Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Points of View


So much in life depends on your point of view, and the same is true of writing fiction. There is a world of difference between a fast-paced first person single viewpoint thriller, for instance, and a book where third person viewpoints are forever shifting around. Choice of approach to viewpoint is an important decision for most novelists.

I’ve been reading a thriller which prompted reflections on viewpoint, because it does something I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before. I won’t give the title, or any details, because I don’t want to spoil the story, but the basic set-up is this. We begin with a first person account of dramatic events, which set up the mystery very effectively.

The viewpoint then shifts, and events are seen from the perspective of someone to whom the first protagonist turns for help. This shift from first person writing to third person is something I’ve never done, but it does seem to be becoming increasingly popular. In a nutshell, I guess the author is trying to combine dramatic tension (first person) with plot development (third person).

We then have a second third person viewpoint (a colleague of the second viewpoint character). Again, the author was clearly trying to get round a plot development challenge.

But then comes the great shock. The first person viewpoint character is murdered. The last we hear is that the villain is about to kill him – end of chapter. I wondered if there was to be a cunning twist, but no – his body is discovered, and that is the end of him

This left me feeling rather unsettled. How was the first person viewpoint character able to tell his story in this way?

I’m not sure I’ve explained this very well, but I’m trying not to give too much away. I’d be interested in how other readers and writers feel about viewpoint shifts of this kind.

14 comments:

maxine said...

I'm very intrigued as to the book you are writing about!

The shifting POV was what I liked about Ira Levin's "A Kiss Before Dying" - it had me fooled. (Did not work in the film, though - like many of these fun literary devices, it depends on the reader not being able to see what is going on.) I also note that I read Ira Levin when I was quite young and before I was as soaked in the mystery genre as I am now, so perhaps it would seem obvious these days. But it was a shock at the time!

Gerald So said...

My mind goes to the same question, Martin. How could the first-person character deliver his narration if he died mid-story? I giess the conceit is he's just one character in what's been established as a multi-viewpoint novel, but my first thought is still, "How is it possible?"

First-to-third or third-to-first is probably the most jarring perspective shift in fiction. I prefer single-viewpoint first- or third-person, getting to know the viewpoint character very well in the course of a story.

Dorte H said...

It is not very kind of you to make us so curious! Well, I assume the solution is to go on reading loads of crime fiction until I come across the right one ;)

Usually I think novels with more than one voice works well, also a mix of first and third persons (at least I have done it in my latest manuscript), but I am not sure it is a good idea to kill off a first person narrator - unless he or she is a truly despicable person.

gryphondear said...

In general viewpoints that jump around a great deal are unsettling to me as a reader. I once read a science fiction novel in which every chapter was told by a different character in first person to be very difficult to follow. I have noticed that Romance authors tend to switch viewpoints between the hero and heroine, but the authors who do this tend stay in third person. This can be disconcerting when the viewpoint changes mid-paragraph.

Not having read the novel you describe, I would also be stopped by the death of the first-person narrator part of the way through the story. The only way out of that situation would be for a second (or third, if one considers the murderer as the second) person to come across the dead person's narrative recorded in some fashion - or perhaps if this were a ghost story, as when Hamlet's father "fingers the perp". Then a satisfying denouement would be possible.

;^) Jan the Gryphon

R. T. said...

The unique viewpoint issues are a constant source of interest for writers (and readers). Your analysis (without revealing the book's title) is intriguing, and I suspect that I would also have problems with a 1st person POV in a novel in which that person becomes the murder victim because (as you say) the writer then has an odd metaphysical problem on his or her hands since dead men tell no tales. Of course, with that having been said, there are ways around such obstacles; if I recall correctly, Dame Christie's THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD employs a bit of trickey in that vein. But enough about all of that. You have an obligation, you know, to reveal the author and the book about which you are writing. Or does that remain an unsolved mystery?

Xavier said...

Are the first person sections told in present or past tense?

Martin Edwards said...

I was glad to get back from work tonight and find these very thoughtful comments. I shall reply individually - starting with you, Maxine!

I really liked A Kiss Before Dying and my reaction was similar to yours. I read it when I was a student. And Levin was a young man when he wrote it. Impressive.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Gerald. I think first to third person is a pretty jarring shift, by its nature. I wonder which authors have done it best?

Martin Edwards said...

Dorte - I had some reservations about the book, but overall I enjoyed it, mainly because of the relentless pace.
I am happy to email you or anyone else who wants to know the title, but I wouldn't publish it to the world at large, because it would be unfair on the author.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Jan. I agree, but in this book, the death of the narrator was not explained away. A bit frustrating.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi R.T. The trick in Ackroyd was rather different - and Christie was able to justify it.
As I said to Dorte, if you really want to know the book, email me and I'll reveal all!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Xavier. Past tense. There was no hint that the character would be killed.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am happiest with a single POV who survive the plot. But I am probably old-fashioned.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Patti. I'm pleased by the debate this post has generated, and the range of views expressed.