This blog originally appeared as a guest post for
The Book Diva
What’s the Point?
A friend of mine was standing in line at the sales register of a local bookstore. The woman in front of her was checking out, and the clerk made a suggestion for a novel. She handed her customer a display copy and the woman quickly thumbed through a few pages. “Oh, this is written in first person. I don’t read first person.” She pushed the book aside.
“What?” I exclaimed when my friend related the incident. “She just threw out Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Sun Also Rises, not to mention that icon of all mystery detectives, Sherlock Holmes.”
What was the point for making such a sweeping, excluding statement? The point was for some reason the first person point of view kept this woman out of all stories. As a writer who primarily tells his stories in first person, I believe point of view should have the opposite effect. It draws the reader into the story through the connection established between the narrator and reader. For me, first person is the most intimate and personal form of storytelling.
But, to be fair, point of view should be chosen for its contribution to the impact a story has on the reader. Thus, there are objective reasons for choosing from a variety of subjective perspectives. Going back to my English grad school days, I learned point of view is a distance set between a narrator and the story and thereby a distance set between the reader and the story. It provides a place for both the narrator and the reader to stand.
First person in a traditional detective novel puts the reader inside the head of one character and one character only – usually the detective with great exceptions like the ever-faithful Dr. Watson. The reader discovers evidence and corresponding solutions along with the detective. As a writer, I’ve found first person provides an easier entry into my character’s world, especially when that world is unfamiliar. My latest Buryin’ Barry novel, Risky Undertaking, is set on the Cherokee Reservation in western North Carolina. Part of what occurs in the novel involves Barry encountering unique cultural traditions as well as complicated working relationships between sovereign tribal police and off-reservation law enforcement. I wanted those experiences to be filtered through Barry’s perspective so his telling provides a personal narrative journey into the world of the Cherokee.
I realize first person point of view isn’t the only and certainly not the most prolific narrative device. Third person opens up limitless options for taking the reader into multiple minds and locations not privy to the protagonist. For the thriller, third person sets up the suspense when the reader knows more than the protagonist and is well aware of the danger lurking ahead. I chose third person for my thriller, The 13th Target, for that reason.
Yet, there is not just one point of view labeled third person. This plurality of viewpoints is both the strength and potential weakness of third person. To keep me immersed in the story to the desired extent that I forget I’m reading, the narrative perspective needs to be consistent. Otherwise the perspective becomes overly manipulative and frustrating. Information and character thoughts are inconsistently revealed and withheld.
For example, third person can be a close third person. The story stays with the view of one character but no thoughts are revealed for any characters. This point of view is used masterfully by Dashiell Hammett in The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade appears in every scene, but the narrative style is one of objective description only, like a camera following Spade throughout the whole story. If you read the novel with point of view in mind, you’ll become aware of how often the descriptions are of characters’ eyes. These “windows of the soul” are as close as Hammett gets to revealing internal thoughts. Why? Because Hammett played absolutely fair with his readers! At the dramatic conclusion, the culprits come to realize they had misjudged what was motivating Sam Spade. But by keeping Sam’s viewpoint free of his thoughts, Hammett surprised the reader as well. The impact was heightened because Hammett not only wrote a great novel; he knew how to tell it with the most powerful point of view and he kept that view consistent.
So, point of view isn’t arbitrary. Whether it’s close third person like Hammett’s, or limited to the thoughts of certain characters, or omniscient in all regards including narrator opinions, the choice should be made in service to the story and in service to the reader. How a story is told is inseparable from the story itself.
Which brings me back to the woman in the bookstore. In my opinion, she separated point of view from the potential power that the narrative style brought for the most impactful way to experience the story. She built the first person point of view into a wall and refused to accept it as the author’s gateway into the world he or she created.
And that, my friend, was the author’s point to begin with.
Posting a Parting
Today is the day I've had to let go. It's not easy because for the next few weeks I'll be second-guessing myself. Does everything make sense? Did I miss a great story opportunity? Could I squeeze in one more revision?
Yes, the manuscript for my new mystery, A Specter of Justice, has received the Seal of Approval from my editor at Poisoned Pen Press and gone to final copy editing.
Postpartum? I wouldn't trivialize real postpartum with my little anxieties, but I'll argue there are similarities. I've lived with and developed this new story for almost a year. Suddenly, I have to stop thinking about it in terms of what it will be and accept what it is. And what it is will be determined by each individual reader who either connects with it or doesn't. It's out of my hands and into their hands (or ears in the audio version) and I can't be there to defend my "child" if they don't like what I've created.
After fifteen books, one would think I'd be over this feeling by now. I'm not. So, it must be caused more by the void of the moment than the loss of the particular manuscript now with my publisher. This form of postpartum isn't exclusive with writers, but anyone who has lived and breathed a major project.
The process of creation lies at the heart of the matter. That little voice in your head asks, "What's next?" and it won't stop asking until the process begins again – the subconscious demanding to have its say, its new task, its creative expression.
I read an interview with Lee Child in which he says he immediately starts writing a new Jack Reacher novel as soon as he finishes his current one. No down time, no recharging of batteries. He wants to carry the rhythm and energy culminating in one book into the beginning of the next.
That's a great approach, but I'm not wired that way. Some transition has to take place as I say goodbye to one set of characters and their actions. I believe that transition might be the anxiety itself, the psychological angst that tunes your ears and eyes to story possibilities in what you hear, you see, and you read.
If that's the case, then what I label as writer's postpartum is really writer's propellent – the fuel that drives one to seek out the next project, the next story. If there comes a time when I'm not anxious, then that's the time of the real parting. It's the Muses telling me, "Mark, It was fun, but you're done."