From First to Third

Since publishing my first mystery in 1993, my preferred point of view has always been third person. In the Mellingham/Chief Joe Silva series I used multiple points of view, and in the Anita Ray series and later the Felicity O’Brien series I used only one. All were third person. But a few years ago I wanted to try first person, and started a stand-alone. After numerous rewrites I had something my agent liked, and out it went to editors, where it has died a pandemic death of neglect.

While I’ve been waiting for responses I’ve had time to think about all the parts of the story I couldn’t tell because I’d committed myself to first person and one main character. I had no interest in adding other points of view in either first or third, but the initially quiet moments of dissatisfaction at what I’d left out grew and I wondered what it would have been like to write the story in third person. Immediately I was reminded of why I liked that particular voice—for the intimacy and also the flexibility it allowed me as the narrator. And that did it. I decided to rewrite the mystery in third person.

Over the years I’ve heard plenty of writers groan about an editor’s or agent’s suggestion that they rewrite the entire book from first to third (or third to first), always with the reminder drumming in their brain that this means more than changing “I” to “she” (or “she” to “I”), along with all the other pronouns as well as correcting the verbs. But the thought of what I could also do prodded me forward and I began. The first discovery was the opening. I needed a different opening, and once I began that I could feel the difference in how the story would unfold.

One of the reasons I’ve avoided first person for so many years comes down to the voice. Too many of the voices in crime fiction seem flip, sarcastic, chip-on-the-shoulder tough, the teenage swagger, a voice that doesn’t sound authentic to me and one I didn’t want to imitate. The strongest people I know are also the gentlest, and that was something I couldn’t seem to capture in first person, at least to my satisfaction. Now that I’ve moved back to third person I feel the other characters opening up, and exploring them more has given the story new dimensions that I’m eager to learn and write about.

In some parts of the novel I’m rewriting an entire chapter—the same plot steps but rewritten line by line. I’ve added new scenes and chapters, but in other instances all I’m doing is changing pronouns and verbs or crossing out entire paragraphs or scenes.

When I began the rewrite I thought about how much work it would be, but still I was curious. I wondered if I’d get bored or frustrated reworking a story whose characters and details I already knew too well. But once I got into a new perspective on the main character, much of the story began to feel new to me (and much of it is new to me). I’m energized every morning as I sit down to work. The characters and plot are the same, but this mystery unfolds like an entirely new experience. For once I’m not cursing the pandemic; it has given me the time to rethink and rewrite a story I care deeply about and want to see succeed. And when this is rewrite is done, I want the pandemic to be over so my new novel can go out into the world and be read by others.

16 thoughts on “From First to Third

  1. My first published novel was written in first person and it worked ok because the main character was on stage in every scene and the mystery unfolded through her eyes. But when I wrote Secrets of the Galapagos, I chose third person because a lot of the story took place while my heroine was off stage. But early beta readers pointed out some POV slips. In my third draft, I switched to first person in the scenes when my heroine is present and left the rest in third person. It was a great exercise which helped me to focus POV and find my heroine’s voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sharon, I haven’t tried mixing POVs in a novel but it is an interesting idea. Writing the entire novel in first person taught me a lot about what a character can and cannot do in that POV, and in general I found it both frustrating and liberating but not enough to stay with it entirely. I’m glad I’ve made the switch, but, as we all know, there are no guarantees in this business. We’ll see what happens.

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  2. Sounds like a massive project … at first blush, but it also seems like you’re getting it done one step at a time. Good luck.

    I enjoy experimenting in all sorts of ways. I wrote my third novel entirely in dialogue (other than a prologue, which I’d written for the second one, but forgot to put in there), and my fourth was all in present tense.

    When someone challenged me to write erotica instead of my usual thriller genre, I took on a female pen name, Dallas Dalyce, and wrote that in first person. (It;s doing ten times as well as all my thrillers combined; hmm.)

    Now that I’m writing short stories, I do some in first and some in third, and a couple so far just as an internal monologue with memories.

    At my old age (74), it’s fun to play around.

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    1. Jake, the rewrite is going more easily and more successfully than I first expected it would. I agree that as writers we should always be willing to experiment, to try new genres, POVs, plots, and main characters. A novel written entirely in dialogue is another challenge that awaits me, so I may try a short story first. Short fiction really is one of the best genres for experimentation. I have used them to discover a new series character, explore setting, and more. I haven’t tried erotica yet and probably won’t, but I’m thinking about scifi and more paranormal.

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  3. Your post resonates with me, as well. I started my current work in progress in first person, but after several chapters, I switched to third. I still have a deep POV character, and every scene revolves around her, but I’m not as restricted, and I don’t have to worry about too many “I’s.”

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    1. Sara, you hit on exactly my feelings–too many I’s and the POV (third) that gives me a single deep perspective but with less of a sense of restriction. After writing the entire ms in first person, I can better appreciate how different all of us are as individual writers.

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  4. This was interesting, Susan, because I began a novel in first person POV and my critique group convinced me to switch it to 3rd person. That unfinished novel sits awaiting me. When I go back to it, I plan to return to 1st person because what I lost was that sarcastic and edgy voice of the main character. I couldn’t frame it properly in 3rd person.

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    1. Claire, This switching between first and third is so interesting for all of us. We know which one is right for us. I wanted to learn how to write first person so I was willing to work at it page after page, but even as I did so, I knew in my heart that this just wasn’t the best way for me to tell a story. I hope you have time to rework the ms to your satisfaction.

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  5. Susan, this is interesting to me. I wrote my first mystery, years ago, in first person because Sue Grafton’s books had captured me and I wanted to write books like that. I loved my character and how the book played out. I sent it to an agent who told me first person mysteries didn’t sell. I was, but Sue Grafton did. But I rewrote it in third and that book still sits in a box. Every once in a while I dust it off and wonder if I should rework it, but it was written in the early 90s and so much has changed since then. My protagonist was using a book, How to be Your Own Detective, to find out who killed the woman her ex had been accused of murdering. It was fun to write, but now it would seem foolish for a woman to use a book when there is so much out there in the internet world to use. Great post!

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    1. Paty, the ups and downs with your first mystery must have been very frustrating and disappointing. It’s too soon to tell if I’m on the right track or not, but I’m enjoying the process and the discoveries. I love the idea of your protagonist following a book on how to be a detective to solve a crime. That could be truly hilarious. I too think about the books I have written that haven’t sold, and they sit in the closet gathering dust. I don’t expect to do anything with them. That’s another post.

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  6. Hi Susan,

    I’m planning to blog on a discussion of narration viewpoint myself next week. So yours is very interesting to me. My YA novels are written from a first person viewpoint but my mysteries are third person which seems to fit better–unless you’re doing the unreliable narrator which is popular at present.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jacquie, the first-person POV was quite a struggle for me and even though I felt I’d succeeded, it left me dissatisfied. I’m very pleased with how the change to third person is going along, so the lesson for me is clear. I haven’t been drawn to the unreliable narrator yet, but perhaps some day . . . I look forward to reading your discussion of viewpoint.

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  7. Thanks, Leslie. Finding the right voice is a challenge and can take longer than we expect, but it’s worth the effort. Making this change has been enlightening and definitely worthwhile, giving me many more opportunities to tell parts of the story. This will be a different book when it’s finished. I enjoyed Kathryn’s voice in your new series and look forward to hearing more from her.

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  8. Hi, Susan, thanks for your thoughtful discussion of third person narration versus first person. I smiled when I read your description of how first person narrators sound to you–flip, sarcastic, etc.– because that’s how the first person narrator of my living history mysteries, Miranda Lewis, sometimes sounds.
    When I decided to replace Miranda with a different main character in the novel that became Rattlesnake Hill, I initially kept the first person voice for my new protagonist, but when I realized she sounded too much like Miranda, I switched to third person, and found Kathryn’s voice. Which is simply to say that what you wrote really speaks to me and my experience. Best of luck with the new novel in third person!

    Liked by 2 people

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