A Sea of Squares

by John Gilstrap

In the last few weeks, I’ve had the honor of teaching two of my six-hour classes entitled, “Adrenaline Rush: Writing Suspense Fiction.”  The first was at the always-wonderful Midwest Writers Workshop which is held every July on the campus of Ball State University, and more recently at the Smithsonian’s marvelous S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, DC.  It’s a fun, interactive course that includes four writing exercises that are designed to help students understand the issues of voice and characterization.

A large part of that discussion by necessity deals with point of view (POV).  I find that students inherently understand the relative strengths and weakness of first-person story telling, but when they shift gears into the third person, they have difficulty creating as intense a relationship between reader and character as they can with the first person.  I tell them that it’s largely a case of writing the same sentence and changing the pronoun (“His heart slammed in his chest as he opened the door” vs. “My heart slammed in my chest as I opened the door”), and while they get it intellectually, they have difficulty pulling it off on the page.  They tend to slip into that omniscient, reportorial space.

While teaching at MWW, I hit upon an analogy that I liked, and the students seemed to bond with.  I urged them to pretend that we were writing about a very intense chess game, along the lines of that scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where the chess pieces are living things.  I explained how the point of view of the chess master–the guy with the strategy–is entirely different from that of the pawn.  In the case of the latter, the poor guy just stands there, oblivious, staring out at a sea of squares until some unseen thing grabs his face and moves him forward.  After a few iterations, he finds himself kitty-corner from a guy who looks just like him, but in a different color, and now he’s supposed to kill him.  Hell, he never even met the guy!

That’s the close third-person, I told them.  Now, if you add the point of view of the knight who can’t move, but is exposed to certain death at the hands of the bishop on the other side of the sea, all because the pawn stepped out of the way, you’ve got a thriller told in shifting 3rd-person POV.  And it’s potentially much more interesting than the story that would be told through the omniscient view of the chess master.

What should I add in the next class to illustrate POV choices?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

18 thoughts on “A Sea of Squares

  1. John, six hours of teaching? Including POV instruction? You are of course taking students past “just tell the story” to “tell the story more effectively.” Welcome to our side!

    And when it comes to “rules,” there is at least one part of the craft where there ARE rules, and they are unavoidable–and that’s POV. If you’re writing in 3d Person, for example, and tell us what a non-POV character is thinking, you have violated the rule. It is a “speed bump” for the reader. Writers who ignore (or are not taught) POV eventually hurt their story.

    I like your chess analogy quite a bit. You could do more things with it. For example, only one piece per scene gets the POV. If you shift from the pawn to the knight, you have to start a new scene (with white space in between) or a new chapter…and make it clear from the first sentence (or at least paragraph) which piece it is.

    You can stress that no two pieces have the same “voice.”

    That would be a good exercise for the workshop. Write a half a page of a scene from the white pawn’s POV as he makes the first move. Then from the black queen’s POV as she observes it and thinks, “Here we go again.” Or some such. Then a knight, jumping into the battle (as only the knight can). Etc.

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    • Good morning, Jim.

      Nope, still no rules, still just tell the story. In fact, there’s a point at the beginning of my course where I have the students recite in unison, “There are no rules.” The rest of the class focuses on what has worked for me over the years and what has not. I stress that the closest thing there is to an objective standard is whether or not a writer can pull off what they’re trying to do.

      In my first published novel, NATHAN’S RUN, a story I deliberately “just told,” I head-hop continuously. It drives me crazy when I read it now, but I didn’t know any better then and the book was a critical and commercial success. Along the same lines, I can think of several very successful authors who have recently started jumping between first and third person in the same story. I find it jarring and intrusive, but their readers keep buying.

      Perhaps it’s just semantics, but the way I look at it, a rule that can be broken without consequence is merely a suggestion.

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      • There’s a difference between alternating 1st and 3d and “head hopping.” The former is a stylistic choice. The latter is a mistake writers make when they don’t know any better. So teach them to know better … and their storytelling will improve. Why settle for less?

        I prefer the term “fundamentals” to “rules,” but with POV I make an exception. Break the rules and your story isn’t the best it can be. Period. Sure, it might still sell. But is that an excuse for not making it better?

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      • I’ll fist-bump on “fundamentals”. Certainly, I can live with it more comfortably than the R-word. Now, I’ve got to quibble with the M-word (mistake). When it comes to matters of style (as opposed to matters fact, a la physics and chemistry or manual safeties on Glocks), I don’t think there is any such thing as a mistake. If there were, then we’d never see one-word paragraphs, and JK Rowling’s love affair with adverbs would have kept her out of print.

        If the story moves and characters develop and the reader stays engaged, then that’s a home run. Hard stop. Does slavish devotion to fundamentals or perceived rules make the writing “better”? According to whom? There are no objective standards. Or if there are, I’ve never seen them, and I’ve been in this game for a long time.

        It all goes back to the very first slide in my seminar: “No one can teach you to write.” Jim, you and I have gone twelve rounds on that one before, but my opinion on the matter stands firm. The value of my seminars lies in the way I [endeavor to] inspire students to think less and write more, to get out of their heads and out of their own way. To tell the damn story.

        I teach them how they can create suspense and flesh out character within their prose, but I’m very clear that a) I am entirely self-taught, b) that my course is based exclusively on what has worked for me, and c) that other instructors would likely disagree with much of what I’ll tell them. In fact, a recurring theme over the course of the day is a slide that begins, “I, of course, disagree.” I never venture into the territory of “you must do X in order to achieve Y” because I don’t believe that to be true.

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          • From a reader’s POV… I’ve read novels by each of you and loved them all. Maybe you are both right.

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              • I’m with Brian…you’re both right. I’ve seen novels that switch POVs in mid-scene that work (even though the *idea* of it bugs me and I haven’t done it since I was a novice romance writer and didn’t know better). In Noah Hawley’s terrific Edgar winner Before The Fall, he switches POVs in the first chapter and edges into…gasp!
                …omniscient. But it works. It’s engaging and smooth. Don’t think beginners should do it, however. Hawley’s been writing novels and screenplays for a long time. But I think that’s different than “head-hopping” wherein the writer indiscriminately and roughly switches between characters, thus destroying the bond between character and reader. It’s a subtle distinction but there it is. Like someone said yesterday — might have been you Jim — you can put the nose wherever you want as long as you know where it really belongs.

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  2. I like the analogy. Despite being clueless about chess, it’s still a very visual example.

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  3. I’ve taught workshops on POV, although not at your level, John.

    My very first published work was a short-short story told first from his POV and then from hers. It started as a question, “Whose POV should I use?” and I wrote both.

    I write everything in a Deep POV, although with more than one POV character in the book. Never more than 3. Done correctly, Deep POV is virtually identical to 1st person. Like Mr. Bell, I’m a one POV per scene writer, but if you can write good transitions (Suzanne Brockmann has a pamphlet on deep POV that’s probably out of print, but it’s excellent), you can flow from one to the other.

    My basic “rule” is “If the readers know whose head their in, it’s OK.”
    The hardest thing for beginners to grasp, it seems, is that it’s not “better” for the reader to see every person’s pov just because they’re in the scene. “But how do my readers know what Joe is thinking about Mary’s last statement?”

    And therein lies the challenge–and fun–of learning how to show both sides while being in one character’s POV. As the author, you control what the reader knows, and it’s a very powerful tool. I agree that writing the same scenes from different POVs (or is it PsOV?) is an excellent exercise.

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  4. John, your chess analogy is great and very helpful.

    For years, I wrote in first person (influenced by Raymond Chandler) and always had a vague sense that something was missing. When I switched to close third and could jump into the antagonist’s head, what a freeing sensation! Immense plot possibilities opened up.

    In first POV, I *thought* I knew what was going on in the villain’s mind, but until I actually went into his/her brain, clearly I didn’t. That was the missing element.

    But I still find it harder to develop a strong voice in third POV than in first POV. Any suggestions?

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    • Hi, Debbie.

      I do have suggestions on how to develop a strong 3-POV voice, and it will be the focus of my next TKZ post two weeks from today. Here’s a sneak peek, though: while you’re in Character X’s POV, filter every word you write (description, action, everything) through that character’s unique voice and world view.

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  5. There are no rules. Fine… semantics.

    But there are principles. Some of them, when violated, will kill the story. If you want to tell the guy who forgot to open his parachute (because he wanted to do it “his way”) that he made a mistake, that just a principle violation be another name. Again, semantics.

    Sure sounds like you are “teaching” wiring to me. Me thinks your meme is more apropos to voice… now THAT is hard to teach.

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    • Remember, I specifically exempted the rules of physics and chemistry from the “mistake” category (i.e., gravity and parachuting). Those are rules that always apply. Gravity’s a particularly nasty and reliable one.

      Think of it this way: In math, 26 minus 19 will always equal 7. When I learned to do that problem, the solution involved borrowing a 1 from the first digit of the minuend, thus changing the 6 to 16 and then subtracting 9. By the time my son got to school, that way was “wrong” because someone made a “rule” that involved creating a “phantom one.” (I never did understand it.) Now, he and I break each other’s rules and end up in the same place. Because they were never rules in the first place. They were alternative processes, ways to approach the solution to a problem.

      In my classes, I am not “teaching the students to write.” I am facilitating their journey to teach themselves to write. I am more coach than teacher, and yes there’s a focus on voice, because that is the one component of a story that binds readers and authors most closely.

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  6. Thanks for the clarification. We are in raging agreement where your first paragraph (above) is concerned. So much so that I wrote a book about it called “Story Physics.”

    Maybe just add an asterisk to your opening slide. Because – and this is a certainty – some new writer will use that fuzzy proclamation to write a “novel” without dramatic tension, nothing to root for and no emotional resonance, all in the name of “doing it my way.”

    A slippery slope.

    By the way… speaking as a professional athlete here – any real coach worth the title is always a teacher, as well.

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    • “. . . some new writer will use that fuzzy proclamation to write a “novel” without dramatic tension, nothing to root for and no emotional resonance . . .” Already been done. It was called COLD MOUNTAIN, but Frazier was never in my class. 🙂

      Good point about coaches being teachers. And the truly great teachers (or line officers or managers or . . .) help the people they’re leading to develop the gifts and strengths they bring as individuals. Unless lives are at risk or the consequence of a mistake is dire, the good ones don’t dictate a one-way approach.

      And perhaps I should mention here that my second slide reads, “. . . But there are really, really good suggestions.”

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  7. A nice analogy John and I look forward to your post in two weeks.
    As for the debate around teaching and rules, my take on it is that whatever works to achieve the aim of writing a good story. So there will always be someone who can produce something outside of what is accepted as good practice and it works. However, there are obviously tried and true methods and that is what can be taught. Principles, rules, or whatever you’d like to call them, that have proved their worth and, for someone who is a novice, or struggling with a particular aspect of writing, knowing those fundamentals can really help. I’m with Brian and PJ.

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