Third is always my first choice
First person viewpoint (I did this. I experienced that.) appears to be an appealing choice for a suspense writer. It’s familiar and intimate because it’s the way we all tell each other our ordinary personal stories every day. It seems to be an easy way to grab reader attention and hold it.
But there are major inherent drawbacks.
Telling a story from the protagonist’s point of view is severely limiting. The protagonist can’t know, for example, what the villain is up to or what any other character in the story is privately thinking or doing.
To overcome that problem, a popular technique among writers of late is to switch the point of view back and forth, chapter to chapter, from first person whenever the protagonist is on stage to third person when other characters are on. But that introduces an even thornier problem, because every point of view shift can’t help but jar the reader, no matter how skillfully done. At every such shift the writer must work to once again draw the reader back into the story while the writer backs out of the story, where we writers always belong.
First person risks making the protagonist appear egotistical. We’ve all heard people dominating conversations, going on and on about themselves, bragging about their personal prowess and their great accomplishments. It’s distasteful.
First person is also highly improbable. Which of us can remember in detail everything we did on a given day a week or a month ago? Try it yourself. What did you have for lunch three days ago? What exactly did people say to you and what did you say to them? Tough to do, isn’t it? Yet first person narration asks the reader to believe a protagonist can do just that, remember everything that happened in a story over sometimes long spans of time with precise detail down to what was for lunch or what people said verbatim. It’s unlikely at best.
Also, we faintly distrust personal narratives, knowing instinctively that people tend to embellish and exaggerate and bend the truth just a wee bit, because don’t we sometimes do that ourselves? This is a subtlety, yet it’s there in the back of a reader’s mind.
But the most serious damage first person does is to diminish the overall aura of suspense we writers strive so hard to create. If a protagonist is talking to the reader, she or he obviously has survived to tell the tale, so the story ordeal can not have been all that serious, and the reader is aware of this on some level. (Everybody knows the last line of the story cannot possibly be, “And then I died.”)
So what can you gain from using third person viewpoint (He did this. She experienced that.) instead of first person throughout a work of suspense fiction?
Third person automatically carries the weight of truth, of authority, because it’s the way parents and teachers and preachers and newscasters and writers have long presented factual information and stories of all kinds to us. It is immediately more believable, and sticking to it avoids jarring the reader.
We can use the third person voice to heap praise on our protagonist, either in straight narration or through our other characters, with no risk of displaying egotism.
We can effectively use cutaways in third person to build suspense, moving easily from looking over the protagonist’s shoulder on this side of town to probing the innermost dark recesses of the villain’s mind on the other side of town. As the story builds we can shorten the cutaways, along with our other tricks, to heighten the suspense. And it’s always a thrill for the reader to know something dangerous the protagonist does not, such as an armed killer approaching our unsuspecting hero from out of the night behind him.
Any time we want to get right inside a character’s mind, we can simply use italics, like this:
Jack spun to see a tall figure in the alleyway shadows. A figure raising an arm. A glint of moonlight on steel.
Dammit, my gun’s in the car, was all Jack had time to think. He . . .
That’s every bit as intimate and dramatic as relating such a scene in first person would be, and it carries the added suspenseful benefit of serious uncertainty. We want the reader to be thinking, Will Jack survive this encounter?
With a touch of skill, third person will accomplish anything first person can, and considerably more besides.
Third person is my first choice of viewpoint every time.
Monday, April 28, 2014
Monday, April 21, 2014
The magic number (or, There are no two-sided triangles)
What’s the most magical number of all?
It’s the humble number three. No contest.
Let’s think about it. Get ready, get set, and go: How many strikes are there in baseball? How many judges in a tribunal or governors in a triumverate? How many sides or angles or lustful lovers in a triangle? How many Olympic medalist winners in each sport category? How many branches in American government? How many prongs on a trident? Wheels on a tricycle? Claws on a tridactyl? Dimensions in an IMAX Schwarzeneggar bust-’em-up flick? Top-placing horses in a trifecta? Divine entities in Christianity? Shiny leaves on poison ivy? Fingers on Disney cartoon characters like Micky and Minnie and Daffy? Swordsmen in the Musketeers? Oxygen atoms in trioxide or sulphur atoms in trisulfide? Legs on a tripod? Lines in a poetic triplet? Panels in an ancient triptych? Banks of perspiring rowers on a Roman trireme? Feet on a trivet? Hulls on a trimaran? Vocalists in a trio singing notes in a musical triad? Horns on a triceratops? Novels in a trilogy like my John Hardin tales? Chlorine atoms in a molecule of trichlorophenoxyacetic acid?
How many colors make up the flags of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Senegal, Taiwan, Thailand, Mali, Panama, Lithuania, Norway, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and many others?
In crime solving, cops size up suspects according to motive, means, and opportunity.
Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
* * *
What is the mysterious magic in this lowly number three, and how can we put it to work in our writing to help us win fame, fortune, and immortality?
Well, three is often practically and optimally functional, of course. Three compass bearings from different locations work perfectly to triangulate a position. Three points are the minimum to provide solid support for something like a tripod or a trivet or a kiddie trike. To reach majority decisions with no possibility of a deadlock, three officials or judges or governors is the minimum number required.
But I think there’s another and much simpler reason for three’s popularity. And that is, two is just too few and four is just one too many. Two strikes in baseball would seem not to give a batter a fair chance or the pitcher a decent challenge, but four strikes would somehow be more than any player worth his spikes deserves.
In an uncountable number of fictional stories, the protagonist tries twice to vanquish the foe or climb the cliff or subdue the repulsive alien creatures, only to fail. Trying merely once before achieving success would just be too easy. Having to try more than twice before succeeding could begin to look a little foolish or inept. Only on the third attempt does—and somehow should—the hero or heroine win through.
And that’s an effective secret formula that might as well serve you and me in our writing, too, because the magic of three has not even begun to wear out.
It likely never will.
Monday, April 14, 2014
Shed that complexity complex
In the steaming jungles of Central America, flowers of the plant Mucuna holtonii have evolved an elegant waxy configuration that reflects sound waves, thus allowing Glossophaga commissari, a tiny winged mammal with a body the size of the average human thumb, to echolocate said unique flowers, even in total darkness, and thus to extract the nectar within, in exchange for which the animal gratefully pollinates the plant.
Actually, not being all that sophisticated, the Glossophaga commissari simply call themselves bats, and all they really give a damn about is getting high on that nectar.
If you don’t want your readers dozing off, don’t be overly exhaustive in your writing. I try to remember that age-old but still excellent advice: KISS.
Elmore Leonard was a master of simplicity and clarity in both dialog and narration, and that helped win him high praise and wide readership. His powerful fiction is worth studying.
Monday, April 7, 2014
That’s Megan Garber’s phrase in her wry Atlantic piece on excessive use of exclamation points, question marks, and capitalizations of entire phrases, all viral these days in cyber-communicating.
I am hereby launching a crusade to wipe out promiscuous punctuation.
If you’re one of the addicted guilty, at least try eliminating from your writing one exclamation point each day, until you’re eventually (maybe even within a month or two) no longer exclamatory but are expository once again, as the gods and my old long-suffering high school English teacher, Ms. Smith, intended us to be.
Let’s give the power back to our wonderfully expressive language itself, rather than to its mere punctuation. Of course, this will require some actual old-fashioned thinking. And ready access to an old-fashioned dictionary and perhaps even to one of those nearly-extinct thesauruses.
While we’re attempting to kick inane addictions, let’s also resolve to stomp out cliché acronyms (OMG!?!, LOL!) and the rampant saccharine use of cutesy punctu-art doodles such as those sideways smiley and winkey faces. And please, please let’s banish the word like from our vocabularies forever.
I understand this is going to be difficult for many of us.
But if we’ll just, like, person-up, I know we can do it.