Friday, February 18, 2005

First Person Challenges in "Hidden Faces"

Continuing the conversation from yesterday, here are some things I did to make the first person POV work for my Hidden Faces suspense series.

1. Added a third person POV for the Bad Guy. Yes, here’s the cheating part. This is a technique that’s being done more and more these days. James Patterson’s suspense novels are a good example. I think other suspense authors have used it for the same reasons I have. Thanks to today’s chaotic world of TV and multi-tasking, readers expect scenes to bounce and the story to be full of action. That is hard to do with only one character throughout the entire book. In my books, Annie carries 90-95% of the story. The Bad Guy chapters only run about two pages, then it’s back to her. By the way, these chapters are in different type for quick identification by the reader.

When I began writing Brink of Death in first person, I didn’t know I’d mix in this second POV. (Remember, I didn’t even know the first person part until after 10,000 words—you beginning to see the trials I go through when I write?) But I quickly hit a real problem with pure first person—the chapter hooks. To do a chapter hook well, you can’t have the reader turn the page and find the answer to the lingering problem in the first paragraph of the new chapter. There were times when I put Annie in a situation where I thought, “Doggone it, I really need another character to switch to, and leave this conundrum with Annie hanging for a while.” When I hit upon the Bad Guy chapters idea, I went back and stuck them in at high times of chapter hook tension for Annie. This really kept the story hopping. So I continued to use this technique as I finished the book, making sure to place these chapters at key points.

Also, per our discussion last week of keeping the tension moving, these Bad Guy chapters allowed me to introduce the second kind of tension in the story—tension in which the reader knows what’s coming, or at least a part of it, and the protagonist doesn’t know it.

2. Gave Annie a unique feature—a very visual “projector” mind. It works like this: when Annie hears someone tell events, or even when she’s just imagining things, she does it visually. The “personal projector” that resides in her head clicks on, spewing out the scene in vivid Technicolor. This allowed me to do three things. (A) Add all kinds of scary snippets (from Annie’s wild imaginings) to increase tension. (B) Have Annie, through her mind, jump to places where she isn’t physically present in order to give the reader an idea of what’s happening there, (C) Allows the reader to jump into the head of another character who is telling a crucial sequence of events.

I got this idea from the one time I watched CSI on TV (just to see what all the hoopla was about). That show has short cut-away scenes that depict what happened during a crime. For instance, if the investigators are talking about how a bullet entered someone’s body, you’ll see the entry of that bullet into tissue. I thought it was a way cool idea. And I thought, hm, how would a written version of that technique work? I’d have to find a way to transition in and out of that flash scene without totally discombobulating the reader. Here’s what I came up with. First, Annie would need to tell the reader about her “projector” brain. Then I’d need to use all the visuals available to me—line skipped before and after the cut-away scene, italic type, and a switch to present tense. Here’s how the technique looks when the reader is introduced to it in Brink of Death. (Set-up: Annie has already mentioned her “projector” brain. She’s standing outside a house while investigators are inside, examining the body of her friend Lisa, a murder victim.)
Without warning by brain popped in another sequence of film and turned on the projector. Up flashed a gruesome image of the scene now occurring in the Willits’ house. A close-up of Lisa

lying where she fell, all privacy stripped away in the presence of exploring, exacting strangers. Her eyes are open and fixed, lips parted, spittle down the side of her mouth. Her colorless face lights in the flash of an investigator’s camera. A few feet away a plainclothes detective squats to view injuries, pointing without touching to a contusion on her face . . .

I squeezed my eyes shut, forcing the scene from my head.
Since Annie knows something about crime scenes, she’s able to imagine this sequence of what’s happening. The reader has gotten a flash look of a scene where the first person protagonist is not present. And with Annie simply waiting outside to hear results, tension has been increased so that her waiting isn’t boring to the reader.

I’ve now written all four books in the series using this technique in all three way mentioned above. It’s worked wonderfully. Easy to say that now. But when I first thought of it, I got very nervous. Could I pull it off? What would my editors say? And what would readers think the first time they came upon it?

I’ve taken the time to explain this technique not because I think you writers out there ought to copy it verbatim. But to show that, even in the narrow confines of a writing “rule” such as first person, there are innovative ways to get around those confines. Look for ’em in your own stories and see what you come up with.

Yesterday I promised to talk about one more way I alleviated the first-person-one-protagonist-only problem in Hidden Faces. I’ve gone on plenty long enough for today, so I’ll get to that next week. Check back Monday for that and other continued discussion on POV.

Read Part 6

1 comment:

Becky said...

"Readers expect scenes to bounce." I understand that is the way writing has become, is this a must, in your opinion? Is there a different "must" for suspense versus other types of fiction? (My writing falls into that "other types" category, but I really do enjoy learning from this discussion. Good stuff, Brandilyn