While I’ve been rewriting my novel, a mystery set in a rural Qld town, I’ve been pondering ways I can make the story better, and more interesting. Thoughts such as: “Wouldn’t it be cool if I changed the setting to the 80s?” and “Should someone get blown up?” have taken a back seat to a more pressing question – is my story written from the right point of view?
I recently read an article at the Professional Writing Academy, by Caroline Ambrose, the founder and organiser of The Bath Novel Award. One of her hot tips for getting your manuscript on the shortlist was using first person viewpoint. Apparently, twice as many first person as third person narratives have been shortlisted for the Award, suggesting that first person narratives have more success connecting the reader with the protagonist.
My novel, The Princess Murders, is currently written in third person narrative from the point of view of the main character, amateur private investigator Sylvie Gordon. Crap. Would it have been better if I’d written the story in first person narrative?
I thought about a few of my favourite novels I’ve read recently, and their choice of point of view narratives:
- She Be Damned by M.J. Tjia – predominantly written in first person POV of the main character, Heloise Chancey, alternating with chapters written in first POV of Li Leen
- The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey – predominantly written in first person POV of the main character, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock, alternating with third person POV chapters from minor characters
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – alternates between the first person narratives of Rachel, Megan and Anna
- An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire – alternatives between the first person POV of the main character, barmaid Chris Rogers and the third person POV of a reporter, May Norman
From this sample, it appears that in my chosen genre of mystery/crime fiction, first person narrative is the preferred choice.
Last year, I accessed a mentorship through the Queensland Writers Centre and received feedback on my manuscript from writer Emily Maguire. At the time, I asked her the same question about point of view narratives. She said that changing the point of view from third person to first person would substantially change the voice of the book and require some deep thinking about Sylvie’s level of knowingness about herself, and about anything going on around her. Emily suggested I have a go changing the first scene into first person narrative to see how it feels. Here’s a sample of the first 200 words.
Third Person Narrative (current format)
Sylvie had seen the girl go into the house.
It was hours later and her eyes were still fixed on the weatherboard cottage. The sun glinted off the corrugated iron roof and a lazy breeze whispered through the long stems of wheat grass pervading the front yard. She dabbed at the sweat on her forehead with a napkin and discarded it amongst the empty plastic bottles and chip packets at her feet.
William Leeder emerged from the front door. The school teacher struggled with a large bundle wrapped in a garbage bag and his shirt was stained with something wet and dark. Sylvie’s shoulder blades prickled. Was it blood?
Leeder dropped the bundle off the raised veranda and jogged down the steps. He picked up one end of the bag and dragged it through the dirt towards the side of the house.
Feeling conspicuous in her bright red Hyundai, Sylvie wriggled down into the passenger seat. She’d parked haphazardly on the nature strip, far away enough to go unnoticed as long as she stayed in the cover of the Queensland blue gums guarding the front of the property. She fumbled for the zoom button on her outmoded camcorder, but Leeder disappeared behind a large shrub bearing clusters of bright yellow funnel-shaped flowers. She was too late.
First Person Narrative
I’d seen the girl go into the house.
It was hours later and I was still here, staring at the weatherboard cottage. The sun glinted off the corrugated iron roof and a lazy breeze whispered through the long stems of wheat grass pervading the front yard. I dabbed at the sweat on my forehead with a napkin and discarded it amongst the empty plastic bottles and chip packets at my feet.
William Leeder emerged from the front door. The school teacher struggled with a large bundle wrapped in a garbage bag and his shirt was stained with something wet and dark. My shoulder blades prickled. Was it blood?
I wriggled down into the passenger seat, feeling conspicuous in my bright red Hyundai. I’d parked haphazardly on the nature strip, far away enough to go unnoticed as long as I stayed in the cover of the Queensland blue gums guarding the front of the property. I fumbled for the zoom button on my camcorder, but Leeder disappeared behind a large shrub bearing clusters of bright yellow funnel-shaped flowers. Damn. I was too late.
Interestingly, rewriting the scene in first person narrative has highlighted some issues in the third person narrative I need to fix. Other than that, I’m still undecided about which point of view is best for the story. What do you think?
It will be a lot of work to edit my (currently) 100,000-word third person narrative into a first person narrative. I think that the benefits of rewriting the story as first person include the fact that the story is told entirely from Sylvie’s point of view anyway, so I won’t lose anything from the point of view of other characters. However, I’m worried her voice might not be interesting enough, or that being inside her head for a whole novel might make her annoying to readers. I also think that a first person narrative in the style I’m writing will appear more chick-lit/cosy mystery whereas a third person narrative is more classic cosy mystery.
Writer’s Digest has a list of questions to help determine which point of view is best for a short story (which can also be applied to longer stories), including first person, close third person and distant third person.
What do you think? First person narrative or third person narrative? What type of point of view narratives do you prefer to read, and what point of view is your story written? Please let me know in the comments below.