Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What I meant was...

Alas, the terminology of writing is far from universal. Frances has mentioned that my preceding post might be clearer if the reader knew what exactly I meant by "close third-person POV." I suppose it's clear as mud without a definition, so here goes.

"Close third-person narration" to me is identical to "third-person limited." (There's a definition that wouldn't clarify much for most people.) The narration is written in third person, but there is nothing even approaching omniscience on the part of the narrator. The narration is married to the POV character's perceptions; the narrator doesn't tell un anything that the POV character doesn't know.

We don't see expressions on the POV character's face, for example, because the character has no means of watching his own face. (Well, except for mirrors. But that trick tends to make editors, no small number of readers, groan.) A character can feel a silly grin spreading on his face, for example, but such a character can't "look stunned." (The character can conjecture that he might or even must look stunned, but this can't be reported as fact, or we being to move away from close third.)

It's very subjective narration that stays close to the consciousness of the POV and never backs up for wide shots. It may get so far from the inside of character's head that it needs to worm its way back in via "he thought" until we are clearly established (after which thoughts can be directly reported).

Shock and Awe was third-person multi-POV. In most cases, each chapter 'belonged' to a single viewpoint character. The book wasn't written entirely in close POV, although much of it was quite close; there was a distinct narrative voice that sometimes took a wide view before modulating down into a POV character's thoughts and emotions.

Shock and Awe required multiple POVs simply because of the architecture. I could have written multiple first-person, but multi-first tends to be stressful for both reader and writer.

My WIP has only one POV character. This is more common in mysteries than in thrillers, but it's not unheard of. Thrillers often up the suspense by showing the reader mounting dangers of which the protagonist is unaware. This requires either omniscience or multiple POVs (or both).

Mysteries, on the other hand, often have only a single POV character--often the detective, but sometimes a Watson or an Archie Goodwin. This restricts the reader's knowledge to what the POV character knows. Some argue that this is inherently less suspenseful than letting the reader see dangers while keeping the protagonist in the dark.

I'm not taking a position on this, as some artists have done both in different works. For example, Alfred Hitchcock's movies achieve suspense thrugh both tools. Hitch was fond of letting the viewer see the bomb ticking away under the dinner table while the protagonist sits ingorant with his feet inches away from the explosives; but in some of his most gripping scenes in Psycho the camera remains fixed on the POV character, who is unable to see around corners or up beyond the top of the stairs.

Lee Child is unusual in that some of his Jack Reacher novels are written in third person, while others are in first person--and the dividing line seems to be whether or not they require multiple POVs. If he wants us to see the bad guys at work, then the whole book will be in third person; but if he doesn't need any "meanwhile, back at the ranch" scenes, then he'll stay with Reacher's POV--and do it in first person, to boot.

So here I am, writing in a single POV, and staying very close, without a hint of omniscience. And I'm wondering why, as long as I'm staying tied to this one person's perceptions, I'm not just letting him tell the damn story. It's already very much in his voice, and I'm beginning to think that the mechanics of presenting his thoughts and moving exposition along would be far easier if he just told the damn story himself.

I'm a bit confused as to why I'm in third person to begin with. I'd like to think I had a reason.

The character is quite a bit younger than me. Maybe I didn't feel ready for that level of impersonation--similar to the way that some people are reluctant to go first-person on characters of the opposite sex.

Or maybe I just didn't think it through. It wouldn't be the first time, and I'd venture it won't be that last.

I comfort myself with the fact that rewriting in first would be easy, and would probably be more fun. Well, if I decide to go that way. I'm still hopping from one foot to another.


Frances Garrood said...

Thank you, David. I think I understand...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

I only sorta understand myself.

Nonetheless, Chapter 12 was just written in first person. (Wow. Talk about passive constructions...)

Alis said...

I must confess, I've decided that close third person has no benefits over first person and, in my wip, I'm impersonating (to use your apposite word) a fifteen year old boy. Or rather young man as he would definitely have been regarded as in the fourteenth century.
But, on another of your points, I wonder how easy it would be just to rewrite in first person. Parts of my wip are in the present tense and other parts in the past tense and I have had to convert a couple of chapters from one to the other. I thought it would be a simple case of altering all the verb tenses but it turned out that there were a lot of subtleties which demanded more extensive thought and re-working. I hope it's easier for you if you decide to flip from 3rd to 1st.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Good for you on the 15-year-old man. I see so many historical pieces where they think what we define as minors were treated as children in the past.

Going first person on this should be a breeze--though going the other way would be hard. It's certainly more complicated than switching "he" to "I", of course, but still looks easy enough. And offers a kind of relief.

I think the length will stay about the same. There are some side-comments I will want to add in fisrt--making observations is so much easier!--but I will lose a lot of the modulating and clarifying verbiage that third requires, so I expect it to be a wash.

I can see that present/past would offer a more formidable challenge, though. Present tense tends to result in a very different set of constructions. I've written in present tense, and I think it reads well enough, but the writing process itself always feels weirdly constrained, as if I'm writing in some unusual dialect.