First & Third: The Writer’s and Baseball Manager’s Dilemma

Last night I was watching the Philadelphia Phillies nip the Colorado Rockies 2-1. At one point, with the score 1-0 Philly, they had runners at first and third with one out. Their pitcher came to bat. What would the manager do?

To me, this is the most interesting situation in baseball. First and third with one out is rich in possibilities and risk. It can be the beginning of a big inning, or a rally can be snuffed out with one pitch.

Writers of fiction face a similar dilemma when they draw characters in their stories. Do they use the first or third person to narrate their tale? Perhaps both? A few experiment with multiple first and third person perspectives. It’s difficult to pull off; constantly tugging the reader back and forth between voices can be confusing, even tiresome.

Most writers find the voice they want and stick with it throughout the story. However, for a long, complex story shifting perspectives gives the author options to adjust pacing, add depth, or simplify the narration.

One of the most successful uses of multiple first and third person narrations, which I’ve just re-read, is Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows. This literary thriller expertly uses first and third person perspectives to change the pace, attitude, and even time in the novel. Gruber’s deft handling of the different voices gave each one profoundly different personalities as well as varied perspectives of the developing plot.

Sometimes a book cries out for two voices. The lamentable novel, The Rule of Four, uses first person throughout. But it creates an essential character, Paul, who can only be viewed by the narrator. If, however, the authors (yes, there were two) had added a third-person view of Paul the story’s pace would have been less leaden and far more exciting.

Scott Turow’s The Laws of Our Fathers disappointed many more readers than this one in large measure because of the hash he makes of mixing his first and third person narration. Even under the command of an accomplished writer like Turow, using both voices takes exquisite skill.

Last night the Phillies’ manager let the pitcher swing instead of bunt and he hit into an inning-ending double play. Just like in baseball, if you find yourself in a first-and-third writing conundrum, execution is everything. Sometimes it can lead to a home run story, but just as often, when played poorly, it can disappoint your fans.

© Mark Everett Hall 2011


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