Monday, November 27, 2006

Help From 007

Most thrillers are written successfully in unlimited third person, jumping into a different character's head with each chapter or scene. Sometimes I wish I could do this to swallow the whole "successful thriller formula" thing, but I've tried and I just can't. My novels, I think, will always be limited third person. I have to experience the story as an unfolding through the eyes of one character. On very neurotic insecure days, I think maybe I should just stay in the literary genre and write in first person and be done with it but then where would that leave my villians who want to blow up the world...or my unlikely heroes? Their stories must be told.

In thrillers, the rule is: Let your readers be one step ahead of your protagonist. This builds tension as the reader is waiting for the protagonist to step into "the trap". Here's a good way of putting it from a article:

"Crucial to the Hitchcockian thriller is the difference between suspense and surprise. To put it simply, the director said that if you have a scene where two characters are conversing in a cafe, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table, the audience experiences surprise. On the other hand, if the audience sees the saboteur place the bomb, is told that it will go off at one o'clock, and can see a clock in the scene, the mundane conversation between two cafe patrons now becomes one of intense suspense, as the audience holds its collective breath waiting for the explosion. Fifteen minutes of suspense, as opposed to fifteen seconds of surprise. It was therefore necessary, to Alfred Hitchcock, that the audience be as fully informed as possible."

I think this is a great point--however--when you choose to write a thriller (or the thriller chooses you to write it) in limited third person, this is not possible. The reader can only know what the protagonist knows--no more. The reader can't see the bomb under the table if the main character can't.

Then, I was watching the new James Bond movie (Casino Royale) last night, and I formed a different opinion about this being the only way to build tension. Here was a thriller told mostly from a limited third person pov...we only knew things as he did (as far as figuring out who the bad guys were). The story unfolded as he figured it out. It was a very intimate, sharing of tension. Instead of us having the knowledge that he was going to be ambushed and building tension waiting for it, we felt an empathetic kind of tension as we lived through the ambush with him. I think this even works better in a novel than a movie because of the slower pace of a novel. The experience of an adrenaline rush which the reader shares with the protagonist will take longer to get through in written form, and build even more tension into the scene.

More on the incredible opening scene later...


Jude Hardin said...

Hi Shannon:

You can still create this kind of suspence with a third-person limited protag (or even a first-person one, as James Patterson, JA Konrath, and some other authors do). All you have to do is switch to the bad guy's POV, show him putting the bomb under the table, and Voila!, when your protag sits down to eat the reader is aware of the imminent danger.

It seems to me MOST thrillers are written from one POV at a time. *Silence of the Lambs, for example, is a good study into this technique.

Shannon said...

Hi Jude,

This is a great point, and actually the heart of my problem. I can't get into the villian's head at all when I'm telling the story. It ends up feeling like I'm giving too much away to the reader...then again, maybe the reader doesn't mind having information that the protag doesn't. In John Case's GHOST DANCER, it's really told mainly (but not exclusively) from the villian's POV, which works surprisingly well. I would love to try something like that. It's such a balancing act!