Wednesday, April 29, 2009
How Many POVs Do You Need?
As a fiction editor and evaluator, the most common problem I encounter is with point of view. The advice I constantly give writers is: Stick with one POV for chunks of text, then signal the change if you need to tell part of the story from another character's point of view.
Chester Campbell—career journalist and author of two mystery series featuring private investigators—takes the subject further and discusses the pros and cons of different POV approaches.
In my Greg McKenzie mystery series, the stories are all written first person from Greg’s point of view. This has become sort of standard for private investigators. I did vary it in the first two books with third person prologues. That gave me the ability to provide the reader with background information on the books that Greg was not aware of until later in his investigation.
The first person viewpoint gives a feeling of immediacy, allowing the reader to follow along with the detective, picking up the clues as he does. But it also means neither he nor the reader gets to see what else is going on nearby, out of sight or earshot, as they say. Greg’s wife, Jill, who becomes a partner in McKenzie Investigations, appears only as Greg sees her, or as she reveals herself through her dialogue.
When I decided to write a new series with a different protagonist, I switched to third person so I could use multiple points of view. That permitted the reader to learn what was going on in different areas than just where the main protagonist was involved. I was aware, however, that switching too often and involving too many different viewpoint characters could become confusing to the reader.
I gave my main character, Sid Chance, an unusual sidekick to share the viewpoint, sometimes with separate scenes in the same chapter, occasionally through separate chapters. She’s a successful businesswoman, board chair of a chain of truck stops founded by her father. But she comes with an intriguing past. Early in life she was kicked out of the family by her aristocratic mother for wandering into such unsophisticated circles as Air Force Security Police and championship professional boxing. She was a Metro Nashville policewoman before returning to her father’s good graces after her mother died.
Jaz LeMieux gets her first shot at the viewpoint in Chapter 5, after learning that her housekeeper’s grandson has disappeared. What has happened to the grandson becomes a crucial subplot and provides most of Jaz’s opportunity to take the spotlight. This subplot is woven in throughout the book, right up to the end.
Using the old technique of the thriller, I also tossed in a few brief POV shifts to update things from the bad guys’ viewpoint. It was designed to ramp up the tension. One thing I’ve avoided is shifting viewpoints within a scene. Most critics highly recommend against that technique, although I have seen it done effectively.
From my observation, it seems that the objections to changes in points of view are becoming more moderate. I’ve read several comments lately from authors who feel it isn’t as troublesome as previously thought. I suspect most readers, outside the sophisticated folks found in places like the DorothyL listserv, have little familiarity with the technicalities of point of view. Their only concern is that the story reads smoothly and they don’t have to re-read parts to find out who is talking or whose thoughts they are listening to.
If we achieve that goal, our multiple POV manuscripts should be successful. With readers, that is. With editors, that’s another matter.
Readers: How do you feel about multiple points of views?
Writers: Have you struggled with this issue or had editors request POV changes?
This is next to the last stop on Chester’s blog book tour for The Surest Poison. Leave a comment and you will be eligible to win some of his books. The final drawing tomorrow night will be for an autographed copy of The Surest Poison and the grand prize, a copy of all five of his books, including four in the Greg McKenzie series.
Chester Campbell has written four Greg McKenzie novels featuring a retired Air Force investigator and his wife. The Surest Poison is the first book in the Sid Chance series. Campbell worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance writer, magazine editor, political speechwriter, advertising copywriter, public relations professional and association executive. He's also the secretary of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime.