Get Out of My Head!

Sat Sep 17 2016

For a long time now I've had this notion that the three main narrative point of view choices--3rd omniscient, 3rd limited, and 1st person--lie on a continuum of writerly skill. That 3rd omni is for beginning writers because it's the easiest one to work with, and that first person is for the experts because it's the most demanding in terms of characterization and voice.

But lately I'm coming to the view that perhaps that's a bunch of crap.

Specifically, that there are subtleties to 3rd person omniscient which can make it just as challenging to handle as 1st person, if for slightly different reasons.

With great power comes great responsibility

3rd omni lets you show anything, at any time. You may jump freely in time and space. You may cut away from your protagonists to show us anything else that's happening anywhere else in your story. You may dip in and out of the heads of any characters to tell us what they're thinking and feeling.

But here's the thing: although you can do that, there's a huge danger of killing your story's surprises and drama if you show too much of what's happening.

An example will illustrate the point. We haven't visited our friend Sonja since way back in June. When we last left her, she was making for the city of Haven to deliver a mysterious parcel and collect her bounty. Now, let us rejoin her as she reaches Haven:

Through Haven's gates, the city's noise, its smells, its endless streams of people shoving past one another, pounded Sonja's newly-keen wereling senses. The city was the same as always, but it had never affected her like this. Every motion in the corner of her eye, every glance by a stranger, urged her to attack. To kill.

She fought down the urges, though they threatened to overwhelm her. The last thing I need's the city guard after me, she thought. Still, she dared not make her way to Barque's place to deliver the package. A lot of rough types hung out there, and she needed their kind of trouble even less than from the city guard.

She made her way to a nearby tavern where she could get out of the bustle and have a drink to steady her nerves. She nabbed a street urchin by the arm just outside, and said, "You, boy. You know Barque's place?"

The boy nodded. "Everybody knows Barque's."

"Good." She put a small coin in his hand. "Go tell him Sonja is in Haven, and will deliver his parcel later this afternoon. Bring me back his reply and I'll buy you something to eat, too."

"Yes, miss." The boy disappeared into the crowd, and Sonja stepped into the relative peace of the tavern.

Half an hour and several streets away, the boy delivered the message. Barque sat in his chair, holding court at the head of a long table among the ruffians who looked to him as their master.

"Ah, good," Barque said. His lips curled in imitation of a smile. He rose from his chair and moved away from the table, motioning for the boy to follow. Pulling the boy close, he whispered, "Deliver her this message, boy. When she comes, she is to enter through the back. Today's password is honeymead."

The boy departed. Barque frowned. The girl was late. Had she arrived on time, yesterday, relieving her of the parcel would have gone according to plan. No one could know about the parcel. It was too risky, even for him, should anyone in Haven learn he had it. He'd have to take care of her himself. Hate to get my hands dirty, he thought, but, needs must. He would wait in the back himself. When she arrived and gave the password, he would burst out into the alley, slit her throat, and take whatever she was carrying. Kerl could clean up the body later.

"Kerl," Barque called. A thick-necked man snapped to attention and strode over to him. "I have matters to attend to in the back. See that no one disturbs me."

"Yes, sir."

Barque entered the back room and latched the door behind him.

Back at the tavern, Sonja sat in at a small table in the darkest corner. The repetitive act of eating, of chewing and swallowing, calmed her. The barman's ale had its intended effect as well. Slowly, she regained her sense of control.

Sonja felt much more at ease by the time the boy returned with Barque's message. She paid her tab and set the boy up with a loaf of bread, then stepped back into the city.

The afternoon streets were slightly less crowded, which helped, but still Sonja held a tight rein on her senses. Her muscles twitched and vibrated as she walked. She soon took to the alleys. Although their narrow, confining width set her a bit on edge, the comparative lack of people more than made up for it, and soon she reached the back of Barque's place.

She knocked softly. "Honeymeade."

The door burst open. A man flew out, a dagger reaching for her throat.

Without thought, Sonja arched her back down while throwing her arms up. One hand clamped onto the man's wrist. The other plucked the dagger from his grasp. Her falling weight yanked him forward, flinging him over and behind her. He was dead, his own dagger protruding from one ear, before he hit the ground.

Heart pounding, Sonja sprang to her feet. Barque! He had a goatee now, but there could be no mistake. It was Barque, and he'd been waiting for her. Sonja backed away, trembling. Two men, dead by her hand, in as many days. She ran, fleeing blindly through Haven's alleys and thief-tracks.

Why had Barque wanted to kill her? She fetched up in a corner between a nameless wooden building and Haven's outer walls. She forced her breath to slow. I should have taken the bastard's purse, she thought. Too late for that now. She wouldn't go back there again. Not without knowing what was going on. And not before knowing what's in that parcel.

Omniscient POV, authorial fear, and spoilers

In the above passage, the middle scene clearly informs us of what Barque's concerns are, and what his plan is: we know he intends to ambush Sonja because the parcel has to remain secret.

That is completely allowed in 3rd person omniscient writing. You can show anything at any time, including what the bad guys are up to.

But what is the effect of doing so? It's to let readers know exactly what's going to happen next. We know an ambush is coming. And we know that with her new wereling abilities (and because Sonja is the protagonist and you don't kill the protagonist before the plot even gets going), that she'll be able to fend off the attack relatively easily.

Are we concerned for Sonja's safety? Not especially. We saw how she handled the guy who tried to steal her pack back in the How to use flashbacks right article, so we know she probably won't even be able to help taking Barque out.

Are we very curious as to what's going to happen? Again, not really, because the intervening scene laid it all out for us.

I see authors do this all the time, and I think their motivation for doing so is fear: they are afraid that once the ambush does come, readers won't get it. They won't understand why the ambush (or whatever it happens to be in your particular story) is happening, and so forth. So they react by pre-loading the narrative with spoilers about what's coming.

But in doing so, they kill a reader's interest in the exciting ambush scene itself. They kill any drama the scene might have had.

Hint, but don't reveal.

The solution is to find a middle ground. You want readers to anticipate the ambush, but still be curious for how it will turn out and concerned for what the possible outcomes might be.

Hint that something is going to happen, but not what it is. Consider how the ambush scene would have felt had the critical paragraph in that middle scene gone like this:

The boy departed. Barque frowned. The girl was late. This would have been easy, yesterday, had she been on time. But now, he would have to improvise. Barque scratched at his goatee, considering.

"Kerl," Barque called. A thick-necked man snapped to attention and strode over to him. "I have matters to attend to in the back. See that no one disturbs me."

In this rendition, all we get are hints. "This" would have been easy, had she been on time, but we're not told what "this" is. We know he's going to do something, because he has to improvise. The hints add up to "Sonja's walking into some kind of situation she's probably not expecting," but as readers we can't be any more specific about it than that.

We can guess and speculate what Barque might have in mind, but we can't know until we read the scene.

Thus, by hinting instead of revealing, we build up the reader's sense of anticipation rather than murdering it before it can even begin.

Stay out of the villain's head

The best general strategy I know for hinting instead of revealing is just to stay out of the bad guy's head. Don't reveal the antagonist's thoughts or plans.

How compelling would the Harry Potter series have been, if we'd have known Voldemort's plans all along? Not very.

For those who are old enough to have seen The Empire Strikes Back in its original theatrical release and without social media to blast them with spoilers, how dramatic would Luke and Vader's duel in Cloud City have been, if we had known ahead of time Vader's relationship to Luke and what he wanted Luke to help him do? Again, not very.

Stay out of the villain's head. Hint at their plans, but don't reveal them until the last possible moment, when those plans are actually in action.

In 1st person writing, this issue doesn't even come up because the protagonist's viewpoint doesn't allow for showing the villain's plans. But if you're writing in 3rd omniscient, use your villain-centered themes to hint but not reveal.