Monday, May 13, 2019

The Change Up

Picking the point of view (POV) for any novel is a big decision. Whether it’s the immediacy of a first-person narrative (think Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro books); or the third-person limited view that most mysteries use (including my own); the point of view you choose will drive the way you develop characters and your plot.
Because every Clementine Toledano book is told from the third-person limited, with Q as the sole focus of the narrator’s attention, I’ve sometimes found this style, well, limiting – especially when there’s something important I want the reader to know about a character that’s not Q, that she can’t know yet. This constraint of this particular style automatically transforms any author into a student of human nature. For example, if you need the reader to know that a character is hiding something, how can you describe that in a way that maybe your main character might not notice? Does the character look away? Do they shuffle their feet? Do they abruptly change the subject?
First-person point of view has the same challenges plus one more. The person telling the story has to notice something for the reader to notice it too. So, if you want to hide something from the reader, it has to be hidden from your narrator, too.
Despite their challenges, the third-person limited and first-person narratives continue to be the most common points of view in commercial fiction for good reason. We experience our lives through our own lens. If someone was narrating our life, they’d hear our thoughts (which can be useful in telling our story), see things that we might not notice (useful information for people to understand our story), but be limited to seeing and hearing only that which we see and hear (useful for experiencing the world the way we experience it).
So, how does one escape the limits of these most popular of fictional narratives?
The reason this is on my mind is because I’ve recently read two of the most devilishly clever mysteries; devilishly clever because of their handling and mishandling of the third-person limited point of view.
The Investigation by J.M. Lee, beyond being ethereally beautiful writing, tells its mystery by switching between the point of view of the detective using first-person and the point of view of the victim (prior to his demise) using third-person limited. By doing so, the reader not only uncovers the mystery, but the humanity and motivation that led the victim to his demise and the detective to follow him along the same path.
I’ve used this technique myself twice. In Devil Take Me Down, I wanted the readers to get to know our killer a little better, so that they knew the object of his obsession and how long it had been going on. The reader only gets to live inside the killer’s head twice in the book, but it let me do some creepy stuff I wouldn’t otherwise have been allowed to do.
In Until the Devil Weeps, I switch to the first-person midway through to finally give our staid Detective Sanger a platform to speak his mind. I needed to do this for two reasons: first, to add more tension about the whereabouts of the main character, but also to cue the reader in on a mystery that was set up way back in Devil Take Me Down. This mystery has continued through Chasing Those Devil Bones and all the way through The Devil’s Luck and it was time to put it to rest once and for all. Also, if I’m being honest here, I just love the way Aaron Sanger speaks and getting to write his words for a chapter was a lot of fun.
Tami Hoag takes this technique of switching points of view to a whole other level, however. I’ve just finished reading The Bitter Season and quite frankly, I'm still not sure how she pulled this off without me – a pretty savvy reader if I do say so myself – figuring the mystery out. Hoag tells the story from the third-person limited point of view, but from the perspective of every character in the story. This means the detective interviews the suspect and the narrator tells the scene from his perspective, then the scene continues from the suspect’s perspective, still in the third-person limited. We experience the murder of the victim from his perspective and the reaction to his death from the perspective of the killer. The result? The reader comes away with a holistic understanding of the crime from beginning to end.
Both of these novels inspired me for different reasons, but what I came away with is a better understanding of why perspective matters so much to your narrative. Sometimes, as writers, especially series genre writers like myself, we get locked into our own voice and our own style. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But like every rule in writing, even the point of view is not set in stone. And in a mystery, if you change it up just right, it can take your story to a whole other level.