Monday, January 17, 2011

Me or You? Part, Two, Mixing First and Third POVs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Q: Can you mix first and third POVs?

Short answer: Sure.

Long answer: Like everything else in writing, it's all in how you do it. Kathleen Duey's Skin Hunger mixed first and third with great success, as does Roland Smith's I.Q. series. But I've read books that didn't mix them so well and made an utter mess of the story. Every POV switch was painful, there was no reason for them, and it just yanked me right out of the tale.

Mixing POV styles can be jarring to the reader without a good reason to do it. In Skin Hunger, the POVs are set 500 years apart, and the present day POV is in first person, while the past is in third. The more detached third person works well thematically with the distant story of the past. In the I.Q. series, the third person POV is snippets of the bad guys, so seeing them from a more distant perspective also worked thematically.

First and third mixed in the same time frame with two major POV characters doesn't always work so well, however, because there's often no reason for it to occur. It's done just to be different, or because you want to be able to show something your protag can't know and this is an easy way to do it.

If the reasons behind the POV mix are sound and serve the storytelling, go for it. If not, I'd suggest picking one and sticking with it. Mixing them is tough to do well, so unless it's the best thing for the story, you might be better off with one style.


  1. Looks like an expert thing to do. I don't dare to do it >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  2. The mixed approach felt natural for my current WIP so I'm going for it in draft one. I figure I can always adjust later if it doesn't turn out. Part of the fun of writing is trying new things! Doesn't mean they all have to see the light of day, lol.

    Great post! Thanks!

  3. Janice, I write the strands separately, switching back and forth as one stalls, incorporating the effect of what I have just written in one timeline--into the other one. Mine is a sliding timeline, too--the stories will be concurrent by the middle of book three, which I am writing now and YES, I look forward to that day!

    So, yeah. It is kind of dizzying, but it is also REALLY interesting. A first/third dual voiced short story would work as a warm up, Cold as Heaven, if you wanted to fiddle with it and see if you like it. And yes, Deborah,one of the great joys of writing is that delete key.

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  5. Oops - type-O in previous comment...

    I am debating whether to switch up my ms to mixed POV in my 4th rewrite. In first person, I’m having a difficult time linking present (or really, immediate past), with long past and the two main characters who are separated… Hard to explain, but perhaps playing around with a scene or two will give me an idea. Thanks you for this excellent post - and all the other instructional posts on this blog - all very helpful!

  6. Thanks for your ideas, Janice.
    In "U is for Undertow" Sue Grafton moves seamlessly from 1st to 3rd person POV with same and mixed time frames. When I go that route, I plan to use her novel as a guide.

  7. Cold as Heaven: Bah, you won't know if you don't try. Worse case it doesn't work, but you might surprise yourself. You learn by doing :) Give it a go!

    Deborah: Exactly! And if it feels right, it probably is. I've learned to trust my writer's instinct.

    Kathleen: Thanks so much for stopping by. I'm also eagerly looking forward to your book three :) That's interesting that you write them separately, but it makes perfect sense.

    Roberta: Playing around is a great way to see if something works. I've written scenes a bunch of different ways doing that. You really don't lose anything by trying it.

    Gail: Thanks for another example. There are books out there that do this very well, so it clearly can be done ;)

  8. Timely post. :-)

    I did some mixing under the same conditions as your example. I did wind up backing off from a tense change, though.

  9. Thanks for the post. Answers my questions. I will stick to two third person POVs, for now anyway.

  10. Katrina: And I believe I'm reading those conditions as we speak, lol.

    Cat: Glad I could help. Good luck with that project :)

  11. Interesting. I'm more comfortable writing in first person right now, and I've been feeling good about my current WIP being in first person, but suddenly, some things have come up that are important to the storyline, but my main character doesn't see. I finally just wrote up one of those scenes in third person, and am considering changing the entire story to third. I might play with it a bit and see what happens if I try to combine the pieces somehow...

  12. Totally play. You never know what's going to click for you. I avoided first person for so long, then found out it was my style. I never would have discovered that if I hadn't just jumped in and tried it.

  13. So timely. I have four POV characters in a novel set in past and present eras. I had written my MC (present era) in first person, the other POV characters (paranormal movement between centuries) in third. I hadn't given it too much thought - I've written comfortably in first person in short story format - but last weekend I made the switch to all third person (thank the heavens for Scrivener - the find and replace all was relatively painless).

    I did so on the advice of an author (35 novels) during a writing workshop, taking into consideration the genres, audience and style of my novel. I realized I was injecting too much of ME into my first person MC and limiting her perspective, in a way. The author helped me to see how my MC can be a very close third person, but that consistency would strengthen this particular story.

    It was a strange switch, but it made an immediate and positive difference.

    I love playing, taking the risks, experimenting. I think I'm most comfortable in first person, but this time I allowed the story to tell me what to do!

    Great post, Janice- thank you.

  14. Chalkthesun, great story! Kudos to you for trying something new. I'm a first person fan myself, and that was I risk I took years ago :) Good luck with the story!

  15. Hey Janice! I'm thinking about doing a first & third for my romance novel. First for the heroine and third for the hero & antagonist. I'll do 2 scenes per chapter (first hers & then his) with the little squiggly mark or hashtag between them. I'm planning on giving the antagonist his own chapter for the pinch points. What do you think?

    1. Sure. I've seen first and third done before (Although it's YA, Kathleen Duey's Skin Hunger series does it very well).

      Be cautious about the antagonist POV though. If they're only there during pinch scenes it might not be enough to get a feel for them, or it might give too much away and hurt your tension. Major turning points are the emotional highs of the story, so you might lose more than you gain if that's happening in a non-protagonist POV.

      You might try one and get some betas to read it for you and see how it affects the tension. If it's working, go for it. If not, just stick to your other two POVs.