Monday, September 29, 2014

Through Whose Eyes?

By Lisabet Sarai

When the police colonel walked into my bar, I knew it was a bad sign. I was pretty sure that I was up-to-date on protection money. I knew the documents proving that all my girls were over eighteen were stowed in my safe, and I'd done a drug check only yesterday, but I couldn't help worrying.

Police Colonel Apichat wasn't a bad sort. He was always polite, both to me and to my girls, when he came by to pick up the monthly envelope of cash. Occasionally, he'd even accept my offer of a drink. He'd sit at the bar, nursing a Chang beer, hungry eyes surveying the dancers as though he wanted to devour them.

I'd send over two of my prettiest employees to try and cheer him up, but with all their teasing and flirting, he rarely smiled.

That night, though, he looked even more serious than usual. And he was not alone. Behind his wiry, dark-skinned frame I saw the crewcut bulk of his lieutenant, Narongchai. The girls called him Kwai, buffalo, though he reminded me more of a gorilla.

I hurried over to Apichat, and gave him respectful wai. "Colonel, this in an unexpected pleasure. Please come inside. Can I offer you and your companion a drink?"

"Thank you, Madame," he said in English. He always speaks English to me, even though he knows that I'm fluent in Thai. "We are on duty. In any case, we come to tell you the terrible news."

Terrible news? Was the government on another morality and social order campaign?

~ Bangkok Noir. First person, past tense

Three years since I last saw him, and now his plane is late. I perch on the edge of the chair across from the American Airlines desk where he told me to meet him, tension winding me tighter with every moment.

It’s always like this. My chest aches. It’s difficult to breathe. My nipples are as taut and swollen as if he already had them wrapped in elastic bands. I try not to be distracted by the stickiness between my bare thighs. I glance at the arrivals screen. His flight has just landed. Ten minutes, fifteen at most, before I can expect him. I fill my lungs deliberately and try to slow my racing pulse.

I hover between joy and terror. It has been so long, too long. What will he think of me, the strands of gray in my hair, the new wrinkles? What will he ask of me? Will I be able to give him what he needs? I remember other reunions, too few, too short. No time for more than a few kisses, a few playful swats on my bared butt. I remember lying on his lap in Golden Gate Park, my skirt flipped up around my waist. I can precisely recreate my shame and my excitement. I recall slouching down in the front seat of his car in a dark, sweltering parking garage, while he unbuttoned my blouse and dabbled his fingers in my cunt, naming me as his slut. A few hours every few years is all we manage, a country and my marriage separating us even as our history and our fantasies draws us together.

~ Reunion. First person, present tense

She's glad to be his slave. She's just not too crazy about being his housekeeper and maid, at least not these days.

When they first moved in together, he used to make her strip before she vacuumed the carpets or washed the floors. He'd watch her, sitting in the wing-backed chair that they bought together at the garage sale, as she strutted around in her collar and high heels, pushing the mop in front of her.

"Arch your back," he'd order. "Stick out your butt."

She'd struggle to keep her balance as she obeyed, her pussy liquefying as it always did at the sound of his voice. She could feel his eyes on her buttocks like a physical caress. He wouldn't miss the signs, the flush on her face, the taut nipples, the musky scent that wafted through the apartment. When he was paying attention, his powers of observation were astounding. Not to mention his powers of seduction.

~ Domestic Goddess. Third person, limited, present tense.

Kit couldn't concentrate. She tried to force her mind back to the list of enzymatic cofactors scrolling by on her screen, but her thoughts kept evading the task, slipping away to her damned annoying neighbor. Well, not to him, exactly, but to his hands and his tongue and the things he did with them.

She closed her eyes, rubbing her temples against the first twinges of a headache. She saw kaleidoscopic lights, smelled cinnamon, cannabis and male sweat. She felt the soft fur of his beard brushing over her bare pubis. A bolt of electricity shot through her, leaving her damp and breathless in its wake. Damn, damn, damn.

"Kit? Kit!" Jill was shaking her. Kit blinked stupidly at her friend. "Where were you, girl?"

"Oh, um, I was just working on the bilateral polymerization reaction. Trying to visualize how the radicals would align. What's up?"

"Lunch time. Want to come with me to the caf for a quick bite?"

"Um, I don't think so. Thought I'd go home for lunch. I left some notes there, and it's such a beautiful day. I could do with a walk." Kit couldn't meet Jill's eyes. There were no notes.

~ Chemistry. Third person, limited, past tense.

Once upon a time, in an old port city north of the capital where the clippers used to flit in and out of the bay like giant butterflies, there were three witches. Well, only two of them knew they were witches, at least at the start of the story.

Marguerite, who counted Portuguese traders and African shamans among her ancestors, sported a frenzy of lustrous black hair and was partial to silk. She had inherited a rambling clapboard house that perched on the hill overlooking Western Harbor, which she had filled with ancient Chinese porcelain, Colonial silver, Hindu carvings of entwined gods, and bright tribal hangings woven from alpaca wool or mulberry bark. She had no regular employment. Once or twice a year, shed invite the public into her museum-like abode, to sell a few artifacts with which shed became bored and scout out people who might be worth collecting.

Beryl hailed from generations of Boston Irish, as one might guess from her fiery curls and milk-white, freckle-dusted complexion. She ran an antiquarian bookstore on Main Street, on one of the few blocks that had not yet succumbed to chain drugstores and tacky souvenir shops, and lived in a bungalow at the end of one of the Necks tiny lanes. With her tie-dyed dresses, dangling earrings and hand-made sandals, she fit perfectly into the artistscolony. Her talents, however, lay in realms other than painting and sculpture.

Over their years together, Marguerite and Beryl had been responsible for much unexpected good fortune and not a little mischief. The townspeople didnt realize how much of the citys special qualitiesthe invigorating crispness of the breeze, on even the hottest daysthe crystalline sparkle of sunlight on the wavesthe welcoming sense of history that pervaded the narrow streetswas the work of their resident witches. However, duality limited the womens power. They were well aware that they needed a third to complete their circle and perfect their occult abilities. However, you cant simply conjure a witch into existence. You must wait for her to appear on her own.

~ The Witches of Gloucester (WIP). Third person omniscient, past tense.

"Which would you prefer, Sarah, the cane or the feather duster?"

"Is that a trick question?"

"Why do you ask? Don't you trust me?"

"Of course I do. But you do have a way of twisting things around in unexpected directions."

"I thought you liked surprises. In any case, as your Master it's my responsibility to add a certain - ambiguity - to our interactions. To keep you on your toes."

"These ridiculous spike heels do that well enough."

"If I hear any more complaints or excuses, Sarah, I will make you very sorry. And I don't mean something you'd enjoy like a spanking or nipple clamps."


"Sarah! Just answer my question. Now."

"Well... I choose the cane."

"Really? Why is that? You're blushing, you know. Tell me why you prefer the cane."

"Well - um - I think it will hurt more. And that it will please you more, to see me enduring that pain."

"But I asked what you wanted. Not what you think I'd want."

~ Trick or Treat. Third person omniscient? Present tense.

Close your eyes. Let your breathing slow and deepen. Feel the blood waking your bare skin. The moonlight teases, silvery silk against your eyelids. Don't give in. The dark is what you need, not the moon's caress.

Can you feel my breath, warm against your neck? Or is it only the autumn breeze drifting in your window? You sense my presence, but you are as always a skeptic. My lips hover above the pulse at your throat. You could swear you feel the heat, the vibration, the waves my fingers stir in the air as I trail them down the length of you.

~ Offering. Second person, present tense.

We make our choices, often blindly. Then we live with the consequences.

It's your fiftieth birthday, I'm half a world away, and married to someone else. I honestly don't know which is the bigger obstacle. No, scratch that. If today's experiment is successful, the distance will mean nothing.

I want to help you celebrate. To give you something special. Romantic and cynic that you are, I want to prove to you my enduring devotion, across time and space. I want to give back to you some of the magic you've shared with me.

~Limbo. Second person?? present tense.

For the next two weeks here at the Grip, we’ll be talking about perspective and point of view. As illustrated by the snippets above, I’ve experimented with a variety of different perspectives. Although strictly speaking, tense is not a part of the POV question, I tend to consider the two elements together because they interact. Together they combine to produce different feelings or voices. Suppose, for instance, that I’d decided to write my short story “Chemistry” in the present tense:

Kit can't concentrate. She tries to force her mind back to the list of enzymatic cofactors scrolling by on her screen, but her thoughts keep evading the task, slipping away to her damned annoying neighbor. Well, not to him, exactly, but to his hands and his tongue and the things he did with them.

She closes her eyes, rubbing her temples against the first twinges of a headache. She sees kaleidoscopic lights, smells cinnamon, cannabis and male sweat. She feels the soft fur of his beard brushing over her bare pubis. A bolt of electricity shoots through her, leaving her damp and breathless in its wake. Damn, damn, damn.

To me, these paragraphs feel more immediate, more driven by emotion and sensation, than the original. When you write in the present, even adopting a third person POV, you tend to pull your reader more into the action.

Switch to the first person and the sensations really jump out at you. You’re there with the narrator, feeling every sensation.

I can't concentrate. I try to force my mind back to the list of enzymatic cofactors scrolling by on my screen, but my thoughts keep evading the task, slipping away to my damned annoying neighbor. Well, not to him, exactly, but to his hands and his tongue and the things he did with them.

I close my eyes, rubbing my temples against the first twinges of a headache. I see kaleidoscopic lights, smell cinnamon, cannabis and male sweat. I feels the soft fur of his beard brushing over my bare pubis. A bolt of electricity shoots through me, leaving me damp and breathless in its wake. Damn, damn, damn.

So why didn’t I use the first person, present tense for this story in the first place? For one thing, the it didn’t fit with my character, Kit. She’s a workaholic, used to denying or ignoring her physical and emotional needs. The distancing effects of the third person past made it possible for me to reveal truths to her and to the reader simultaneously. I find that when my characters conscious and unconscious lives diverge, I often choose third person.

On the other hand, most of the time I actually don’t make a choice at all. A particular story “wants” to be written from a specific POV and in a specific tense. I have a sense of the sort of feeling that should accompany the story, its tone, before I write the first paragraph, and I begin to write in the POV and tense that best captures that feeling.

Occasionally, when I’m having trouble with a story, I will realize that the POV is the problem and I’ll switch from first to third, or vice versa. At least 90% of the time, though, I stick with what feels right at the start.

I find that the first person works particularly well for erotica, because of its intensity and immediacy. And despite its technical difficulties, I’m very partial to first person present. Two of my novels (Exposure and Nasty Business, both, alas, currently out of print) use that combination of POV and tense. In fact, Nasty Business alternates among three narrators, all speaking in the first person present,

What do I mean by technical difficulties? When you’re writing present tense, it’s hard to deal with time gaps. This may not be a serious issue for short stories, which often unfold over a period of hours, but most novels cover a longer span. In a first person present narration, you and the reader are inside the character’s head, watching events together as they occur. On the other hand, not every event is relevant to the plot. If you were to describe every moment of the character’s day - brushing her teeth, doing her laundry, walking to the bus stop, riding the bus, climbing the stairs to her office – the book would be incredibly boring. So somehow you need to skip over unnecessary details, without requiring that the character spend too much time unconscious! This is a definite challenge.

Still, I do love that combination. Probably 70% of my erotic work is first person present. In fact, sometimes I deliberately seek out stories to tell using other POVs and tenses, just to introduce some diversity into my literary voice. The witches story above is a good example. I’m putting together a lesbian collection and I thought I needed something very different from my other stories.

Of course, markets sometimes influence the choice of POV. When I first started writing erotic romance, my publisher frowned on using first person. Being a good sub and wanting to please, I adapted. The years seem to have somewhat eroded this prejudice against first person, however. I’ve read first person romance by a number of authors, and gone back to writing it occasionally myself. On the other hand, there’s a genre convention for alternating perspectives between different characters, at least in longer romance works. As noted above, this is easier to do in third person.

Some editors really hate first person. And don’t try to sell a story written in the second person! I’m not sure why, but many erotica editors will toss out a second person story without even reading it. I suspect that this reaction derives from the fact that so many amateur erotic fantasies are written in this mode.

You enter the room where you’ve shackled me to the wall, almost noiseless in your bare feet, but I know you’re there. The blindfold ensures that I can’t see you, but I smell your sweat and that evergreen cologne that drives me crazy. As you rummage in the toy box, I try to identify the implements you’re extracting by their sound.

I’ve heard many complaints about this style. “Why is the author telling ‘you’ what is going on, when the ‘you’ already knows?” I can see the point, but in some situations, the technique can be effective. For one thing, it emphasizes the separation between “I” and “you”.

Of course, this is not exactly second person POV. Similarly, my story “Limbo”, excerpted above, is mostly first person present, but the other main character is referred to as “you” rather than “he”. A true second person tale would not include any “I”. In fact, I’m not sure what that would look like. I doubt that second person would be sustainable over a long work. However, I could be wrong.

And what about the third person “omnisicent” point of view? This was common a hundred years ago, but rarer now. How does this differ from alternating third person limited? I guess the distinction is based on what is revealed. In an omniscient POV, the author possesses and shares information not available to the characters.

I could say more, but I’ve already run on longer than I intended, so I’ll shut up. I will leave further explorations to my august fellow contributors.

However you look at it, though, this is an important craft issue. Through whose eyes will your story be seen? Change the answer and you fundamentally change the story.


  1. I'm very glad to see you differentiating between the things sometimes lumped together as "second person." What you're calling the "true second person" occasionally shows up, I believe, as an Audacious Literary Technique. I think it was used in Bright Lights, Big City.

    Then there's what I'll call the rhetorical "you," which I suppose is not really second-person at all, but rather a sort of a literary extension of expressions like "you never know," in which "you" is used instead of the more formal "one." I love this passage in a parody called "Purple Bits of Hemingway," by a humorist named Richard Mallett (found in a 1951 collection called Literary Upshots):

    The wind blew in from the west, we there and feeling it, Will not there and not feeling it. In fact, nobody who was not there feeling it. Pretty soon we saw Will coming back. He was walking with his head down, coming fast, so you could not see his face, it hidden and down so you could not see it. You could not see how he looked. I mean it was hard to see what he looked like, with his head down that way. I don't know how I got this you stuff mixed in with the I and we stuff I began this paragraph with. I can generally keep them apart. That's technique.

    1. Now that's a paragraph that blows all the distinctions to bits, Jeremy!

      I think I use the "rhetorical you" in the witches excerpt. "You can't simply conjure a witch into existence."

  2. Oh, and then there's that other second-person style seen, I suppose, in some erotica (and in Choose Your Own Adventure books?): it's all told to "you," but with no corresponding "I" (i.e., the narrator is not a character). It would read similarly to "true second person," but the intended effect would presumably be more directly to engage the reader in a fantasy that things are happening to him or her—as opposed to the Audacious Literary Technique Version, in which more artistic distance between the reader and "you," the protagonist, is probably maintained.

    1. Can you give me an example of the "audacious literary technique" version of 2nd person?

    2. Interesting! Thank you.

      I think this works, in this situation. However, I imagine your typical romance publisher would run away screaming.

  3. Lisabet:
    Thank you for the wonderful illustrations. The distinctions and the fact that you have published in them shows your mastery of the tools of the trade.

    1. Spencer, cut the crap! ;^)

      If I were a "master" wouldn't I be selling more books?

  4. I think different tenses and persons are useful for specific purposes.

    Third person limited in past tense: Good for keeping the focus on the story; gives a broader perspective.

    Third person limited in present tense: Keeps the focus narrow; good for a short, plot-heavy story with lots of action, but often gets tiring in a longer story.

    First person: Excellent if your narrator has a very distinctive voice (an interesting dialect or sense of humour) or if you want to use an unreliable narrator. I don't care for it unless the narrator has an engaging voice (whereas third person can be written in a bland, non-distinctive style and still be enjoyable, as long as the plot and characterization are good).

    First person present tense: From the books I've read, this seems really difficult to do well. The problems crop up whenever the author needs to insert some backstory. Very tough to keep that narrow, present focus and still reveal necessary information that's outside that moment.

    Second person: I really don't have anything good to say about second person.

    Lisabet, I would consider your examples of second person to be written in first person. The way I hear it, there is a first person narrator addressing another character. For me, true second person is what was used in The Bride Stripped Bare. It's like third person, but uses 'you' instead of 'he.' Like this:

    1. Oops! I forgot omniscient. Omniscient is really a whole lot like first person, except that the narrator isn't part of the story. He/she is telling a story about other people. It's a good choice if your narrator has a very compelling, distinctive voice (like 1st person) and if gives you more control over what gets revealed where (kind of like an unreliable narrator) unlike limited third, which needs to closely follow the experience of the viewpoint character. With omniscient, you don't usually get deep into the heads of one character at a time, but rather hear about them in a more removed way.

      Omniscient is not going to work for me unless I can hear that storyteller's voice and feel like I'm being told a story by a specific someone.

    2. I'm with Sybil. I think of second person as being from the viewpoint of "you" with no "I" narrating it. Which, of course, makes it feel that much more awkward. Tempted to try, though...

      Abd Sybil, it looks like you meant to paste in an example, but I don't see it there.

    3. Omniscient works well for fairy tale approach or if the author can create a cracker barrel storytelling experience, but otherwise is often too removed to bring much immediacy to an erotic work. Of course, rules are there to be fooled with, and the best writers can pull virtually anything off. Pun intended.

      On the other hand, first person, especially present tense, although well-geared to erotica, seems to work better in shorter works. Perhaps the immediacy we're shooting for is hard to sustain, for both reader and writer. And then, again there's that thing about the best writers.

      But as Lisabet says-

      On the other hand, most of the time I actually don’t make a choice at all. A particular story “wants” to be written from a specific POV and in a specific tense. I have a sense of the sort of feeling that should accompany the story, its tone, before I write the first paragraph, and I begin to write in the POV and tense that best captures that feeling.

      Occasionally, when I’m having trouble with a story, I will realize that the POV is the problem and I’ll switch from first to third, or vice versa. At least 90% of the time, though, I stick with what feels right at the start.

      Yes- When a story "comes to me", it's often formatted as to tense, pov, etc. Even the delivery seems to hinge on those first few sentences that establish all to follow. The few times I have tried trading pov's, or tense, the first draft was what I finally went with. Plus it's a load of work, considering there's more being changed than simple tense or pov. Subtle traces of the previous version may linger.

    4. Hi Sacchi, I was referring to this book:

      I found the use of second person gimmicky and annoying.

    5. Sybil, you're right. First person present IS difficult to do well. However, for some reason I often find it the most natural voice for my work.

  5. Hi Lisabet!

    Getting to this late, sorry.

    As you know I like different viewpoints, i think the rule I've always struggled with is the one that says you can only have one view per story. I think itsmore interesting, that kind of Rashomon effect when we can move them around. Its part of the toolbox of language available to us.

    Funny about that editor though. I don't know why she was so old fashioned about what views to use.


    1. I don't think "one view per story" is any kind of rule. The "rule" is more like, "don't switch from one view to the other too often, or without giving a signal". I've written lots of stories with multiple POV characters. In a 4-5K story, this often doesn't work well, but I've got many in the 10-15K range (or beyond) with alternating viewpoints.

      This is *very* common in romance.

    2. There is a bias against omniscient, I would say—editors often don't want more than one view per scene (it's called "head-hopping" a lot of times). But as Lisabet says, alternating viewpoints seems nearly required with longer works of romance.

    3. I think maybe the key to rendering an omniscient POV per se—distinct from both careless "head-hopping" and skilled transitioning from one character's limited POV to a different character's limited POV—is to establish the narrator's superior perspective at the outset. That is, right from the start it's clear that the narrator understands things about the characters that they don't have the perspective to understand about themselves—or at least would not use the sorts of language the narrator does to express. The effect might often be old-fashioned and, specifically, patronizing (e.g., a highly educated, "wise" narrator, just possibly a surrogate for the author, looking down on the "ordinary" people who populate his [or her, but most likely his] story) . . . but I bet a masterful author could update the technique so as to shed some of these features; and I can see how it might be a good match indeed for a fairy-tale-style work.

    4. In fact, come to think of it, I'm sure I've seen the contemporary equivalent of this sort of thing. To simulate:

      Tim Ellington was a fool—a truth that was obvious to everybody but Tim himself. In fact, if you were to ask Tim whether or not he was a fool, his response would be not only negative in the sense of not affirmative, but also negative in the sense of hostile. Fortunately, no one ever had the need to ask.

      As he went through the papers on his desk on the first Tuesday in March, Tim felt the warm glow of what his colleagues would have correctly termed misplaced pride. He reflected cheerfully on an assortment of happy accidents that he classified as accomplishments . . . little knowing what the day had in store for him.

    5. P.S. You saw my dig above ("most likely his") at the White Male Canon, with their smug and condescending narratorial postures. But here's a question: Did the great female novelists of the nineteenth century do omniscient in a less supercilious fashion than their male counterparts?

    6. That sounds like a challenge, Jeremy.

      I think I've read omniscient narrators who had a sense of sympathy for their characters. Actually, just remembered an example in something I read recently, John Le Carre's Little Drummer Girl. It flips from the head of one character to another, knowing things the characters do not - but you can feel that the author/"narrator" appreciates the moral ambivalence in each of them.

  6. Lisabet, thanks as always for the excellent (and comprehensive!) introduction. Like you, I usually get my tense and POV from the ether. I've sometimes set out to write a certain POV deliberately, but mostly it seems packaged with the idea.

    I recently wrote a story in 3rd person omniscient, and it felt so very weird! It was a fairy tale, but I didn't realize what I was doing at first. When I figured out what was going on, I realized that was an appropriate POV for a fairy tale, but it certainly felt strange. I'm trained out of ever writing that way for the most part.

    1. Mostly fairy tales do seem to want omnisicent. I haven't written many, but for an example, see Cat's Eye (free on my website). I don't think I'm very good at omniscient because I want to be deep down there, wallowing with my characters.


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