• On Narrative Perspective, Consistency and Clowns

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Narrative & Plot     Comments 2 comments

    Recently on the blog Justine laid down some truth on “How to Resolve a Character Arc.” Her main rule boils down to this: Satisfy your reader’s expectations. But character arc isn’t the only area in which a writer must satisfy expectations.

    A few days ago we received the following question from an anonymous WriteByNighter:

    “I am helping a friend by reading and reviewing her story. I’ve searched Google and editor’s blogs for an answer and can’t find anything to address my specific problem.

    You see, my friend likes to mix first and third person. I see all kinds of people saying this is fine, but they usually assume the shift includes a head-hop as well. Problem is, my friend narrates in third and then when she wants to share the character’s thoughts, she switches to first, without adding in italics or a speech tag. It comes across as something like this:

    Daniel smiled. I didn’t know clowns could be so much fun.

    I’ve told her she should pick one or the other and stay consistent. Is this good advice or am I being overly picky?”

    Camera One

    Camera TwoNarrative perspective can be tricky—even before we start writing. I’m acquainted with a writer who struggled for many weeks to decide whether her novel would work better in the third person (he/she) or in the first person (I). And when I say struggled, I mean like agonized. Finally she chose a third-person perspective, but then several chapters into the book she changed her mind, and then started—from scratch—in first.

    With perspective, there’s really no right or wrong; you just have to determine which is best for your particular work. I’ve got another friend who despises any first-person narrative. He won’t read ‘em. Somehow he’s convinced himself that to write in the first person is extremely lazy and unimaginative. But somewhere out there is this dude’s opposite.

    As soon as you pick your poison—first, second, third—collective first, third-person plural, alternating second—what you must remember is: You set the rules. And once you establish those rules and make them clear, the reader will get in line behind you. That is what we mean when we say that you must satisfy a reader’s expectations.

    Let’s take a look at the example from Anon’s questions:

    Daniel smiled. I didn’t know clowns could be so much fun.

    Yes, it’s potentially confusing. At the very least it’s jarring, and you don’t ever want to jar a reader. That said, after a few examples of this style—assuming you’re consistent with it—the reader will figure out what’s going on, and soon that kind of construction will (hopefully) no longer jar.

    But yeah, why run the risk of jarring a reader at all?

    Your advice to your friend is to choose one or the other and “stay consistent.” That last part is much more important than the first.

    If Daniel is the main character and no other perspective matters, then first person is an option:

    I smiled. I didn’t know clowns could be so much fun.

    Simple. But perhaps your friend is working with multiple characters and perspectives. Well, first person could work here too, with multiple “I” voices. But that can get dicey, as it may not always be clear to the reader whose head he/she is in. (Well, unless we go with I, Daniel smiled. I, Daniel, didn’t know clowns could be so much fun.)

    With multiple characters, a straight third is a good choice: Daniel smiled. He didn’t know clowns could be so much fun.

    But perhaps your friend wants her character’s thoughts to come straight from his mouth, but still maintain the third-person narrative perspective. There is a (slight, subtle) difference between I didn’t know clowns could be so much fun and He didn’t know clowns could be so much fun.

    Your friend can have the best of both worlds, if she chooses to—and lays the groundwork, and (broken record) stays consistent. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the lines about Daniel and clowns are the opening lines of the book:

    Chapter One

    Daniel smiled. I didn’t know clowns could be so much fun, he thought.

    First and third in one neat little bundle.

    And yeah, tacking on “he thought” to every thought is unappealing. It’s also unnecessary, because a few examples of “he thought” before or after an italicized first-person perspective passage lays the groundwork, establishes that rule, and then comes to satisfy the reader’s expectations.

    To wit:

    Daniel smiled. I didn’t know clowns could be so much fun, he thought. Clowns had always scared the piss out of him. Like, literally. He had wet himself at Charlie Moore’s middle school graduation party, all because a hired clown smiled at him. But today, Daniel strolled right up to the first row of the auditorium and took a seat inches from the clown up on stage. I must be getting braver, Daniel thought.

    Without warning, the clown jumped down off the stage. Daniel recoiled, then felt a trickle run down his pants. Then again, maybe I’m not.

    The clown pointed to Daniel’s piss-pants and laughed. Because clowns are horrible.

    Your book, your rules. Set them, establish them, make sure the reader will understand them, and then … all together now … stay consistent!

    What do the rest of you have to say? At the beginning of a project, how do you choose your narrative perspective? What strategies have you used to mix narrative perspective? Do they work? Wanna share? Let us know in the comments below.

    If you have a question you’d like to see addressed in this space, write to us at info@writebynight.net


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    Madelen Sletteberg

    I read this without realising that I actually did the same thing. At the end of the example of how to solve this kind of thing, I was like “Woow, so that’s how I should do it!” Thanks a lot ^^

    We’re so glad you found the post helpful, Madelen. Happy writing to you!

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