Point of View: A Technique
Most point of view Nazis believe that unless you’re using an omniscient POV, you shall not under pain of death, switch from one third person limited POV to another within one particular scene. That’s the rule. And woe be to the writer who dares switch from first to third person just about any time, but especially in the middle of a scene. Hell and damnation awaits.
Being a crotchety, nonconformist, I make a point of breaking rules. Here’s a scene from my novel in progress, Thunderhead. In it, Harkness visits Roberta Conroy, the wife of a triple murderer.
Shadows from Twelve Mile Table had just reached the boundaries of the Conroy Ranch as I drove up the dirt road to the ranch house. I figured Roberta had probably heard my truck and I waited until she rounded the corner from the backside of the barn.
“Afternoon Sheriff.” She held a pry bar in her right hand. An orange-blond collie pup pranced behind her. Addison hopped through the open passenger side window and scampered up to the pup. The Coach had murdered her last dog.
“Howdy Roberta,” I said.
“You get that wiener dog fixed yet?” Aunt Effie would have called Roberta big-boned, not fat, just a big woman with a lot of meat. She’d helped me when her husband went on a murderous rampage.
“That pup looks a little too young to bear a litter.” The two dogs wrestled in the dust.
“Some men never think a woman’s too young.”
“Fair enough. Place looks good.”
She nodded. “Building a chicken coop. You like to see it?”
She led me to the far side of the barn where she worked on framing out a small coop, six feet by 8. “Not the best,” she said. “I’m still learning how to hammer a nail.”
“Right fine job in my opinion.” I rubbed my hand along the smooth two by four stud. The sawdust stuck to my fingers. The fresh lumber smelled sweet. “I can’t hammer a nail straight if my life depends on it.”
“Good thing you’re a straight shooter, then. Hand me my hammer.”
“Good thing.” I gave it to her and she used it to nail in a vertical stud in three swift, hard strokes. Finished, she handed it back and used a level to check her work.
“You’ll need a rooster to get them hens to lay proper,” I said. I wondered how a good strong, silent woman like her had ended up with a knucklehead like the Coach. Even after he tried to kill me, I instinctively trusted her.
“Darrell down at the Feed and Seed is giving me a deal on a rooster and six laying hens. Once they’re set, I’ll grow more hens from the chicks.” She nodded as if satisfied with the plumb of the stud. She motioned for the hammer again and I handed it to her.
Roberta hammered in the last nail, the shock of the blows tingling her palm. Perfect, she thought. Why did he come out here? What does he want from me? Not sex, I’ll never lie with another man. He knows that.
“What are you going to do with all them eggs?” he said. His face was drawn, cheeks hollowed as if the burden he carried was too much.
“Money’s tight without the Coach’s paycheck. The Independent Market buys eggs for a dime a dozen.”
“There’s jobs in town.” Tippie, her new collie, scooted out into the field. Addison looked up at Harkness and he said, “Go.” The dachshund scampered after her.
“No one will hire a murderer’s wife,” Roberta said. An old anger simmered in her chest.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder to the west, away from Twelve Mile Table. “Something’s stirring. Something I can’t handle alone. You’re someone I can trust. The county will pay you something. Not much, but something for your trouble.”
He trusts me. Roberta felt pride overshadowing the anger. “The money isn’t important. I’ll do what I can.”
“Good. You still have that cache of arms your husband had hid away.”
“What’s left of them after your tussle up on the Table.”
“Keep them safe. We may need ‘em. Someone will contact you soon.”
He whistled for his dog, said his good-byes. She stood in front of her barn and watched as he drove down the lane, dust kicking up behind his pickup. There’s danger about and he turns to me. Fancy that. She had to smile.
Back in the early 80s, I attended a writer’s workshop at the Haystack Program for the Arts in Cannon Beach, Oregon (alas now defunct). The instructor was a salty old fart named Jack Cady who taught writing at Pacific Lutheran. Salty or not, the guy could write. He told us about a technique for changing POV within a scene. It entailed having one POV character hand an item to another character. Shortly later, the second character hands it back. Eventually, there’s a third handoff and with it, the POV changes from the original person to the second person along with the possession of the item. Clear as mud? He explained it much better.
While working on my new novel, I thought I’d try it out Jack probably didn’t mean for some dummy (ahem) to swap from a first person POV to a third, but hey, it’s an experiment. To see this technique in the hands of the master, check out Jack’s collection of shorts, Burning and Other Stores published by the University of Iowa Press. It’s long out of print and not available on e-readers, but you can find it used for a reasonable price. Go ahead and read a real book for a change. It’ll do you good.