September 5 – 11: “What is the best point of view for a thriller?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5What is the best point of view for a thriller? This week we’re joined by ITW Members Paul McGoran, Judy Penz Sheluk, Sheila Lowe, Ron Parham, Wendy Walker and David McCaleb as they discuss the best point of view for a thriller.




Sad young woman and a rain dropsThe mother of a tattoo artist and a rock star, Sheila Lowe lives in Southern California with Lexie the Very Bad (sometimes Evil) Cat, where she writes the award-winning Forensic Handwriting series. Like her fictional character Claudia Rose, she’s a real-life forensic handwriting expert who testifies in court cases. Sheila writes “medium boiled,” books (definitely not cozies) that she think of as psychological suspense. In other words, she puts ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances and makes them squirm. She also writes non-fiction books about handwriting: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis, Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, and Handwriting Analyzer software.


ALL IS NOT FORGOTTENWendy Walker is a family law attorney in Connecticut. Prior to her legal career, she worked as a financial analyst at Goldman, Sachs. All Is Not Forgotten is her first psychological thriller. Wendy is currently writing her second thriller and managing a busy household of teenage boys.




FESTIVALFrontCover_4-22-16SmRon Parham is an accomplished and award-winning author of thrillers Molly’s Moon and Copperhead Cove, and the upcoming Festival of Fear, due out in the summer of 2016. His novels are about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Festival of Fear takes place in southwest Iowa, where he grew up and spent his childhood. All three novels are part of the Paxton Brothers Saga. He now lives and writes in the Temecula Valley, a world-famous wine-growing region just east of Los Angeles and north of San Diego. He is currently working on his first novel of the Gas Lamp Saga, starring Jake Delgado, the private investigator from his first two novels.


skeletonsJudy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, the first in the Glass Dolphin Mystery series, was published in July 2015 by Barking Rain Press. Skeletons in the Attic, Judy’s second novel, and the first in her Marketville Mystery series, will be published in August 2016 by Imajin Books. Judy’s short crime fiction appears in World Enough and Crime (Carrick Publishing), The Whole She-Bang 2 (Toronto Sisters in Crime), Flash and Bang (Untreed Reads) and Live Free or Tri: a collection of three short mystery stories. She is also the author of Unhappy Endings: a collection of three flash fiction stories. In her less mysterious pursuits, Judy works as a freelance writer; her articles have appeared regularly in dozens of U.S. and Canadian consumer and trade publications. In addition to ITW, Judy is also a member of Sisters in Crime International, Sisters in Crime – Guppies, Sisters in Crime – Toronto, Crime Writers of Canada, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. She lives in Alliston, Ontario, Canada, with her husband, Mike, and their golden retriever, Leroy Jethro “Gibbs”.


Cover Recall FINALDavid McCaleb was born on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Growing up on a farm, he studied the teachings of nature, enjoying hunting and fishing, intermingled with hard labor. One of the last green belts on the east coast, the Eastern Shore is steeped in creative culture, with which he credits much of his inspiration. He graduated from St. Andrews School in Middletown, Delaware, attended Valley Forge Military College, and then was accepted into the United States Air Force Academy, graduating in 1995. He served in the Air Force as a finance officer, managing base and command-level finance operations, as well as weapons system procurement in support of Cheyenne Mountain. In 2000, he worked as a corporate financial analyst for a publicly traded software development company. He started an internet retail business in 2003, selling custom-made window coverings. After almost starving the first year, the business grew into a successful enterprise. Selling that venture in 2007, he joined his father in the family insurance agency, McCaleb-Metzler. Today, David works as a commercial insurance agent, serving as president of the business. In order to counteract the rigidity of having to make a living, David writes. A lot. He started in 2009 and intensely studies his craft. RECALL, the first novel in the RED OPS series, is available August 2016. RELOAD hits shelves August 2017. The third book in the series is currently in production.


Breastplate coverBefore turning to crime fiction, Paul McGoran had a varied career as Navy linguist, marketing executive, management consultant and day trader. His first published novel was the pulp thriller, Made for Murder (New Pulp Press, 2015). He is also the author of a collection of short noir fiction, Paying for Pain. Paul writes fiction because it is most immersive activity he has ever known. His next novel will bring his P.I. protagonist back to his old hometown to solve the revenge murder of the bully who terrorized his childhood.


Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. I think it depends on the type of thriller and what is driving the suspense. For thrillers like mine, which are driven by an unreliable narrator, writing in the first person from the point of view of the narrator is a great tool. The reader can get into the head of the character, but then has to pay careful attention to the clues to determine if the narrator is lying or hiding something. When the suspense is driven primarily by action – will they get there in time? Will the killer strike again? Will they catch the perpetrator? – third person narration from the point of view of the “hero” or the “villain” or both can be useful to keep the plot moving without digressing too much into the emotions of the characters. I also think when two points of view are used, third person narration for at least one of them prevents the story from feeling claustrophobic. As a writer, having so many option to tell a story is fantastic!

  2. Point of view is something I think about while planning a novel. I’m an outliner, and once I have the basics in place (story arc, main characters), I’ll think about an effective POV strategy. For me, the one-character, first-person point of view works in short stories, and I would consider it for a police procedural or a traditional mystery of the P.I. or cozy variety. In a thriller, though, nothing is more exciting to this writer than having multiple minds to invade and explore.

    Three advantages for multiple POVs in the thriller genre come readily to mind:
    1. The level of suspense can be heightened as you raise the stakes for one character and hand the narrative to another whose story adds even more complications to the mix;
    2. A more thorough exploration of the attitudes and thoughts of each important character is possible;
    3. A more complex narrative with interlocking subplots is encouraged.

    The disadvantages and problems that flow from multiple POVs have to be evaluated as well:
    1. Readers can find all this confusing if the writer isn’t skillful;
    2. The feeling of intimacy projected by the first-person voice is sacrificed to some extent;
    3. The “heroic” stature of the primary lead character will be diminished (not always a disadvantage).

    I think it’s important to note that variations on the multiple-character narration are possible. For my novel MADE FOR MURDER, I developed a first-person POV as a frame that surrounded a series of limited third-person narrations. The effect was that of a police detective recollecting a case and handing over the narration to the principals. In all, eight narrators were involved. My current novel, THE BREASTPLATE OF FAITH AND LOVE, has a more straightforward multiple-character narration with my P.I. Stafford Boyle’s voice predominating.

    In short, I’m a fan of multiple-character narration. Diving deep into the psychology of each main character is one of the reasons I write fiction. I think of it as my disappearing act–my magician’s trick. Perhaps writers like me are afflicted with a form of multiple personality disorder. Minus most of the alarming clinical symptoms, hopefully.

  3. Point of view became a problem for me in my current work-in-progress, so I’ve done some serious study on it lately. I am writing primarily about one major character surrounded by many minor characters, so I wanted to try to get into my major character’s head and tell the story from his POV only. I got half way through my first draft when I decided first person POV was too restricting and didn’t move the story/plot along like I intended, so I went back and rewrote everything in third person single POV, and it works much better. Now I can ramp up the suspense by getting into the head of the villain and some of the minor characters. The story is much less claustrophobic than before.

    I believe that first person POV is ideal for a small mystery or detective story where the reader expects the thoughts and ideas of only one major protagonist. When writing a thriller with many characters and several locations, third person single POV works best. I used it in my first two novels when I had major characters spread out over thousands of miles and I needed sub-plots to tell the story. First person would not have worked for those two novels.

    The writer needs to think like his reader when deciding upon first person or third person. Will first person be too restricting? Is the protagonist exciting and different enough to keep the reader interested? Will the reader get bored half way through? All questions I asked myself when I gave first person a try.

  4. Is there a *best* point of view? I don’t think so. Having said that, I believe much depends on whether the book is plot-driven or character-driven. If the story is about chasing a terrorist around the world before s/he is able to do some terrible harm, there won’t be time to get very far into the chaser’s head. The non-stop action, which probably takes place over a fairly short period of time, will drive the plot and be more important than knowing a whole lot about the protagonist’s background and feelings.

    On the other hand, if the reader cares more about how the action affects the psychology of the main character, a close third-person POV works better. That’s what I use in my series because it’s what I prefer to read. And in a series there’s the protagonist’s arc to consider. It annoys me no end when I’m reading a series where the main character has gone through life-threatening, life-changing experiences, perhaps even torture and tremendous loss, yet comes out virtually unscathed. I want the characters I spend time with to be human–sometimes a bit superhuman–but basically human.

    I know I’m getting a bit far afield of the topic, but in the end, it comes down to preference, not “best.” At least, that’s my POV.

  5. Ron–good points all. First person can be very restrictive, particularly in thrillers where the reader needs some degree of superior knowledge–know things the protagonist doesn’t—to create the thrill. I’ve used a combination of first and multiple third for several books and think it gives the best of both worlds. Learned this from several early James Patterson books and have seen it used very effectively by many others.

    1. Thanks, DP. I think an author needs to experiment a little with different POVs and pick the best one for his particular plot and story line. I may go back to first person for a future novel, but I am pretty well set on third person for my thrillers. You just can’t beat ramping up the tension by allowing the reader into the villain’s head, and it allows for several sub-plots that would be difficult with first person POV.

  6. I don’t think you can say there is a “best” POV for a thrill. First person allows for either an unreliable narrator OR a sleuth who is as clueless as his or her readers. Both work, done well. Multiple POV third also can work well, especially if you layer in the odd first person POV. Third person singular also works when it’s third person close (which actually mirrors first person in a lot of ways). At the end of the day…or should I say book…it’s about the plot and the plotting. In my own works, The Hanged Man’s Noose has multiple POVs, though primarily two “close” and Skeletons in the Attic is entirely first person “clueless.” If I want to base my answer on reader reaction, first person clueless wins hands down. But I still love multiple POVs (thinking John Sanford here…)

  7. Insightful discussion. I particularly enjoy reading thrillers that alternate (chapters or short sections) between a first-person protagonist and third-person narration that reveals what the villain knows or is planning (but the protag doesn’t know). For me, this approach forms a bond with the protag character and creates suspense via anticipation of what’s coming next. Nelson DeMille’s John Corey series is an outstanding example of this.

    1. Hi Peter. I love DeMille’s novels, especially the John Corey character. DeMille is expert at first person POV with Corey, and adding third person POV with other characters, such as the villain, to ratchet up the tension, and often keeping Corey out of the loop. He adds his dry sense of humor which is the big selling point to me. I may use this first person/third person POV strategy in my next novel, hopefully somewhere close to how DeMille has perfected it.

      1. Yep, I think keeping a likeable protag out of the loop (as DeMille does with Corey) is a central strength of this POV approach. Gigantic suspense potential. And best wishes for your next novel!

  8. Great discussion. lots to think about here. Thanks for sharing your points of view. I recently finished The Girl on the Train and enjoyed the multiple POVs. The back and forth of characters added intrigue and suspense to the story, which it may lacked had it been told any other way.

    1. Hi Nancy. I enjoyed Girl on the Train, but was a little frustrated with how the author switched POV so often. I have written two novels, Molly’s Moon and Copperhead Cove, with multiple third person POVs, and it is difficult if you aren’t careful. I like to put a voice to a minor character, one that doesn’t drive the plot but has a vision of what is happening. As one other author mentioned above, adding POV to a colorful minor character can add spice to a thriller.

  9. The first mysteries I read were Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books and stories. And then many more with first person narrators. I started my own mystery series (DEAD IN THE WATER and DEAD MEN’S TALES) after reading some of Sue Grafton’s books.(A IS FOR ALIBI, etc.) I’m currently writing my third Olivia Grant mystery, and, it has Olivia as POV character, of course.

  10. Good points, all. Point of view is a topic I hold near to heart since I struggled with it so much when I started writing six years ago. Since, I’ve (shamefully) found myself a bit of a POV “snob” when I get thrown out a book’s fictive dream as I stumble across POV faux pas. But POV is a relatively new concept when considering the entire timeline of literature, and we all need to allow authors the freedom to practice and further the art, one reason I love the question posed to this roundtable.

    I am reading A TALE OF TWO CITIES now. As a thriller lover, Charles Dickens isn’t my usual read. Is it OK if I admit I’m struggling through this book? Please don’t drum me out of the discussion. The novel is a masterpiece for certain, but one of the reasons for my struggle is I don’t feel connected to the characters. As such, I don’t care if they fail or succeed. Authors need to provide the opportunity for the reader to invest themselves into a character, and POV is one of the most effective means to do so.

    To that point, the POV of the protagonist is paramount. I won’t repeat everyone’s comments regarding this. For a reader to invest into the personality of the main character, and well-rendered POV is the most useful tool. But, there are limitations that need to be overcome, which is where other POVs come into play.

    Wendy, you mentioned that you utilize an unreliable narrator. Awesome. Similarly, authors need to keep in mind that, to an extent, all POVs are unreliable when it comes to insights regarding themselves. A reader will take a character’s self-examination with a grain of salt since the character is making the observation. However, when a third party’s perspective supports that revelation, the point is driven home. All this to say that, multiple POVs, though not essential, create believable characters, and thus invite the reader to invest further.

    So, what are the other POVs that should be used? Paul, you mentioned a POV strategy. Viewing POV as a strategy is a great way of putting it. I look for characters what have a vested interest as to how the scene and turns out. There needs to be a good reason to care about this character. I also want to a POV that will be used later in the story. I don’t want to cheat a reader by having them invest into someone, then never letting them see through that character again.

    Third-person POVs are where I introduce some of my more charismatic or interesting characters that provide valuable insight, but which the reader can only take in small doses. I am currently finishing up the third book in my Red Ops series and I utilize the POV of my protagonist’s ten year old daughter. She gives insight to her father that otherwise would never be possible utilizing his perspective. She views his violent world through the eyes of innocence, and provides the reader a chance to catch their breath. But I can’t over-use her POV or else this black ops thriller would end up being a YA novel. So, I’ve learned other POVs, if properly selected, can further develop the main character, deepen the plot, and provide a more enrolling experience.

    One POV I haven’t mentioned is the antagonist. This also is a powerful tool. However, I’ll let the other authors in this roundtable speak to it since I have not used it yet. My thought as I wrote RECALL was, rightly or wrongly, to provide the reader the perspective of the protagonist and his supporting cast, including the limitations thereof. My main character never has the liberty of getting into the head of the bad guys, so I didn’t want to provide my reader with that advantage either. There are pros and cons to this stance, but I am learning, and will likely experiment with an antagonist POV in future novels.

    1. This is really helpful as I contemplate the second POV in my new novel. I tried a few chapters with two first person narratives but it felt very closed in. I wrote it with a third person narration for the second POV and it worked better. In All Is Not Forgotten I used a totally different strategy. I had a shrink as my narrator and he randomly gives the reader long pieces of dialogue with several other characters in each chapter so that the reader can get a sense of those characters by reading their own words. This helped to make the story bigger and give life to more than one character. The take away seems to be that each writer has to craft the POV scheme in a way that best tells the story and keeps the reader engaged. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get it right.

      1. Even in thrillers where we tend to become plot-driven, I try to keep in mind that characters (and hence, POV to an extent) are the real story. If the other POV characters have the same voice as the protagonist, there isn’t much spice in the story. It can render a bland result. I am starting to liken this to a recipe, so forgive the cliché, but it works: If my only two ingredients were different brands of peanut butter, the result is dull and the reader is unsatisfied. Throw in brown sugar, chocolate chips, and an oven, and you’ve got peanut butter chocolate chip cookies… and the reader is happy. Divergent POVs can make a more satisfying story.

        1. Right, David. As important as the plot is in a thriller, character drives the story. Sometimes we look at point of view as if it were a totally independent element of a novel, whereas, as you remind us, it illuminates character and can’t be separated from it.

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVIII: Register Today!

One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!