Getting Around First Person POV Limitations

This post was inspired by a question from Debbie B., one of my editorial clients, and her critique group. First person is great. A lot of people use it. It lends a sense of immediacy and accessibility to your work. The logic is that it’s easy to connect to a protagonist when you’re intimately involved in their interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). But first person POV has a lot of limitations. (Plus it’s overused, and some writers avoid* it because of how common it is.)

Not Being Able To Go Inside Another Character’s Head

Perhaps the biggest character-specific limitation is that you don’t have access to anyone else’s interiority. In close third person, you don’t really, either, but in omniscient third person, you can “head hop” to your heart’s content and access any number of characters. First person limits you. For example, you cannot say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, feeling annoyed.

Since Susie is not our protagonist, we can’t now her inner landscape. So how do you get around it? Instead, you can say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, annoyance in her voice.

Or you can put the emotion in dialogue:

“Ugh, I don’t know, okay?”

Or you can venture a guess like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, as if I’d asked the most annoying question ever.

Or like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, and she was probably still mad at me for being late.

It’s up to you how much to use these techniques. I would suggest to limit the guessing and let Susie’s action and dialogue tell the story. The hard and fast rule is that the one thing you can’t do is tell the reader what’s actually going on in Susie’s head. That crosses POV lines.

The Protagonist Having to Be Present

The biggest plot-related problem with first person POV is that your protagonist has to be around for everything. Dagnabit! But, they are the narrator. So if they’re not there when the murder weapon is found and planted in their locker, they can’t narrate it. So the reader can’t find out about it. And it doesn’t get on the page.

How do you get around this? I’m less able to prescribe a solution because a lot depends on what you need to narrate. Here are some common workarounds, though do be warned that some of these are cliché at this point:

  • Eavesdropping (they can overhear key information)
  • Clues (they can find clues to key information)
  • Direct confrontation (not everything has to be hidden, sometimes you’ll solve problems by revealing your secret sooner because the ramifications are actually where the drama is)

How else do you get around these issues? Are you grappling with any particularly hairy POV-specific questions? Leave some thoughts in the comments.

ETA: I didn’t meant that agents and editors reject a project just because it’s in first person, I meant that some writers avoid it and try third person because they don’t want to use such a common POV. I have to be careful about the word “reject”! Thanks, Chris!

Noticing Filler

A big part of my job when I work with clients is to help them see their manuscripts as I see them. And what I see, a lot of the time, is opportunity to tighten the overall prose. One subtle function of wanting to pare down (other than overwriting, which we discussed in last week’s post), is noticing when you’re including filler.

Whenever you’re working with first person or close third POV, it is understood that your protagonist (or POV character) is narrating the scene. They are your lens, in effect. Especially in first person, as a few cases can be made to the contrary in third.

So when a scene is described, as in:

She noticed a man sitting in a forlorn stall in a far corner of the bazaar. She saw his downtrodden expression and heard what could’ve only been a sigh issuing from his lips.

It’s assumed that the main character is there, seeing and hearing everything, in order to relay it back to the reader. Technically, they can’t narrate what they haven’t become aware of in the first place, yanno?

There are three instances of filler here. “She noticed,” “she saw,” and “she heard.” We simply don’t need this. Don’t waste time narrating that, oh yeah, your character who’s been hearing and seeing everything that’s been described in the book so far has also seen and heard this. That’s beyond implied.

Instead, a cleaner, tighter revision might read:

A man sat in a forlorn stall in a far corner of the bazaar. He wore a downtrodden expression and issued what could’ve only been a sigh.

I’ll be the absolute first to tell you that this is an extremely nitpicky note. “Why does it matter whether or not I cut SIX WORDS from this description? It’s six words!” Or 18% of the sample in question. I know not every sentence of yours is going to have filler, but if you cut even 9% or even 4.5% out of a manuscript that people say is running too lengthy at 100,000 words, that’s 18,000, 9,000 or 4,500 words, respectively!

Little nitpicky things make a big difference in the long run, and if all of your sentences get a little tighter, the perceived difference to the reader (how quickly the pacing moves, how smoothly the descriptions read, how efficiently we get from scene to scene) will be worth much more than the actual number of words you’ve trimmed.

Juicing Emotion

This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichés that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

Third Person-Style Narration in First Person

Say what? Bear with me here a moment. I want to talk about something I’ve been noticing a lot: third person-style narration in the first person. It’s easier to illustrate than to explain. It goes, for example, like this:

My gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. My heartbeat quickened and my pupils contracted with fear. I leaned back against the wall, the muscles in my torso tightening, my mouth drying out, my legs ready to spring into action. With my breath coming in short, shallow gasps, I prepared myself to attack.

Now, this is a subtle one to pick up on, I think. Can you figure out, from this sample, what I might mean? I’m referring to a style of narration that is more commonplace (and appropriate) in the third person. When you’re writing in the first person, you are immediately inside your character’s head, heart, and body. When you’re in third person, even if you’re in very close third, you’re on the outside of the body, seeing it from a bit of a bird-eye view.

Descriptions like the one I’ve written above are in first person (within the body) but seem oddly outside of it. This most often happens with physical descriptions/actions. I fear I’m not making a whole lot of sense, so I will try another approach. Imagine you’re telling an anecdote to your friends. You’ve got them wrapped around your finger as you’re describing a scene, say, the last time you were thrown a surprise party. Do you say, about yourself, “My gaze shifted to the corner and my mouth dropped open to discover Uncle Eddie wearing a party hat”?

That doesn’t sound very natural to me. If I were telling a story to a group of friends at a party, I would say something like “I looked and saw” or, if I’m feeling really fancy, “I glanced over.” When I’m in first person, it feels oddly distancing to say, about myself, “my gaze shifted.” I also wouldn’t say “my mouth dropped open.” I’m not watching myself on a video tape and narrating what’s happening. “To my shock” or “shockingly” would be more first person-appropriate.

To further illustrate, let’s put the above passage in the third person:

His gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. Jake’s heartbeat quickened and his pupils contracted with fear [I have problems with writers relying too heavily on physical symptoms and gestures to convey emotion, but that’s another post for another day…]. He leaned back against the wall, the muscles in his torso tightening, his mouth drying out, his legs ready to spring into action. With his breath coming in short, shallow gasps, Jake prepared himself to attack.

Now, it’s not a perfect paragraph, and it still has a lot of cheap physical symptoms cluttering everything, but it sounds much more natural in third to my ear because we’re observing the character from the outside. Sure, we can’t see his muscles tighten or his heartbeat quicken from a true bird-eye view, but the tone of this piece is that of an outside observer. That same tone doesn’t work when the observer is in first person, talking about their own body.

This is one of those more subtle notes that I give, but I’ve found myself giving it a lot lately. Sure, it’s probably less fancy to adhere to true first person tone when describing physical events (the boring “I glanced” vs. the sexy “my gaze shifted”) but I think it’s more authentic. On a related note, I’ve also been giving a lot of writers pointers about overwriting, making things more complex than they should be, and showing off. This is one example of prose where I think we should all strive for a bit more simplicity.

How to Layer Points of View

If you are writing a manuscript with multiple POVs (points of view), ie: first or close third person narration through the eyes of different characters for different sections or chapters, how do you space them? Do they have to be evenly spaced throughout? Here’s a question that Kathryn sent in:

If I am doing a novel with a defined MC, but alternate between him and the supporting (but also very important) character’s POV, do I need to have this happen constantly? Because there are a few times in my book that I switch to ‘the girlfriend’s’ POV, but it isn’t like VAMPIRE DIARIES, for example where LJ Smith has each scene switch to a different character’s POV. Is this something that has to be completely consistent? Or can I put it in as needed?

This is a relatively easy question to answer. When writing from multiple POVs, you don’t need to lock yourself into any kind of scheme. A lot of people think, if they’re splitting the story between two POVs, for example, they have to alternate always POV 1, then POV 2, then POV 1 again. This isn’t always the case. If your two POV characters have almost equal “screen time” in the novel, maybe you can keep it that consistent, but there are no rules that say you have to.

Especially if your story has a MC and then the POV of a supporting character, you can use her when you need her. A few things to consider, though, for any manuscript where you alternate POV:

  1. Give us the first instance of the “other” POV pretty early on, so the reader knows to expect another POV throughout the story.
  2. Don’t go too long without hearing from your other POV characters. You don’t want us to forget that their voices are there and we will if you go for like 50-70 pages without changing POV.
  3. It’s all about balance. You don’t want to switch POV every 4 chapters at the beginning and spend 70 pages in one POV near the end. Make sure they’re somewhat evenly spaced, even if they’re not totally consistent.

Finally, one thing I would urge all of you to consider: do not include adult POVs in manuscripts that have predominantly kid or teen POVs. I’ve seen a lot of writers try this, and it never works that well, unless yours is a very specific type of story (and yes, I expect mentions of THE BOOK THIEF to pop up in the comments, but that is a very specific type of story, more on this later). Besides, a kid who is reading a book targeted to their age group is going to be SO BORED dipping into the head of their teacher, their parents, their minister, their librarian, their whatever. I’ve read manuscripts where we dip into Dad’s head while he’s fretting about the mortgage… his marriage… troubles with his manager at work… Yikes. A lot of adult writers want to reinforce to teen readers that adults have problems and to be more sympathetic to them. Probably because they’re raising teens at the time and feel unappreciated. This is not the way to help teen readers empathize because this type of moralizing usually doesn’t get published and reach teen readers. Even if they’re dipping into the head of the adult villain, it’s still not advisable to do this. You don’t want to alienate your reader, and adult POV does that more often than not. I see the adult POV issue most in fantasies and mysteries, so people writing in those genres, take extra caution.

Other than that, feel free to experiment. You’ll probably be rewriting a lot if you end up changing your mind but really nailing the balance of POVs is important. And, also, do keep in mind that you should vary the voice. If you have a few different characters providing their POV but they all sound the same, use the same words, use the same imagery, etc., then what’s the point of multiple POV? That’s what makes this technique very difficult.

Workshop Submission #3

I’m punctual this morning. Yay! Our next workshop selection is Tiffany Bennet and her manuscript, GO. GENTLY.

Tiffany is writing from the male POV and wants to know if it sounds authentic.

Here’s the material!

***

Folks got a lot of ideas about us guys. Some of these ideas are born from television or movies. Hell, maybe some are born from books. If people still read books. And no, I don’t count reading myspace pages or twitter as reading, though some of it can be pretty entertaining. Some of these ideas are perpetrated by some girl’s bad experience which now, somehow, without explanation, will mark our species forever. And let’s be honest, men and women are two entirely different species.

Wait, I’m confused. Am I reading a fiction novel or an essay on gender roles in teenagers? Phrases like “Some of these ideas are perpetrated” sound downright clinical and don’t have an engaging voice.

This is what I like to call a rant. Every once in a while, a character will go into a long monologue about an issue that “they” (sometimes I wonder if it’s really the author sprouting off here) care about. In almost all cases, rants are unnecessary. Nobody likes to hear someone on their soapbox, even if that person is fictional. Especially not at the beginning of a piece. This also tells us nothing about the character, since they’re speaking in vague terms about teenagers, males and society in general.

Also, this writer wanted to see if her writing worked well in the male POV. I don’t know if there’s a LESS convincing way of portraying maleness than by having that person talk about, “I am male. I am having a specifically male problem.” This doesn’t seem very natural or authentic and might not fly with today’s readers.

But not all of us are happy merely fitting into the mold so effortlessly created for us. I sure ain’t. And neither was Tristan. We’re not all appeased by a quick go-around in the backseat of our mom’s mini-van with some girl we won’t call the next day. Maybe that’s why Tristan is dead. You can only deny something for so long before it eats away at you.

Trust me, I know.

And talking about “generic teenage issues,” like being forced into a mold, won’t automatically make teenager relate to the character because, again, the issue here is very general. Readers open a book to read about a specific character who has a specific problem, not to have a list of vague problems described. I also am a bit unsure re: “I sure ain’t.” Is the grammar here trying to be folksy? In that case, it sounds downright odd right next to the more formal diction of “And neither was Tristan.” Plus, “ain’t,” though not widely accepted, stands for “am not” and is present tense, while the rest of this has been in past.

Here we finally get a hint at a specific problem, though. Tristan is dead and the character has some denial and, apparently, some guilt or grief about it.

Soon my mother will be up to tell me he is dead. Drunk-driving accident. But I know the truth. It was no accident. He wanted, needed, to go. I have to decide how I will react to the news. Do I retreat inside myself? Would it be simpler for everyone around me if I pay homage to the I-have-no-emotions-give-me-a-beer-I-will-cry-if-the-Falcons-lose-the-game-but-not-acknowledge-any-human-connection-man that so long carried the flag for my species? Or maybe I should recklessly abuse drugs and alcohol. I could become another actor in the teen drama, I Have So Many Issues. Please Notice Me.

I’m wondering how this character knows what is about to happen. It does raise the tension. I’m also wondering if this is early morning or late at night — there could be more grounding. “needed to go” is also a bit vague. Needed to “go” as in DIE or needed to go to wherever he went (a party?) before he was killed?

Again, we get some pontificating on what it means to be a male and what kinds of male emotional responses are acceptable or expected. But that sentence with all the hyphens is overlong and I lose steam halfway through it. There’s a voice issue with “recklessly abuse drugs and alcohol.” I can’t imagine an older teen saying this. This actually sounds like an anti-drugs-and-alcohol brochure, not a teenager considering a bender.

The last line really does rub me the wrong way. The character here seems pretty condescending toward teenagers. Like he’s got their emotional responses and their experiences all figured out and he’s judging them. If I was a teen, I’d want to tell this guy off. He’s not giving a teen’s emotional experience any respect. And even if most teen drama seems like it’s just another case of “I Have So Many Issues, Please Notice Me,” it’s all very real and very important to teens themselves, no matter how frivolous it appears to an outsider. And because of that judgmental tone, this character really does seem like an outsider… and he seems like an adult. With a YA novel, that’s a problem.

***

My notes of advice for this submission could best be summed up with urging the writer to focus on the character and his problem, not on expounding on various issues about life and the teen age. This person’s brother (implied by “our mom’s mini-van,” emphasis mine) has died, and he seems to know about it before the rest of his family. And he doesn’t seem too broken up by it, either. That’s the tension there. Focus on it. And don’t use fiction as a personal platform for yourself or for what you think a male would want to say. That makes it less convincing. Get to the story and let who he is and how he thinks about the world unfold naturally from there.

Stay tuned. The next submission will appear on Monday.

Changing Your Manuscript’s Tense and Point of View

A writer makes many decisions when it comes to approaching a manuscript. We have to decide on our characters, our plot, our setting, our descriptions… all that content jazz. We also have to decide several storytelling issues. Is this story going to be told in past tense or present tense? Will it be told in first or in third person? If it’s going to be in third person, will it be third person limited or third person omniscient*? Which character’s POV** will tell the story? Will I have one POV or multiple POV’s?

And on and on. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t take up brain surgery instead.

Believe it or not, though, almost every choice I’ve ever made about a manuscript has been wrong at some point. That’s totally okay. It’s a huge pain in the butt and you wonder if you are just the densest person on the planet when you realize your error, but there’s only one thing you can do: change it. (There’s also Secret Option B: eat a sheet pan of tiramisu.)

In terms of difficulty, here are the above changes, ordered by degree of difficulty from easiest to hardest:

  1. Tense
  2. First to third or third to first
  3. Third person limited to third person omniscient or vice versa
  4. One POV to multiple POV’s or vice versa

There are tons of changes a writer makes to a manuscript, of course, but the above four are the big “universal” changes that are likely to affect the entire thing. I’ve repeatedly, REPEATEDLY, made the first two changes to several manuscripts. In fact, with one manuscript, I went from first to third and then back again to first, like a total dunderhead.

If ever you’re faced with one of these huge changes, take heart. The only way to do it is to put your head down and power through. Besides, every single time you read through your work, it gets stronger. You’ll notice a sentence that sounds off, you’ll see that some new thread could easily be woven into the story here, here and here.

Also, there’s a great psychological effect to making these huge, whole-MS changes… you’ll get comfortable with ripping it apart and making it messy for a little while. After that, you’ll be more willing to do bigger revisions, if it comes to that, which it most likely will, and you’ll handle them with more aplomb! And doesn’t everyone want more aplombfulness in their lives? =)

* In case you’re wondering. Third person limited is narrated in the third person (he ran down the hallway, etc.) but it follows one character (most likely the main character) the closest. It can also see into that character’s thoughts and feelings but not anybody else’s. Third person omniscient, which is more difficult to pull off successfully, follows many people, can access all of their thoughts and feelings, and gives them equal weight.

** POV stands for “point of view.” Every time you follow someone’s thoughts or feelings, as in, say, the third person limited example above, you are in their POV. A book can primarily follow one person or have multiple POV’s (usually broken up into sections or new chapters, as in THE LUXE series by Anna Godbersen), and this term applies to books written in both first and third person.