One of the first things you stub your toe on when you start to write fiction is viewpoint (aka point of view), something you may never have realized existed up to now. In mystery novels, it’s not the author who narrates. One character or several tell the story. So one of the first decisions you need to make is: Who’s going to tell your story? And if it’s going to be just one narrator, are you going to write in the first-person or the third.
At an all-day workshop that I taught last weekend in Manhattan for their Sisters in Crime chapter, someone asked: If you only have one narrator, why would anyone write a third-person narrator instead of a first-person narrator?
It’s a really good question. First-person POV is so much easier to control. You can really SHOW the reader everything the character is sensing and thinking. Third-person POV is trickier to control--the viewpoint can slide around, hopping from one character’s head to the next and leaving readers scratching their heads.
Anchored in “I” stays anchored in “I”. So why write a single-narrator book in the third person? I did it with my new book.
Careful What You Wish For opens:
Emily Harlow wasn’t convinced that her sock drawer sparked joy.
I wasn’t convinced that my sock drawer sparked joy.
Why write a single narrator in the third person? The standard answer to this is that writing in the third person enables you to occasionally pull back the “camera” and give the reader a broader perspective. On the other hand, if you want the book to feel increasingly claustrophobic as your narrator is more and more isolated, then first-person is the obviously choice.
But honestly, when I’m writing a story with a single narrator, It’s pure instinct on my part whether to write first or third. In other words I started writing, and if it comes out that way and I like it, I keep writing that way. If it doesn’t, I switch to third.
I told the workshop that if you have one narrator, you get to decide: first-person or third-person. You may agonize over the choice. You may go back and forth between them. But in the end, if you make the right choice, it will be invisible to the reader.
Readers only notice viewpoint when it’s not working.
Do you notice whether a book is written in the first person or the third? Do you care? And how do you decide whether to write a book that has only one narrator in first or third person?
Leaving you with a few of my favorite first-person opening lines:
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. —Dodie Smith,I Capture the Castle
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I'm thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.– Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. – Gillian Flynn Gone Girl
I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. – Lee Child, Killing Floor
I never knew her in life. – James Ellroy, Black Dahlia
I inherited my brother’s life. – Dick Francis, Straight
I’ve sometimes regretted the women I’ve been. – Becky Masterman, Rage against the Dying
Using one forefinger I write on the bathroom mirror, drawing through the steamy condensation left by the shower. This morning’s number is 442.—Hank Phillippi Ryan, Trust Me
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. —Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger,The Catcher in the Rye
I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man. -- Harlan Coben, Six Years
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. -- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
New York Times bestelling author Hallie Ephron (hallieephron.com) is a five-time finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel: Revised & Expanded was an Edgar Award finalist. Her eleventh suspense novel, Careful What You Wish For, is chockablock with secrets. She teaches at national and international writing conferences.