Friday, September 5, 2008

Being Safe at Third

I find the most engaging and revealing stories are those with a focused perspective, whether they be in First Person—told from the perspective of I—or in Third Person—told from the perspective of he or she. This means that only one character owns a scene, a predetermined block of narrative.

You can write an entire story through one set of eyes, which is Third Person Limited in its most limited sense. It holds one character's perspective for the journey, and that's it. You can only narrate what he or she experiences and knows. Meaning, if your character wouldn't know the name of some anatomical feature, the kind of gun that's being aimed at him or a song from 1950, even though you do, it shouldn't be in the narrative.

Third Person Limited can be extended to multiple viewpoints, changing per chapter or scene, but the same limited focus applies. You can use as many POVs as you want, but the more you have, the less readers will be able to identify with characters and experience the story. An example of this is Sinner by Sharon Carter Rogers, which was a fascinating concept to me with interesting characters, but I felt put off with its many perspectives. I couldn't keep them straight or give an accurate guess now at the quantity she used, but I'm gonna go with fifteen.

Now, with Third Person, you can use various degrees of penetration. Your narrator might give a glimpse of what's going on inside but never reveal direct thoughts like in this excerpt from the novel School Age by my friend Leslie DuBois.

* * *

Immediately after the break-up, Delia moved in with Donna Lee and her two roommates, Shannon and Sharon. She didn't leave the couch for weeks as she wallowed in her failures. The longer she moped, the more she failed. She lost her job as a research analyst for the National Science Institute. The only thing she succeeded in was annoying and imposing upon her sister and her two roommates.

"Delia, I love you, but this has got to end," Donna Lee said one evening as she came home from work.

Trying to block out the forthcoming nagging session, Delia rolled over on the couch and placed a pillow over her head.

“You've got to get yourself together. Jason was a no good creep. He's not worth all this. You've gotta get over him."

She didn't reply. Her sister just didn't understand. She had never been married. In fact, Delia couldn't think of a single relationship she had ever had that lasted longer than two months. Donna Lee was a chronic dater and never got too attached to any man.

"You know what your problem is? You've let Jason define you for so long you can't see yourself without him. I told you when you met him that you were too good for him and you didn't believe me. You think because your parents didn't want you that no one could ever want you. One charismatic grin from that trouser troll and he had you thinking that you were the most beautiful you had ever been. Well, you know what, Delia? You are beautiful. With or without him."

She kept her head under the pillow to hide the tears that had developed from the all-too-true words of her adoptive sister. Deep down she knew Donna Lee was right. She knew she couldn't carry on sleeping on a couch and dwelling on her pathetic life. She had to find a way to get on with her life.

* * *

Or you can use a more subjective method, also called Close Third, which filters the narration through the character's head, not only exposing thoughts, but using the character's attitude, personality and vocabulary to express the scene like in this excerpt from my novel Rotten Apples.

* * *

No one could have known, that in this sea of people, a stranger lurked, or at least, he preferred to be thought of as a stranger, a drifter of sorts, the kind of thug nobody'd wanna mess with. Detached...dark...mysterious...but suave when he needed or wanted to be. He loved to send a child fleeing in fright with just a beady-eyed glance. What a kick!

Westwood had been his home for little more than a month now. Just in some dive, not that he couldn't afford nicer. He simply preferred to dwell in shadows, be somewhat inconspicuous, since he was wanted under one of his aliases and everything. He did like to step out in spiffy duds, and luckily in this crowd of Lala Land snobs, Marco DeFranco blended in.

He clapped and smiled and reacted like everyone else, but he couldn't contain a snort when two girls stumbled in line. He'd come to this lame graduation to see his blond vixen, Jenna McCloud. The program noted she'd be giving a speech. On stage sat two blonds, a smokin' red-head with ample hooters trying to poke through curtains of hair and a dark-haired, four-eyed nerd, the valedick-whatever.

From this distance, Marco couldn't tell which chick was Jenna until her introduction. The second one to speak, she stepped to the podium. He groaned. Her speech resembled the first. Why didn't they just write one speech and take a section instead of killing us with the same frickin' blah-blah over and over again?

He squinted and studied her closely. She looked different somehow. That night at her house he'd only seen her briefly before needing to get away, and it had been over a month, but she just didn't look the way he remembered. She definitely held more fire in his fantasies. Maybe I just need to put fear back in her eyes. Hot thing.

After the ceremony, he leaned against a palm tree, smoking a cigarette and watching her as she fluttered about at the outdoor reception. Marco yanked in a drag to pull that menthol note down to his gut.

Jenna went and took the hand of another blond. They smiled at each other. Some dude took a picture of them, their arms wrapped around each other. Marco scrutinized each one. He cursed with a wisp of smoke seeping out of his mouth. What a fool he'd been! He questioned the wrong stinking girl. He'd seen them together before, but she had been at the right house, driving the right car, but she was most definitely not Calli Rosenthal a.k.a. Jenna McCloud. How? Too many frickin' blonds in this state, that's why!

Marco chucked his cigarette to the ground, crushed it with the sole of his dusty Armani shoe and sped off in his latest rental.

* * *

You can narrate with an in-between style, presenting thoughts, but not filtering through personality. Sometimes you may want to withhold thoughts altogether to leave readers in the dark about motive or future plans. You can vary the level of intensity in different scenes, but don't use Intensive for the first half of the book and then pull back for the rest. Switches needs to be less jarring and not so obvious, like an ebb and flow that readers never consciously detect. And beyond Third Person Limited, you can use Omniscience in either a Limited or Broad sense.

Limited Omniscience is a bridge between Limited and Omniscience, still keeping the main focus on one character, but perspective becomes the narrator's, and said speaker can interject things that are not known to the focal point character.

Think of this narrator as a powerless angel, stuck to Mr. MC by assignment, privy to everything he's experiencing and thinking and also knowing and observing things he doesn't. Stephen King often writes with a more focused Omniscience that bridges. In Needful Things for instance, the Narrator sticks to various townies as they deal with the sudden arrival of new store owner Leland Guant, who just happens to have the very thing everyone wants. King almost always had a scene character in those 700 pages.

In this style, anything in the narrative should apply to the focal point character for the given scene. The focus can stay super tight, where the narrator refrains from jumping into the POV of other characters until a scene break, at which point the narrator can then move on.

For instance, the narrator should not refer to MC's facial changes as a witness but rather as they are experienced by the POV character. Heat rushed to his face. Not: He turned red. With any kind of Omniscience make it clear in the very first sentence. Here's an example:

* * *

Kicking stones and muttering under his breath as he strolled down Chestnut Street, Knee-high Johnny needed to be concerned with more than his newest nickname, like the knife-wielding man in the bushes, licking his lips and waiting for him to turn the corner. If only someone would scream in the darkness and tell him to run. If only clouds would shift to conceal the full moon and paint an omen in the sky.

A whiff of cigarette smoke stopped Johnny in his tracks. His eyes ached, stretched wide to scan the deserted street for signs of life. Puddles of light from lampposts warped in the wet pavement. Coyotes howled in the hilly surround. His stomach churned with queasiness and a shiver scurried down his spine, and not from the 1 a.m. October breeze. Come on, fool. Didn't sneak out for nothin.

Determined to master his silly fear, Johnny gulped and took two steps but then he pivoted and dashed toward home. His speedy, little legs threatened to give way beneath him as he ran and ran, and a burn assaulted his lungs almost immediately. He could've sworn he heard huffing, splats, and a corduroy swoosh way behind him and then a stuttering on the pavement. He gulped and glanced over his shoulder, but no one was in pursuit. No one was there. Stupid! Stupid! Pea-brained, chicken turd. Freakin' imagining things.

When he reached his porch, he bowled over, gasping for air and cursing himself. After straightening, he bounced and peeled paint off the wooden railing while waiting for his breathing to even out. Good enough, he slunk into the house, careful not to let the creaky door make too much noise. The snores of his parents had never sounded so pleasant.

He tiptoed all the way back to his bed and wiggled under the covers, snatching them up to his chin. They're right! I'm such a baby, a shrimp and a chicken. Couldn't sleep in the cave for one freakin' night. Maybe tomorrow...Yeah. Definitely tomorrow. He had no idea why, but he couldn't stop trembling or still his chattering teeth.

Johnny never knew that being chicken was what had saved him from the sting of a blade and the coldness of death...the fate that befell poor Sally Mae.

* * *

Click Omniscience to read more about the common pitfalls and avoidances.

Least common is Third Person Objective/Dramatic, which sees everything from a bird's-eye view. It's kind of like a screenplay, only revealing what a character is thinking and feeling through action and dialogue. It can freely move from character to character because it never goes internal. The narrator is a mere camera, having no extrasensory perception or X-ray vision. The danger in using an Objective Narrator is it can come across cold and it's more difficult to make that reader/character connection. If an author has successfully pulled off this style, let me know. I'm curious to read a book in it, since it's the complete opposite of what I do.

You can also use Omniscience that only focuses on two or three characters. Perhaps you have a YA novel that follows three girls and you want to reveal what each of them is thinking and experiencing or you have a romance and want to show the heat or internal thoughts for hero and the heroine in the same scene. Take care when you do this. Pay special attention to character development and transition. When using a blend of POVs, the key is establishing the pattern early so it doesn't suddenly look like POV slippage in chapter 8 when the girls attend a ball game or the couple's eating out at Olive Garden and you're now bouncing back and forth.

Whatever you choose to use, keep your focus limited to only the characters that matter. Be consistent. I've read some books that switch to a clerk or a bellhop or a crow and they have no weight or importance in the story. If it's not an important perspective to show, don't show it. It'll only cause confusion and frustration for your reader. As a writer, Third Person Limited, Multiple VP is my method of choice right now. I love to write in that. It gives me a lot of leeway and the structure I need.

Choose wisely, my friends, and write on.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

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