by Zoë Sharp
Something Louise said in her blog this week made me stop and pause for thought:
‘I … have actually opened up the Work-in-Progress document on my desktop. (My God, it’s written in third person. What was I thinking? I’ve never been able to write in third person!)’
Like Louise, all my published novels to date have been written in first person, but this was not how I originally tried to go about it. For some reason I had it in mind that a mystery novel, by its nature, was a complex interweaving of different layers that would be far easier told from multiple viewpoints if necessary, and therefore in third person.
When the idea of my main protagonist, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox came along, I distinctly remember making several false starts in third person. I can even remember one of those scenes. A woman, alone, walking quickly at night, high heels tapping out a nervous tattoo as she hurries through the muted cone of a streetlamp. Suddenly, a guy looms out of the darkness, snakes an arm around her throat, pins her arms to her body, and starts to drag her backwards into the shadows. But just when you think you’re observing the first victim, the woman begins to fight back, disabling her attacker. And after she puts him on the ground, the lights come back up to reveal a gymnasium, and there’s applause from the evening class of students who’ve come to learn the gentle art of self-defence from our heroine.
And, I have to admit, as an opening section I quite liked it. It did what it was supposed to do – kicked off with a little misdirection, and introduced my main character as someone very capable of looking after herself. But she just didn’t speak to me, and I was equally convinced that she sure as hell didn’t speak to the reader, either.
The only way I could get around that was to get deeper inside her head, and find out what made her tick. To speak with her voice. So I gave it a whirl, not with an opening, but with a disconnected scene. It had Charlie at a bodyguard training school, forced by her ever-so-slightly misogynist instructors to go into a darkened room and deal with what lay inside. That turned out to be an apparently mortally wounded body, and an ambush, to which she instinctively, viscerally, overreacts, laying out her attacker with an old-fashioned desk telephone, then covers up her fear with dark humour.
Ah, now I was getting somewhere.
In fact, I liked that scene so much that it eventually found its way into the third book, HARD KNOCKS, which happened to be set in a close protection training school in Germany, and so perfectly fitted the bill.
Having written my first series book in first person, I felt compelled to continue that way. And there are certain advantages in only being able to reveal information to the reader as it arrives with the main character. The knowledge could be held by other people, but if they don’t or won’t tell her what’s going on, she has to find things out for herself. I can’t show the villain scheming in his lair, nor the good guys working out that she’s in danger and rushing to the rescue. (Not that Charlie needs much rescuing, thank you very much. Her philosophy has always been to break legs now and ask questions later.)
There’s nothing written in stone that says I had to continue in first person for the entire series. Lee Child started off with Reacher in first person for KILLING FLOOR, then swapped to third person until a return to first for one of my favourites in the series, PERSUADER. And now Reacher’s back in first person again in GONE TOMORROW. And it’s a belter.
Of course, some other authors quite happily write in first person, and add in third person scenes where they feel it’s appropriate, or required by the plot. In fact, that device was suggested to me for the latest book. Some people manage it very successfully. Stuart Pawson is one, with his Detective Inspector Charlie Priest police procedurals. In one, he even manages to have his detective go undercover in passages in third person, with his identity hidden from the reader entirely, while the rest of the book is in first person. And it works, but I’m not sure I could pull that one off.
I’ve even read something – although so long ago I can’t remember the details – where the book was told by two first-person narrators in alternating chapters. Now, that’s a tricky one to pull off. SJ Rozan, in her Bill Smith and Lydia Chin series, uses first person but with one book told from Bill’s perspective, and the next from Lydia’s. What a great way to keep a series fresh for the author, as well as the reader.
One of my favourite narration styles was always Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, told in first person, but not from the main character’s viewpoint, thus allowing Holmes to baffle the reader on the way to the conclusion as much as his sidekick, the stalwart Dr Watson. Will Thomas has taken up this literary device with his tales of Victorian enquiry agent, Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, writing from Llewelyn’s POV.
And that’s quite before we get into second person, which I heard Elizabeth Rigbey talk about for the prologue of one of her books. I’m writing from memory here, because I’ve been unable to track down the actual passage concerned, but it went something like this:
‘You are driving through a deserted forest and you knock down a cyclist and kill him. There is no damage to your car and no witnesses. What do you do?’
Not only is that second person, of course, but present tense as well. And that brings us onto a whole different ball game. Writing successfully in present tense is another skill altogether. Patricia Cornwell has written some of her Dr Kay Scarpetta series not only in first person, past tense with THE BODY FARM, but in third person, present tense with BLOW FLY. A fascinating mixture of styles. Theresa Schwegel’s debut, OFFICER DOWN, was first person, present tense and duly won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
But there’s no doubt that present tense is difficult to pull off. One of the best exponents for me is Don Winslow, with books like CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, and THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE, particularly as both these books involve quite a lot of flashbacks. Tackling flashbacks and sticking to present tense is enough to make a poor writer’s head implode, but he manages it with style.
Of course, the reason Louise’s comment resonated is because I’m looking beyond the end of the current rewrites – and I keep telling myself there will BE an end to them – to what comes next. Another Charlie Fox book, yes, in first person, past tense, almost certainly. But what then? I’ve always had a fancy to try third person, present tense, just to see if I can …
So, my question is, what’s your preference, both as a reader and a writer?
What is your current preferred style, and what made you settle on it?
Have you ever hankered to try and different narrative device and, if so, what?
This week’s Phrase of the Week is to win hands down, meaning a comfortable victory. It comes from horse racing, where a jockey who has no need to urge his horse forwards down the finish straight because he has a clear lead, and so can canter over the line with no need for the whip, and with both hands on more or less on the horse’s neck, to win with his hands down.