May 21 – 27: “First person or third person or something else?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5First person or third person or something else? This week ITW Members Erica Miner, Chris Malburg, Sanjida Kay, Judy Penz Sheluk, Mitch Silver, Patricia Rosemoor, Jon Land, Martin Roy HillDave Zeltserman, Paul D. Marks and R.G. Belsky will discuss how they decide. Scroll down to the comments section to learn more!

 

Judy Penz Sheluk is the author of two mystery series: The Glass Dolphin Mysteries (THE HANGED MAN’S NOOSE and A HOLE IN ONE) and The Marketville Mysteries (SKELETONS IN THE ATTIC). Her short crime fiction appears is several collections. In addition to ITW, Judy is member of Sisters in Crime, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves on the Board of Directors as the Regional Representative for Toronto/Southern Ontario.

 

Mitch Silver was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. He attended Yale (B.A. in History) and Harvard Law School (“I lasted three days. I know the law through Wednesday, but after that…”). He was an advertising writer for several of the big New York agencies, living in Paris for a year with his wife, Ellen Highsmith Silver, while he was European Creative Director on the Colgate-Palmolive account. A previously published novelist (In Secret Service —S&S/Touchstone), Mitch and his wife Ellen live in Greenwich, Connecticut and have two children: Sloane is a nurse at Wake Forest Medical Center and Perry is an actor and the drummer for Sky Pony, a band in New York. Mitch also won the American Song Festival Lyric Grand Prize for “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.” His blood type is O positive.

 

Former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner is now an award-winning author, screenwriter, journalist and lecturer. Her journal-based debut novel, Travels With My Lovers, won the Fiction Prize in the Direct from the Author Book Awards. Her screenplays have won awards in recognized competitions. Erica’s Met Opera-based thriller Murder In The Pit won raves. Her just-released sequel to Murder In The Pit, Death by Opera, takes place at Santa Fe Opera.

 

Paul D. Marks has written three novels, co-edited two anthologies and written countless short stories. He’s won a Shamus Award, was voted #1 in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine’s 2016 Reader’s Choice Award and been nominated for Anthony and Macavity Awards. His story “Windward” was chosen for The Best American Mysteries of 2018. His short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Akashic’s Noir series (St. Louis), Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Crimestalker Casebook, Hardluck Stories, Hardboiled, and many others.

 

Sanjida Kay is the author of three psychological thrillers, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child and My Mother’s Secret, published by Corvus Books. Bone by Bone was long listed for the CWA Steel Dagger Award, nominated as one of the best crime and thriller books of 2016 by The Guardian newspaper. Her thrillers are available on Audible as audiobooks. Sanjida lives in Bristol, England, with her husband and her daughter

 

Chris Malburg is a widely published author, with over 4 million words published in 22 popular business books and four novels. Simon & Schuster, Putnam, Wiley and McGraw Hill all publish Chris’ work, which is consumed in most western countries. After classes at Stanford Writers School, Chris began the fun side of his career. He has crossed the chasm into fiction with the fourth installment in his Enforcement Division series. Chris is known for his meticulous research of the material presented in his books. MAN OF HONOR is an example. While preparing this book, Chris took the same aircraft accident investigation courses at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering that the NTSB and FAA accident investigators take.

 

Dave Zeltserman’s crime and horror thrillers have been picked by NPR, the Washington Post, American Library Association, Booklist, and WBUR as best novels of the year, and his short mystery fiction has won a Shamus, Derringer and two Ellery Queen Readers Choice awards. His Morris Brick thrillers written as Jacob Stone include DERANGED, CRAZED, MALICIOUS, TWISTED. His novel  SMALL CRIMES has been made into a Netflix film starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

 

New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Patricia Rosemoor has had 100 novels with 8 publishers and more than 7 million books in print. Always fascinated with “dangerous love,” Patricia combines romance with crime in her stories. She’s won a Golden Heart from RWA and two Reviewers Choice and two Career Achievement Awards from RT Book Reviews. She also taught Popular Fiction and Suspense-Thriller Writing at Columbia College Chicago.

 

Jon Land is the USA Today bestselling author of 43 books, including ine titles in the critically acclaimed Caitlin Strong series, the most recent of which, STRONG TO THE BONE, won the 2017 American Book Fest Award for Mystery/Suspense. He recently published A DATE WITH MURDER, his first entry in the MURDER, SHE WROTE series that he’s taken over.  And last year he also teamed with ThrillerMaster Heather Graham on THE RISING, the first in a groundbreaking sci-fi series.

 

Martin Roy Hill is the author of the Linus Schag, NCIS, thrillers, the Peter Brandt thrillers, and the award-winning short story collection DUTY, and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. Martin’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Crimson Streets, Nebula Rift, Devolution Z, and others. A former national award-winning investigative journalist, Martin is now a military analyst.

 

R.G. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a journalist in New York City. His upcoming suspense thriller YESTERDAY’S NEWS will be published by Oceanview in May. It’s the beginning of a new series featuring TV journalist Clare Carlson. Two of Belsky’s thrillers from the ‘90s – LOVERBOY and PLAYING DEAD – are also being re-released by HarperCollins in December and January 2018. His most recent book BLONDE ICE (Atria- 2016), part of the Gil Malloy series – featuring a New York City newspaper reporter, was a Finalist for the David Award and a Silver Falchion nominee this past year. Belsky himself is a former managing editor at the Daily News and writes about the media from an extensive background in newspapers, magazines and TV/digital news. He was metropolitan editor of the New York Post; news editor at Star magazine; and most recently managing editor at NBCNews.com.

ITW

International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

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51 Comments
  1. I’ve written novels and short stories in both first and third person past tense, and I’m comfortable in both. Choosing which to use, I think, depends on the structure of the story and the voice you want to use.

    Writing in the first person is fun. It allows you to put more of your character’s personality into the narrative itself. The narrator can be sardonic, snarky, goofy—whatever you want. Some writers prefer the first person narrative because it allows them to sneak a little of themselves into the character. This was certainly the case for me as I wrote “Empty Places,” which was the first book I wrote in first person. (Of course, later I had to edit a lot of that out.) First person also allows the writer to pontificate on a subject without it distracting too much from the narrative of the novel. John D. MacDonald was an ace at this with his Travis McGee novels.

    On the other hand, the first person narrative severely restricts your plotting because the reader sees everything through one point of view—your narrator’s. Third person narration allows for multiple viewpoints and that can lead to more complex plots. My friend, mystery author G. M. Ford, had been writing his successful (and first person narrative) Leo Waterman PI series for years before he started his Frank Corso series. Ford says he specifically switched to the third person in his Corso books because he wanted to learn how to plot. Before that, he was strictly a panster.

    With a new book, it’s sometimes not obvious which narrative device is right. I was half way through my third rewrite on my sci-fi novella “Eden” when I realized it just wasn’t working. The third person narration just didn’t pop. I set it aside and was on the verge of giving up on it when, weeks later, I heard a voice in my head saying what became the book’s first two sentences: “‘If this is Paradise, how bad could Hell be?’ To this day, Staff Sergeant Estrada’s words still haunt me.” Yet, the first person narrative presented its own problems, since the book bounces between contemporary times and ancient times. I solved that problem by having the first-person narrator adopt an as-told-to-me third-person narrative when the story switched to ancient times, essentially becoming a story-within-a-story, as Joseph Conrad sometimes did with his character Marlow.

    I’ve never written in the second person simply because I’ve never been fond of that technique. But I remember hearing (or reading) someone describe the difference between the three devices as this: First person is a friend telling you a story; second person is someone ordering you what to do; and third person is like watching a movie. That pretty much sums it up.

      1. Good observations, Martin. Especially agree with the comments about how writing first person does restrict your plotting options – since the reader presumable knows everything that the character knows.

        One technique to get around this – which I use a bit in my own latest book -is to make the 1st person character an “unreliable narrator.” Sort of like the people telling the story in Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train.

        The first person character doesn’t tell the reader the whole story at first – but parcels the information out in bits and pieces throughout the book.

        But yes, the plotting is definitely easier from a third person or multiple POV approach.

  2. I’ve written four thrillers. One used first person, two employed third person, and the latest, Man of Honor, used close third. I wrestled with the POV choice for my latest project, Barbara Anne’s Slider. I wrote pages using first person and pages using third. In the end I made a deliberate decision for my readers to literally feel the grief my POV character feels experiencing an active shooter crisis at a Florida high school. I wanted an intimate identification and affection for this character—Jacob Bernstein, Bernie, the baseball team’s catcher. My only choice, it seemed, was to use him as the first person narrator.

    With this choice readers get to experience the evolution of Bernie and the Panthers team as they grapple with losing 12 of their classmates and their beloved coach in a matter of seven minutes one horrible day. With my first person choice readers feel the kids’ maturity rise throughout the book as they and their families deal with the horrors confronting them. I do this partly with the level and sophistication of language Bernie uses in his first person narration. He and the cast must grow up fast as they wind their way through a baseball season that begins in the basement but ultimately becomes the experience of a lifetime and one none will ever forget—thanks to one courageous high school English teacher.

    My problem with first person is the limitation it places on having the narrator in every single scene. There are places where Bernie simply cannot go and doesn’t belong. I don’t like switching POV. It can be jarring and appear amateurish if not done with care. For those shots where Bernie doesn’t participate I’m using third person limited and some deep POV. This happens with the book’s tough and relentless star, Barbara Anne. My intent is for readers to develop a familiarity and respect for Barbara Anne that is much deeper and different than the relationship they have with Bernie as he observes and relates Barbara Anne’s heroism. We’ll see how it all goes.

  3. I didn’t study English, and I’d written four novels before I became aware of the terminology and what it means! Quick refresher if you’re anything like me! First person is, ‘The packaging caught my eye, but when I picked it up, I was astonished at how expensive such a small parcel of coffee could be.’ You hear everything from one character’s perspective, you’re inside their head, hearing their inner monologue.

    Third person is when you still hear and see the perspective from the point of view of one person, but now you’re outside, rather than fully inside. ‘As Sanjida turned over the small package in her hand, she noticed the price tag and nearly dropped the bag of coffee.’ Sticking with one character’s third person perspective allows a close reading of what that character is thinking. For instance, in My Mother’s Secret, one of the characters, Lizzie Bradshaw, is in third person. When I talk about what Lizzie is thinking, I write, ‘Lizzie thought…’ However, when I want to have direct, reported thought, I write her thoughts exactly as she’s thinking them, but put the thoughts into italics so that the transition from outside her head to inside her mind (hopefully) feels seamless.

    Omniscient, which is what many crime writers use to get round tricky plot points, is an almost God-like perspective. Either you can zoom towards a character, or else, you can comment on them, as if you’re the unspoken narrator, or, er, a God-like figure. This is often used in literary fiction, for instance The Punch by Noah Hawley, which allows the unseen and unnamed narrator (maybe Hawley) to occasionally make comments about who is going to throw the punch and when, as well as grand statements about the nature of time. It is often used in crime fiction, not necessarily for high-falutin’ notions, but to move into different characters’ perspectives, which clearly can have an advantage when one wants information to be withheld or revealed to the reader.

    My personal take on this is that omniscient might be easier to use, but the greater distance creates greater dissonance in the reader and there’s a danger of losing sympathy for the characters. Third person is a good choice most of the time because it allows one to reveal what a character is thinking, helps the reader identify closely with that person, and see their perspective, which engenders sympathy. At the same time, the reader has enough distance to understand that this person may not be reliable and there could be other ways of viewing events.

    First person is wonderful, particularly when you have an unreliable narrator, or want to enlist maximum empathy, if not sympathy. However, for this to work, the character’s voice needs to be extremely strong. In My Mother’s Secret, two of the three character’s viewpoints are first person: Emma Taylor and her fourteen-year-old daughter, Stella. Emma may not be a reliable narrator, but I hope we feel sympathy for her predicament. Stella is basically an angry, sweary teenager, and her voice rang out loud and clear in my own head!

    1. Hi Sanjida,

      Nice posting! You said that two of the three characters in My Mother’s Secret are in 1st person. What about the third character? How to you gracefully make that switch from 1st to something else? And does the switch occur thruout the book?

      –Chris

    2. I was never fond of omniscient third, which seemed to be the going standard for the literary fiction when I got my degree in American Literature. I not only write from character POV but from deep character POV, so it’s close to first person writing. I used an exercise with my fiction students to get them deep into their characters. I would ask them to write a scene in first person, read to the class, then “translate” into third and read again. Students were always surprised how deep they were able to get into their characters using this method. It was also a way for them to decide if they wanted to write their story in first or third.

  4. I’m fairly evenly split between the number of first and third person stories and novels I’ve written. Occasionally a story can be told using either POV, but usually the story dictates one over the other, and it becomes apparent early on which is needed. First person tends to work well with crime noir, especially when the character is an unreliable narrator and you want to get deep into his or her head and your narrator’s rationalizations. First person will limit the story to only what the narrator knows, but that can work well with noir and hardboiled PI. Most of my favorite noir novels are written in first person, but I have read some very good 3rd person noir, including Fright from Cornell Woolrich and The Getaway by Jim Thompson. I’ve also read a terrific 2nd person noir novel How Like a God from Rex Stout. In my own case, I’ve written 5 first person noir novels, 1 third person, and the 3rd person novel had a larger story and needed to be driven by multiple POVs. My PI novels and stories also tend to be first person.

    Thrillers work best with third person, especially when you need to shift between different characters’ POV. The more overarching the story, the more likely you’ll need to use third person. All my favorite thrillers are written in the 3rd person, and all the thriller I’ve written have been in the third person.

    Horror can go either way, again depending whether you need to limit the story to what one character knows and experiences, or whether it’s a larger story that needs to shift between characters. In my own case, I’ve written 3 first person horror novels, and 2 third person novels, and have favorites written in both POVs. A technique that seems more common in horror than other genres is to have first person POV, but have another character telling a large part of the story, so in that way you’re mixing first and third. John Langan does this nicely in The Fisherman.

  5. There’s no fast and easy to rule to follow. Some stories just naturally come about in first or third person. They know what they are, how they should be. The story and characters dictate the person – the story will often tell you how it’s best told. But sometimes you might start out doing first person (or third) and find out it’s not working. When I have trouble with a story I might switch from first to third person to see if that makes a difference. Sometimes it clicks – and sometimes it doesn’t and I end up going back. You know when you’re working on it or reading it if it’s working or not.

    Noir stories tend to work well in first person, as do PI stories. Thrillers are probably better in third person. And some stories might be in first or third person, but through the eyes or over the shoulder of various characters. Robert Crais tends to this. In different chapters or sections we see the story through different characters’ eyes.

    In my novel White Heat, being reissued this week, and the sequel Broken Windows, coming out this fall, the stories are told in first person in the voice of the main character Duke Rogers. They’re Duke’s stories and they work best with him telling it. But doing stories in first person has limitations, as we only know the story from that character’s point of view. We can’t see what other characters are doing or their nefarious plottings.

    The bottom line is that you play with the story, you hear it in your head or when reading aloud and it works or it doesn’t. So you try different things, eventually settling on what works best.

  6. EYES OF THE TIGER, a reincarnation romantic thriller, is my 100th book.

    Over the years, I have kept myself interested in new projects by pushing envelopes, trying different and new-to-me ways of writing. Most of my books are third person, past tense. But in some of those books, I have written dream sequences, genetic memories or visions that vary the voice and/or tense.

    I started an urban fantasy thriller series in which my heroine was first person and the hero and villain were third. I find writing first person is a lot closer to the bone, a lot more immediate and deep, and I felt those stories needed that since the heroine was human dealing with a different type of supernatural force in each. She was learning something new and had to process what that was and how to deal with it.

    EYES OF THE TIGER was a real challenge. I’d created a story in which I had three POV characters but in two separate worlds – heroine, hero and villain were reincarnated in this world, but their story began back in India’s British Raj in 1901. I kept struggling. How could I tell this story properly? All six characters needed a voice. Six points of view in one story. It was my biggest challenge yet, but maybe my most interesting (at-least-to-me) choice. The points of view of hero, heroine and villain in this century are third person, past tense. To distinguish their characters in the British Raj scenes, I chose to write first person, present tense. Doing that and adding a timeline added clarity in a complex story. That was the first time I used first person for more than one character in a story, but it worked for me.

  7. My first mystery series (Glass Dolphin) is written in third with alternating POVs. The second series (Marketville) is written in first. Until Skeletons in the Attic (book 1 Marketville) I’d never written in first, with the exception of one flash fiction story published in 2005. There are pros and cons to each, but I think my cozier amateur sleuth series works best as third person, whereas my suspense/amateur works because it’s first person. It’s also far more “successful” in terms of sales, though it’s doubtful POV is the reason. Then again, maybe…
    I currently have a Work in Progress where I’m debating between first and third. While I love how it reads in first, it’s the story of 3 people, each one telling their part of the story, and I think that will be confusing for the reader. Now I’m toying with the idea of one person in first and the other two in third. That may be a hot mess, but first drafts are for experimentation. I’d love readers thoughts on the first/third combo — have you seen it done, and if so where, and did you love it or hate it?

    1. Hi Judy,

      You asked for thoughts on combining 1st and 3rd POV in the same book. I’m wrestling with a graceful way to do this myself. I’ll be interested in seeing what the community thinks of this technique.

      –Chris

      1. I’m not a big fan of having it both ways. For me, it disrupts the narrative flow and reminds me that I’m inside a book instead of getting lost in the story. Again, though, just because it’s not for me doesn’t me other writers might thrive in this format. I also think it makes things harder for writers because, effectively, you’re writing two different stories within the same book. That’s how jolting the change in POV from chapter to chapter can be. But, like I said, this is a stylistic decision each of us needs to make on our own.

        1. The first time I read a 1st/3rd book, I was aware of the switch. But sometime after that, I picked up another book that was 1st/3rd and I was halfway through the book before it hit me. So whether or not it succeeds may have to do with the author’s ability to make it flow.

      2. Lawrence Block does this to a small degree in his Matt Scudder novel A Walk Among the Tombstones. The first chapter is a third person narrative of a kidnapping and ransom effort. It’s told by Scudder, but in the third person after the fact. Not unlike what I did in my book Eden.

    2. Jim Thompson is one of my favorite writers, and he has one novel The Kill-Off where he used multiple first-person POVs, and it did not work–at least not for me. It read too much like an experiment than a novel. I think very limited 1st person with third person can work, but it has to be used minimally.

      1. Try Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian — a search for Dracula, at least 3 characters, all done first person in a different way so you always knew who was talking.

        When I did 3 characters in first person in Eyes of the Tiger, their scenes were chapters apart. I think even if they were together, each character would be identifiable. I didn’t see this as an experiment, but as a way to have POV from characters in the past who are reincarnated in the present.
        I think there needs to be a real reason to veer from the norm.

        1. What’s important is making it work. You can break the rules as long as it works! I’ll bring up Jim Thompson again–he broke just about every rule in his psycho noir books, but damn it, he made it work!

  8. I’m a first person kind of guy – as an author and as a reader.
    I’ve published 12 mystery/thriller novels in my writing career. All of them have been written in the first person. Didn’t actually realize that until I started thinking about the topic for this round table. I have written a number of other mystery/thrillers in the third person or with a multiple POV, but none of them got published. So there might be a lesson for me in this. I probably write better in the first person.
    As a reader, I tend to gravitate to the first person book too. My favorite characters – Philip Marlowe, Spenser, Kinsey Millhone, Matt Scudder – were written in the first person. Of course, there are many other wonderful characters and books (Harry Bosch by Michael Connelly immediately comes to mind) that are written in the third person. But when I pick up a new book for the first time, I’m more inclined to get hooked quickly if it’s in the first person.
    There are no hard and fast rules to this, of course. Lee Child sometimes alternates between first person and third person for his hugely-popular Jack Reacher. Other authors use first person for the main character, then give us a third person viewpoint in other scenes. And there’s even an occasional book or two that’s written in the second person.
    The bottom line here, of course, is that a good book is a good book.
    And great authors are great authors, no matter which viewpoint they use.
    I remember the time I had an opportunity to talk with Michael Connelly about his Harry Bosch character. I asked him why he chose to write Bosch in the third person, instead of first person like most traditional mystery series characters. “Gee, I don’t know,” Connelly replied. “I never really thought about it. I just wrote it.” Which was a brilliant answer. Sometimes we really do overthink this stuff too much.

    1. Thanks, Chris. Yep, I hate it when people think too much or talk too much about the writing….the proof is what you put on the page!

  9. This is a perfectly timed post for me, given that my first effort writing as Jessica Fletcher in the MURDER SHE WROTE series, A DATE WITH MURDER, is the first work I’ve ever done in first person. I think generally a lot of the decision on which POV to write in is based in genre. Mysteries are culled from a tradition dating back to Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammett which begot the work of Robert Crais, Robert Parker and others. There’s something about hardboiled, gritty mysteries that beg to be inside one character’s head, normally the detective, following the minutia and mechanizations of the plot as they unfold through their eyes. Thrillers, on the other hand, come from an entirely different tradition in which shifting viewpoints are crucial in fitting the pieces of the much more elaborate puzzle together. Remember, mysteries are normally about who dun it and why; thrillers are about about what are the bad guys going to do and when. We play along with the hero in both cases but it’s the genre that dictates the viewpoint. Now, there are great mysteries written in third person and great thrillers written in first, but that’s not the norm or most writers’ comfort zones. Thoughts?

    1. We can look at Hammett’s two great PI novels–Red Harvest, first person, The Maltese Falcon, third person. Maltese Falcon could’ve been written in the first person, but Hammett wanted some distance and to keep Spade more of an enigma. But most of my favorite hardboiled PI stories seem to be written in the 1st person, whether it’s Hammett’s Op, MacDonald’s Lew Archer, Stout’s Nero Wolfe (these might be a blend of hardboiled and traditional mystery, but Archie’s voice is pure hardboiled), Block’s Scudder, the PI’s voice is too important to the story to write it in 3rd person.

      1. I never found Maltese Falcon (the book not the movie) as interesting as Chandler’s stuff. I think that might be in part because it wasn’t written in the first person. Those Philip Marlowe books (and also another favorite of mine, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer) just seemed to have so much more impact because the main character was telling the story – not some third-person author. Just imagine some of those great Marlowe lines being told in third person…jeez!

        1. Again, this is the story dictating the voice. I can’t imagine The Maltese Falcon working in first person–Hammett needed some distance between the reader and Spade. But Marlowe’s voice and those wisecracks and the intimacy with the reader made first person a necessity for those books.

    2. Good to get your input, Jon. I got to know your predecessor, the late Donald Bain, at several mystery conferences. And I always was always fascinated to hear his stories about what it took to turn out the Jessica Fletcher books. Look forward to reading your first one. Best of luck with the series…

  10. I think if you have a strong, first person voice (so it’s obvious which character is speaking) you can mix up and have third person and first person perspectives in the same book. I agree with Dave Zeltserman, it can be hard to focus if you have multiple characters all in a first person POV. Many voices can be confusing, full stop!

    Chris, as I mentioned, two of my characters in My Mother’s Secret, are in the first person, and one is in the third person. The third person character is Lizzie Bradshaw. I do feel I have a strong ‘voice’ for both first person characters, the mother, Emma Taylor, and her daughter,Stella. They are narrating their stories at the same point in time and in the same setting, i.e., they’re both at home and see each other every day, so there’s a continuity there. Also, to try and get round any confusion or ambiguity at the beginning of each chapter, I start the chapter with the name of the character who is telling that section of the story.

    I write either first or close third person perspectives and usually in the present tense. I think both of these techniques can help the reader identify or at least have empathy for the character and can also help lend immediacy to their situation and raise levels of tension. Though, of course, there are other ways to create tension!

    1. Interesting that you usually write in present tense, Sanjida. That’s probably a whole other discussion. When it works, present tense can be very unique and effective. One such book that comes to mind is Presumed Innocent – all written first person, present tense. I actually wrote an entire manuscript of my own once in present tense, but couldn’t get that one published. Probably didn’t have anything to do with the tense though.

  11. I set out with this idea for my first thriller, IN SECRET SERVICE: Ian Fleming (yes, that Ian Fleming), just before he dies, tells someone a great big dangerous secret about the monarchy over the course of several evenings in a hotel bar in Switzerland. I wrote these long monologues in the first person. I liked what I had, but couldn’t get the character of the listener (a woman who was now in peril for knowing the secret) to work—or the rest of the plot, for that matter—without switching to third person. I couldn’t gin up the suspense, I realized, while the reader knew only what my heroine knew.
    Of course, nightmares work that way…you’re the one in peril from whatever evil you’re dreaming of…but I think Hitchcock had the key to suspense: it’s scarier if the viewer/reader sometimes knows what the protagonist doesn’t. Example: in SABOTAGE, we know there’s a bomb set to go off but the heroine doesn’t know it. We want to yell, “GET OUT OF THERE!” But of course we can’t.

    1. Great points, Mitch–especially the allusion to how Hitchcock used POV! That would never have occurred to me, which makes me even more impressed!

  12. I think this is the classic example of stylistic preference. No right or wrong answers here. It’s literally one person’s poison is another’s elixir. Part of writing a great book is loving it yourself and POV is one of the many aspects we find for the comfort zone that makes us love what we write so readers can too.

    1. Agree 100% with that, John. “No right or wrong answers” is probably the bottom line for this whole discussion of the topic.

  13. First or third person? I’ve tried both, and I much prefer the latter. I wrote my first novel in first person; though it won an award, the comments I got from potential agents centered around the fact that, at least to the publishing world, it seemed too much like a memoir. Granted, it was initially based on my journals, but it was definitely fiction (only the author knew for sure how much was fiction or not). So with that experience in mind, I’ve always written my novels in third person. I think either first or third can work for mystery, thriller and crime fiction. But since that first experience of mine I’ve grown a bit wiser (not to mention older); and for me, writing from a third person perspective gives a much broader view of the story, the setting and its characters. I’m just saying.

  14. I jumped into the Roundtable because I think it is such an important element for a new writer to consider. After reading all the posts so far, it seems that some of us flip flop from one to another: back and forth from first to third. I think that many authors start to write without giving much thought to the upsides and downsides of each approach. There is definitely no right or wrong, but finding which works best for you is a crucial part of understanding and deepening the craft. And in thriller writing, the craft is so important. And once you’ve found what works, I don’t think that shifting back and forth is a good thing. Readers’ expectations are not trivial. If they read your thrillers, they want a repeat performance, and are not to much in to your experimenting with style.
    Just my thoughts of the moment, but I do get asked this question a lot.

    1. Good point, Patricia. There is definitely something to be said for consistency of format. Like a long running TV show or a restaurant whose familiar menu doesn’t vary much. People gravitate to things they know. For books and other entertainment media being a known quantity is a good thing. Change it and you’re inviting trouble–confusion at the very least. .

    2. That’s why we sometimes have to use pseudonyms–as I’m doing now with my Morris Brick thriller series–so we can write in a different style without confusing the reader.

      Can anyone think of a thriller series that switches the POV used in different books?

      1. Ian Fleming switched POVs in one of his Bond books, The Spy Who Loved Me. The story is written in first person from the perspective of one of Bond’s paramours. It wasn’t popular; even Fleming didn’t like it.

        From Russia With Love also played around with the POV. Fleming originally planned to kill Bond off in that book, so the first half of the book deals with the bad guys plotting his assassination. Fleming’s publisher pleaded with Fleming not to kill Bond and he relented. The second half of the book is from Bond’s POV.

        1. I remember the promotional campaign for this book which “claimed” Fleming didn’t write it at all, but “found” the manuscript on his doorstep one day. Which begs the question on the wisdom of experimentation as a writer. The market frowns on anything unexpected and outside the expected paradigm. I’ve learned so much from all these posts because I didn’t realize how many authors actually bounced back and forth between first and third person by choice, as opposed to necessity as was the case with me when I was fortunate enough to take over the MURDER, SHE WROTE series.

          1. Jon, I’d forgotten about that Spy Who Loved Me promo campaign until you mentioned it!

            As I write this, I’m actually listening to you on the Suspense Radio podcast talking about your new series. I didn’t even know there was a Murder She Wrote book series until I saw one of your tweets about it. And that made me think of another POV question: How difficult is it to write in the POV of a character whose gender is different than yours, especially in the first person?

            I keep thinking about that book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

          2. Great question, Martin! Since I’d been writing from the POV of another female hero, Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong, before I took on the MURDER, SHE WROTE series writing from Jessica’s viewpoint came seamlessly. A bigger challenge lies in lending my take on a character made famous by a TV show and then later by 46 previous books penned by another author. Obviously I was going to bring my own take to Jessica and the series, and I have this underlying fear of disappointing series fans who’ll be opening their Coke to find out it’s Pepsi. But as writers, when searching for the voice of our characters, we have to trust our instincts and build them in a way that makes us big fans before anyone else has the opportunity to be. The critical response to A DATE WITH MURDER has been fantastic and humbling so far. But I know there are going to be readers who are disappointed because I’m not writing Jessica and her adventures the same way Don Bain did.

  15. A number of people here have said they don’t like switching between POVs – and I tend to agree.

    Yet many successful authors, such as James Patterson (with Alex Cross) and even some of the more recent Spenser novels have done that.

    And, as I pointed out in my post, Lee Child switches sometimes from book to book between first person and third person for Jack Reacher.

    Which just goes to show that great writers can write great books by breaking the rules.

    For the rest of us, well…probably best to pick one POV and stick to it!

  16. Truly excellent point raised above by R.G. Lee’s third person books so vividly express Reacher’s internal monologues that there almost indistinguishable from his first person Reacher books. I think my transition to writing Jesssica Fletcher (1st person) from Caitlin Strong (3rd person) was so seamless in large part because my STRONG books stress the internal as well as the external. I think less experienced writers might want to start writing in 1st person, at least short stories, because it’s a great exercise to force yourself into your character’s heads. Writing great stories is about living in a character’s head. And the reason why the thriller form, especially the high action one pretty much invented by the great David Morrell and championed by the likes of Steve Berry and James Rollins, caters more to 3rd person because it affords the reader–and writer–live in the heads of multiple characters to better explore motivations and relative tones of morality.

  17. One of the things I find most interesting arising from these posts is the understandable tendency to use pseudonyms when switching POVS. But I wonder if this is wise counsel for any of the most established authors, given that it’s so hard building one brand, much less two. It was only 25 or so years ago when the likes of the great Stephen King couldn’t publish two books a year under his own name so he created “Richard Bachman,” originally credited on THINNER and was to be credited on MISERY. Today the trend is opposite that: Authors like James Patterson and Clive Cussler have become book factories and others like David Baldacci and Lisa Scottoline are publishing two or more books per year. This as the likes of Catherine Coulter and Janet Evanovitch are annually publishing multiple books through associations with co-writers. So the issue of POV also begs the question of how stylistic and creative decisions ultimately effect the way we as authors are marketed and seek to grow our brands.

    1. In my case, it was the publisher’s decision/requirement that I use a pseudonym for my Morris Brick thriller series. It had nothing to with POV, but because the thriller series was going to be very different than my crime and horror fiction that I’m publishing so they wanted to brand it as different. Now that I’ve got one movie out and two more looking likely, they’re now going to also add my name to the cover (Dave Zeltserman writing as …)

  18. Don’t get me started on marketing, Jon. Pocket Books told me my proposal for a follow-up book to IN SECRET SERVICE was “off your brand.” Can one book make a brand? Now that I think of it, I wonder if I ran afoul of the POV police over there.

  19. Mitchell, that’s a great point, and what you’re suggesting is that Pocket Books, it would seem, values you enough as an author to pay attention to how they’re building you and the tools you’re giving them to do so–hopefully, anyway. But your point also goes to another of area of branding, marketing–that being the wisdom of righting a series as opposed to stand-alones. Writing a series forces to stay within our, and thus the publisher’s, comfort zones. It’s kind of like Samuel Goldwyn once famously said, “I want the same thing, only different.” Publishers are the same way.

  20. An interesting discussion! As a reader I don’t mind 1st or 3rd person. I did read one novel in 2nd which worked well but I couldn’t write in it.

    When I began as a romance author writing in 1st person was discouraged because readers apparently didn’t like it. Chick lit came along and was predominantly 1st person,though.

    Crime and thriller readers seem more open to either. I was halfway through my first Michael Robotham book before I realised it was not only in 1st person but also present tense. So were the other 2 I’ve read. It flows effortlessly.

    Do your readers affect how you choose?

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever had a reader comment on the 1st vs. 3rd person issue in all the discussions I’ve had about my books over the years. On the other hand, I’ve had many talks about it like we’re having here with other authors.

      There must be some kind of message there!

      For whatever its worth, the book I just finished was originally done in the third person. But I went back and rewrote it all to make it first person because I just thought it worked better that way.

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