Third Person Underhanded

Last Wednesday I was in a book store at the airport in Minneapolis, looking for something to read. I saw Dan Brown’s Deception Point on the shelf. I’d recently read his earlier book Angels & Demons, and was still feeling annoyed at an underhanded writing trick that Brown had used repeatedly. But I’d had fun reading Angels & Demons despite the overused writing trick, and despite the number of times Brown’s characters (all described as brilliant) did boneheaded things. “Well,” I thought, “maybe Brown learned how to create suspense without trickery.” No such luck. The underhanded writing trick showed up on the second page of the prologue. Here’s an example of the trick from later in the book (at this point in the story, Corky, Rachel, and Tolland are on a ship, being chased by a helicopter full of bad guys):

At the far end of the decking below, a small powerboat was moored. Corky ran toward it. Rachel stared. Outrun a helicopter in a motorboat? “It has a radio,” Tolland said. “And if we can get far enough away from the helicopter’s jamming…” Rachel did not hear another word he said. She had just spied something that made her blood run cold. “Too late,” she croaked, extending a trembling finger. We’re finished…

Here’s my problem. If we know what Rachel is thinking throughout this scene, how come we don’t know what she sees that makes her blood run cold? What point of view is the author using here? There’s a common fictional viewpoint called third-person-limited, in which the author makes us privy to the thoughts and feelings of one character in a scene. Brown uses third-person-limited point of view most of the time. But at the most crucial points, he swindles us by switching momentarily to some other point of view, in which we are privy to the character’s private response to seeing or hearing something, but we aren’t privy to what they are responding to!

I chose the snippet above not because it is the most egregious example, but because it was short enough to quote without lots of context. In both Deception Point and Angels & Demons, this point-of-view switch seems to be Brown’s key trick for creating suspense. I guess we’re supposed to think, “Gosh, I wonder what Rachel just saw! It must be horrifying! Better keep reading!”

I think this point-of-view switch is underhanded, a swindle. We’re told everything that the character knows except the crucial information. Maybe there’s a name for this kind of point-of-view. I call it third-person-underhanded.

The day I bought Angels & Demons, I also bought the audio version of The Da Vinci Code. I’m cringing at the thought of listening to it, even though it’s enormously popular. Maybe Brown has learned other ways to create suspense.

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