The Mystery, Crime, and Thriller Group discussion

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General Chat > First & Third Person Mix

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message 1: by Mark (new)

Mark Stevens (WriterMarkStevens) | 13 comments I'm about half way through "We All Fall Down," the new mystery-thriller from Michael Harvey. I loved "The Chicago Way" and I'm enjoying this, too. One thing that strikes me is the combination of first and third-person: not sure I can remember the last time I've seen that, particularly in a mystery. I can't say I'm a big fan of the mix of styles and seems to take away from the strong point of view of the main character, P.I. Michael Kelly. Any other similar books out there? It certainly an approach the writing schools don't recommend.


message 2: by Lobstergirl (new)

Lobstergirl Death in Rome follows several characters, in third person. But one of them also gets a first-person POV, which is kind of strange.


message 3: by Mark (new)

Mark Stevens (WriterMarkStevens) | 13 comments "A genuine lost classic" ... interesting.


message 4: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 30733 comments Laura Lippman's newest, The Most Dangerous Thing has multiple first person and, I think, a bit of third person. Excellent. I couldn't put it down. But, then, I'm a big Laura Lippman fan.


message 5: by Mark (new)

Mark Stevens (WriterMarkStevens) | 13 comments She can play with time and perspective like few others, but I haven't read many. I like multiple points of view in a story but it's the switch to third person and back that throws me off a bit. Not a big deal, just interesting.


message 6: by Libby (new)

Libby I've done both first and third person in several of my novels. The first time it was because I was feeling a little claustrophic with first person and needed to convey a backstory of a charcter that my first person protagonist wouldn't know.

The second time was because I couldn't switch the first person account to third... the character lost her intimacy and humor when I tried.


message 7: by Beth (new)

Beth | 401 comments Diana Gabaldon is one well-known author who does this in her Outlander series. When the scene's POV is the main character, Claire, it's in first person, but if the POV character for a scene is another character, then it's written in third person. If an author sticks to a convention like this, it doesn't bother me.


The Pirate Ghost (Formerly known as the Curmudgeon) (PirateGhost) Steven James does that in his Bowers Files (The PawnThe RookThe KnightThe BishopThe Queen: A Patrick Bowers Thriller

I like it because I get a better idea of what's going on when the story is away from Patrick Bowers, but I did think it was unusual.


message 9: by Kim (new)

Kim (KimMR) I think it can be very effective. Jo Walton does it well in her "Small Change" trilogy, which consists of Farthing, Ha'penny and Half a Crown (which are genre-bending speculative fiction novels written as detective stories / thrillers). She alternates between a first person female narrator - a different woman in each of the novels - and a third person narrative about a policeman - the same character in all three books.

Last night I read a long short story / short novella by Laurie R. King - Beekeeping for Beginners - which also uses the first person / third person technique, but much less effectively. It made the narrative choppy. I think that the problem was that the work is just too short to sustain the shift in narrative technique.


message 10: by Mark (new)

Mark Stevens (WriterMarkStevens) | 13 comments Bunch of sharp readers ! Thanks. Interesting.


message 11: by Hayes, Co-Moderator (new)

Hayes (Hayes13) | 2063 comments Mod
Kim wrote: "a long short story / short novella by Laurie R. King - Beekeeping for Beginners - " This one slipped under my radar... not very good you say, Kim?


message 12: by Toni (new)

Toni (ToniDwig) | 19 comments James Lee Burke uses the first/third combo in some of his books. Very well.

Echoing Libby's comment (above), I use the combo in my mystery/thriller. The protag first-person for intimacy, and a bad guy third-person to give his character some complexity, and add an element of danger that the protag isn't aware of.


message 13: by Nick (new)

Nick Wastnage (NickWastnage) | 32 comments Going back to Mark's opening comment, about the writing schools not recommending first and third-person. I agree, and remember being told so, but also the 'schools' use to say you shouldn't change 'heads' or POVs in a book: now-days author's are doing it all the time. I think it's about what a writer can get away with. If it reads well and readers like it, then it's OK. Evolution of style. Always good to experiment.


message 14: by Kim (new)

Kim (KimMR) Hayes wrote: "Kim wrote: "a long short story / short novella by Laurie R. King - Beekeeping for Beginners - " This one slipped under my radar... not very good you say, Kim?"

Sorry Hayes, your post slipped under my radar!

I picked up this one cheaply on Kindle and I'm glad I read it. As you're a Laurie R King fan and a Russell/Holmes completist, you should definitely read it. Both of the threads of the story are interesting. It starts with the meeting between Russell and Holmes from Holmes' perspective and goes on to describe an incident in the timeline of The Beekeeper's Apprentice which Russell knew nothing about. So the narrative is worthwhile, it's the structure which is not entirely successful. Well, I don't think so, anyway. Many will disagree!


message 15: by Mike (new)

Mike Markel (mikemarkel) | 15 comments It's quite common to see a third-person "prologue" followed by the rest of the novel in first person. J. A. Konrath often writes in first person, with interspersed chapters about the killer in third person. I think it's more challenging for the writer to stick with the first person and figure out how to get the job done that way.


message 16: by Robert (new)

Robert Bidinotto (RobertBidinotto) | 21 comments I've seen this done by several writers with varying degrees of success. I thought Nelson DeMille did a dandy job of it in "The Lion's Game." He used first person for all the scenes with wise-cracking hero John Corey, but third person for scenes featuring Khalil, the terrorist. It establishes intimacy with the hero but keeps a bit of distance with the villain.

However, I have seen other attempts that haven't been as successful. Robert Crais has conducted such experiments, such as in "The Forgotten Man." But the technique committed what I regard as the cardinal sin in fiction: It called too much attention to itself. In Chapter 16, for example, there is a jarring shift from first-person present tense to an extended, italicized 3rd-person flashback.

To my mind, if a technique jolts the reader out of the spell of the fantasy, reminding him that he's sitting in a chair reading somebody's story, it's the wrong technique. The constant distractions of shifting first-to-third POVs can break the spell. I think it's best to avoid, but if used, to write an entire chapter from a single POV choice, as DeMille did -- not jump around within a chapter, as Crais did.


message 17: by Ezra (new)

Ezra Sidran (EzraTheTheoryOfGamescom) | 16 comments My last thriller, "The Theory of Games," didn't come together until somewhere around rewrite 15 when I put most of it in the 1st person.

As one reviewer put it, "For all that, much of the story the protagonist was strapped down to a gurney and being interrogated under drugs, the pace was unrelenting, which seems pretty unlikely but that is how it read."

So, the story bounces between 1st person (the protagonist strapped to the gurney) and 3rd person.

You can read the first chapter for free here: http://thetheoryofgames.com/ and see how it works for yourself.

The Theory of Games


message 18: by David (new)

David McGowan (Dmcgowanauthor) I wrote a scene in my debut novel in 1st person, when the rest was in 3rd person. My beta reader didn't like it, and asked me to change it to third person, which I duly did.

The customer is always right!


message 19: by Caroline (new)

Caroline | 16 comments I have mixed feelings with 1st person and 3rd person Lisa Gardner does a marvelous job of mixing the two styles seemlessly.


message 20: by Charles (new)

Charles Maerhys wrote: "I have a major bias towards third person subjective."

If you mean third person indirect (the technical term), that mode which admits interiority into simple third person, I have difficulty believing this. It's the overwhelmingly dominant voice of modern literature since James, Conrad, and Ford. It was first used consistently by Jane Austen. I must misunderstand you.

As for mixing first and third I've never heard an injunction against this, nor in writing programs, in which I go back 44 years. Again, I must misunderstand.

I would really like to know what is objected to here. A necessarily long quote would not be possible in this medium. Unfortunately I haven't read the books cited. Perhaps another, or I could go to a bookstore or the library if you would point out a problem.


message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm sure it can be/has been done successfully, but I've never read a book in which mixing first and third-close worked particularly well. It always seems either clumsy or show-offy to me (or both)--and never really necessary to the story. It's like the author's saying, "Hey, look at me! I'm playing with POV!"


message 22: by Charles (last edited Jun 21, 2012 04:57PM) (new)

Charles Jon wrote: "I'm sure it can be/has been done successfully, but I've never read a book in which mixing first and third-close worked particularly well. It always seems either clumsy or show-offy to me (or both..."

Yes, probably. When it would be required for the story would be when one of the characters has some essential information which the reader needs but which is denied the other characters. It ought to lie within the skill of the author to do this subtly, and with the nonchalance that conveys the the feeling that the shift of POV is necessary. The reader has to trust that she is in good hands and will be treated by the author with respect.

Still, there usually other solutions. Modify the plot to reduce the necessity, or find another way of getting the information out there. But so often it is some kluge solution of inventing a confidante, even more clunky than shifting POV. Of course, we need to exempt testimony from this.

One area where I would definitely condone it is where where the reader needs to be privy to several characters' emotional responses -- something impressionistic, not just a character reporting "I felt sad". These would not be one-off shifts but a cycling through -- a thoroughgoing narrative practice.

Still, for myself I would prefer to do it all in third-person indirect, moving among the major characters as required. Much less raw.


message 23: by Charles (new)

Charles Another thing (I've switched sides now). If you have a first-person narrator these days it's usually the detective, not a Watson-like chronicler. Then you switch to third person. What's happened? You have provided the reader with information the detective does not have. The author has elevated the reader to a superior position over the detective, who is supposed to be the expert here.

Compare Jackson Brodie to Easy Rawlins. Both are feeling their way. They bumble. But Easy is in charge. We never leave his consciousness. We see Jackson from outside. We do know things he doesn't. But this is important to the story. Jackson is a small, humble, beset man who nevertheless wins through and achieves a kind of heroism which we would never feel for, say, Inspector Lynley and his totally extraneous difficulties with his wife.

You-all have persuaded me to take another look at Masie Dobbs, On the first page of Birds Of a Feather a news vendor gives a description of Masie and is disabused of his assumption that she is old money. On the next page we are in Masie's consciousness and never leave it. The news vendor is a version of the tired old device of giving us a description of a character by having her look in the mirror. Having served this purpose, the newsie is heard from no more. I call this a clumsy shift in POV and rightly objectionable.


message 24: by Charles (last edited Jun 22, 2012 12:42AM) (new)

Charles Maerhys, by your objection to subjective narration I'm thinking now that you want, not something old-fashioned like a Watson-type chronicler or an author who speaks in his own voice (omniscient or otherwise) but a simple third-person narrator who moves the story forward and doesn't clutter it up with the characters' feelings. I can agree with that, because so often it is just that -- clutter.


message 25: by Afsana (new)

Afsana (afsanaz) | 178 comments i don't like it when its several different first person . changing by chaters as hard to keep track of who and what is happening


message 26: by Warren (new)

Warren Bull | 13 comments Death on Demand by Carolyn Hart is a very effective example.


message 27: by Marja (new)

Marja McGraw (Marja1) | 97 comments As I recall, Christine by Stephen King was a mix of 1st and 3rd, and it worked for him. If my memory has failed me, then forget I said anything. :) Christine by Stephen King


message 28: by Anjuthan (new)

Anjuthan (anjuthanm) My first book of that kind was 'Where are you now' by Mary Higgins Clark

Where Are You Now? by Mary Higgins Clark


message 29: by Jay (new)

Jay M. | 1 comments I wrote Hubudi in this way. It introduces the book in first person, and then chapter one starts in third. I am just now considering making the whole book third but after reading these comments I think I will leave it. I realize now, the only time the first person kicks in is when the two main characters are separated, on their own journeys. When the two are together the story is in third as not to be discriminate toward either character! Wow, and that just happened on its own! Jesus, my brain is smarter without me!


message 30: by Ken (new)

Ken Pelham (KenPelham) | 88 comments Interesting topic. I wrote most of the characters in my novel, BRIGANDS KEY, in third person, including most of the scenes for Charley, an 18-year old misfit. But I also had Charley doing a blog, so a good chunk of his story is in first-person. Seemed to work well that way.


message 31: by June (new)

June (junie732) | 103 comments Am I mistaken, but doesn't James Patterson do it often?


message 32: by Owen (new)

Owen Banner (owenbanner) Yep, I was going to say that Patterson's Cat and Mouse is written in first person for Alex Cross and third for the villain. What would really throw you off would be a novel written in first for the villain and third for the hero. I would like to see someone take on that challenge.


message 33: by J.R. (new)

J.R. Stewart (JimRStewart) | 8 comments Mark wrote: "I'm about half way through "We All Fall Down," the new mystery-thriller from Michael Harvey. I loved "The Chicago Way" and I'm enjoying this, too. One thing that strikes me is the combination of f..."

James Lee Burke uses first- and third-person in his Robicheaux series. He's a master at it. The interesting part of his technique is that Dave is still the narrator in the third-person sections. He just doesn't use "I" and is a bit more omniscient. I think it's brilliant and gives a deeper insight into the characters whose stories are being told, away from Dave's POV.


message 34: by James (new)

James Jackson (JamesMJackson) | 10 comments My first novel was essentially a play-fair mystery where the reader and protagonist know all the same things. I wrote it using first person.

My second novel is more of a suspense rather than a play-fair mystery. The continuing protagonist is still first person. The other POV characters are in third person. They do provide information to the reader that the protagonist does not (yet) have as well as providing multiple perspectives on the same events. Further, some POV characters may be more or less reliable than others.

Neither the publisher nor the editor considered this approach a sign of sloppy or weak writing - and there is no dirt worshiping going on that I am aware of.

For me, the question is whether the way the story is told pulls me from the story. If so, then the technique is flawed; if not, then what's the issue?

~ Jim


message 35: by Kathe (new)

Kathe | 6 comments totally agree...


message 36: by Kathe (new)

Kathe | 6 comments Paul Harvey was a surprising happenstance find.,,am always hoping for a new one..:)


message 37: by J.R. (new)

J.R. Stewart (JimRStewart) | 8 comments Jeremy wrote: "I dislike this tremendously. I think it is a sign of very sloppy or weak writing. Any good editor would have made the writer turn the first person chapters into the third close POV, unless you ar..."

"Sloppy" and "weak" are two words I would not associate with Mr. Burke. We all have clay feet, but perception from knowledge is valuable; perception from dogma, not so much.


message 38: by Michael (last edited Aug 17, 2013 09:00AM) (new)

Michael Allan Scott (MAllanScott) For me, wearing either hat, as a mystery writer/mystery reader, it's more about the flow, the continuity. First person has unique traits that aren't easily communicated with third person. Both first & third have merit, and when skillfully done, work well together. As a writer, I find it exceedingly boring to write only in a linear, third person, past tense format when there is such a wide array of tools available. Could be readers need to up their game.


message 39: by J.R. (new)

J.R. Stewart (JimRStewart) | 8 comments Michael wrote: "For me, wearing either hat, as a mystery writer/mystery reader, it's more about the flow, the continuity. First person has unique traits that aren't easily communicated with third person. Both fi..."

Yes, I think you're correct. The bottom line is that if it works, it works and if it doesn't, it doesn't. The reader makes that ultimate choice. It is subjective by definition. As both a writer and reader, the craft brings joy to me. If I am happy with the craft of it and it doesn't work for a reader, I'm okay with that. Moving back and forth between first and third is interesting and challenging. At the end of the day, that's worth its weight in ivory towers.


message 40: by Michael (new)

Michael Allan Scott (MAllanScott) Jim wrote: "Michael wrote: "For me, wearing either hat, as a mystery writer/mystery reader, it's more about the flow, the continuity. First person has unique traits that aren't easily communicated with third ..."
I most heartily agree, good sir. Damn the torpedos!


message 41: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Coffey | 1 comments Faulkner wrote "As I Lay Dying" using fifteen different first person narrators, so anything is possible. Try it and see if it works.


message 42: by J.R. (new)

J.R. Stewart (JimRStewart) | 8 comments Faulkner was a wonderful lunatic. I love those stories about he and Shelby Foote and Percy Walker driving county to county looking for a bottle. Old Bill did, indeed, show us that anything is possible. What most of us lack is the genius to pull it off.


message 43: by J.R. (new)

J.R. Stewart (JimRStewart) | 8 comments J.B. wrote: "I recently wrote an urban fantasy action adventure that started out as first person, but evolved into a mix of first and third person as the storyline diverged after chapter three. The only set rul..."
I think that's a good path to follow. In my current project, I'm keeping the third person in individual chapters. It's allowing me to develop character away from my protagonist's point of view.


message 44: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 30733 comments Life Sentences by Laura Lippman was the second book I've read by her that combines first and third person narratives. I think she does it very well.


message 45: by Eduardo (new)

Eduardo Suastegui (esuastegui) I don't mean to be controversial, but... I typically disdain the mixture of third and first person. It feels jolting every time you hit a chapter marker (where the switch typically happens). If your story needs multiple POVs, write that first person part in third, and get way inside that character's head, bring out her voice, whatever you have to do. It's not as easy or organic as when you can do it all in first person, but with hard work and editing, the author can portray just about everything a first person POV offers. And BTW, there are some creative ways to bring in a different POV while writing 100% in first person. It's hard, and it shouldn't be over-used, but I did it in Pink Ballerina and I think it worked.

Eduardo Suastegui
Story-telling that captures the heart.


message 46: by Joyce (last edited Jun 05, 2014 11:38PM) (new)

Joyce Yarrow | 43 comments As a reader and as a writer, I enjoy the 'interior monologue' technique because it enables the writer to fully explore a character without switching to first person POV. This is an established technique, sometimes called 'stream of consciousness' as first used by Henry James in Portrait of a Lady.

Interior monologues often appear in italics :)


message 47: by James (new)

James Hannibal (jamesrhannibal) I side with the "the only rule is that there are no rules" camp. If the writer can pull it off, the mix of first and third person makes for a great story flow. If not, then the reviews will likely show it. Brian Sanderson mixes the two effectively in his Mistborn trilogy Mistborn Trilogy Boxed Set. He uses the first person as a preamble to each chapter, telling a separate story that threads the main story together. In that instance, I think it comes off beautifully.


message 48: by Joyce (new)

Joyce Yarrow | 43 comments Owen wrote: "Yep, I was going to say that Patterson's Cat and Mouse is written in first person for Alex Cross and third for the villain. What would really throw you off would be a novel written in first for the..."

Interesting comment, Owen. Ruth Rendell's psychological mysteries often take us deeply into the antagonist's point of view - although she may or may not use the 'first person' device it doesn't matter... we know her villains just as well as we know her heroes.


message 49: by [deleted user] (new)

HI - I just found this group - I'm working on my first novel and really stuck on what POV I want to use. It's important to me that people really get inside my main character's head, but there are things going on outside her purview that the reader needs to know about. I very much want to use both - and as one commenter above mentioned, I am keeping one POV per chapter.

What other things do you all think makes it work or not work? One of the things I'm struggling with now is the first chapter with 3rd person POV - it feels a little stilted when I start reading that chapter...

I'm thinking about just not worrying about it until I've finished the first draft completely, then making a decision as to what I want to do - 1st, 3rd, or both.

Any suggestions/comments?


message 50: by Quillracer (new)

Quillracer | 981 comments Loring, I've found in my writing that if I really want to get inside a character's head, I have better luck writing the scene or chapter in 1st person.

Then, if the scene or chapter needs to be in 3rd person, I go back and make the appropriate changes to proper names, pronouns, and verb forms.


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