First, Second & Third . . .
By M. Stephen Lucak
Everybody’s talking about Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series, and not all the talk’s good. Stephen King’s opinion (and as much as we all love the King, it’s just that: an opinion) aside, I haven’t seen a set of books sell this well since . . .
A bold statement, to be sure, but it’s the truth. I’d be willing to go as far as to say that the saga of Bella and Edward has surpassed the Harry Potter books in several key areas, most notably the wide range of readers that consider themselves fans, including me.
Now, I won’t attempt to make a case for Ms. Meyers’ qualitative superiority; Jo Rowling can keep that throne for the foreseeable future. However, from a purely mercenary, dollars in the register, get folks reading, legitimize the Young Adult category beyond its age group perspective, Twilight is the Number One Contender to the Harry Potter belt.
As an aside, I can’t wait to read JK Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter offering, if only to witness her solidify her standing against this Vampire-Come-Lately upstart. The Host wouldn’t have come close to even sniffing the Bestseller List if it didn’t have Meyers’ name on the cover. Mark my words, we’ll be seeing more of the Cullen clan before too much time passes; economics alone dictates it.
But, that’s not the subject of this month’s Vent.
The only complaint I have about Stephanie Meyers’ books is the same complaint I’ve voiced to customers, co-workers and fellow writers for years. It’s nothing earth shattering, and if appearances on the bestseller lists are any indication, I’m alone in the tall grass on this one, one voice crying foul to a world that doesn’t understand my displeasure and couldn’t give a damn about my opinion.
Yeah, like I’m not used to that.
For three and one-third novels, Meyers employs Bella as a First Person narrator, our guide to the strange and mysterious world of vampires. Mechanically, it’s a wise choice. Bella has a strong and consistent voice throughout, and readers experience what Bella experiences. It’s a stylistic choice, and for my money, the correct one.
If only she had stuck with it.
Near the midpoint of Breaking Dawn, Meyers switches to another character’s first person perspective for several chapters, before going back to Bella for the denouncement. To me, it completely broke me out of the story, and I spent the next hundred pages cursing the author while I should have been riveted by Bella’s pregnancy, Jacob’s maturation and the impending arrival of. . .
Oops, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to go off on a geek tangent. Where was I? Oh, right. Cursing.
I understand the convention, I really do. I understood it the first time I encountered it, back in the Eighties when King pulled a similar stunt in Christine. First person for the first third, third person limited in the middle, and back to first person for the finale. Huh, I thought the first time I read it. That was a neat little trick. Because that’s how I viewed it: A cool conceit done intentionally to service one novel, like Daffy Duck’s vaudeville act where he’s dressed in the Devil suit and consumes gunpowder, lighter fluid and nitroglycerine, finished off with a wooden match. It’s a great bit, but you can only do it once.
Years later, when I was reading James Patterson’s Cross series on a regular basis, I encountered shifting perspective again, except this time as if written by a hyperactive schizophrenic with a pound of crystal meth coursing through his bloodstream.
First person protagonist. First person antagonist. Third person omniscient. Third person limited. Everything but second person (and it’s been years since I cracked the spine on a Patterson, so who knows). And –and this is a crucial “and”-, I had the feeling this wasn’t a matter of style.
Writing in the first person is hard. Assuming you do it consistently, you’re limited as to what your narrator can know, and therefore convey to the reader. They can’t know what another character is thinking, so neither can the reader. They can’t witness something that happens outside of their presence, so neither can the reader. They can’t die in the course of the story, so there’s never any real sense of jeopardy regarding their ultimate survival (such protection doesn’t extend to the reader, so get that cholesterol checked).
Third person solves most of these issues. It opens your world and all those in it to description and examination. Head hopping is allowed, although some discretion needs to be exercised to avoid confusion.
What about second person? I’ve read one, heard of another and even dabbled in the form once (a short story with Harry Shannon for an aborted anthology), and it’s the literary equivalent of a triple-gainer with two full twists. Nail it, and they’re playing your National Anthem. Miss it, and you’re the latest entry on the Wide World of Sports blooper reel.
Regardless of what you choose to write and how you choose to write it, do your readers (and editors, those oft maligned, yet always invaluable invisible saviors) a favor and think before you type. The believability bubble –especially in our chosen genre- is a fragile thing; it only takes a touch to pop it. Mechanics aren’t creativity, but you’ll have an easier time succeeding with the second if you pay close attention to the first. Common wisdom dictates understanding the rules before deciding to break them, and having a damn good reason for your decision.
And in my opinion, a quick fix doesn’t qualify as a damn good reason.
The Stephanie Meyers/Breaking Dawn instance is a perfect example. Rather than switching perspective horses in the middle of the narrative stream, she could have simply had Jacob tell Bella his story instead of having him tell us while Bella listened. We would have heard it either way, albeit filtered by Bella’s interpretation. But that would have been OK too; the other 9000 pages were presented in the same way.
Perhaps I’m alone in my dislike. As I stated earlier, nobody else seems bothered by this, and it sure isn’t having a negative impact on sales. And while I wouldn’t consider myself a traditionalist, I’m also the guy who never could bring himself to take the Host in his hand at the Communion rail (Maybe it was the memory of a flock of Nuns threatening Hell and damnation for touching the transmuted Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, or maybe I just like sticking my tongue out at the altar).
Is it a petty gripe? Maybe, but it’s mine, and it’s April, so I get to Vent and you get to listen.
But Then Again, You’ll Have This . .
M Stephen Lukac has been reading since he was three, writing since he was seven and selling other people’s books since he was twenty-eight. At forty, he realized it might be time to get serious.
He loves stories set in coherent worlds, where the rules and situations –no matter how fantastic they may be- remain consistent across the author’s body of work. Experiencing the creation of a fictional universe –whether overt or subtle- is akin to peeking over God’s shoulder. Inhabiting those creations, regardless of the medium, is his second favorite thing.
His favorite thing is definitely not talking about himself in the third person.
But Then Again, You’ll Have This . . .
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