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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Hot and Cold Third-Person
March 15, 2001


You say something in Characters & Viewpoints that left me hanging. Towards the end of the book you talk about writing in hot and cold third-person, and that the key is knowing when to go hot and when to pull back. But you never state any principles (maybe you do and I'm just not seeing it) about knowing when to write cold and hot. So my question is: can you elucidate any of these principles?

-- Anonymous

OSC Replies:

You find your own reasons and times to use one or the other. Basically, though, you get hotter when the person's individual viewpoint matters most, and cooler when you need to just get through the events.

Your list of your own three principles for using "deep penetration" are good ones. But I would say those are reasons to move deeper; you certainly don't abandon deep penetration in between times. Once having established d.p., you have to maintain it in order to have the tools available to use. However, there are times when you move in so close that the person's internal processes (mostly moral and causal reasoning, and the person's sorting out of what other people want and why they've done what they've done -- not emotions per se) become the main thrust of what you're writing, with the actions and words coming is little blips here and there. Other times, while still maintaining deep penetration (i.e., you can give the character's thoughts, untagged, in first person, because the reader is so "inside" that the reader knows it couldn't be any other character's thoughts), you give mostly the action and dialogue with only the occasional blip of the character's thoughts.

And you'll just have to evolve your own rules of thumb as you practice using them both. When you get hot or cool with your character, it has the effect of moving the focus to one thing or the other. I find that, early in a story or novel, I have to get "hot" with the character far more often, because the reader doesn't know what the character wants or how he thinks yet. But later in the story, with the character's motivations well established, the reader should know the character so well that I can unfold the action pretty plainly and the reader will instantly understand what it means to the character without my having to do much "hot" characterization at that point. By the earlier work, I've earned the right to tell the action fairly plainly. This allows the apparent pace of action toward the end to be faster. The foundation has been laid.

The choice, from moment to moment, is a matter of taste. The overall movement of more-hot-character at the beginning and more-cool-character toward the end is simply a pacing strategy. Not a rule by any means -- sometimes you'll need extensive sections of hot characterization right near the end, and you shouldn't think you're violating some rule to do it. Each story offers its own opportunities and problems, and these are simply some of the tools you have available to exploit or solve them.

-- 15 March 2001

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