Tuesday, May 16, 2006

WTPEN -- Point of View

Continuing with my “slide presentation” on writing the private eye novel, let’s dig into the first topic on the agenda: point of view.

This is the menu of choices for point of view. While first person is most often associated with the private eye novel—as a case in point, note that Michael Connelly felt obliged to write in first person for the one novel where Harry Bosch goes “private”—it’s not always the PI who does the narrating. Watson’s narration of the adventures of private eye Sherlock Holmes is the obvious example of the non-hero narrator. See also Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe books.

Second person is rarely used in any fiction. Bright Lights, Big City is the only recent example I can cite.

Third person has a number of variants. You can tell the story in third from one character’s point of view or multiple characters'. You can restrict the POV to what one character sees and thinks (limited) or you can have omniscient narrator who sits above the world of the story knows all. Objective third is an interesting variant of limited wherein the POV is limited to what one character might see, but does not include insight into the character’s thoughts. It’s a “fly-on-the-wall” POV that is basically like following around the selected character with a movie camera. Objective has an interesting history in private eye fiction.

Finally, you can mix POVs between chapters—or if you’re brave—within them.

As I said, first person is now most often associated with PI novels. One advantage is it provides an opportunity for a distinctive narrative style. It’s distracting to the reader to have an omniscient narrator tell you that something was as inconspicuous as a “tarantula on a slice of angel food cake,” but it’s: a) in character, and b) entertaining to have Raymond Chandler’s wise-cracking Philip Marlowe describe something that way in first person.

Because it’s possible for the narrator to omit description of his own life and focus only on the case at hand, first has been used in some private eye novels to reduce the PI into a sort of camera on a corrupt world: the PI is there only as a catalyst and a recorder of action. To a large extent, he remains an incompletely developed character. Examples of this are Hammett’s Continental Op books, where we don’t even know the PI’s name, and to some extent, Lew Archer in the Ross MacDonald books. Lew is a sort of PI therapist, having interview after interview with other characters, drawing out their feelings and emotions, but never conveying any sense of his own.

It can be harder (or more tedious) to weave suspense in first person because the narrator can only know what he or she observes. Lots of thrillers work by having an omniscient narrator or an additional third person POV let us know what the bad guy is doing while the good guy works to save the day.

Conversely, first can also encourage the use of PI-gets-hit-on-the-head-from-behind type of plot twists because blacking out the narrator entirely and having events occur without his knowledge is an easy way to inject mystery into the story. (And, yes, I’m guilty of this on occasion.)

Finally, it can also be a challenge to build tension without withholding information from the reader (which some characterize as cheating) because the PI will often figure out the mystery at some point before the showdown, but having him reveal the solution prior to that scene would ruin the arc of the story.

Third person was actually as prevalent as first in the early days of the PI story. And the objective third person POV, in particular, as used by Hammett in The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, Gores in Interface and yours truly in Vulture Capital, can really convey an impersonal hardboiled feel to a book.

As mentioned during the discussion of first, multiple third person POV can help to get complex plots across since it makes it possible for the reader to be more than one place at a time or know more than just what a single narrator knows.

And using third person can arguably help you to enrich your PI’s character with flaws or weaknesses without diminishing his stature by having him come across as self-indulgent, weak or just plain dumb. For instance, having a first person narrator describe himself crying has a different impact than a more objective third person description of the same thing.

But, as you’ll learn in all Fiction Writing 101 classes, the conventional wisdom is you’re not supposed to switch POV mid-scene, so a downside of using multiple third person is that it makes it easier to fall into that trap.

Many different hybrids are possible. One worth mentioning is the mixing of first and third, which has a similar impact as multiple third person. Parker used this approach in Thin Air to give the reader insight into a kidnap victim’s plight while Spenser and Hawk work to save her.

Mixing first and third may come off as contrived to some readers, but an even tougher one to pull off is first person omniscient where the problem of the narrator only knowing what he or she observes in linear time is solved by giving him or her knowledge outside his or her direct observation.

I can’t think of an example where this has been done in a PI novel, but, in my opinion at least, Fitzgerald somehow made it work very smoothly in The Last Tycoon—which is not to suggest that us mere mortals would have the same luck with it if we tried.

I’m going to BookExpo America this weekend, so I plan to use my next few posts to describe my adventures there, including my scheduled signing of advanced readers’ copies of Candy from Strangers at the Bleak House booth!

After that, I’ll pick up again with our next topic in “Writing the Private Eye Novel:” character development.


At 4:23 AM, Blogger Daniel Hatadi said...

An excellent post, Mark. I've read plenty on the topic of viewpoint, but never with such detailed relevance to the PI. Thanks, and looking forward to more.

At 6:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Mark! I am an university student and preparing a comment on a novel. But i am confused about the third-person objective POV and third-person limited POV. Now, i got the answer from your article. Thank you.


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