First person viewpoint is an appealing initial choice for a suspense writer. It’s familiar and intimate because it’s the way we all tell each other our ordinary personal stories every day. It’s an easy way to grab reader attention and hold it.
But there are inherent drawbacks. Telling a story from the protagonist’s point of view is severely limiting. The protagonist can’t know, for example, what the villain is up to or what any other character in the story is privately thinking or doing.
To overcome that problem, a popular technique among writers of late is to switch the point of view back and forth, from first person whenever the protagonist is on stage to third person when the villain is to be seen doing evil. But that introduces an even thornier problem, because every point of view shift can’t help but jar the reader, no matter how skillfully done. At every such shift the writer must work to once again draw the reader back into the story while the writer backs out of the story, where we writers belong.
First person takes the risk of making the protagonist appear at least somewhat egotistical. We’ve all heard people dominating conversations, going on and on about themselves, bragging about personal prowess and great accomplishments. It’s distasteful.
First person is also basically improbable. Which of us can remember everything we did, in detail, on a given day a week or a month ago? Yet first person narration asks the reader to believe a protagonist can do just that, remember everything that happened in a story over sometimes long spans of time with precise detail down to what was for lunch or what other people said verbatim. It’s unlikely.
Also, we tend to distrust personal narratives, knowing instinctively that people tend to embellish and exaggerate and bend the truth just a wee bit, because don’t we sometimes do that ourselves? This is a subtlety, but it’s there in the back of a reader’s mind.
The most serious damage first person does is to diminish the overall aura of suspense we writers strive so hard to create. If a protagonist is talking, she or he obviously has survived to tell the tale, so the story ordeal can not have been all that serious, and the reader is aware of that on some level.
So what do you gain from using third person (or omniscient observer) viewpoint instead throughout a work of suspense fiction?
It automatically carries the weight of truth, of authority, because it’s the way parents and teachers and preachers and newscasters and other writers have long presented stories of all kinds to us. It’s also how almost every movie or TV drama or documentary is presented, really. It is immediately more believable, and sticking to it avoids jarring the reader.
Readers expect third person to contain ample true detail, to add backup and verisimilitude. We develop this expectation, for example, from reading factual textbooks and newspaper articles written in the third person.
We can use the third person voice to heap praise on our protagonist, either in straight narration or through our other characters, with no risk of displaying egotism.
We can use cutaways in third person effectively to build suspense, moving easily from looking over the protagonist’s shoulder on this side of town to probing the innermost recesses of the villain’s mind on the other side of town. As the story builds we can shorten the cutaways, along with our other tricks, to heighten the suspense. And it’s always a thrill for the reader to know something dangerous the protagonist does not, such as an armed killer approaching our unsuspecting hero from out of the shadows behind him.
Any time we want to get right inside a character’s mind, we can simply use italics:
Jack spun to see a tall figure in the alleyway shadows. A figure raising an arm. A glint of moonlight on steel.
Dammit, my gun’s in the car, Jack thought.
Then all we need do is present Jack’s subsequent thoughts in italics. To me, that’s every bit as intimate and dramatic as relating the scene in first person, and it carries the added suspenseful benefit of uncertainty. We want the reader to be thinking, Can Jack possibly survive this encounter?
With a touch of skill, third person will accomplish anything first person can, and considerably more besides.
It’s my choice of viewpoint every time.
Phil Bowie is a lifelong freelance writer with 300 articles and short stories published in magazines including Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, Heartland USA, Yankee, Troika, and a number of travel, boating, and aviation magazines. He has three suspense novels in print under traditional advance/royalty contracts with Medallion Press, GUNS, DIAMONDBACK, and KLLRS, endorsed by NY Times best selling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. GUNS won Honorable Mention at the London, England, Book Festival and is in a second printing. For 2012 he has a collection of his short stories out titled Dagger and other tales. Half of these seventeen yarns have been previously published in national magazines, including Phil’s award-winning version of a tale begun by Stephen King titled “The Cat from Hell.” Phil is a pilot, boat captain, and motorcycle rider. He lives with a calico cat by a broad river in New Bern, North Carolina, and works as a water quality researcher for NC State University. Visit him at www.philbowie.com
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)