Tunnel Vision

Writing Road Trip - Tunnel VisionDri­ving through a tun­nel effec­tive­ly nar­rows our field of vision. The walls and ceil­ing restrict our view to only that which is inside the tun­nel. It doesn’t mat­ter if there’s a moun­tain parked on top of the roof, or an ocean of water being held back by the walls: when we’re inside the tun­nel, those things are out­side our view.

This con­cept of tun­nel vision pro­vides a good way to talk with your writ­ing stu­dents about using first per­son point of view. This view­point is dis­tress­ing­ly easy to mess up. When we’ve cho­sen to tell a sto­ry using the “I” voice, it’s all too sim­ple to slip into anoth­er character’s head. But it’s a no-no to wan­der into a land­scape that is beyond the “view” of the per­spec­tive character.

Some­times it hap­pens because the writer has been tempt­ed to bring in infor­ma­tion that the char­ac­ter doesn’t know, per­haps to increase ten­sion or sus­pense (Will the snake the author has told us is hid­ing under the bed strike a fatal bite? Will she ever real­ize that he’s secret­ly attract­ed to her, as the read­er knows because the writer snuck into his inner­most thoughts?).

And some­times it hap­pens just as a slip: sud­den­ly the writer has entered anoth­er character’s thoughts, or intro­duced action, that is out­side the field of vision of the per­spec­tive character.

There’s a sim­ple line I use to remind stu­dents that they can’t devi­ate from their character’s “tun­nel vision” this way: in first per­son, the action has to stop when­ev­er that char­ac­ter falls asleep, slips into a coma, or leaves the room.

The char­ac­ter can cer­tain­ly come back into the room (or wake up from the coma) and guess that some­thing has hap­pened: they might read someone’s face and guess they’ve been cry­ing, or see a bro­ken vase and inter­pret that some­body threw it in a rage. But what hap­pened inside that room after the char­ac­ter left is offi­cial­ly “out­side the tun­nel,” and there­fore out of bounds of the character’s direct expe­ri­ence for sto­ry­telling pur­pos­es. If the writer wants what hap­pened to be part of the story’s action, they have to find a clever way for the point of view char­ac­ter to dis­cern what has gone on; they can’t sim­ply sneak into some­body else’s head.

What hap­pens out­side the tun­nel, stays out­side the tunnel.

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