Saturday, July 23, 2011

Today's Beautiful Prose, Ruminations on POV, Balance, Order, Harmony

Busy couple days ahead, so here's a two-fer for ya.  First, today's beautiful prose, from Phantom, by Thomas Tessier:

It was the best room in the house.  It was outer space and inner earth, the triumph of a young boy's mind.

It was: stamps and coins and a handed-down set of old Hardy Boys mysteries and crab shells with bits of gooey stuff still sticking in them in places and strangely colored rocks and dried out worms and acorns and horse chestnuts and a microscope and all kinds of cards and a cherry bomb hidden for an occasion that would only be known when it came and carved sticks and a jack knife and waterproof matches and a canteen and a pocket magnifying glass for frying Japanese beetles and a rabbit's foot and a shell plugged up with a dead snail and...

It was the best room in any house.  It was a boy's room.

Here and only here could magic forces be found.  The Invisible Weights, which on certain mornings anchored your arms and legs so that you couldn't get out of bed until they decided to let you go.  The Moving Pebble, which might change position only an inch or two but was never in the exact spot where you left it.  The Night Fire, which could only be seen in a mirror in the dark when you brushed your hair (you know it's static electricity, but if that's all you know, you don't know anything...)

SO, some ruminations on POV (point of view).  First of all, POV is:

point of view in fiction: from whose point of view is the story being told

My feelings about this have developed as a writer.  When I first began scribbling stories in a notebook twenty years ago, even when I got "serious" seven years ago, I had a very limited understanding of POV.  For me, there existed basically two:


Because I'd never been directed to analyze my own writing, I never caught on to the differences between "Third Person Omniscient"  and "Third Person Limited or Objective".   And, because I was primarily a "closet writer" - I never showed anyone my work, Borderlands Press Writers Bootcamp being the first time I ever shared my work with anyone - I never knew that my Third Person Omniscient was pretty sloppy, often changing perspectives not only within one paragraph, but inside one sentence!   

So Borderlands drilled into me the Third Person Limited Point of View, in which the reader has access to one person's head at a time.  If you wanted to switch narratives, you needed to switch chapters or scenes, or utilize a paragraph break to do so.  The author I think who does this best is F. Paul Wilson, most especially in his Repairman Jack series.  

In the course of my Creative Writing grad studies, I also touched upon Third Person Objective, a voice which relates facts only, no emotions or thoughts, which Hemingway used so precisely and I would never try, and quite honestly as a reader don't prefer.

Many positive things happened as a result of my new-found POV enlightenment.  I learned how to cut ENORMOUS amounts of unneeded words from my prose, trimmed the fat; learned how to write very tight scenes.  And, now that I have an eye for it, I've discovered what I believe to be one of the greatest benefits of third person limited (the other being a collection of very powerful, textured voices and characters), and that's hiding plot twists effectively, without seeming to cheat.  In 3rd Limited, readers only know what the character at that time is thinking.  

A great example of this exists in The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier.   Robert Cormier uses 3rd Limited to hide the main character's intentions for several chapters, as we see the story from several different characters' angles.  No one knows what this main character is thinking for five or six chapters, because even though he appears in several scenes with secondary characters through those chapters, he's viewed through the lens of those secondary characters, and he's keeping mum.   As a natural part of the story's structure, no one knows what he's thinking, so the reader doesn't, either.

So the suspense is dragged out for a very simple reason: Jerry (main character) won't tell his friends what's going on, and we're not in Jerry's head until a crucial moment, so WE don't know what's going on until that moment.

Some may not like that form of storytelling.  I love it, because it offers a wide variety and texture of flavor through many different characters' points of view, and to me, it seems a very logical - and deft - way of hiding plot twists.  I've fallen in love with 3rd Person Limited as a reader, have adopted it for my own as a writer, and for awhile indulged a knee-jerk reaction that 3rd Person Omniscient was just lazy writing, and that's all.

But I've encountered some authors who use 3rd Person Omni WELL, and have had to again readjust my thoughts: Sloppy 3rd Person Omni is lazy.  For me, to enjoy 3rd Person Omni, the author MUST do it well.  And how to do it well?

Through my reading, I've discovered it's a matter of having an ordered, structured device.  Could be as simple as switching perspectives to new people entering a scene.  Or even as simple as keeping perspective limited to the paragraph featuring that character, taking care not to leap to more than 3 perspectives in a scene, if possible.  

Or, it could be something even more graceful and natural, even a bit cinematic (which is NOT a bad thing, when you consider really well done movies).  In my reading of him, I've seen Charles Grant reach crucial parts of the narrative in which he allows the 3rd Person to travel omnisciently through several characters.  His device: touch, or contact of some kind.  

There's a great scene in Stunts that follows several high school students down a school hall, beginning with a student leaving class for the restroom. It starts in her art teacher's perspective, and as she hands a lavatory pass to the first student, the perspective switches to the student.  Then, a page or so later, this student turns a corner, runs into another student; she drops her books, he drops his lunch tray, they clean up the mess, she leaves, and we continue on with the student who dropped his tray.   

This is 3rd Omni, but it's being used in a panoramic way leading up to a climax at the principal's office, according to a very precise method.

Robert McCammon's Boy's Life and Norman Partridge's Dark Harvest completely mix and match perspectives, but they both use something ORDERED.  Structured.  Boy's Life is related through the grown-up, reflective First Person narrative of the main character reminiscing on his childhood, and he comes right out and says something like this: "I have no way of knowing what my friends were thinking back then, but I'm going to try and pretend that I do", then he proceeds to use that First Person framework to enter into the experiences of his friends from a 3rd person perspective.

Dark Harvest blends all the perspectives into one...but in a very ordered, precise way.  Partridge uses an Omniscient Narrator who at times reveals Itself in the First Person, at times addresses a spectral audience in the Second Person, and then descends into Third Person Limited for each  main character.  

But BECAUSE both the Omniscient Narrator and Spectral Audience are supposed to represent deceased members of this town, a spiritual inheritance, they can move wherever they want, whenever they want, into any character's head...because both the Omni Narrator and Spectral audience ARE this town and its history, given a voice, a perspective, watching the last story of their town unfold.

In the Renaissance, great art was thought to be based on the following principles: balance, order, and harmony (My thanks again, Santino).  I believe this holds true in fiction, and even - gasp! - horror and genre fiction.   That's why I have such a hard time with works that critics or other folks call "groundbreaking" or "game-changing" or "avaunt-garde" or "wildly creative", because in my experience, the works wearing those labels tend to be sloppy, making stuff up out of nowhere, their stories completely hostile to logic of any kind, and as far as they're concerned, the preceding three concepts don't exist at all. 

Yeah, I write genre fiction.  And yeah, all the examples I've listed of successful bits of 3rd Person Omni are TOTALLY genre fiction.  But they SUCCEED because they utilize or embody SOME semblance of balance, order and harmony.    

Balance, order, harmony.  Not JUST for Renaissance artists, but for horror writers too...