Point of View

“Point of View”, I’m discovering, is one of the harder elements of fiction writing to master. I’ve grown very sensitive, over the past few months, to how POV is used in short stories and in novels, and to what seems to be more or less officially called “POV drift”: that is, when the point of view in a short story wanders from one person to another. For example:

I looked at my hands and wondered how they got coated in blue ink. Then I looked up at Shari, who gazed back at me with a sense of foreboding.

In this case, the highlighted element is an example of POV drift: we’ve temporarily drifted out of the narrator’s head and into Shari’s. The narrator cannot know what Shari is thinking or feeling or sensing (unless one or the other of them is a telepath). A friend of mine refers to this sort of thing as “head hopping”.

A more subtle variation of POV drift happens when we see a character from an outsider’s perspective, when the story has up to that point been told strictly from a third-person limited point of view. For example:

Joe looked at his hands; how did they get so blue, he wondered? Then he looked at Shari, his face pale with agony.

In this case, the POV drift occurs in the second part of the second sentence; if the entire story has been told from Joe’s point of view and we’ve been deep in his thoughts the entire time, then to describe what his face looks like this is a bit of drift. It’s as though we’ve suddenly been thrown out of Joe’s head and are now looking at him from outside instead of inside.

All of this is difficult enough for writers to master. I keep coming up with questions of my own: how much can a person describe his own external appearances, and under what circumstances?

I looked up at him with that look of befuddlement which comes when you are overwhelmed with new information.

This example comes from Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods. You’re temporarily out of the writer’s head and seeing him from the outside; and yet this scene was written directly from Bryson’s own experience. Is this an example of acceptable POV drift?

In spite of all of this complexity, I do find point of view relatively easy; when critting stories by other beginning writers, I am frequently amazed by how much head-hopping and POV drift occurs. And even more amazed when I point it out to the writer only to have him or her respond, “What do you mean by point of view?” I usually recommend to them the book Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, which contains an excellent discussion of this question.

Complicating all of this, though, is the notion of “narrative distance” which I’m only just beginning to comprehend as a concept. In a single story, there can be times when it’s entirely appropriate to be deep in the head of a particular character; and other times when it’s more appropriate to be outside that character’s head. To draw a cinematic analogy, there are times in a movie when closeup shots are appropriate and times when a wider shot is appropriate. A closeup shot — a deeper POV — gives us better insight into a character, while a wider shot — a more removed POV — gives us a better, more objective view of the action. This can lead the writer to a terrible quandary: at what time is it appropriate to be deep inside the character’s head, and when is it appropriate to be outside?

Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is told from deep inside the narrator’s head; given the Chief’s schizophrenia, it is therefore impossible to know whether the entire story happened as described, or whether much of it was delusion. It worked for Kesey, but for other stories, that very deep 1st person POV may detract from the story if the character’s thought processes are untrustworthy; in this case, a third person limited POV may be called for, with varying depths to show both the level of the character’s insanity as well as a more objective view of the action. That’s just a single example of how appropriate narrative distance can really monkey up the notion of point of view.

Writing is much more difficult than I had imagined in my youthful days of exuberant imagination. But a good story, well told, is its own reward.

Disquieting Contrasts

I have a few audio books on CD that I listen to occasionally. One of them is A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, read by the author. Bryson’s a wonderful writer, with a way of turning a phrase which I find really funny and which I end up emulating far too much sometimes; and he has a British accent, which is just funny in itself (come on now, you know British accents are inherently funny — I’d snicker at Tony Blair even if he was declaring war on the US).

A Walk in the Woods is about Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. Interspersed with his narrative are observations about the trail, about wilderness, about natural history, and about America’s relationship with the wilderness. The hike itself is, for him, an intensely personal experience, nearly a spiritual one (though I’m pretty sure Bryson is at least an agnostic). There are parts of the book where he describes the changes in his friendship with his hiking buddy that are very moving and almost sad.

This morning as I drove to work, I listened to the final lines of the book: “I had seen the wilderness. I had made a friend. I had come home.” Every time I listen to this book and those last few lines, I get a sort of thrill.

Imagine my shock, then, when I ejected the CD after the final notes of the closing music, and tuned in to NPR to hear the following stories, all delivered in a sharp, newscasterly, tone:

  1. Lance Armstrong has been accused of using “performance-enhancing drugs”;
  2. Arizona and New Mexico have declared states of emergency because of the high numbers of illegal immigrants in those states; and
  3. Pat Robertson, leader of the Christian Coalition and self-professed Christian, advocates the assassination of the leader of Venezuela.

It was a shocking and unpleasant experience. Newscaster voices are the polar opposite of the funny British accent; a newscaster — even an NPR newscaster, and they specialize in calm, bland tones — could read you a story about a kitten playing with a ball of string and make you want to go out and build a bomb shelter and stock it with plenty of duct tape and plastic sheeting. And the subjects being read about were universally depressing and indicative of nothing more than man’s continuing determination to destroy everything in the world that smacks of humanity or dignity or charity. I wanted to go back to Bryson and the Appalachian Trail, to hear more about his changing relationship with his friend and about the history and flora and fauna of the A.T.

I changed radio stations and found a Rossini piano piece being played on the other NPR station and that made me feel better.

On another note, I’ve decided that Bill Bryson is my new intellectual hero. I don’t know the man personally, and I don’t know much about him, except that he’s normally a linguist who also writes travel literature and who got so very curious about certain topics on science that he wrote A Brief History of Nearly Everything, which is an outstanding layman’s guide to topics ranging from the Big Bang to biochemical evolution. How can you not admire that kind of curiosity and ability to stretch one’s mind?

Writing Update

Of course, today was a work day, so I didn’t get much actual writing done, even though I worked at home. However, during breaks I reviewed some of the outstanding critiques I received on my short story “Indications”, and I’m finding ways to make the writing tighter and smoother and less obscure. Sometimes it hurts to delete some words and phrases that you’ve been fond of for years and years, but the Story is all important; you gotta do what you can to make the story work. John Gardner, in his book The Art of Fiction, talks about the “Dream of Fiction” (or something like that), where the reader, reading the story, falls into an almost dream-like state, completely caught up in the story, forgetting that there’s nothing more than words on the page conveying that dream. The job of the writer is to convey that dream and encourage it, and to eliminate any words or phrases or plot devices that detract from that dream. I’m slowly learning how to get there, but I have a long way to go.

This evening I went to my regular writers’ group meeting, and brought along “The Divergents”, a short short that I put together the other day (actually in our group, we post our stories to our group’s website so that we all have a chance to read them and comment on them over the period of a few days). I love my writers’ group; not only is everyone a talented writer, but we’re also all harsh critiquers; my friend B. and I have spoken recently about the difference between a “Crit Circle” and a “Validation Circle”, where the only feedback you get on your writing is of the positive sort, and nothing constructive is ever given; validation circles can doom a promising writer’s career before they ever get started.

“The Divergents” received very high praise, and I’m pretty fond of it myself. Most of my stories, even the ones that I’ve published, I don’t feel are really “there”, wherever “there” is. Except for “The Divergents”. That one is definitely There. It needs some minor polishing, of course, but it’s solid, and I can expand it into something which I think will be Truly Good.

Next up on the “To Be Hacked At” list: “Hollow”, “The Winds of Patwin County”, “Who Remembers Molly”, and “Burying Uncle Albert”. Still on my “Finish It” list: “The Flashlight Man”, and “Sparrow Court”. And, of course, The Road to Gilead, and a framing story (perhaps) for the novelized Who Remembers Molly.

Pratchett V. Rowling

(With nods to and Neil Gaiman.)

Much has been made recently about Terry Pratchett’s “snipe” at JK Rowling, mostly based on an article about Rowling in a recent issue of Time magazine. The Time article was pretty badly written, full of hyperbole and speculation, and an astonishingly bad example of journalism. There was at least one point in that article (that JK Rowling had never read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series) which I knew was an utter lie. And anyone who’s read C. S. Lewis extensively knows that he harbored no “sentimentality toward children”; in fact, he could barely stand to be around children. Rowling did have issues with Narnia, but she did indeed read the entire series, and she enjoyed it. And Pratchett’s “swipe” at Rowling is more properly described as a swipe at the bad reporting in Time magazine.

For a more explicit example of how the press can misinterpret such things, compare Terry Pratchett’s speech which he gave when he accepted the Carnegie Award for The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. You can find it here. Then take a look at this article which reports on his speech.

Now, Terry Pratchett is, by all accounts, a funny and good-natured guy, both as a novelist and as a person. And darned smart. When he says, “Far more beguiling than the idea that evil can be destroyed by throwing a piece of expensive jewellery into a volcano is the possibility that evil can be defused by talking”, he knows perfectly well that The Lord of the Rings is about far, far more than defeating evil just by destroying a ring. But how many bad fantasy writers did miss that point in LotR, and write derivative fantasy in which evil was simply destroyed by destroying an amulet (seems to me I’ve run a good number of D&D games where that was exactly the plot point). And when he says, “Of course, everyone knows that fantasy is ‘all about’ wizards, but by now, I hope, everyone with any intelligence knows that, er, what everyone knows…is wrong”, you have to squint pretty hard to interpret that as an attack on Rowling. At worst, it’s a swipe at people who believe that the Harry Potter books represent all that there is to fantasy.

Neil Gaiman, another brilliant writer, had this to say about the issue. And, of course, he said it much more coherently than I ever could. (On a side note: I once was friends with a woman whose name was C., and who claimed to be Neil Gaiman’s girlfriend at the time. This would have been 1993 or 1994. I didn’t have trouble believing her, because I’ve found a few references to the area that she and I lived in in The Sandman and elsewhere; but now I’m not so sure, because, based on some biographical snippets I’ve read from Gaiman, I’m not sure the chronology works out.)

Anyway. In a way, it’s very frustrating to see the press treat the science fiction and fantasy community this way. It’s the same sort of thinking which prompted some schmuck in Hollywood to make the film Dungeons and Dragons (or worse, a sequel). There’s a thinking predominant in broader society which says it’s simply impossible that anything that is science fiction or fantasy can possibly be of any quality at all (regardless of the phenomenal success of The Lord of the Rings movies), and that’s a shame.

On the other hand, it does give me pause for thought. If Time and other news outlets are so poor at depicting what’s going on in a community that I know something about, then how good can the news media possibly be at reporting anything else?