A Rose is a Rose –
Or so the story goes. As mystery writers, our craft involves more far than mystery. There’s that all-elusive element of style—highly subjective, to say the least.
Of course, there are basics which every writer worth his or her salt incorporates into their prose. Then we get down to choices. In my estimation, too often style choices are dictated by what’s popular at the moment, the zeitgeist of style.
By far the most common among those styles is the past tense/third person (omniscient or limited) point of view, the workhorse of contemporary popular fiction. Familiar to readers, functional, predictable, gives authors a wide latitude for storytelling, and a ton of fine literature has been produced in this style, more so than any other.
All the more reason to do something completely different. Come on people!
Who Is Right?
The following comments are excerpts from a discussion with a couple other writers on a recent Goodreads thread:
Darcia – I am a writer, but this isn’t about any of my own books specifically. I have a question for all of you: Do you have a preference with point of view? Do you prefer third person books over first person? Do you love one, hate the other?
Okay, that’s more than one question, but they are all related! All of my books are written in third person, except for one that worked best in first person. I’ve had a few readers tell me they don’t like or won’t read that one because of the first person viewpoint. This has me wondering how the majority of readers feel. So please share your thoughts. I’d love to know!
MAS (my reply) – I recommend not to get hung up in the particulars of style – 1st person/3rd person/past tense/present tense. If it’s well written/engaging, readers won’t notice or won’t care. The only possible exceptions are “know-best” intellectuals & professional critics (which are very often, one and the same.)
Darcia – I agree with you, Michael. When I write, I simply let whichever voice I hear come through. When I read, I don’t have a preference providing the style fits the character’s voice. But I’m often in the minority in many things, so I was curious if this was an issue for other readers.
David – I do not enjoy reading, and will not write novels written in anything but third person omniscient, past tense. First person is not only boring to read (“I did this, I did that, etc., etc.), but it does not allow the reader to “get into” the minds of any character other than that of the narrator. The narrator (or protagonist), since he or she is telling the story from only his or her POV, can only GUESS at what the other characters are thinking, and therefore they cannot be fully developed. This is just my personal feeling and has no reflection on the skill or talent of any other author, but first person, and especially first person, present tense, is something I will almost never read.
MAS – Ha! And my view is just the opposite. I find third person past tense done to death, detracting from the story for the most part as it has already happened. That said, I do write in past tense for flashback sequences. But mostly I prefer present tense—more immediacy, more alive as it is happening now. I also use first and third person as I see fit to enhance the story from different points of view. I find using all the tools in the toolbox is way more fun. But that’s just me. Everyone has their personal preferences.
My point was simply that most readers (not professional readers and writers) don’t pay that much attention, as long as the story is engaging and well told.
David – We definitely have our differences! 🙂
Darcia – Interesting position, David. I don’t typically enjoy omniscient writing, as it tends to feel scattered and, by definition, too “everywhere”. I prefer a narrow viewpoint, though I do enjoy a variety of viewpoint characters. And I do like the close and personal feel of first person.
Why is it that we tell stories in past tense, when present tense gives us more immediacy?
The book I’ve written that uses first person is also in present tense, with a third person present interspersed. This is definitely a love/hate thing, as I’ve come to find out from readers.
MAS – My first book is a combo of 1st & 3rd person/present tense with flashbacks in 3rd person/past tense. The 2nd book is all 1st & 3rd person/present tense as there were no flashbacks. The 3rd book is again 1st & 3rd person/present tense. When readers/reviewers have commented on style at all (which is rare), the comments have been overwhelmingly positive.
I write for my own satisfaction/enjoyment first. If I don’t get into it, there’s no way I can expect others to find my work entertaining. When it’s no longer interesting/challenging/enjoyable is when I hang it up. It’s all about creating a good story, well told. To hell with the “rules.”
David – As far as I’m concerned, there are no “rules” when it comes to writing. All rules do is stifle creativity. When it comes to reading, however, there is no reason for me to read any book, regardless how well it’s written, if I don’t enjoy the author’s style.
MAS – I heartily agree. If the writing doesn’t capture me in the first page or so, I pass regardless of how intriguing the story seems. It takes a good story, well crafted, to keep me reading. That said, I don’t have any preconceived notions about style.
Story content is a different matter. No matter how well written, I shy away from tales of YA dystopia, romance, erotica, paranormal romance, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. These themes have been done to the point where it’s hard for me to imagine any treatments new/fresh enough to hold my interest. Yet I know there are huge audiences out there for those themes. Again, my personal preferences.
Ya Spends Your Money and Ya Takes Your Chances –
At the end of the day, Blind Faith said it best “Do What You Like!”
Your input is always appreciated.
The mystery books Dark Side of Sunset Pointe and Flight of the Tarantula Hawk are available on Amazon. You may preorder Grey Daze which is due out within the next few weeks and Cut-Throat Syndrome will be released later this year.
You may also check out the book trailers for Dark Side of Sunset Pointe and Flight of the Tarantula Hawk.
For more on Michael Allan Scott and the Lance Underphal mystery series, go to michaelallanscott.com
Creative Commons Attribution: Permission is granted to repost this article in its entirety with credit to Michael Allan Scott and a clickable link back to this page.
Mmmmm, now this is a fun topic. I personally have not been a fan of 1st-person perspective because it comes off as all too easy to ramble on in diary-style prose. However, it doesn’t matter what I think. 1st person can be phenomenal IF all the other elements are there.
The characters have to pull you in. The plot needs to be riveting, and the reader needs o be, ya know, not confused. According to book sale trends, the first two can be forgiven if the last one is bulletproof.
I have considered writing a story in 1st-person, not only as a way to test my writing chops, but to explore the challenges unique to writing from that viewpoint. So far that is still on the backburner, but it could be fun. For the time being, however, 3rd-person still reigns supreme. : )