Last week, while teaching an intensive critique workshop in Portland, Oregon, I was surprised to learn that most of my students, who were otherwise well schooled in the writing craft, had never heard of close or deep third person. They all knew about point of view (first, second and third person) and understood the benefits and limitations of each.
Most novelists choose third person, because unlike first person, it allows the writer to move from one character’s head to another. With first person, the writer is confined to being in every scene and showing only what’s in the narrator’s head. Second person (the “you” narrator) is more rare but effectively used in Jay McInerney's best-selling novel, Bright Lights, Big City.
I explained to my students that close third person is a valuable tool because it creates intensity and makes the scene more immediate and vivid. It also helps the reader identify with your character. I compared it to using the zoom lens on a camera, focusing closer and closer until you’re in the scene sensing the action as the character feels it.
Coincidentally, after I returned home, I ran across a recent comment from Stephen King, the master of horror and the deep third person technique.
When asked about what motivates him to write, he said, “Striking fear into readers’ hearts isn’t really my prime motivation…What I really want is to pull the reader in and give him or her an immersive experience. Basically, I want to own the reader for the length of the story.”
Wow! Just think if you could do that with your own novel. It’s quite possible with close third person.
First, let's look at the way an amateur might write about a powerful event:
“Jeff had never been so horrified in his life. The woman next to him in the tent was dead. He was sure of it, and the worst thing was he'd been sleeping with her. She’d vomited and looked revolting.
"He’d never seen a dead person before, and this disgusting woman was making him think of his own mortality, not something he liked to contemplate. He'd have to call the police, of course. What a rotten way to start the day.”
This isn't a terrible scene (I've read far worse) but it's lacking.
It's too abstract. The writer is "telling" about horror and fear instead of bringing the reader into the scene and "showing" him what the character is feeling. (Read my October 2013 for clarification of telling and showing.)
Anytime you describe the action rather than let your character – and the reader – feel it, you’re distancing the story from the reader. Make the sensory detail so vivid, it's palpable.
Here's the way a pro, Stephen King, rendered the event in his novel, The Stand:
“He stared into her face for what seemed a very long time. They were almost nose to nose, and the tent seemed to be getting hotter and hotter until it was like an attic on a late August afternoon just before the cooling thundershowers hit. His head seemed to be swelling and swelling. Her mouth was full of that shit. The question that ran around and around in his brain like a mechanical rabbit on a dog track rail was: ‘How long was I sleeping with her after she died?’ Repulsive, man. Reee-pulsive. The paralysis broke and he scrambled out of the tent, scraping both knees when they came off the groundsheet and onto the naked earth."
Notice the visceral immediacy, bizarre action and rich sensory details he uses. He reduces the distance between his reader and his character. The reader is so close she can feel the fear the character feels.
Anne Patchett's novel, Bel Canto, is an excellent example of using the same technique with multiple characters, showing a panorama of the scene's location before zooming into the action and the characters' thoughts.
Close third person does have its problems. It can rev up a scene to the point of melodrama, and long stretches of it may create stasis and overload. Some scenes don't deserve to be magnified because they're not active enough or important enough, but "zooming in" is an exceptionally strong tool if used with caution.