Monday, May 23, 2016

Point of View, or Through Whose Eyes Do I Present My Murder Mystery?

Last time I reviewed the writing guide Don't Murder Your Mystery. The time before that I wrote about the advice to "write what you know" and why I found the advice less limiting than it first sounded. This time, I'm going to talk about point of view options for a murder mystery and how I settled on the one I would use in writing my first murder mystery.

Any story is written from one or more points of view (see the movie Vantage Point). The term point of view means pretty much what it sounds like: from where one sees (or more broadly, experiences) a story. The most common ones are

  • first person
  • third person limited
  • third person multiple
  • third person omniscient


I'll describe these options only briefly. In depth explanations of various points of view and their advantages and disadvantages can be found in many writers' guides, such as Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.

First person point of view is written through the eyes of a character. It is written using words such as "I" and "me" and "we" and "my." Many detective stories are written in first person. You see things through the senses and thoughts of a character who is personally telling you the story. With writing in this point of view, the reader gets to know only what the character knows and experiences. It is perhaps the most intimate point of view. Usually, only one character is the point of view, but not always, such as in The Judas Line by Mark Everett Stone, where two characters are used for point of view, but only one in any chapter.

Third person point of view is written through the voice of a third-party narrator. It is written using words such as "he" and "she" and "they" and "their."

With third person limited point of view, the reader still knows what the character knows and experiences, but a (perhaps anonymous) narrator is telling the story and that narrator is free to tell the reader things a little more truthfully than the character might admit. Only one character is used for point of view. This point of view can be nearly as intimate as first person.

Third person multiple is like third person limited, but more than one character may be used for point of view, but usually only one character per scene.

With third person omniscient point of view, the narrator is an all-knowing being that can enter the mind of any character and even share with the reader what no one is present to witness.

When considering which point of view to use for my story, the biggest thing I had to consider was the schizophrenia of the main character, Evelyn Malsage. She hallucinates voices, believes odd things that are mostly untrue, and is mildly paranoid. Her self-awareness is poor.

When I tried to imagine first person narration by Evelyn, I quickly found it wouldn't work. I wanted readers to hear the voices she heard, and that presented a problem. I don't hear voices now that I've found the right regimen of medications, but when I did, it was so disturbing and confusing that the last thing I wanted to do--that I don't think I was even capable of doing--was try to repeat the stream of voices I heard as they spoke. I could not use first person narration if I wanted to be authentic about the voices she hears. Also, Evelyn, like many schizophrenics who don't have their symptoms under control, has impaired self awareness. That would make use of first person problematic. Topping things off, I think being inside Evelyn's hallucinating, confused head all the time would exhaust readers and turn them away.

So first person was out for Evelyn but it didn't necessarily mean first person was completely out of the question. The Sherlock Holmes stories were mostly if not all written in first person using Dr. John Watson's point of view. I wondered if I could Michael's point of view in first person. No good. I definitely want to enter Evelyn's head part of the time, so a Dr. Watson approach wouldn't work.

So third person multiple seemed to fit the bill.

Multiple meant more than one point of view, but how many?

Well, who was my story about? Sure, many people: victim, suspects, witnesses, sleuths. But when I decided on a conflicted partnership between Evelyn and her brother-in-law crime reporter Michael Lawson, I knew the focus had to be on those protagonists. So, for now, I'm trying to limit point of view to just those characters, getting as close to the characters as I can get with third person. (Now I'm a big fan of British TV mystery shows, so I may cheat and use fly-on-the-wall point of view, variouslycalled cinematic or objective point of view, occasionally to show some suspicious (and red herring) behaviors, as I often see in shows such as Broadchurch and Midsomer Murders.)

So now I was settled: I would use third person multiple almost exclusively, through the vantage points of Evelyn and Michael. I have written three chapters so far using these points of view, and so far it has worked acceptably.

I hope you found this an interesting journey into the mind of a first time mystery writer and maybe even got some ideas for your own mystery.

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