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The Pecman

Points of View: 1st vs. 3rd

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In another section, there was recently a debate on another writer's story, one that had a good idea, good characters, and (arguably) a good plot. But after I tried gamely to get through the first chapter, I was put off by the author's use of no less than five (5!) different points of view, which I felt was confusing, obvious, and gimmicky.

For the uninitiated: 1st person means you're essentially hearing the story as told to you by an observer. "I walked down the street and saw Jimmy crossing at the intersection. His eyes met mine, but he looked away and began to run in the opposite direction. I was perplexed, because we had been friends for years..." And so on. You're experiencing life through one person's eyes.

3rd person implies an "omniscient" point of view, using an unseen narrator (usually the author's own voice) describing several different people and events. For example, the above scene could be like this:

"Ralph walked down the street and saw Jimmy crossing at the intersection. Their eyes met, but Jimmy looked away and began to run in the opposite direction. Ralph was perplexed, because they had been friends for years..." And so on.

One advantage of 3rd person is that you can instantly leap from inside one character's head to another, revealing thoughts and details that are known to only one person:

"Ralph walked down the street and saw Jimmy crossing at the intersection. Their eyes met. Oh, no, thought Jimmy. I can't talk to Ralph now. I've got to get to the hospital, before anybody finds out about what happened.

Jimmy began to run in the opposite direction. "Wait!" cried Ralph. "Hold up!" He was perplexed, because they had been friends for years..."

OK, maybe that's lame, plus I elaborated a little bit, but believe me, almost anything that you can do in 1st person can be duplicated in 3rd. And yet there are sometimes advantages to writing in 1st person:

1) a memoir, like an autobiography, where someone is looking back on his or her life and telling their own story.

2) when you need to deliberately omit or obscure key plot details -- secrets, crimes, motives, unseen characters, or what-have-you -- so that the reader only knows what's going on from the lead character's viewpoint. For this reason, most detective fiction is told in 1st person, like Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.

3) a "fish out of water" story, where a character is suddenly plunged into a dramatically new place and struggles with adapting to their new environment.

and 4) a personal story, where the writer wants the reader to feel the emotions of just a single character, and identify solely with that character.

There may be others, but those are a few reasonable ones.

I just picked up Nancy Kress' new book Characters, Emotions & Viewpoint, and here's what she has to say about multiple 1st person POV:

"How many points of view are you allowed? A general rule of thumb is to have as few points of view as you can get away with and still tell the story you want to tell.

"The reason for this is... we're used to experiencing reality from one POV. Each time you switch from one fictional viewpoint to another, the reader must make a mental adjustment. If there are too many of these, the story feels increasingly fragmented and unreal."

This is exactly the point I was trying to make.

Later on in the book, Kress admits that a few major authors (such as Ursula LeGuin in The Left Hand of Darkness) have experimented with two or more points of view, but that it's best done with characters from radically different cultures, "giving us more intimate looks into these two mindsets than if either character had been the sole narrator." I could see where this might work if one was, say, a human male, and the other was an asexual alien. I call that radically different.

Kress goes on to say: "Jumping from inside one head to another, especially repeatedly, may fragment reader identification so much that the story may be ruined. It seems to work best where there is a great contrast between the characters and the author wishes to emphasize that wide gulf."

I can see that, maybe, with two characters of different races, different cultures, and so on, particularly in a science-fiction or horror situation. But not in a romance or relationship novel, which covers 90% of the stories on this site.

The story that started this discussion had no less than five points of view in the very first chapter, and I was so annoyed, I had to grit my teeth just to make it through those few pages. I'm too frightened to go back and see if fewer points of view were done in later chapters, for fear that there might be even more.

I think 1st person is a terrific way for beginning writers to start writing short stories and novels, because it's the easiest way to tell the story. "I woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head." Got it. That's a pretty straightforward, direct method, as if you're telling a tale to friends gathered around a fire.

3rd person works better when you need to show scenes more objectively, reveal details that the lead character(s) don't know about, and show when a character is lying (and only this character and the audience know it's a lie). 3rd person also allows the author to make observations about the setting (the building, the town, the climate, etc.), the characters, and so on. The narrator can also know much more than the characters, foreshadowing tragedy that lies ahead, and have free rein in establishing the mood and time for each scene.

I say all this because I believe multiple 1st person point of view is a very difficult, messy technique in which to tell a story. It calls a lot of attention to itself, snapping the reader out of the story; I made a case that I get "literary whiplash" whenever the author jumps back and forth and says, "JOE'S POINT OF VIEW," or "JOE," followed by more dialog. It's clunky, ugly, and interferes with the smooth flow of the story. It constantly reminds the reader that he or she is reading a story, rather than just letting the story seamlessly happen.

I think if you're William Faulkner or Ursula LeGuin, that's one thing; each has written at least one novel with two or more points of view. But I have yet to read an author on the net who writes at that level. My opinion is that it takes only a little more effort to write the story in 3rd person. Otherwise, you're just putting yet another obstacle in the path of the reader, making it harder for them to appreciate the story and identify with your characters.

If anybody can give me a passionate argument as to how a multiple 1st person story would be superior to the same story told in 3rd person, I'm all ears. And I'm still willing to take 1000 words from anybody and rewrite it, to prove my point.

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In one book on creative writing that I've read, the suggestion was put forward that there are few times that 1st person should be used.

One situation where it WAS recommended is when the story is of a psychological nature. In this case, the reader gets to experience things as the narrator is experiencing them, which may or may not correspond to reality.

I can't think of a good example off the top of my head, but a story of a psychological nature with two protaganists MAY be best suited to two first person POVs.

Otherwise I agree -- if multiple points of view are required, third person is a better option.

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If you're a new author FIRST PERSON is better because it's WAY easier to use. I did this. Then I did that. We did this. (etc) It also leads to less problems because you run the story in your head with you as the lead character and write it down.

However, you can tell a far more complex story in THIRD person but it lends itself to a lot more errors. I personally write in third because I abhor first person normally (though there's nothing wrong with it -- just my opinion).

When telling the story of one character and one character only. "The Life And Times of Fubar" then first person is often best. When telling the stories of multiple characters/events "Lord of the Rings" then third person is generally best.

I don't mind stories told from two POVs when done well, but the problem is most (on Nifty for example) are not done well.

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I am not a real fan of multi povs either. I have seen a couple of stories where I admired the author's determination to pursue the idea, but in the end they left me uninvolved. As I said before I think multi-POVs are for screen and stage productions

The Razor's Edge, a 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham is a book that should be read not only for it's story, its philosophy and now that so many years have gone by also its history of its own time. It also needs to be read to see how extraordinarily clever Maugham constructed it and his essential use of first person. Third person could not have given the reader the sense of truth need to convey the author's POV or intent.

Yes I said the author's POV. You see the book is a story about an author telling of his encounter with many people in his life, set against the social structures of the day, but somewhat universal in their nature.

More particularly he is telling the story of one of those people, a young man who rejects all that society and wealth offers him by virtue of his intelligence and his birthrights, in order to "find himself." Moreover to find the meaning of his existence if any is to be found at all.

Maugham sets up the character of the author as a narrator of the young man's life and quest; and then entwines the character of the author in the story as is needed to allow the reader to become involved and informed of the young man's life.

This literary device represents a kind of truth from Maugham's perspective as the real author. He is trying to convey an insight into human nature, a real attempt to divulge a truth which would be betrayed if it were (in) a first person who wasn't "the author" of the main character or third person where it would seem less than the truth and more of a fiction; or an external fable rather than a truth revealed from within; from Maugham himself. (The catch is, he wants the readers to experience this truth for themselves because he knows it is impossible to reveal truth to another.)

All of this is aside from the "main" story of the many other characters who happen to interact with these two men and each other.

Frequently Maugham reminds the reader he (as the character of the author) is only conveying the story of this young man as he knows it and also as he knows the young man (Larry) with whom he does have a number of conversations.

My God, it is fiendishly clever.

After building the reader to a point of almost polite desperation to discover how successful the young man was in his quest, Maugham has the audacity to warn us that the reader might like to,

"...very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation that I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worthwhile to write this book."

(W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge.)

We the readers of course are going to fall for this like a ton of bricks. Who, having read that would not want to read this all important chapter? More importantly, we now read it of our own volition because the author has told us we may "skip" it if we want.

The fact that this is the moment we have been hanging out for is now wonderfully available to us to read, freed from the constraints of being lectured by a third or first person. The author in the story and the story's author are both sharing a truth with the reader instead.

No, it is not my purpose here to try to convey that truth or even to get you to read a book that may well not appeal to everyone.

I would however, warn you to steer clear of the Bill Murray film version. It's a shocker. A major misunderstanding of the book.

Tyrone power's film version is much better and is a classic in its own right. It it made me want to read the book many years ago.

As far as honesty in story-telling, I have come across no finer example through this book's extraordinary use of first person.

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Des:

Thank you so much for making me remember Somerset Maugham. It was so many years ago I read him, I'd forgotten. Both The Razor's Edge and Of Human Bondage were remarkable books. I hope kids today put down their video game controllers and TV romotes once in a while and look into books like that. They and so many other wonderful books were an integral part of my growing up years. Sounds like they were for you, too.

Cole

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As far as honesty in story-telling, I have come across no finer example through this book's extraordinary use of first person.

Yes, I agree -- Maugham was a fine writer. I recall writing an essay on a biography of the author in the 1970s, when I was going to college, and was surprised at the time to learn that Maugham suffered most of his life from being short, gay, and afflicted with a stutter. The lead character in Of Human Bondage is somewhat autobiographical, though Maugham replaced his own stutter with the character's club foot.

Note that Maugham never used multiple 1st person POV, either.

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I hope kids today put down their video game controllers and TV romotes once in a while and look into books like that.

Sadly, it's not happening. I'd say the book market for people under 30 is diminishing quickly. There are major exceptions -- Harry Potter is a big one -- but for the most part, people are not reading books as much as they used to.

They are reading on the Net, but I don't think this is necessarily giving them appreciation of literature.

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My writing buddy Nick Archer (of http://www.archerland.com) asked me to add this comment to my post:

Stamp Out Narrator Switching

In the United States, there’s really no law that says you have to place the stamp in the upper right hand corner of the envelope. It’s just the convention. All the Postal Service machines are set to cancel the stamp in the upper right corner. Pre-paid bulk mail envelopes are printed with the stamp in the upper right corner.

It’s a convention. It’s the standard. If a 5-year-old kid slaps the stamp in the middle of the envelope, it will probably still get to Grandma, but I’m betting that cute little birthday card rendered in crayon would require special handling.

It’s the same with switching narrators. As readers, we expect the author to follow certain conventions. Authors writing in Standard English start a new paragraph each time a new character speaks. That’s a convention. Authors use quotation marks at the beginning and end of the spoken words. That’s the standard.

And good writers don’t switch narrators. There. I said it up front. And I’m not going to take it back.

Switching narrators goes against conventions. It’s confusing for your readers. Put bluntly, it sucks.

Recently I read a story where the author switched narrators not at the beginning of every chapter or even every paragraph but every LINE! He started the line with the character’s name, then an ellipsis (a series of three dots) and then the character’s dialog or thoughts.

Tim…I said, “You are a liar.”

Mark…I knew I had lied, but I said, “I love you.”

I just gave up. Even though the story was pretty good, the constant changing of narrators confused and eventually angered me.

Professional writers all advise against it. My friend John Francis in his article Gay Writing Tips points out that not a single bestseller uses the gimmick of switching narrators. I’ve also written against it in my article Jump The Shark. John and I are in total agreement: It is never a good thing to switch narrators and it can’t be done well.

Yet, amateur writers still do it. Why? Why?

Do you purposely want to confuse or alienate your readers? Do you think it’s cute or creative? Are you that unimaginative that you can’t think of alternatives?

You do want to write to the best of your ability, right? (I can see you nodding your head ‘Yes.’) Even if you never intend on selling your writing or making a living with words, you want a large audience for your writing. You want lots of people reading (and hopefully responding) to your story. Find one point of view and stick to it.

My theory is that we as amateurs want to avoid conflict. We want everything to be hunky-dory with our characters. Maybe this reflects our real lives. I know I avoid conflict as much as possible. But in some of my stories my characters fight and argue quite a bit. I’ve even had readers email me telling my characters were going to break up if they didn’t stop fighting!

I write mostly in third person. I find third person easier. You can describe all the thought processes of every character if you like. But, it seems amateur writers mostly use first person because their stories have some basis in real life and include some actual experiences. That’s fine, but stick to ONE narrator.

OK, you say, but I want to include different points of view and thoughts and conversations that the narrator wouldn’t hear or experience.

Well, you’re a creative person. The fact that you have taken time to put fingers to keyboard (or pencil to paper if you’re really old school) proves that you can think of alternatives. Let’s brainstorm some creative ways you can do present another person’s thought processes without switching narrators.

Listen Up! Your character can overhear or eavesdrop on a conversation. They can overhear someone on the phone, in another room, at a party, or walking by their bedroom window. “Honestly, Frank, I don’t know what I was thinking when I moved in with Chad. It’s really been a mistake.”

Spinning Headlines: Remember how classic movies use spinning newspaper headlines to show what’s going on? No? OK, in newer movies they use a series of magazine covers. The intent is the same: to show the audience what’s going on what’s going on from a different point of view, they use media as a mirror. Could your main character read about it online, in a newspaper or hear it on the radio?

Gossip, Gossip, We Want Gossip! Your main character is the recipient of a piece of juicy gossip from some well-meaning ‘friend.’ “Well, you know I never gossip, but I heard that Frank was thinking about moving to Atlanta. Without you.”

Check It Out and Report Back To Me: Similar to Gossip, Gossip, but character reports on himself or herself. “Well, I was upset about the Geico Caveman commercials but my therapist asked why it upset me. Then my cell phone rang and it was my mother.”

Snoop Patrol: Which one of us hasn’t gotten all up in someone else’s grill? Your main character finds a diary or blog. “’I never knew Charlie had such a big dick.’ Hmmm, I wondered. Just how did he discover Charlie was hung?” Or you find a 12” black dildo in a dresser drawer.

Show Me The Money: In any relationship, gay or straight, money is almost always an issue. (Many amateur authors try to make it a non-issue by making the main characters impossibly rich – but that’s another rant.) Chad finds an item on the monthly statement saying he used his debit card at the local sex toy emporium. Or Frank sees a suspicious charge on the Mastercard bill. And why is the joint checking account down to $8.68? Where did that money go?

Cyberpolice: With electronic gadgets there are endless possibilities for discovering the thoughts and feelings of characters other than the narrator. Wonder what this strange number on this cell phone is? (“Hello?” “Hello?” “Who is this?” “Who is this?” “I asked you first.”) I found Jerry’s blog, and I had no idea he felt that way about Chad! Where are these emails coming from? Why is hoseme.com in the browser’s history? I Googled his name and he had a police record!

What about dreams? Or flashbacks? Hell, in one chapter, I had one character having a conversation with a cat! There are probably a lot more ways to discover the thoughts and feelings of other characters that I haven’t listed here.

C’mon! Think about it! You can do it! Be creative. And in the meantime, don’t switch narrators.

Excuse me, please; I have to go buy some stamps.

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I want to throw out a special exception to previous objections:

Sometimes an author will have either (a) a flashback or (b) a dream sequence. These are usually set off by being either italicized in their entirety, in their own chapter, or seperated from the main body of text by a row of asterisks. It is often common place to have this scene in a different tense, narrator, and such. That's okay. A third person novelist can have a first person dream. A first person novelist can have a third person dream. That can work fine. But this is best done rarely and only if you've got a reason.

Raccoon Has Spoken, and thus it has become law.

(Or not)

::biggrin::

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Yeah, WBMS, I'd agree with that. Flashbacks or Dream Sequences have special rules unto themselves. Many times, I've seen authors suddenly change tenses for a flashback, where they tell the story in present tense. Techniques like this are useful, and I understand why someone would want to bracket a special moment (or moments) in the story this way. I've used dream sequences in my first two novels (somewhat heavy-handedly, I admit), and I concede they need to stand alone. In fact, I ended Groovy with a dream sequence, just to tie the past to the present, and I think it worked well.

But you gotta admit: starting off a novel with four or five separate 1st person points of view -- in the first chapter, yet -- is wacky. Have you read the story I've been complaining about? If you haven't, go read the first chapter, and tell me if you think I'm being out-of-line here.

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I agree with the one narrator rule. From what I've seen, multiple first-person narrators are USUALLY impossible to tell apart. I've been reading stories with just two different narrators, and had to do double-takes when I noticed that the narrator was talking to the person who I thought was narrating. Their thought processes and word choices were so similar that, if you accidentally skipped the "Joe's POV" line, it was impossible to tell them apart.

There's only one book I own with multiple first-person narrators - Joey Goebel's The Anomalies (see: signature quote). It doesn't just switch POV between the five main characters, but also a bunch of minor and walk-on characters, like "Punk in the Front Row", "Guy at the Restaurant", "Hippie", and, briefly, "God". Some of these last for only one paragraph, and are never seen again. God's POV, for instance, is simply a memo written in reply to a prayer by one of the other characters.

I think it works in this case, because the main theme of the book is how the five main characters stand out from "normal" society - we get to see how they view themselves, how they view each other, how they view the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world views them. The narrations are also vastly different - one character thinks and speaks in abstract poetry, one is an Iraqi and has trouble understanding certain cultural and linguistic differences, one is 8 years old, etc.

It's a little confusing at first, but that's kind of the point - the reader, being "normal", is supposed to be confused by these characters.

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Thanks for that, EleCivil. You support what I was saying. There are no hard and fast rules when creating art. There are generalities, principles that usually hold true, but almost nothing that I can think of is absolute. Some of what is thought of as our greatest literature breaks many of the conventional rules, even the most catholic of them, like capitalizing the first letter of a sentence, like paragraphing at ordingary intervals, like using quotation marks to designate dialogue.

There is no question, for most writing, following standard practices works better. There is also no question, at least not for me, that "rules" and conventions can be artfully ignored and a work can still have merit. It's probably best if a new writer wouldn't try to go off on his own and invent new conventions and styles. He should become comfortable and test his mettle with tired and true, with accepted, methods. But even that isn't a rule.

EleCivil says of a book with multiple first person narrators, "It works in this case because. . . ." And that's the point. That style can be made to work. That "rule" can be successfully broken. It's art, and it's difficult to come up with any rule that can't be successfully, inaginatively, creatively broken. So, to me, it's more cogent , when considering a work, to speak to whether it was good, rather than whether it broke a rule.

Old Ralph Waldo Emerson, a pretty bright fellow, said A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I'm NOT suggesting here that anyone on this forum is defined by that statement, but am indeed suggesting that trying to apply a set of rules to the creation of art is asking, no, begging, for disagreement.

Cole

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I have no idea why Cole's last post on this made me think of this, but nevertheless, I did.

Who is the better driver? The one who manages to successfully drive the wrong way up a freeway (expressway, turnpike, divided highway) for many miles, missing all the oncoming traffic, but creating confusion along the way, in defiance of all the odds and the 'rules', or the one who makes nary a ripple in the traffic by blending with it and following the 'rules'. The first could be considered creative, but hardly pleasurable to encounter. The latter may be considered 'dull' but you don't mind encountering this one time and time again.

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Have you read the story I've been complaining about? If you haven't, go read the first chapter, and tell me if you think I'm being out-of-line here.

Have I read it? No. Did I try? Yes. It was a tad too irritating to get me to move forward.

The only reason for my qualification post is that I realized that I, too, have done the "I" bit in flashback sequences.

Cheers

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There are no hard and fast rules when creating art. There are generalities, principles that usually hold true, but almost nothing that I can think of is absolute...

You know, I thought about that for awhile, Cole, and finally decided that there are some "absolutes" when it comes to whether I can read a story.

1) it's gotta be in English. I only know enough Spanish to say "donde esta casa de Pepe," and enough Italian words to get a cab driver to take me to my hotel, but if it ain't in English, I'm lost.

2) it has to follow the basic rules of grammar and spelling (tenses have to agree, conventional punctuation, correct capitalization, and so on)

3) the structure needs to have a beginning, middle, and an end, at least to the point where a complete story is told (and I would lump "non-confusing point of view" in this category)

4) I need to be able to understand, if not identify with, the major characters in the story (not necessarily making them likeable, but at least making them realistic and plausible)

5) and most importantly, the story has to grab my interest and entertain me, and hopefully surprise me as it moves from chapter to chapter.

There are always minor exceptions. For example, Stephen King invented quite a few non-English words in his recent novel Lisey's Story, like "Booya Moon," "blood bool," and "SOWISA" (or "strap on whenever it seems appropriate"). While that results in momentary confusion for some readers, it didn't bother me. (I'm reminded of his use of "SSDD" -- same shit, different day -- in past novels.)

And the great poet e.e. cummings used unconventional spelling and capitalization for dramatic effect. I think that works in small doses, but not for a novel.

To me, writing a novel is like building a house: there's a thousand different ways to do it, but some just flat-out won't work. For example, if you build a house of straw, it's bound to be rickety; even worse, try building a house out of toothpaste and cardboard. It might be artistic to try something radically new, but I don't think it's going to be satisfying for a wide audience.

And using I can't think of a situation where using 4 or 5 points of view in a novel is going to be anything but cumbersome and oft-putting. Being conventional doesn't have to be boring, nor does it have to be non-artistic. I think the top 1000 best-sellers ever written, along with every Pulitzer Prize-winning book for literature, was written in a more-or-less conventional way that stays well-within the ranges of what I'm talking about.

Of course, merely following all the above rules doesn't make the book good. By the same token, a movie that's well-shot, in perfect focus, with terrific sound and color and lighting, along with good acting, is not necessarily a good movie. You need a few more indefinable elements to make it work, but I'll leave that discussion for others. But if all those elements are bad at the start, it's going to be very, very hard to make me watch the movie from start to finish.

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Pecman:

As you might guess, I can't agree with everything you say. That's not to say it doesn't make sense. But as with almost everything that's been written on this subject, you're talking about one thing, I'm talking about another.

The difference between what you're discussing and what I'm discussing is captured in the first two paragraphs of your note. First is what you quoted me having said, and then second is your response. If you'll look, I'm talking about art in general. You're talking about what appeals to you. Those are completely different things, and that has been the basic difference in our two viewpoints.

The rest of your message continues in that vein, continues to discuss what you like and don't like to see in a story. That's also what your previous posts have been about. And of course, I have no arugment there. You can set whatever rules you want for what you read. And I don't find anything at all objectionable in any of them.

I have my likes and dislikes, too. Your list didn't include one of my pet favorites. I can not abide stories where the author gushes on and on, using esoteric words and mind-befuddling metaphors and stream of consciousness blather to the extent I have no idea what he or she is talking about. I find a lot of this literary nonsense gets published. I don't know why, but it does. I really need to be able to decipher what the author is talking aobut to be able to enjoy a book.

But that's personal prejudice, and others don't agree with me because this stuff DOES get published. A lot of books get published that I won't read. However, I won't go so far as to call them bad writing, or to say they violate some rule of writing. I know when prejucides are mine, and don't hold them against the author.

I, almost certainly like you, read a lot, and have read a lot. Having done that, I can point out things I've read that violate the rules you pointed out, all of them. The thing is, you didn't say those rules separate good writing from bad. You said they determine whether you'll read and like a story or not. Who could complain about that statement? I certainly can't, as I have my own rules for what I read and what I enjoy.

But, as successful (whatever that means) books have been published that break all these rules, perhaps you'd be willing to acknowledge they are not rules that define acceptable art, but instead are simply rules you can use for your own benefit.

You don't like multiple POV first person writing. It doesn't bother me to the extent it does you. Again, this is personal prejudice. I see this being done on the Net much more than in published fiction, but I've seen it there, too. Like most art, it is created, it is put before us, and we can enjoy it or not as we see fit. There's a lot of modern painting I don't get at all. I look at it, scratch my head, and simply move on. Some of it is arresting, and I sort of see something in it. Other peole can look at something I just walk by and find it compelling. That's more of less the nature of art.

Cole

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The difference between what you're discussing and what I'm discussing is captured in the first two paragraphs of your note. First is what you quoted me having said, and then second is your response. If you'll look, I'm talking about art in general. You're talking about what appeals to you.

Well, our original argument was whether or not a story on the net that had 4 or 5 varying 1st-person points of view worked or not. I say it doesn't, and that this kind of technique is so blatantly stupid, my jaw drops and I get dizzy. I included one published example of a writing teacher who agrees with me, with a detailed summary of why it's generally a bad technique. Most of the other commentators agree with me. I'm not insisting that I'm necessarily right, but the evidence is largely on my side. I'm perfectly willing to listen if you want to explain specifically how and why this technique can work, especially if you can show me some examples of similar published stories.

Whether or not it's a work of art is a subjective opinion. Anything created in literature, art, music, theater, or film technically qualifies as art... but that doesn't make it good art. There's a ton of crap masquerading as "art" out there. (I'm reminded of Yoko Ono's art exhibits in the 1970s: people sitting in burlap bags, blocks of wood with nails in them, broken mirrors, etc.)

I readily admit there are occasionally (albeit very rare) exceptions to my short list. For example, Alice Walker's Pulitzer prize-winning 1983 novel The Color Purple has deliberately terrible grammar and spelling (which gets better as the book goes on), but that's the device of the author telling the story through a barely-literate character's diary. I had no problem reading it. I didn't love the story (or the movie), but I'd admit it's a pretty good book. Mark Twain's acclaimed novels Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn both had authentic dialog that violates every possible rule of grammar, but the stories are incredibly well-written, and the dialog captures the way people really spoke during that era. And the author's prose is a model of classic storytelling.

Art was never part of my argument. Our original discussion elsewhere as well as this discussion (starting with my first message way up there) was only about whether I could stand reading a story told with the unwieldly gimmick of having 4 or 5 1st-person points of view. To me, this doesn't work -- either as art or entertainment -- and I can't make it through one chapter because it's so over-the-top lame, done by a writer who doesn't understand why it's bad. My suspicion is, the author writes this way either through ignorance, or they think the technique looks "cool" because it's so complex.

Again: trying to read a story like this is like trying to watch a movie that's brilliantly written and acted, only it's completely out of focus, has a camera that violently shakes every two or three seconds, and the sets have "Raisin Bran" lighting (two scoops). Most audiences will flee for their lives after five minutes if you try to show them a movie like that. Surely you can agree with that -- Blair Witch Project notwithstanding. The excuse that "well, it's art" doesn't justify a bizarre technique that violates common sense. (I would say the same thing if the author typed every single sentence as its own paragraph, or wrote 5000 words as a single sentence without a carriage return, or if they published the thing in 128-point bright red Olde English Bold type. Any of these things would also send me screaming from the room.)

Could the story be saved? Very possibly. If the author was to rewrite it in a more conventional way, told perhaps in 3rd person (or, god forbid, from just one character's point of view), then I might be able to enjoy the characters and story. But told from 4 or 5 simultaneous points of view... uh-uh. Convince me by finding me a published book by a mainstream author (not self-published), that also uses five 1st-person points of view in one chapter, and I'll fly you to LA and personally take you to dinner at Spago's, my treat.

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I have really enjoyed following this topic. And though it seems to have come down to personal preferences, this thread IS posted in the writers workshop. And by reading the different replies, I can readily see that many have definate opinions about 1st or 3rd person POV's. I would think any newer author would benefit from reading this thread. These posts are like having a direct link into one's intended audience. What better way for a writer to better his skills then by finding out what the majority wants.

Not that I think you should write what others want you to write, but listen, or as in this case, read what others are saying about the POV's and learn from this advice. Personal preferences aside, The Pecman, Cole, and others are really saying, learn the rules so you can know when to break them. Don't sit down at the computer and just start typing willy nilly, take the time to learn from those that have probably made these same mistakes early on. The worst thing a writer can do is frustrate his audience. If more people shy away from mutiple POV's, find a way to tell your story either using a single POV or 3rd person. After all, wait until you have that best seller before you write your master piece epic novel using ten seperate POV's switching back and forth between them like you are some kind of queer Cybil Sheppard without meds.

Then again, what the hell do I know. I read Arthur Rimbaud's A Season In Hell on a weekly basis, so I love being frustrated. :omg:

Jason R.

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In what follows I am snipping for brevity with no intended slight to Pecman. I'm not making this contribution to snipe but to contribute to the complicated consensus that's developing.

2) it has to follow the basic rules of grammar and spelling (tenses have to agree, conventional punctuation, correct capitalization, and so on)

but there but for the grace of dog goes ee cummings (who didn't I read spell his name that way). I read the enormous room at 13 and was as confused as hell.

3) the structure needs to have a beginning, middle, and an end, at least to the point where a complete story is told (and I would lump "non-confusing point of view" in this category)
Mr Joyce! To the back of the class. While your recent contribution on Stephen Dedalus might pass muster, the nonsense about Molly big-with-seed Bloom falls at this hurdle.
4) I need to be able to understand, if not identify with, the major characters in the story (not necessarily making them likeable, but at least making them realistic and plausible)

But is this a failing in an author, or in ourselves that we are underlings? I don't understand the protagonist of Hamsun's Hunger at all but he got a Nobel prize.

5) and most importantly, the story has to grab my interest and entertain me, and hopefully surprise me as it moves from chapter to chapter.
I was forced to read far too many dreary books I had no interest in at school to disagree with this one!
And the great poet e.e. cummings used unconventional spelling and capitalization for dramatic effect. I think that works in small doses, but not for a novel.

I got ahead of myself - you trump me with cummings. But he did write a novel and in its own way it's as idiosyncratic as his poetry.

I don't disagree with the points that have been made as such but I do think that the history of literature shows that for any rule there is potentially a good reason to break it. Of course, it's one thing for James Joyce to break the rules and quite another for Jakob to break them, but I would still admire a young amateur writer who tried too hard and got it wrong. It's a mistake to run before you can walk in general, but in art it may be the opposite.

Jakob

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At the risk of sounding like Simon Cowell: Jakob, here's the problem. There isn't anyone writing on the net who has the talent to pull off breaking these rules and still write a good story (or at least one I can read without gagging). If they exist, I have yet to see them.

I have another rule to add to the ones I stated earlier: I tried to make it through a new Nifty story last night, one where the author has no clue as to how to write dialogue. In fact, almost the entire story was written without dialog, like so:

I sat in my chair. I asked him what he was doing. He told me he was going to go out, and didn't care what I thought. I stopped him at the door, and he began yelling at me, telling me to stop trying to run his life. I cried, begged him not to go, but he slammed the door in my face. I slid down the wall and sobbed.

Then my friend Christy came over. She saw me crying and asked what was the matter. I told her that Vince and I had a terrible fight, and that it was the end of the world. She gave me a hug and told me everything would be okay...

and so on. In other words, the entire thing is told with narrative, in passive voice. No direct quotes, no actual action. I think this can be useful in some rare cases, like when you need to have a character tell a shortened version of a scene to someone else. But an entire novel?

No, this isn't a creative technique. It's an excuse by somebody who doesn't know how to write to avoid writing actual dialogue. (And let me add that the little excerpt I threw together was much better than anything in the real story.)

I don't care if it's the greatest story idea and coolest characters in the world, if the writer can't let them speak from time to time, it's gonna be damned hard for me to try to read it.

I do admit that there are a few examples in literature of authors who've used this technique, but I can't recall them doing it for every chapter of an entire novel. A short story, maybe. But I think telling a story this passively makes it much harder for a reader to identify with the characters and understand what they're feeling.

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