Point of View: First versus Third

By Elaine Viets

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When I wrote Brain Storm, the first novel in my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator series, I went through ten rewrites and a year-long debate: Should this novel of psychological suspense be first person or third person?
Brain Storm is a very personal story. Angela, my death investigator, had the same medical crisis that I did – six strokes, brain surgery and a coma, plus months of rehab. I thought first person would reflect that. But third person is better for conveying information, and this new, darker series has complex forensics that would be impossible in a first-person narrative.
I worked out a compromise: the first two chapters of Brain Storm were in first person, which I thought gave the novel a personal introduction. The rest of Brain Storm was in third. And that’s how I sold it.
When I sent out the manuscript for blurbs, thriller writer Jeff Abbott said, “Do you really want to switch POVs like that?” Jeff almost never – and I mean never – gives blurbs, and I admire his writing. After many emails, phone calls, and meetings with my editors, they decided I should recast the first and second chapters into third person, so the whole novel was in third person.

Here is the original first-person Chapter 1 of Brain Storm:

cemetery

The doctor who nearly killed me was buried today. The Missouri medical establishment turned out to honor him. The eulogies were heartfelt: doctors, nurses and patients praised Dr. Porter Gravois s compassion and skill as a neurologist. Their tears were genuine. His funeral cortege was nearly a mile long on the road named after his powerful St. Louis family. Everyone called him by his nickname, Chip, as if they were all part of his inner circle. Chip made them feel that way.
I didn’t attend his funeral. I was still in the hospital, recovering from the damage he did to me. I’d been in there three months. But I was glad he was dead, and so were the people who knew the real Dr. Gravois. None of us called him Chip.
As I lay on the scratchy hospital sheets, I wondered how Dr. Gravois looked in his coffin. He had a long pale face and a knife blade nose, like a stone figure on a British tomb. Did the mortician manage to duplicate the fatherly smile that fooled so many? That smile didn’t quite reach Dr. Gravois s hard blue eyes, but those were closed forever.
Which suit was he buried in? Chip wore Savile Row suits from Kilgour in London. Chip pronounced it Kilgar, and said only parvenus called the tailor Kilgore. His Kilgour suits were lovely silk and light wool. It was a shame to put one in the ground. But I had no qualms about shoveling Dr. Gravois six feet under.
What about Dr. Gravois s bitter enemy, Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt?
He and his awful off the rack suits were barred from the funeral. No matter how much he paid for his suits, he still looked more like a small town insurance agent than a neurosurgeon.
His unwed mother had named him after her favorite country music star. Dr. Jeb was a country boy, from his badly cut hair to his thick-soled brown shoes.
Was he wearing a jail jumpsuit now? We’d all heard Dr. Jeb threaten Dr. Gravois. He called him a crook and a killer and said the best thing Porter Gravois could do for his patients was die.
The next day, Dr. Gravois was murdered.
*********************************************************************************************
That’s the voice of my protagonist, Angela Marie Richman. She was misdiagnosed by Dr. Gravois as “too young and healthy to have a stroke” and sent home, where she had the medical catastrophe that nearly killed her. Dr. Gravois, the man who misdiagnosed her, is the bitter enemy of the talented, gauche Dr. Tritt, who saved Angela’s life. Bald, crippled, and hallucinating after her surgery, Angela has to use to her death investigator skills to save the man who saved her life.

 

Here is the rewrite of that same Brain Storm chapter in third person:

The doctor who nearly killed Angela Richman was buried today, and the Missouri medical establishment turned out to honor him. The eulogies were heartfelt: doctors, nurses, and patients praised Dr. Porter Gravois’s compassion and skill as a neurologist. Their tears were genuine. His funeral cortege was nearly a mile long on the road named after his powerful St. Louis family. Everyone called him by his nickname, Chip, as if they were all part of his inner circle. Chip made them feel that way.
Angela didn’t attend his funeral. She was still in the hospital, recovering from the damage he’d done to her. She’d been in there three months. Angela was glad Porter was dead, and so were the people who knew the real Dr. Gravois. They didn’t call him Chip.
As she lay on the scratchy hospital sheets, she wondered how Dr. Gravois looked in his coffin. He had a long, pale face and a knife-blade nose, like a stone figure on a British tomb. Had the mortician managed to duplicate the fatherly smile that fooled so many? That smile didn’t quite reach Gravois’s hard, blue eyes, but those were closed forever.
Which suit was he buried in? Chip wore Savile Row suits from Kilgour in London. Chip pronounced it Kilgar and said only parvenus called the tailor Kilgore. His bespoke suits were lovely silk and light wool. It was a shame to put one in the ground. But Angela had no qualms about shoveling Gravois six feet under.
What about Dr. Gravois’s bitter enemy, Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt?
He and his awful, off-the-rack suits were barred from the funeral. No matter how much he paid for his suits, he still looked more like a small-town insurance agent than a neurosurgeon.
His unwed mother had named him after her favorite country music star. Dr. Tritt was a country boy, from his badly cut hair to his thick-soled brown shoes.
Is he wearing a jail jumpsuit now? Angela wondered. Everyone heard Tritt threaten Gravois. He’d called him a crook and a killer and said the best thing Porter Gravois could do for his patients was die.
The next day Dr. Gravois was murdered.
********************************************************************************************

My editor felt that writing those two chapters in first person, then changing them to third, gave the book a more intimate feel. What do you think? Is reversing the points of view a way to add depth to your writing?
PS: Jeff Abbott gave Brain Storm this blurb: “Elaine Viets’s newest is both a timely medical drama and a compelling mystery. Brain Storm gives us a detailed look at the shattered life of a determined death investigator. Readers will want more of Angela Richman’s adventures.”
TKZ’s PJ Parrish said, “I’m stoked to see Elaine venture into darker territory with Brain Storm, a multilayered mystery that is rich in its sense of place and character and propelled with medical intrigue. Brain Storm has everything I love in crime fiction – complexity, intelligence, pretzel plotting, and a touch of dark humor.”

Win Brain Storm, my new Angela Richman Death Investigator mystery. Thomas & Mercer is giving away 100 free Brain Storm e-books on Goodreads. Here’s the link: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/191474-brain-storm

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24 thoughts on “Point of View: First versus Third

  1. Elaine, I didn’t have the benefit of an editors opinion about first vs third person narrative. I thought I was being so cleaver; stealing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s technique of using first person at a character’s first appearance. It worked for F. Scott, For me, not so much. One of the several reasons for this was that Mr. Fitzgerald’s works only had a few characters to introduce. I had close to fifteen.

    My beta readers were confused with a shifting POV. Only a few “got it” and none connected F. Scott’s brilliance to me. What is worse, the novel, THE TIPPING POINT: A WAINWRIGHT MYSTERY was already out there, released in both digital and print editions.

    To be fair, that novel had other issues that were tactfully explained by Big All in his review. One other reviewer cast his lot with Big Al and gave the book a low star ranking. Since those reviews were less than five percent, I was happy to accept the judgement of the ninety-five percent as to the novel’s reader ranking.

    As it turned out, at the time the poor ranking reviews were published, I was in the middle of the1st draft of the sequel, INSIDE MOVES: A WAINWRIGHT MYSTERY. The direction the characters were taking that story would make some of TIPPING POINT incorrect. Like you, Elaine, I saw an opportunity to address the POV issues and correct the plot issues in TIPPING POINT. All I had to do was to un-publish and replace what was out there. I’m happy to report that all went well, thanks to the the cooperation received from Amazon and Smashwords staff. That sequel has now finished the first round of edits and is scheduled for release in late August. Taken together, I’m happy with the results and a proud poppa of the published prose.

  2. Congratulations, Walter. If I didn’t have Jeff Abbott and several smart editors, my mistake would be out there forever, with no possibility of a recall. Why do we always learn our lessons the hard way?

  3. The POV rigidity business drives me nuts. I can understand how confusion might occur, but EVERY technique we use in writing has to be handled well to avoid confusion and make the writing stand out.

    For myself personally, I DO use third person. I’m experimenting with first person but it will take some work and experimentation to get the hang of it. But I don’t ever want to write a book based on commonly accepted rules, rather, based on insight for what works for that particular story.

  4. Agreed, BK, but I’d read too many diatribes against first person POV, and it is limiting. What did the narrator see? Since she was stuck in one spot for most of the book, I’d have to invent situations that would take people away from the narrative.

  5. Interesting, Elaine. I’m toying with this on a side project right now, mixing first and third. The first is all from a single character’s POV, everything else is third. I recall reading a book done that way and didn’t find it confusing at all, so didn’t really have second thoughts about it until now.

    Thanks. I think. 😉

    And having dealt with my DH’s strokes, you have my sympathy and empathy.

    • Thanks, Justine, but the sympathy and empathy should go to my husband. He knows how difficult it is to deal with a recovering stroke patient and had infinite patience.
      About that POV — if I’d switched POVs throughout the book, it might have worked, but I didn’t.

  6. Congratulations on Brain Storm, Elaine!

    I wholeheartedly agree that first person brings intimacy, and I’m a sucker for intimacy. Your first person opening line really brings the story to immediate life. That struggle to provide all the information a reader needs from that POV, though, is tough.

    If one wants first person intimacy all the way through, chapters can alternate with two or even three first person characters. Of course, it then becomes about competing narratives. I don’t see a problem at all with having both first and third, but I think the reader would expect the first person narrative to show up at near or at the end to see how has she changed because of the events of the book. I’m glad you found a solution that works, telling the whole story. Sounds like it was a difficult process.

    You might check out Iain Pears’ Arcadia. It’s a weird, strangely wonderful book. He definitely plays fast and loose with POV.

    I love that you wrote Brain Storm out of your own story.

    • Read David Morrell’s Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft.

  7. It was Phillip Roth who said, “Nothing bad ever happens to us. It’s all material.” I needed eight years of distance before I could face that material, Laura. Will definitely check out Arcadia. Shifting POV is a technique I’d like to master.

  8. An easy choice for me writing my first novel: I cut my teeth back in the dinosaur days writing confession stories. (Really miss them.)

    So, when the characters and story lines came together, I began to write. It just came out: Lisa told the story in the first person.

    Narrative to fill in gaps? Conversations or events she was not a party to? Someone who was there filled her in. I wrote a whole seven pages of flashback about a fictitious event that happened during the WWII Battle of the Bulge because her adopted Father told her many times about it.

    Events in the world she didn’t know about? She did research. A three-page narrative about a battle that took place in Indian Territory came from a letter in response to a phone calls.

    In the end, it was easier for me to deal with her PTSD because she could talk about it in the first person, and, when a time came when she realized she was getting better, the first person narrative served well for that purpose.

    I may not write all my stories in the first person, but for this particular one, the device worked well.

  9. I’m probably not the person to ask, because I use first POV for my protagonist with alternating chapters in deep third for other POV characters. The book sounds fantastic, though!

  10. I much prefer a consistent POV per character, but using 1st for the protagonist and 3rd for the others works–it certainly did for Diane Gabaldon. As far as I’m concerned, if you get me into the head of the character, make me care, then I’m a happy reader. I’ve done all my novels in Deep Third, but my homicide detective in my 3 short stories insisted on first, so I tried it that way, and it worked. I think because they were short, it was easier to avoid the overwhelming repetitions of “I”

  11. this is fascinating Elaine! And that’s a fabulous first chapter! I’ve always written in first person, and now I’m trying something in third with multiple POV. It’s hard to do something so different, so hats off to you!

    I can see the difficulty of getting the story in with her lying in bed the whole time, but don’t you have the same problem with first and third person? Unless you’re adding other voices.

    And several people have mentioned “deep third”–not familiar with that term. can someone explain?

  12. I almost wish I were still teaching, just to use this blog in a writing class. You’ve provided an excellent example for discussion of authors’ choice of POV.
    I can hardly wait for this book!

  13. The problems with first person narrators are numerous but the main thing to understand is that it is the subjective narrator, one who can never know the story as well, as intimately, as the omniscient (the proper name for “third person”) narrator. Thus the best use of first person is as an unreliable narrator, as any serious reader soon learns.
    For the most comprehensive and sensible analysis of PoV I know of is David Morrell’s chapter in Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft.

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  15. I’m a huge fan of both the Dead-End Job and Mystery Shopper series. Looking forward to this new book. My first literary love is mysteries, cozy to terrifying. Congrats on the upcoming release.

    Violet Ingram
    Death by High Heels

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