23 July 2013

Who's On First

Last Tuesday, Dale Andrews published a thought-provoking piece in this space about the first and third person points of view.  In it, he listed some innovative things recent writers have done with the first person, which I found especially encouraging.  In my own writing, I've always favored the first person point of view, and it rankles to occasionally hear it dismissed as simplistic, as a stage a beginning writer works through on his or her way to more mature narrative techniques.  As Dale's examples demonstrated, first person can be pretty complex.

Marlowe and (Almost Certainly) Treacherous Client
And it's the point of view used by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, writers who made me love the private eye subgenre.  First person is part of the traditional private eye story's deceptively straightforward structure:  a problem is posed and a hero sets out to find a solution.  It's like some ancient epic, except that the challenge isn't being set for the hero by some god or demigod, who may be treacherous, but by some client, who is almost certainly treacherous.  Chandler and Macdonald's take on this simple formula required that the private eye also serve as bard.

Covers Held at Bay

Unfortunately, even a simple formula can lead to some hard work for the writer of book-length mysteries.  Think of the challenge like this.  Your job as a mystery novelist if to hold the front and back covers of your published book about three quarters of an inch apart.  That may not seem too hard.  What, after all, is three quarters of an inch?  But the only thing you can use to get that job done are sheets of paper, none much wider on edge than a human hair.  And you can't scrunch the pages up, either.  (Leave that to reviewers.)  You have to lay them perfectly flat.  You'll need hundreds of them, about three hundred, in fact, to keep those covers at a safe distance.  Start writing.

Waiting for Godot
If you start writing in the first person, you've made the challenge even harder for yourself.  Everything that happens in those three hundred pages has to happen to or be witnessed by one person, the narrator.  The exceptions are stories told to the narrator by other characters, and you'll get a few of those in a mystery novel, as witnesses come forward and suspects try to clear themselves.  You can't overdo that, though, or your readers will start to feel like spectators at a play in which the only thing that happens on stage is talk.  Waiting for Godot, perhaps.   A less esoteric example is the Sherlock Holmes story "The Copper Beeches," which features not one but two long recountings by the client, Violet Hunter, and almost no on-stage action until the closing pages, when Watson shoots a dog.  (The doctor was provoked, but he was also probably tired of listening to Violet prattle.)

To keep the action on stage, you have to twist the plot and twist it again, because holding your covers apart isn't the only challenge you face.  You also have to fool your protagonist (and hopefully your readers) for three hundred pages.  The result can be a very complex plot, the kind Chandler and Macdonald were known for.  (One of my plots was called "labyrinthine" by a reviewer.  I didn't mind the adjective, but not being able to pronounce it still embarrasses me.)  After all, your detective hero is no dummy--it would be another turnoff for your readers if they were always way ahead of your Holmes, waiting for him to catch up.  So you'd better have convolutions within your convolutions.

It's no wonder that many writers relieve the pressure by filling their mystery novels with non-mystery material, like bread crumbs in the meatloaf.  The bread crumbs can take the form of romantic subplots, comic subplots, and updates on an extended cast of supporting characters that can start to read like a Christmas letter.  ("A funny thing happened last fall to Uncle Ollie at the state fair. . . .")

Another pressure relief valve that's been popular for a while is for the writer to slip out of first person to write passages or chapters or every other chapter in third person, often from the killer's point of view.  This approach offers the writer the chance to have it both ways, to have the distinctive voice and convincing inner life of first person and the fly-on-the-wall aspects of third.  For me, though, this technique "breaks the fourth wall," to borrow a motion picture term.  That's when Groucho Marx or some other comedian directly addresses the
Groucho, Breaking the Fourth Wall

camera to get a laugh.  ("I have to stay through this, but there's no reason you folks shouldn't leave.")  Breaking the fourth wall reminds the paying customers that they're watching a movie--or in the case of a mystery novel, that they're reading a book.  It can wake the reader up from the continuous dream that the writer works so hard to create.  And this is an even bigger sacrifice in a first person story, since this point-of-view shift can shatter the illusion that a Marlowe is sitting next to you at the bar, telling you his story himself.
And that's the great thing about first person, the thing that makes it worth all the effort it takes to stay in character for three hundred pages:  its intimacy.  And it's also the best answer to the charge that first is simplistic.  Creating a character like Marlowe from the inside out, who's familiar to the reader not because of some external trappings but because his inner voice is recognizable and believable and, on some level, not unlike our own, is anything but a simple job.  But if you pull it off, the reward is immortality.

Actually, it isn't.  But you do get to feel like you've done a day's work when you knock off for your martini.  Cheers.


  1. A fascinating article, Terry. (You have made our alternating Tuesdays look coordinated!)

    Another example of first person narration in a mystery is Laura, by Vera Caspary (a 1943 mystery that is even better than the Otto Preminger screen adaptation). THere the author uses first person narration by different charachters to tell the story

    One of my favorite current writers, Michael Gruber, in several books follows a format like one you suggest, in which some chapters are third person narrative and others are first person from the eyes of one character. All of his books are great.

    In the right hands any approach can be made to work!

  2. Thanks, Dale, for inspiring the column. And I just received the audio book version of TURN OF MIND, one of the books you mentioned last week.

    I apologize for the formatting problems with this entry. I couldn't get some of the illustrations to play nice with the text.

  3. Lovely writing, Terry.

    Ed McBain's first Matthew Hope novels were in first person. In the middle of one he switched to third and went on that way from then on. I never saw a review that mentioned this odd fact.

    My friend the late Audrey Peterson was ordered by her publisher to write a series in first person. After several books she swtiched to third and apparently the publisher didn't notice.

    I agree with you about the fourth wall, though, but some of the early readers of my not-yet-found-a-home novel have complained about what I call my "active narration." In other words the anonymous universal third person narration has a bit of a point of view...

  4. Rob, I've tried the same thing with a new book that will be my first novel written in third person. I mean, I've tried to give the third person narrator a voice and almost an attitude. Old habits die hard.

  5. I write almost entirely in first person (with some exceptions), but then I write mostly short stories. My trouble with 3rd person is finding the voice. Not the POV, but the voice. Maybe some day. I just printed out Jan's list of books on writing and maybe one of them will help me. I am ashamed to admit, I have never read a book about how to write. So much for professionalism...

  6. A great look at first and third person narrative with specific examples. I lean toward first person in mystery fiction, and the first person narrative of the hard-boiled private eyes was definitely part of the appeal.
    Next Monday, I'm tackling voice,but you and Dale have set very high standards these two Tuesdays.

  7. Thanks, Fran. I'll look forward to your column.

    Eve, my favorite how-to-write books have always been other people's novels.

  8. Ellery Queen's works are third person narrative but given the intricacies of having the detective and the author one and the same it is pretty apparent that the third person narrator is -- Ellery. I think that is one of the reasons Dannay and Lee did not spend a lot of time describing their detective. He is, after all, the narrator and it would be a bit narcissistic for him to go on and on about himself!


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