Mar 26 2012

A POV question

I read the POV article on your site and I have a question. I am currently writing a novel in the first person POV. There is a conversation between my main character’s sister and his girlfriend toward the end of the story. I NEED the reader to know this information before my main character does. The reader needs to witness this conversation, if you will. How can I do this without switching POV to third since the entire novel is first person. It seems off to all of a sudden have a chapter that’s in the third person. Any help would be greatly appreciated.Michael Harrison Tennessee

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My first, instinctive reaction is that you may need to find a different way to approach the information. A sudden, unexpected shift in the voice from first person to third, and a shift to a new POV, this late in the story would most likely feel very jarring and yank the reader right out of the carefully crafted first-person narrative that you’ve created over the course of an entire novel. It might feel to readers as if the author wrote himself into a corner and had to resort to a different voice to get out of it.

So before deciding to switch to a different voice and POV, I’d look for other options. Is is absolutely critical for the reader to know the info before the main character? Is there a way that the MC can hear the info (so the reader hears it too) but the MC misunderstands it or doesn’t realize its significance, but readers will understand (the unreliable narrator approach)?

It’s tough to make any sensible recommendations without knowing the whole story, of course, so I’m pretty much shooting in the dark here. But the general idea of introducing a new POV and switching out of a first-person narrative late in the novel might, I’m afraid, feel like a cheap trick to readers. Introducing new information to the reader–which the first-person narrator doesn’t know–might feel a bit too much like the deus ex machina twist that makes readers feel cheated at the end.

I wish I could give a more positive recommendation or suggestion, but without knowing the whole story, I’m just not able to do more than suggest you avoid the late POV and voice switch.

Any readers out there have more suggestions?

9 Responses to “A POV question”

  • Patty Jansen Says:

    Pretty much wot he said. Also, I would advise you strongly against switching POV.

    If you write in first person, the character is the narrator, and therefore cannot know less than the reader. That is one of the restrictions of the first person POV.

    First person is a limited POV, and while you can do wonderful things with it, cluing in the reader but not the character is not one of those things.

    My main question would be: why can’t the character know this information?

    Without knowing the exact situation, I’d say you can go in either of these ways:
    - restructure the story so the reader does not need to know before the character does (my strong preference)
    - rewrite *the entire novel* in third person omniscient (this would be a huge lot of work)

  • Allison M. Dickson Says:

    I’m with Robb. Switching POVs in the story like that for the sake of one chapter will definitely have the wrong effect. In a first person narrative, the idea isn’t that the reader should know information before the narrator. Part of the pull of a first person story is that you’re learning things as your main character is, so it holds its own form of suspense. So I first question why I as a reader would need to see this conversation in the first place between these two minor characters, rather than letting your main characters deduce what’s happened “off screen” based on the conversation he winds up having.

    The only other workable solution I can think of is if your story structure alternated first-person POVs between the main character and the main character’s sister or girlfriend. The key is consistency. But for now, I’d say your best bet is to just stay in the head of your main character and let him steer you through this story. You might be surprised to find that information you thought we needed to have wasn’t really all that essential after all. If he’s a strong and observant enough character, then he should be able to tell us everything we need to know.

  • Phillipa Says:

    Agree with Robb. You’ll have to work through this one, find another way of delivering the info, even if it means backing up and juggling scenes. New povs that late in the book never work – although I can think of one or two standouts where a late introduction of a different pov throws a new and startling light on the main character. But if the main character is also the narrator then it’s a curly one

  • Alexander Says:

    Wot they all said.

    Consider: “Had I been there, I would have heard them plotting together. Had I just thought about how things may play out, I could have stopped them. But, sure enough, Marilyn and Jessica met in the toilets and between them ensured my stawberry dress would be ruined seconds before I left for the prom. Standing there, my eyes filled with tears, I knew in my heart of hearts it was them. Now, days later, I was able to retrace events thanks to Hank.’

    It might offer a way out… you never know!

  • Pete Morin Says:

    Michael, I’d guess that you are (like me) a pantser, and you have indeed painted yourself into a corner. I hate that too. You need to move fast before the paint dries and clean up behind yourself. Your two imperatives – that the reader needs to know info before the narrator, and has to witness the conversation, will not work without the POV shift, which just won’t work. But Alexander does have a possible solution. We don’t always have to see what the narrator sees WHEN he sees it. We can know he’s seen something, not know what it was, and find out later.

  • Michael Harrison Says:

    Thank you to Robb and everyone else for the feedback. After a great deal of consideration, I think the best way (not the easiest but best for the story) is to change the entire POV of the story. Something the main character thinks happened to him when he was younger actually did not happen. What he thinks happened has molded him into who he is. The sister knows the actual truth and she was never aware her brother thought something else had happened. The girlfriend knows what the main character knows and confronts the sister. She then finds out the truth and tries to relay this to the main. I know it sounds confusing but that is the best way I can out it without ruining my entire story. Thanks again, you guys helped a lot!

  • Mark Spector Says:

    If you’ve ever read “The Remains of the Day” (forget the movie, which was ‘okay’, the book was brilliant), the entire novel was written in the first person by the butler, who has no idea what is going on around him, even though the reader does. Might be worth checking out for ideas to solve this problem.

    • Robb Says:

      Mark, thanks for stopping by. I haven’t read that — at least I don’t think I have. Sounds intriguing. I may have to check that one out.

      • Mark Spector Says:

        Robb,

        Saw your profile on Linked in while shopping for an editor/coach for my fiction project. Saw the post and thought I’d share the thought. My email’s submitted with this. I’ll tell you what’s up.

        Mark