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Editing Corner: Why did the chicken cross the road?

by | Oct 11, 2017 | Editing Corner, General | 16 comments

A: To get a new Point of View

You are in a dungeon. You look around. You see implements of torture on the walls, floggers, thumbscrews, other stuff you don’t even recognise. Except the stains; you have a good idea what those stains might me.

You hear a noise behind you…

Second person POV is definitely an acquired taste. Beloved by RPGers (that’s Role-Playing Gamers, not Rocket Propelled Grenadiers—what the fuck’s wrong with you?) but hated almost universally by everyone else, you probably won’t see any traditionally published Second Person fiction outside of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Q: ‘Second Person’; that’s a fancy way of saying a story about ‘you’, isn’t it?

A: Yep. First Person Point of View (POV) narrates from the point of view of “I”, “me”, and “we”. Second Person is “you”. Third person is “he”, “she”, and “they”.

Q: Why do people like to hate on Second Person so much? Wouldn’t it be easier to pretend you’re the main character?

A: A reasonable question coming from RPGers, who are used to it and don’t understand the fuss. Some people say they don’t like being told what they would do in a situation, but for most of us, it just feels weird because we’re not used to it. We focus our attention on the weirdness and can’t get into the story. Since genre fiction is all about the immersion, anything weird, anything abnormal that pulls you out of the moment, is a bad thing.

Define “Normal”

Most fiction is written in Third Person.

Gemima stepped into the dungeon. Her heels clacked on the cobbled floor and echoed eerily off stone walls, where the sconces cast a flickering light over an array of floggers and thumbscrews. What are those stains? A shiver ran down her spine. This was not something Bradley had ever mentioned in his emails.

Third Person is normal—the POV, that is—the content can be disturbingly abnormal.

Third Person is the ‘vanilla’ of genre fiction. Does that make it boring? Anything but! Vanilla lets you highlight all the other flavours in the bowl—the tang of the raspberries, the bitterness of the dark chocolate shavings. If I might mix a metaphor, third person gets its fat ass out of the way and lets your fiction strut its stuff.

A well written third person story will give more readers the best chance to enjoy your story. If you want to crank out fiction that people will read, write in the third person. People like it. As an author, you could do a lot worse than having people read your stuff.

Gimme a double-scoop of Chunky Hoboken Caramel-Cumquat Swirl

I like vanilla. You like vanilla. But we don’t always want vanilla, right? Sometimes I’ll order a scoop of bubblegum-ripple. It’s been years since I’ve had that stuff… and then I remember why. Blah! Not everything’s as bad as bubblegum-ripple though. There’s lots of other flavours you might enjoy for a change, you just don’t want them every day. As an author, you don’t always want to write third person. You want to try something more exciting, just for a change.

Choosing the right narrative device to compliment your story can lift it to the next level. Like lamb with rosemary, cheese with wine, PB&J. How do you do that safely, though, without creating a flavour only a snot-faced, colour blind, eight-year-old sugar addict would eat? You don’t want to be that dork who thought the Vegemite-Nutella sandwich would be the next big thing.

We already know to avoid writing in the second person, so don’t go there. What’s left? Well the choices are endless. Just sticking with third-person, you can mix it up with omniscient voice, narrative distance, or switching perspective. Bored yet? Well then, my young-adult dystopian-futured friend, step through into the self-indulgent world of first person POV, and I’ll show you present tense, secondary character perspective, epistolary novels and unreliable narrators.

Feel like you’ve just walked into a Japanese Baskin Robbins where all the labels are written in Kanji?

Don’t worry. I’m here to help. I present for your perspective-clarifying pleasure:

Belinda’s Genre Fiction Non-Standard Perspective Ready-Reckoner

Popular Third Person Perspectives

Third Person Limited
Flavour Vanilla
Example    The chicken crossed the road to see what was on the other side.
Use it All the time. Really, I shit you not, it never gets old.
Beware Too much narrative summary and not enough active scenes. Give us some dialogue to keep it fresh.
  
Close Third Person Limited
Flavour Chunky Choc-chip Vanilla
Example Jake tapped his beak on the asphalt. Hmm, this is new. I wonder what’s over there. He was an adventurous bird. Flicking his comb to a rakish angle on the left-hand side, he took his first step towards a new beginning, towards pastures greener. Jake was on his way to the other side.
Use it Blended with regular Third Person Limited, zooming in to Close Third for intensely emotional scenes.
Beware Too many of those rich, chunky choc-chips will make you sick. Back off every few pages.
  
  Omniscient Voice
Flavour Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Jelly Beans (or Wonka Everlasting Gobstopper for you pre-Millennials)
Example Jake had never seen a road. He knew not of its potential, nor its dangers, so there was no way he could have predicted his fate when he stepped blindly onto its dull black surface.
Use it  Rarely. No longer popular in fiction. Well suited to fairy tales.
Beware Lapsing into distant Third Person. Use the God-like ability to see things your characters can’t possibly know, including the future.
 
Switching Third Person
Flavour One scoop of Chocolate, one of Vanilla
Example

Jake had often looked beyond the black strip that bordered his chicken run. It didn’t look any different over there, but how could he know for sure? He stepped closer. He flicked his tail feathers, summoning his courage.


Pricilla looked up from her pecking, a fat worm dangling from her beak. She heard the growling engine. Too late, she spied Jake’s plump, gold and black plumage as her true love stepped onto the roadway. “J-a-a-a-a-k-e!” The worm fell. Tires squealed. Pricilla took to wing, beating up a whirlwind of dust. But there was nothing she could do. The meaty thump and the cloud of feathers showering the yard would haunt her for the rest of her days.

 Use it  In novels. Follow secondary characters through sub-plots. Show us the antagonist scheming in his lair. Switching to another character’s perspective is a great way to cover more ground.
 Beware Head-hopping. Stick with a single perspective for an entire chapter or section, otherwise you risk disorienting your reader.
 

Popular First Person Perspectives

 First Person Past Tense
Flavour Strawberry (you enjoyed it a lot more when you were young)
Example I strutted up to the road and looked across. It didn’t seem so different from my side, but I was a sucker for an adventure. I couldn’t wait to see Pricilla later—she’d lay a square egg if she knew I was going to the other side. I took my first step.
Use it Just like Close Third Person. Works well in erotica because it’s a very intimate style.
Beware Many readers dislike it. Especially Romance readers because it’s unbalanced towards a single character.
 
First Person Present Tense
Flavour Nutella Cookie Dough
Example I strut up to the road and look across. Pricilla is behind me, still pecking away—I haven’t told what I have planned. A strange, growling sound fills my senses. Perhaps it’s the other side calling me. I step out…
Use it Popular at the moment in Young Adult fiction; it’s edgy and well-accepted by the hipster crowd, and has a very immediate feel that works well with building tension. Lisabet Sarai switches masterfully between First Present and flashbacks of First Past in her story Underground, a suspenseful erotic thriller in ERWA’s premier Paranormal Anthology, Unearthly Delights.
Beware Using it just because it’s hip. Don’t be your grandmother wearing high-waisted short-shorts; not everyone can pull off the latest fashion.
 
Epistolary (like a diary, or letter)
Flavour Rum raisin (an acquired taste)
Example Dear Pricilla. I hope this message finds you well, my dear. I’m writing to you from the other side. I regret leaving without saying goodbye, but I hope and pray that in a few weeks I shall collect enough worms to sustain my return, and we can be together once more.
Use it Writing daily diary entries can be an effective way to add immediacy to first person while remaining in past tense. Stephen King does it very well in “Survivor Type” and “The End of the Whole Mess”, where he writes in First Person Past Tense and still manages to kill the narrator.
Beware It’s a device—use it for a good reason. If the story can be told just as effectively in Third Person Past Tense, then use that instead.
 
First Person – Secondary Character
Flavour A lick of whatever you’re having, please
Example I’d told Jake to watch out for the roadway, but did he listen? There he was again, scratching up the gravel and blunting his beak against the asphalt. I squawked. “Watch out for cars, pecker-head.” Adrenaline junkie. He was going to be insufferable when he got back from the other side.
Beware Sherlock Holmes is plot-driven fiction—Holmes never develops as a character. Secondary Character perspective is a challenge for character-driven fiction because it is harder to show the main character’s development.
 
First Person – Unreliable Narrator
Flavour Chocolate Surprise (Surprise! It’s not chocolate)
Use it With unlikeable main characters, like serial killers. The narrative is coloured by their skewed world-view. They’re inclined to lie and embellish to make the narrative suit their purposes.
 

Unpopular Perspectives

Future Tense
Flavour Squid ink sorbet
Example The chicken will cross the road and will get to the other side unless he gets hit by a truck.
Use it Don’t. Jesus, what were you thinking?
 
Third Person Present Tense
Flavour Liquorice (sure, they stock it, but nobody buys it)
Example Jake scratches at the gravel and sets one foot on the black asphalt. He steps out. He’s doing it! He walks to the other side.
Use it Early learning books. This is Spot. See Spot run. Run Spot, run.
Beware The popularity of First Person Present does NOT translate to Third Person Present. The ‘-s’ English verb endings grate on my ear. There’s simply no good reason to use it.
 
Second Person Present Tense
Flavour The taste of Yourself (for kinky contortionists and Ron Jeremy)
Use it Strictly for Choose Your Own Adventure.
Beware Every author has one Second Person story in them because the challenge of the impossible is irresistible. But for pity’s sake, keep it in the Present Tense. Nobody wants to be told what they’ve already done.

 

Why cross the road at all?

You write in the Third Person Past. Your readers read and enjoy Third Person Past. It’s a simple formula that mainstream popular authors have mastered, because handled competently, it sells books.

By all means, try other perspectives to stretch yourself. They’re fun and sometimes produce an amazing result. They won’t all be Sherlock Holmes or Hunger Games, though, so brace yourself for disappointment.


In the comments below, let me know:

  1. your favourite book written in a non-standard perspective, and,
  2. your favourite weird ice cream flavour.

For bonus points, answer in the gender neutral, indefinite third person 🙂 It’ll look trippy for the slackers who just scroll to the comments.

My answer: One enjoys a single scoop of Blood Orange Sorbet when reading Stephen King’s epistolary short story, “Survivor Type” (one still can’t hear the term “lady fingers” without getting chills).

About the Author Belinda LaPage

Belinda LaPage lives and works in Sydney, Australia. Writing is a labour of love for her, but the life of a tortured artist is not, so for now it is simply a part time affair, and a pathway to affording more of the wrong shoes. She enjoys the Sydney beaches, time with friends, and spending lunch time in a café sneakily writing erotica in the midst of strangers.

16 Comments

  1. It is said that the mysterious Tig likes to indulge in a scoop or two of peanut butter and black chocolate ice cream while perusing the first-person-past&present memoirs of Jerome K Jerome. Hats off also to the peculiar blend of first and third person in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; that chick loves to blend her rum-raisin, chocolate and vanilla…

    A thoroughly entertaining post… Ioved it! And no, I won’t attempt future tense. Or second-person. Even my 8-y-o son gets annoyed with second-person. “You shudder,” he reads aloud, and then protests, “no I bloody don’t! It takes more than that to make me shudder.”

    Reply
  2. Yeah, Mary Shelley, you go girl. And 20-21yo when she wrote Frankenstein. Coulda done it sooner with pb and black chocolate. (wtf black? Lookin that up)

    Thanks Sam.

    Reply
    • Black chocolate – 80% cocoa and above 🙂

      Reply
  3. “The Shack,” the creature explained as it emerged from the floor. “A delightful tale told in 3rd person presumably by a neighbor character who appears for a few scenes. I’ve watched the movie but I have not made it through the book. in its entirety.”

    And my favorite ice-cream…squid ink… long live anime…

    Reply
    • cool! I didn’t know anime was futuristic, though. I learn something new every day!

      Reply
    • Ah, the ol’ secondary character perspective. I can’t go past AC Doyle’s Dr Watson relaying the adventures of the great detective. Good to see others giving the little guy a go.

      Reply
  4. I’m not going to even try to meet your challenge–I don’t have your creativity–but this is an absolutely amazing post.

    I find I often don’t consciously choose my story POV. It comes with the story, dictated by my feelings about the characters. I have, however, written a couple of entire novels in alternating first person present. Very difficult to pull off!

    As for ice cream, pistachio and/or green tea.

    Reply
    • Oh, there is one variant you didn’t mention. First and second together. Very popular with novice erotica authors:

      “You enter the room like a shadow, like mist, so quiet I don’t know you’re with me until your lips brush the tips of my erect nipples. Even blindfolded, I don’t hear your cat-like steps. The whoosh of the flogger slicing through air is clear, though, sending prickles up my spine in the instant before the leather kisses my thighs with fire.”

      Reply
      • OOo, yeah, there’s a good reason I didn’t mention it. Gives me the shivers. It’s got a stalkerish vibe, I reckon.

        I’ll call it Roofie-Liqueur Swirl

        Interesting you describe it as blending first and second, because some people describe it as a simple first person that includes the reader as a character, just not the POV character.

        I like your description better because I find these stories do a lot of (unintentional) head-hopping, attributing thoughts and motivations to the ‘you’ character.

        Reply
  5. As Splog reclined naked on a deckchair designed for much smaller creatures, the marmite and mussel-flavoured iced lolly dribbled onto the genital area, causing the first-person, present-tense copy of Irvine Welsh’s Filth to fly into the air.

    Great post, Belinda.
    Reminded me of a joke…
    Why did the pervert cross the road?
    Because his dick was still in the chicken!!

    Reply
    • Is there anything that *doesn’t* remind you of a perverted joke, Delores? 🙂

      Marmite and mussels? Eww, I just had breakfast. Thanks for that.

      And some non -YA first person present. Very nicely selected.

      Reply
  6. Tremendous post, Belinda! Such imaginative delivery and examples that really… well… exemplify.

    In “The Women”, a fictionalized account of Frank Lloyd Wright’s four wives, T. C. Boyle uses a minor/composite character as first person narrator in Tadashi who plays a small role as a narrator/acolyte. It could be an awkward dynamic if Boyle wasn’t the master he is.

    I’m afraid I don’t indulge much in exotic ice cream flavors, but my faves are Butter Pecan, Coffee, and Caramel Almond Crunch

    Reply
    • >>and examples that really… well… exemplify.

      Exemplary! Thank you, Daddy X.

      >> Boyle uses a minor/composite character as first person narrator in Tadashi who plays a small role as a narrator/acolyte

      Yes, there’s a name for the technique where the first person narrator isn’t a character, but I can’t recall ir. I came across it researching this blog, but excluded it because it was getting a bit long, and I’d used up my best jokes.

      Butter Pecan. Mmmm. Now I want some.

      Reply
  7. Terrific, humourous post, Belinda. I will, of course, not remember any of the details of what POV and tense is what other than first, second and third, past and present. Anything more complex than that and my brain kind of makes the same sound as the electric element on my stove made the week before last as it shorted out and fried itself, leaving me to hastily turn off the power to it and blowing out the pesky little fire that ensued (just some old splatter burning off).

    I don’t pay much attention to the POV in which I write. It comes to me in the first sentence because it feels right for the story and that’s it. Other than the example in the next paragraph, I’ve never consciously chosen a POV. If the opening line of the story comes to me in first, that’s how it stays; the same happens with third.

    I did write and post a second person POV story in Storytime some years ago. It was called “Seconds,” (a triple word play on the POV, content, and style). I wrote it in response to one of the writers on the list saying flat out that all second person stories suck. I wrote it to prove that wasn’t true, and I succeeded. It was a good story. (It could have used some editing, but otherwise, it was well-received.) The point is that as much as second person is not normally used by normal writers, it can work. I had nothing to lose, of course. Not as if I write to publish and and make money. And I have a tendency to be a tad strong-willed, maybe a bit stubborn, a rather contrary person who rises to the challenge when someone says something cannot or should not be done. It always bugs me when people want to make rules for me about creativity (or other things, for that matter: “Don’t do this because I don’t like it.” Well, tough, because I’m not doing this for you, I’m doing it for me and if I like it, maybe someone else will like it, too, but if they don’t… oh, well…not the end of the world). I know that doesn’t work for “serious” writers who aim to be published and make a career, or a second career, out writing.

    In any case, I totally enjoyed your delivery of the explanations of POV. Jake the chicken will forever be etched in my mind. His story can be written in so many ways, with an original take on his life (and possibly his death) each time.

    As for ice cream, my general favourite is butter pecan, but my favourite ice creams were any that my late, great husband used to bring home from WAGS (West Addison General Store) after a weekend at the drop zone, made by a local Vermont dairy, Wilcox’s. All their flavours are to die for and they don’t contain any crap that the big commercial ice creams do. I miss their ice cream because it isn’t sold just anywhere and I don’t make it out to West Addison much, but it’s just as well, else I’d be as big as my house and probably diabetic by now.

    Rose 😉

    Reply
    • Ah yes, I think I mentioned every author has one second-person story in them. If you were *that* contrary, you could prove me wrong and write another. 🙂

      Another Butter Pecan. Must be an American thing. I haven’t seen it Down Under, but now I’m desperate to try it.

      Reply
      • Actually, the butter pecan thing started long before I moved to the States. It must have been a Canadian thing. It’s always been my favourite flavour. Love that juxtaposition of textures…creamy and a crunchy, but the crunchy isn’t really a “crisp” crunchy. It’s a unique crunchy texture. Love biting into those big chunks of pecan halves.

        As for a second second-person story in me, well, I’m not sure I have ANY stories left in me. I was re-reading “Seconds” today, just because it came up in the conversation, and as I was reading it, I was thinking, “This really is good” (and I was also as aroused by it as I originally was when I was writing it), but I was also thinking, “Where the hell did this actually come from? I couldn’t write this now to save my life.” I guess, sometimes, it all just goes away and I have to face the reality that it may never come back. In which case, perhaps I’ll binge on butter pecan ice cream… if I can find some real homemade stuff. Maybe I should learn to make my own. If I can’t write anymore, there’s always something else I can do. Not the end of the world.

        Reply

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