One of the most important decisions you’ll make when you begin your novel is point of view, commonly referred to as POV. Get it right and your story will sing, your readers will fly on a magic carpet of words to places exciting, terrifying, magical. Get it wrong and your language will lie lifeless on the page, disconnected symbols offering nothing but a string of boredom.
In my first novel, The Middle of Somewhere, Eadie T. Pratt narrates her own story. It was important for me to deliver the narrative in first person, because one of the major themes of the novel is Eadie facing her prejudices. Immediacy, intimacy, and subjectivity were important to me. Eadie’s what you call an unreliable narrator; what she says may or may not be true. Of course, she believes her truth, but don’t we all? An example of this unreliability is when she first meets Piggin and Heifer and refers to them as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as if they are interchangeable, which the reader, and Eadie, learn later is far from the truth. I could have created an even more immediate quality by writing in present tense, which I believe calls for more clipped language, since we’re in the mind of the character as events occur. We don’t think in full sentences, but when recounting a past experience will do so. For this novel, I wanted the retrospect feel. Here’s Eadie at the top of the novel:
Left to myself, I never would have stopped in that eighty-grit-piece-of-sandpaper town long enough to pick up a soda and a bag of beer nuts. Thanks to Pebbles, my ’66 T-Bird, erupting into one of her anxiety attacks, I didn’t have that option. With Pebbles, it’s all about getting attention—my attention. She’ll break a belt or bust a hose just to see if I care.
It was important to me that Edie be able to fully describe her breakdown in the rural Texas town, even if her description was totally subjective. And this is important. When writing in first-person, everything is from your narrator’s perspective. She cannot recount a scene she did not see. She can tell you what she heard about it, or what she suspected might have happened, but that’s it.
When it came to my next novel, Spanking New, I also chose first person, only this time I opted for present tense. Why? Because I was aiming for that edge-of-your-seat rawness. The narrator is essentially telling the story of her creation, from dripping out of the ethereal Known to the bodily shock of being born. I wanted the book to read like an action novel, without the car chases. But there’s another major difference between the POV in The Middle of Somewhere and Spanking New: Spanky can read people’s thoughts, making her what’s called an omniscient narrator. This perspective allowed me to float from one character’s thoughts to another. Here’s an example. Rick and Nina are considering the possibility that Nina might be pregnant. Spanky is narrating.
Rick’s unsure if she really wants him to leave or she’s just saying that. He places the lily on the foot of the bed. “You want me to go?”
Nina doesn’t even look up. I’ve been so careful, she thinks. How could my body betray me like this?
“Honey?” Rick asks.
Nina thinks about what Iris would want her to do. Iris, she’s sure, would tell her it isn’t the right time. Iris would say she still has her whole life in front of her. Iris would say she should have a plan.
I wish she’d quit thinking about Iris and think about how much fun we could have. Cuddling, doing goo-goo ga-gas together, practicing saying words, playing open-your-mouth-here-comes-the airplane are just a few of the things I’m dreaming of that come to mind.
You can see how I go from Rick’s inner workings to Nina’s to Spanky’s. Jane Austen uses Omniscient Narrator to great effect, but too often it turns into a train wreck, hopping from one character’s POV to the next. My advice is: only use it when it serves your story.
My third novel, Maye’s Request, (officially released this week!) mixes it up a little, using both first person and third person limited. Each chapter begins and ends with Bean telling the story of her dysfunctional family: her mother was not only lovers with Bean’s father, but also with Bean’s father’s twin sister. I chose first person present tense for these sections. I liked the urgency. Here’s Bean at the top of the novel. (Compare the clipped language of present tense as opposed to Eadie’s retrospective narrative.)
Trapped. Row twenty-two, center seat, Mexicana airbus roaring thirty thousand feet above the Earth. Occupying the window seat to my left is Joe Dude Laptop Junkie returning from his “vacay in Me-hi-co.” He’s blowing up digital aliens while rocking out to some heavy metal blasting from his earbuds, his elbow occasionally ramming my ribs. On the aisle: Miss Dorito-Smacking Everything’s-So-Cheap-I-Couldn’t-Stop-Myself who’s crammed the surrounding overhead compartments so full with her “deals” there’s no room for my backpack.
But the heart of the story is about the things Bean doesn’t know about her family, the secrets. So how did I do this? Obviously, she couldn’t tell it, because she didn’t know it. My solution was to insert a section in the middle of each chapter told in third person limited, meaning I jump into she/he, but stay in the mind of a single character. I go back and forth between Bean’s father (Jack) and his twin sister, Bean’s aunt (Jen). Here is a section from inside young Jen’s world. She’s eleven years old and riding in the back seat of a car while her mentally-unbalanced mother practices driving.
Jen stuck her head out the window to get a taste of sun. It was stupid they had to do this. Just because their mom was scared of everything. It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t they have a normal mom? Jen pulled her head back inside and gave Jake a pathetic look. He rolled his eyes.
These forays into the past have a totally different feel from the Bean sections. They’re more removed and have that classic, almost fairytale like quality. The trick was to stay consistent, keeping the past sections set apart from Bean’s first person narrative, and always setting them in the middle of chapter. This way, I essentially train the reader for what to expect. It’s important not to jerk a reader around. It’s too easy to lose them. And lose them once, you may never get them back again.
Of course these aren’t all the POVs. There’s second person, straight-up third person, third person omniscient, third person objective… Each serves a purpose, creates the texture and feel of your work. So choose carefully. Then have a blast. Happy writing!