Friday, August 5, 2011

Busted!—Andre Dubus III Caught Adding a Late Entering POV

Authors can get away with breaking almost any writing rule if they do it artfully, intentionally, and without pulling the reader from the fictive dream. Today I bust Andre Dubus III for breaking his own rule—to wonderful effect—in his novel The House of Sand and Fog.

At the outset of his book, Dubus sets this rule: the story will be told in alternating first person accounts limited to Behrani, an Iranian colonel who lost his money and stature in his native Iran and must start over in the United States, and Kathy, an alcoholic house cleaner. The two come together by administrative error when Kathy’s house goes up for sheriff’s sale for unpaid taxes, and Behrani purchases it for a song. The colonel is thrilled to provide a home for his family with his meager resources; Kathy is devastated to lose her inheritance and only connection to her deceased father.

Here are the points of view Dubus adopts to tell his tale, pulled from each character’s first words:

First page
The fat one, the radish Torez, he calls me Camel because I am Persian and because I can bear this August sun longer than the Chinese and the Panamanians and even the little Vietnamese Tran.

Page 34
My husband got to miss all this, that’s what I keep thinking, that he didn’t have to be around for any of this, and I was stuck at the El Rancho Motel in San Bruno.

Page 221
It was dark now, and Lester had been sitting on the fish camp’s porch for over two hours. The fog was thick in the trees, and it made the black woods around the cabin appear to be under a milky water. He could still smell the maple he’d cut, split, and stacked, and twice he heard a car go by…
Wait—who’s that final POV, why is it third person, and how does he get away with adding it on page 221?

The first-person accounts allow the reader to empathize with both characters as Dubus deepens conflict born of presumption and cultural misunderstanding. Yet two-thirds of the way through his novel, he also wants to dig deeper into the character of Lester Burdon, the married deputy sheriff who’s fallen for Kathy and is trying to help her get her house back. Lester’s backstory arrives at this conclusion:
Lester began to feel as inauthentic a man as was possible, living in a marriage he no longer felt, working as a law enforcer when he’d never been able to face any man down on his own, to serve or protect anyone without the San Mateo County Sheriff’s department behind him.
The added characterization allowed through Lester’s POV proves critical to the tragedy now heating up.

How does Dubus get away with it?
1. He raises questions the reader wants answers to. Lester’s third person POV enters so late it jarred me at first. I accepted it, however, because Dubus had already driven his primary characters deep into the heart of the conflict. I wanted to know how this would play out. And since Lester had already pulled off some pretty shady stunts on Kathy’s behalf, I was eager to learn why a law enforcer might act that way.

2. He tweaks his story’s structure to accommodate a rule change. He didn’t throw his POV rule out the window; he modified it, and indicated this with a section break. The addition of Lester’s perspective allows Part II a more prismatic look at the final, tense build toward the climax.

3. He uses third person POV to subtly underscore meaning. Lester got involved where he didn’t belong—he wasn’t even part of the original conflict—and now look what happens.

Rookie authors are best off mastering the rules before starting to break them. But if you must break rules—do it well, like Andres Dubus III.

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. I just finished a book that flipped POVs from first person present (I go to the store and buy noodles) to first person past tense (I hated being gone while Mom was dying) and noticed that 1st POV present gives the writer a LOT of license with narrative - because it feels like dialogue and the protagonist is talking directly to you. Lots of stream-of-consciousness, so it seemed even more like friendly chat. I'm still debating whether this technique works for me as the reader. I'm not sure how I'd feel about your scenario. I guess it depends on whether the "jarring" was for good reason.

  2. Dani, I know what you mean. I was jarred, no doubt about it. But I tolerated it, and in thinking it over, I believe he did just the right thing.

    Interesting point about the license from a first person present perspective. I'll have to watch for that.

  3. I think the point about knowing the rules and making sure you know how to break them and not jar the reader out of the story is important enough to be repeated often. I have discovered POV shifts in books that I am reading for a second time, and I missed the shift the first time. Perhaps because I was so caught up in the people and the story, I didn't notice the shift.

  4. Maryann: People often ask me if being an editor ruins the experience of getting lost in a good book. Your comment proves that we can still do it! But our sensitivities to being jarred from the story do sharpen.

  5. I use multiple points of view in my writing. Most of my betas didn't even notice until I pointed it out to them. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I have very clear scene breaks when I switch points of view so it doesn't appear that I'm making an amateurish mistake. At least, that's what I hope it looks like....

  6. Scooter: Of course I can't say without seeing your work, but I think that's good news! If the POV changes jarred the reader in a problematic way it would have kicked them right out of the story. They might have continued reading, out of devotion, but I feel certain they would have noted it.

    I would have, that is. I'm aware that some critiquers won't note issues they can't find a fix for. Good luck with your book!

  7. Goes to show, for every rule, there's a good way to break it if you know how to do it right.

    Morgan Mandel

  8. I did this in my newest book, The Arranger. Told in alternating POVs of the protagonist and antagonist, I added a chapter at the two-thirds point from the detective's POV to give some background information. Only one of my beta readers commented on the late-breaking POV. I think most readers are pretty flexible if the story is compelling.

  9. That's an interesting parallel, LJ. And you hit the nail on the head: "...if the story is compelling."


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