narrates her sections, with a engagingly quirky, first person voice. The sections focusing on the hero or the various supernatural characters are written in third person, switching the point of view from the heroine’s more limited, sometimes confused perspective to a deliberately omniscient overview.

Using more than one first person narrator is also possible, although a great deal trickier. Linda Fairstein’s Devil’s Bridge uses two first person narrators, the heroine, Alex Cooper, and the hero, Mike Chapman. Unfortunately, Devil’s Bridge illustrates all the problems that come with that technique, chiefly that these two voices, supposedly from two very different people, sound remarkably similar. We know that we’re reading Mike’s narration because Alex is missing for most of the book, but it might as well be Alex. There’s nothing distinctive about the voice—when Mike makes references to Alex’s Porthault sheets and Chanel perfume I found myself wondering why a tough NYC detective would know or care what brands his girlfriend uses. The answer, I’m afraid, is that both Alex and Fairstein care, not Mike.

So what choice is best? Hard to say since it depends a great deal on the skill of the author involved. To me, multiple first person narrators are tough, but I can see the attraction. The main thing is that all these point of view choices have to arise from the story. In the wrong hands, both first and third person can be clunky. In the right hands, they can sing.

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BoltedThe Promise Harbor Wedding features four books (Jilted, Bolted, Busted, and Hitched) by four different authors (Kelly Jamieson, me, Sydney Somers and Erin Nicholas) that all start with the same wedding. It’s a wedding that goes rather disastrously awry, but it’s also a wedding that’s seen by seven different characters, using seven different points of view. Do I have to tell you how much fun that was for us?

First of all, we needed to figure out what our characters were doing at the wedding in the first place. We had a bride and groom, of course—Kelly’s hero and Erin’s heroine. But since [SPOILER ALERT] they don’t actually make it through the wedding, we also had their Significant Others, both of whom qualified as guests (one in a very loose sense). Syd and I had the supporting players, the best man in her case and the matron of honor in mine. Syd also had the best man’s “date,” the cop who arrested him earlier for disorderly conduct. My heroine’s SO was actually not a wedding guest so that left us with seven points of view to deal with.

Kelly and Erin laid out the basic wedding for the four of us. The bride and groom would obviously be able to see the main events better than the other characters. But once we had that template to work with, the other characters could all cut loose. We also had to be aware of the emotional states of the characters involved. Kelly’s hero is the groom and her heroine is the groom’s ex-girlfriend who’s a guest at the wedding. Both of them have reasons to be emotionally devastated by what happens at the wedding, and they’re both pretty upset. Nobody writes emotion like Kelly writes emotion, and I guarantee you’ll feel upset for them by the end of the wedding in Jilted.

In my case, my heroine, Greta Brewster, has just gone through a divorce of her own—something she was trying to keep from her mother and her brother, the groom. Her view of weddings and marriage in general is a little jaundiced, based on her own experience, and what she sees at the wedding does nothing to make her feel more positive. Greta also has a slightly snarky personality, not unlike mine, and her sense of the ridiculous causes her to see the wedding events in a somewhat more comic light than the other characters. Kelly’s view of the wedding will make your heart ache. I hope mine will make you grin, at least a little.

I think of the wedding scenes in our four books as a kind of kaleidoscope vision. Each person sees the same wedding a little differently, and each person reacts based on what she/he thinks he/she’s just seen. Which is all to say—don’t stop with just one version. Remember, you’ve got a lot of other ways to see the Promise Harbor Wedding.

Buy a copy: Samhain | Amazon

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Headhopping is one of those terms that’s well known to most people in the romance-writing community and probably unknown to anyone who isn’t part of it. It refers to shifting point of view from one character to another within a scene, and it’s a no-no. Actually, no-no is too mild. It’s a Mark Of Cain, absolutely forbidden, something that loses you major points in contests, that will convince editors and agents you’re incompetent, and that will result in your never, ever getting that contract you want so badly.

If you’re going to change POV for some reason within a single scene, you must indicate that you’re changing it by inserting a space between sections, perhaps even including a line of asterisks, to indicate that you’re switching POV quite deliberately. And once you’ve switched, you can’t switch back unless you go through the same business again with the spaces, asterisks, etc. Too many of these switches and your scene’s going to start looking like something out of a gossip column.

Everybody agrees that headhopping is evil, and that’s all there is to that. Or rather, it would be all there is to that if it weren’t for one large exception to this general rule, i.e., Nora Roberts.

Roberts headhops. She does it with abandon in every book of hers I’ve ever read. You’ll be reading along in one character’s POV and then the next paragraph will be in the other character’s POV. You’ll stay there for a few more paragraphs and then, as often as not, you’ll switch right back. No spaces, no asterisks, no nothing. Headhopping with a vengeance.

Now if it were just Nora Roberts who did this, we could probably come up with something we could call the Nora Roberts Exception. But she isn’t. Several other bestselling authors do it too. And yet they’re all doing something that should get them drummed out of the romance writing pantheon. Does that mean that headhopping isn’t such a dreadful crime?

Well, no. Not exactly. The reason headhopping is so strongly discouraged is that it potentially causes serious problems for readers. If you’re not anchored securely in one particular point of view, you can easily become confused about what’s happening and why. Now sometimes that’s precisely what the author wants, which is why writers like Faulkner play around with POV so frequently. But most romance authors aren’t interested in confounding our readers—we’re concentrating on the story and we don’t want to lose anybody.

Other aspects of POV are also very, very tricky, even if you follow the rules about not headhopping. Most romances are done in third person (except for Chick Lit, which is usually in first). It’s axiomatic that you can’t switch POV in first person, but even that’s not exactly true. Margaret Maron uses both first and third person in her Deborah Knott books (first for Deborah, third for her husband Dwight), although never in the same chapter. Since there’s clearly a shift in person, you’re not likely to become confused. In contrast, Alan Gordon has two first person points of view in his Jester books, Theophilus and his wife Claudia. He confines each voice to separate chapters, but even then it’s sometimes confusing when you lose track of which “I” is which. Even spacing out alternate points of view may not be enough.

POV is one of the most important, and slipperiest, parts of writing. Roberts and her fellow headhopping writers succeed because, despite the movement back and forth between points of view, you’re never confused about whose eyes you’re looking through. The rest of us struggle, perhaps because we’re not quite that skillful.

So budding romance novelist, you’re right to be confused when your critique group climbs all over you for headhopping. You’re right when you say that Nora Roberts does it. But you’re not right when you argue that you should do it too. Trust me, getting POV to work is harder than it looks. And putting in those spaces and asterisks is one way to keep yourself on track, even if it is a pain in the tuchas.


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