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?