Point of View

In my last post, I wrote about getting details and subtleties across when your narrator doesn’t actually take note of them.  It’s a much bigger issue for a novel or story written in the first person than a piece written in third person – which has me thinking about the pros and cons of writing in first person.

How do you decide what perspective to use for telling your story – especially a novel, where your commitment is long-term?

With The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I had very strong reasons for telling the story directly from Erica Flynn’s point of view.  With the novel I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo this November (working title as yet undecided), I have just as many reasons to write from third person perspective.

The first deciding factor, for me, is whether the main plot is one person’s story.  Of course, each of your characters thinks it’s their own story, but you know better.  You’re the writer.  All your characters should have depth, and the more development you can show of a range of your characters, the better.  If, at its core, though, the story is one character’s tale, then it can be told from a first person point of view.  If the story hinges on multiple people, then you most likely don’t want to limit yourself to one person’s viewpoint.

First person’s advantages are many.  It’s highly personal, and although you can do deep third person in which the characters thoughts and ideas and feelings are there in full detail (read Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment), there is something about a narration from your main character that just doesn’t come through any other way – like someone is telling the reader their own story.  It gives your main character this quality of being a real person communicating directly to your reader.  It also allows for characterization through the narration – your word choices, the details mentioned, the style of the writing, all contributes to your reader’s sense of your character.  This was a huge part of writing my Erica Flynn novel – she’s a spunky, casual, humorous character, and I wanted that tone to color the whole book.  It seemed only natural to have her tell it, and let the tone flow from the character herself.  The personal nature of first person perspective was a factor, too – particularly since I kill Erica in the first chapter.  It’s a bigger deal for the reader when the narrator tells you she’s going to be dead in a few pages than when it’s just some character – the assumption would be that this character won’t matter soon, and reader interest in that character therefore wanes.  That’s just the opposite of what I needed the reader to feel at that point.  I wanted the reader to be like, “Holy crap!  I just met this girl, and now she’s telling me she’s going to die by the end of this chapter??”

I love anything that plays on unreliable narration (when your narrator lies, distorts the facts, omits details, or is oblivious to things that are obvious to the reader).  Chuck Palahniuk uses unreliable first person narrators in most of his books, Wilkie Collins frequently uses a collection of first person narrators in his novels (each with very different takes on the facts!), and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is written from the point of view of a man who’s so twisted that he can barely tell when he’s lying and when he’s not anymore.

Obviously, first person has its limitations.  It’s difficult to break to another point of view if you need to, it can be a real struggle to maintain voice and character consistency while still conveying the information necessary to the story, and it limits the focus of the story.  Granted, sometimes that’s what you want (in the case of the Erica Flynn novel, I wanted to keep the scope narrow and simple).  There’s no way I could tell my NaNoWriMo novel from a first person point of view because the scope is enormous and the characters’ development and decisions affect one another far too much for that kind of limitation of perspective.

Choose your point of view wisely, but don’t be afraid to play around with different perspectives or consider changing from one to another if the story isn’t flowing for you!

What Your Narrator Doesn’t Notice

Over the weekend, I attended a convention for science fiction and fantasy writers.  At one of the programs, a fellow audience member asked the panelists an excellent question:  How do you convey important details to the reader through a narrative character who wouldn’t notice.  If your narrator is a detective, s/he will probably be inherently observant, but not every character is attuned to every little thing that happens around them.  In real life, people range from highly observant to completely oblivious.  It’s no different with characters.

It was a question that particularly interested me, given the narrator of my novel The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.  Erica is the first person narrator, and while she’s far from oblivious to details, within the context of the events of the book, she’s incredibly single-minded.  Her own goal is the only thing that she’s focused on, and, to her, everything else is sort of just background noise and distraction.

But I still had to get information across to the reader.  More is going on with the other characters than Erica is putting together, and it was important to convey that to make them full, rounded characters to the reader, as well as helping advance the main plot.  It was a tricky at points – I didn’t want Erica to come across as dense, but I also wanted to convey her state of mind and intense focus.

I handled it (I hope, anyway – LOL) by having Erica see details that she didn’t necessarily think much of.  She didn’t put things together, but she did take note of things that laid the groundwork for the bigger picture.  Other characters (who were putting things together) reacted based on their understanding of the situations that Erica was ignoring because of her “blinders” and I tried to make a point of putting in the narration what it was that was on Erica’s mind instead of what was going on.

For example, she’d be in a conversation with two other characters, but in between the dialogue, she’s trying to work out a plan to reach her goal.  While the reader is getting information from the dialogue and putting it together, Erica is also stating outright in her narrative, “I wasn’t really listening at that point, though.  I was trying to gauge whether or not I could get away with…” etc.  That allowed me to do a lot of work within the scene (setup for the bigger plot as well as conveying subplot information about the other characters in the dialogue), and also showed Erica’s thought process and calculation (so she’s clearly not stupid, just distracted) and made it clear why she missed hints that were right in front of her.

An example of a character who just doesn’t get most of what goes on around him would be Rusty James from the novel Rumblefish by S.E. Hinton (there’s also an excellent movie based on the book).  Rusty James isn’t so much oblivious as…well…dumb, but he’s a great character, and Hinton conveys an incredible amount of subtle meaning, emotion, and character depth in the people and events around him, despite how little of it her narrator actually takes in and processes.

Images & Words

To be honest, I haven’t been doing much with writing for the past two weeks – aside from poetry, which, for me, is a purely personal medium.  I’ve been picking at my NaNoWriMo novel outline, but not wracking my brain over it.  In times of considerable change, I think in images more than in words.  Art projects have been big these past few weeks.  Poems come out like finger-paintings.  I just express and express and express, without trying to construct anything but my own mindframe, healthier and stronger than ever before.

Primarily, this blog is based in writing fiction (or at least prose), so art projects and expressive and personal poetry hardly seem in my usual line for posting here.  However, imagery is something that transcends the boundaries of each of the arts – it’s vital to writing evocative prose.  Without imagery, we’re “just stating the facts, ma’am,” and it’s dry as an office memo.

Imagery gives prose a tangibility that can make the words more than just words to the reader, that fires the imagination and makes the people and places and events of the story so clear that the real world slips away – and that’s our goal, as writers, really:  to create something that, for a time, is larger than life and more real than reality.  Fiction is hardly about accuracy.  It’s about believability, which has far less to do with how likely something is than how interesting it is.  Sensory perceptions – particularly visuals – are important to us humans (yes, that is grammatically correct) and, obviously, with the written word, description is your only method of communicating those.  Factual description falls short, though.  Comparisons, contrasts, metaphors, connotations, juxtapositions, and even letter sounds (hard consonants or soft, repetition of letters, etc.) are our canvas and our paint, bringing the story world to life for our readers.  One of the most inspiring users of sensory evocation of the story world, for me, was F. Scott Fitzgerald, when I read a collection (and The Great Gatsby, naturally) of his for the first time at seventeen.  I went metaphor-crazy for a few years, and although I went over the top with it sometimes, it was good practise.  Writing exercises that challenge you to think in sensory terms and metaphor are excellent for getting you in the habit of thinking that way – once you form the habit, it’s second nature, and if you find yourself slipping out of it, you can always do a few more writing exercises and get it back.

The other valuable thing that image-based thought does for me as a writer is part of my brainstorming process.  Ideas start to come to me in flash images, and putting them together has frequently yielded rich, intricate storylines for me.  Sometimes it’s just an imagined photograph lying on a kitchen floor in the sunlight, and my brain starts churning out questions like, “Why is it on the floor?  Who dropped it, and why?  Did something bad happen to them?  Or were they upset about something to do with the picture?  Who’s in that picture, anyway?”  Boom.  Characters start to jump out of the woodwork.  A scenario is created out of one simple image, and my brain is off and running full speed.

With writing fantasy, this type of image-thought has been particularly useful in getting ideas and getting unstuck.  I can’t tell you how many characters and plot points have been born of one quick visual popping into my head at random.  My NaNoWriMo project for this November is chock-full of scenes that originated with nothing more than a sudden visual of a character making a choice, struggling with an emotion, reacting to another character, or acting on decisions they feel conflicted about.  Sometimes I hadn’t even thought to have an internal conflict for a particular person over a particular choice, but when I played the idea through in my head, it was there on my character’s face.  And then I’d realize, of course that would bring this or that out in this character.  What I hadn’t considered in words or abstractions was so obvious in images that I felt silly for not realizing it before.  I had stumbled right over it.

Essentially, the more angles you can consider your writing from and the more you can give your readers to hang their imaginations on, the better off you are.  So I’m not regretful that my brain is taking a vacation in the land of symbolism and visual metaphor.  I’m digging in as far as I can to see what I can glean from this unexpected journey.

Show & Tell

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “show, don’t tell” lately – the oft-given advice every writer hears at workshops, critique groups, on writers’ and editors’ blogs, and…pretty much everywhere, really.

It is good advice, on the whole.  It’s much more powerful to be shown a character’s emotional reaction than told, “He felt sad.”  Likewise, it’s better to have a tense dialogue interaction than simply the phrase, “The two sisters hadn’t been getting along lately,” or whatever.

On the other hand, on some level, writing is storytelling.  It isn’t a film, where the action and dialogue all have to speak for themselves and no description is necessary because the audience can see the setting, the lighting and music can set the tone, and the actors’ expressions and inflections feed subtlety into the dialogue (if they’re talented actors).

To write, you must tell.  The trick is to tell in such an engaging way that the audience believes you’re showing them.  It’s a double-edged sword, because you don’t want to drone on and on about the setting or the way the characters look, but you also want to paint enough detail to peak the readers’ imaginations into visualizing the scenes you write.  You have to walk a razor’s edge between conciseness and detail in order to immerse your reader in the story world.

One of the best ways to keep that balance is to choose your words carefully.  There are many variants of a writing exercise that goes something like this:  Write a scene from the point of view of a man grieving the loss of his son, without mentioning death, funerals, or the son.  Now write the same scene from the same man’s point of view, in which his son is nearby, well, and healthy, again without mentioning the son.  I’ve seen so many versions of this exercise, I have no idea of its origin, but it’s a great one to try the different variants of – it really gets you thinking about how to convey much with very little.

As for “telling” – well, you’ve got to tell something, or you won’t write anything down.  Even if you use examples and body language to illustrate unnamed emotions or relationships, you have to tell the reader what that body language is, or what happened in that example event.  At some point, you’ve got to tell your audience something!

And frankly, there are some things that should be skimmed over.  You can’t be afraid to telescope when you need to, or you’ll end up writing down every damn step your character takes, like the scientist’s assistant from the Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night, who announces, “I am moving my right leg, I am moving my left leg.  Now I am putting this down,” while everyone is standing there watching him, like they can’t see what he’s doing!  You don’t want to do that in your book, and certainly not in your short story.  If the details of an event aren’t relevant, but the fact that it happened is, then skip the details and just show me the results, the outcome, the ensuing dialogue between characters who were there, etc.  Tell me about that instead, and by telling the reader those things, you will show the reader the relevance of mentioning the event.

Basically, it’s another of those fine lines that writers get to try and walk so often.  Like many things in life, show & tell in fiction is just one more thing you have to learn to balance.

Pet Peeves – Amnesia Openings

All readers have pet peeves about storytelling.  There are some things that just irritate you when you see them in a story or a movie.  I think writers are even more prone to these kinds of tics than other readers, partly because we’re used to watching out for what does and doesn’t work in our own stories.

One of my own personal annoyances is with books that start out with a main character having amnesia.  Why does it bug me?  Well, partly because it strikes me as lazy writing, most of the time – like the character who always asks obvious questions for the sake of exposition via dialogue (*cough* Tasha Yar *cough* Next Generation Star Trek *cough*).  I don’t mind if the character develops amnesia later in the story, but to start out with it just seems like such a cheap way to get away with a long setup for your world and your characters, with an oh-so-obvious element of mystery.  The trouble is, it leaves me cold, and here’s the main reason:

99% of the amnesia beginnings I’ve read treat “amnesia” like it means “lack of personality”.  I’m sure that, without our memories, we’d all act somewhat different than usual, but we wouldn’t lose our personalities altogether.  You’d still think like yourself, you just wouldn’t know why you thought the way you did.  Aside from the fact that it makes no sense to equate loss of memory with loss of personality, there’s nothing duller, to me, than a book without good characters.  I latch onto characters quicker than any other story element, and so do many, many other readers.  Give me a lousy anchor, and I’m getting on a different boat, thanks all the same.

One thing I love, though, is finding stories that break my personal rules of reading and writing.  I’m delighted when a writer can do something I detest, and make me fall in love with his/her book anyway.  For one thing, it impresses me, and for another thing, I like to figure out why their book was different.  Why did this work, when dozens of other books didn’t (or at least, didn’t work for me)?

For my Amnesia Openings pet peeve, the book that shatters the rule is Nine Princes in Amber, the first book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series.  Why does Zelazny get a free pass when the very first page of his series starts with the main character having no memory?  Because, also on the first page, he shows me his narrator has a great deal of personality.  Within half a page, the reader knows he’s suspicious, calculating, tricky, and funny.  The narrative voice, the questions and doubts that cross his mind, the decisions he makes, and the way he handles his lack of knowledge about himself or what happened to him, work together beautifully to establish what type of person he is and how he thinks, and to simultaneously set up the first inklings of conflict and danger.  There’s nothing lazy about writing that can do all that with half a page.

The best writing makes the most of each and every scene – not just because it makes the book richer, although it does, but also because that’s the kind of writing that grabs people.  It’s exciting to open a book and be in another place, but more exciting to open a book and be in another place with interesting questions to be answered, mysterious events on the horizon, and a fascinating main character to anchor you in the world of the story.  A narrative hook, by itself, isn’t enough.  You need some bait, too – if I may mix my nautical metaphors here in my blog (I would avoid doing so at all costs in a story!)  😉

Haiku as an Exercise For Prose Writers

I am much more of a prose writer than a poet.  It’s pretty rare for me to write a poem these days, and historically my poetry has generally been more for myself than for an audience.  Still, I think it’s good for prose writers to dabble in poetry from time to time – it encourages precision in word choice, concise description, and, often, getting across a mood or emotion without ever directly stating what the mood or emotion is.  That’s excellent practise for a prose writer, because it’s so much more powerful and evocative to show something shifting within a character than to tell us it’s happened.  Everywhere you turn, you hear the phrase, “Show, don’t tell,” and, although I’ve seen instances where breaking that rule works beautifully, for the most part, it is excellent advice. 

With poetry, if you tell, the whole experience is over.  You might as well write down the words, “Trees are pretty and they make me happy,” and get on with doing something else, because you’re not writing poetry at that point.  Journaling, maybe, but not writing poetry.  Again, I’m not really a poet, so I won’t try to define what IS poetry, but I know what isn’t when I see it.  😉 

Occasionally requiring myself to use a limited number of words to try and paint a powerful mental image, preferably while also evoking some sense of mood or tone, is a great exercise for my prose writing muscles.  So, although sometimes I’ll write free verse just for self-expression, I turn to haiku when I want to challenge my brain to be more on the ball with making every word count. 

The rules for haiku are simple:  three lines long, the first line has five syllables (not words, syllables), the second has seven syllables, and the third has five syllables.  Traditionally, it’s supposed to describe a moment in nature, but I don’t always follow that rule with mine.  Sometimes I have titles for them, and sometimes I don’t. 

So there is a writing exercise for you – write some haiku.  See how much you can get across with such a small “word allowance”.  Here are a few of mine, with, I think, varying levels of success at doing more than just describing: 

Jungle Past  

Breathe–thick, wet, and green 

A smooth white twist of a tree 

Stretched in pagan prayer.

 

Slate-blue, the angry 

Sky opens and lets loose sheets 

Of silver bullets.

 

Window 

Broken feathers, blood; 

A small, still bird–believed there 

Were no barriers. 

Morning light through blinds
Paints me with stripes as I wake
Wrapped in potential. 

Green races to fill
The tips of the trees’ fingers,
Settles, and unfurls.