September 13th, 2006

bear by san

All right, group. It's time to meditate on the pure white light of stupidity.

I understand that I've engendered a little confusion relating to point of view and the uses thereof with my comments on Whiskey & Water. W&W is in third-person true omniscient, with a mostly-nonintrusive narrator. This is different from a headhopping or best-seller omniscient POV, and I don't mean to recommend, as somebody asked in email, that everybody run right out and start writing everything in omniscient.

Now, I'm a firm proponent of the idea that fashion is fleeting, and that there are no rules in literature, only techniques that work and do not work. However, I also honestly believe that the easiest way to do a job well is often the best. Which doesn't mean you should always use a hammer.

Sometimes, you need a wood chisel instead. And sometimes you need a laser-guided crosscut saw.

The definitions of different points of view are quite basic stuff, discussed with greater or lesser effect in most high school English classes and elementary how to write books. And yet, many of us don't really understand them, or understand what they're good for.

Essentially, what you have in POV is a space defined by three intersecting sliding lines. One axis relates to who is talking, the second defines how they are sensing, and the third plots when they are reporting from.

So, for example, the first axis, we have several options. Most commonly used are first person singular and third person. ("I" and "s/he"). Also options are "we" (first person plural) and "you" (second person singular or plural, in English). These are useful for different things, and every single one changes the story as you relate it. And they can be mixed and matched to create identity confusion. For example, in Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit," (spoilers beyond link) where the "I" and the "he" become inextricably mingled at the end of the narrative.

This is stunt writing. Stunt writing is hard, and we expect to fall on our faces when we try it. Sometimes, though, it works. (There's a scene in The Stratford Man that's simultaneously is past tense and present tense, from two points of view that are the same person at two different points in his life. That, boy, that sucked to write. But more on this in the section on time, below.)

An interesting thing here is that, in all of the POV choices in the first category except first person, there is an implied narrator. Somebody, in other words, is telling the story. Somebody says you. Or he.

Or, to give examples, when a story is cast in first person limited point of view and it begins I walked down to the dock and thought about my mother, we know who the narrator is. It is I. (I, in the case of fiction, cannot be presumed to be the writer, except in very odd cases where it is. As in for example Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, further to which we will discuss below.)

In other words, if I recast the line above in third person, somebody says He walked down to the dock and thought about his mother. That somebody is NOT the POV character.

Perhaps this will be more explicit if I demonstrate second person: You walked down to the dock and thought about your mother. See? Somebody else is telling the POV character ("You") what you did. (The you in this case isn't the reader any more than the narrator is the writer, but you are invited to project into the character strongly--or, in some tricky cases, to alienate from them. It's a POV often used when the writer is working with a profoundly unlikable protagonist, for a variety of subtle reasons.)

That somebody is the narrator. Who can see inside the POV character's head, and in current fashion isoften presumed to only be able to see inside the POV character's head. But--and this is important--the narrator is not, as is often presumed, the POV character except in first person limited point of view. (see above.)

There is no such thing as third person limited point of view.

Hah. Got your attention now, don't I? Lemme 'splain.

Because this brings us to the second axis, the one where we are concerned with how the narrator is sensing.

On the second axis, we also have a sliding scale, from a very limited POV to an omniscient one, and then--the true weirdy--objective POV. Here's the thing. With the exception of first-person limited and third-person objective, the POV choices made here (all of which imply a narrator) are not different POVs. They are different implementations of the same POV--the omniscient POV.

So what we sloppily call third person limited is in fact third person limited omniscient. Because we can, in fact, see into the inner thoughts of at least one character, our POV character (and more, if we are writing a multiple-POV story.) And this omniscience (the ability of the narrator to know more than an actual person standing there watching things unfold could.) is a profoundly misunderstood characteristic of narrative. How do I know that He is Thinking About His Mother? Because the omniscient narrator told me.

But omniscience is a sliding scale. It can be extremely tightly limited--one character's thoughts and reactions only--or it can slide back and do what I refer to as the Psychic Steadicam. (This, by the way, is the POV of my natural voice, and it confuses the heck out of readers who are very much trained to read a tight limited third person, so I have been forced, over the years, to learn not to do it.) And when you get far enough up, and a broad enough view, you have a true omniscient.

But what about head-hopping, I hear you cry. Isn't it evile?

Well... yes. Or jarring, anyway. And lazy, lazy, lazy. Lazy like a lazy thing.

But Bear, didn't you just say that there were no rules, only techniques?

Well, yes. And you'll note that I didn't say don't do it. I said it was evile.  

...wait, lemme 'splain.

Okay, head-hopping (aka "best-seller omniscient") is a specific type of omniscient writing that attempts to get away with storytelling in omniscient without the use of a narrator to hold things together (1). Essentially, it dispenses with transitions, with the most powerful tool of the omniscient voice--which is the ability to pull back and show a broad, sweeping perspective, as Richard Adams often does in Watership Down, which is the book I most often point to when I want to demonstrate omniscient done well--and instead bounces the reader from head to head so that the reader can be told what each character is feeling or thinking.

The reason I say its evile is because it is crude, because it's cheating (we don't need to bother to characterize, when we can just bounce into the Duke's head and show you what he's thinking), and because it dispenses with subtlety in the interests of making things as easy as possible on the reader and the writer. Also, it tends to remove ambiguity and lattitude for interpretation; it is thus because the writer says it is thus, and that feels, to me, often managerial and manipulative.

Also, my aversion to it probably has something to do with the fact that it's frequently seen in books where the villain is a fat unctuous sadistic pedophile who kicks puppies. Hard. And thus I find it often indicates and reinforces an auctorial lack of subtlety.

A true omniscient, by contrast, is a lovely and subtle thing. The narrator (and I do not think its possible to write good omniscient without having a strong narrator, understanding her and understanding her agenda, knowing who is telling the story and why) is possessed of a flexible tool for exposition and characterization. In addition, she has the privilege of dipping into and assuming character voices, of flicking lightsome through the grass, of immersing or distancing.

On the other hand, it is extraordinarily difficult to do. Because it requires that the writer have a great deal more control over his material than most of us do, expecially at the beginning. He must be aware of his transitions, of how he moves from space to space, of what he is revealing and what he is allowing to pass unremarked. I found it absolutely exhausting to write, actually.

Right. That brings us to objective, doesn't it? Objective is the complement to omniscient; it is the cinematic or camera's-eye view, where one can see all the externals, but none of the internals. Dashiell Hammett, for a case study. *g*

Which brings us to the third axis, time. Or when the narrator is reporting events from. Most commonly used is past tense (I walked down the street.) Less common, but still not infrequent, is present tense (I walk down the street.) Some readers are quite biased against present tense (some are also quite biased against first person or second person or omniscient. So what? Do what the book needs you to do.) and I think this may in part be because it so often written, not to put too fine a point on it, like shit. For example, we have a tendency to get sloppy in present tense, to say "I am walking down the street" when what we really mean is "I walk down the street."

All that scaffolding adds up, and adds up to sloppy prose. Only use the progressive when you need it, because it is a life-sucking fiend. (This goes for the past tense too. "I was walking." No. "I walked," unless the progress or its interruption is the important thing.)

Then there are the weirdies. Future tense! Future perfect tense, which I once wrote a story in, on a dare. (It begins "It will have been raining in Harvard Square for half an hour when you give up hope.") Those, again? Stunt writing. Use them for a reason.

Or, hell. Go ahead and play with all of them. Be adventuresome. Figure out what the tools are good for. Practice!

But we need to not assume that because we tried to pull something off we got it right, or that it was the best way to get the effect we needed. Because each of these POV choices results in a different book; each of them offers limitations and rewards and special shiny things And I think it takes practice and experimentation to figure out what they're good for and why.

But that doesn't mean we're doing it well. Not at first, anyway. Eventually, with practice, one (I sincerely hope!) gets to the point where one can cast a book in first-person omniscient and make it work.

And make it something the book needs.

Then you get to be a genius.

(1) Narrators may be intrusive or self-effacing. The intrusive narrator says "Reader, I married him." The self-effacing narrator does not. For modern in genre examples of intrusive narrators used to good effect, may I recommend the works of skzbrust and papersky?

Today's The Firesign Theatre obsession brought to you by comments in a friend's lj. *g*
evile overbear

Revelation of the day.

People will, in fact, read against the text to get it to fit an expected or desired pattern. You would think this wouldn't be news, given the songs they play at wedding receptions, but it still always is somehow.
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bear by san

like a Kipling cat, I walk alone

And I have reached the point in the narrative where I must decide if I am going to keep the unicorn, or replace it with something more ethnically appropriate, like a golden boar.

I guess it doesn't really matter, as long as it has a spiky thing you could impale somebody on. And I have already got one rather nasty unicorn in print. Dunno if I really want to repeat myself, even if this is rather a different sort of unicorn.

lion in winter dead

Evidence of absence

I just found out that somebody who was very special to me when I was a student passed away last month. Douglas F. Jordan, professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, Connecticut's first State Anthropologist, a humane and funny and generous man who never remembered a student because he might have to forget an australopithecine.

He hated the term "hunter-gatherers," insisting that "appropriator" was a more accurate description of such cultures. He once circled the word "desertification" in a paper of mine and wrote "ooo! good word!" in the margin in red pen. He had a sense of humor that only about a fifth of his students laughed at (we thought he was hysterical; he was very, very, very dry), and a yellow Labrador, and wispy white flyaway hair. When I asked him to be my advisor, he turned me down because he was retiring, but he kept teaching classes as an emeritus professor. He taught me about potsherds and battleship diagrams and that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

He taught me to question my own cultural assumptions, and never to assume that the narrative I thought I was seeing was the correct one. He taught me that you don't dig a whole site, because in fifty years they'll have better tools for analysis, and if you've destroyed all the evidence with your primitive methods, it won't do anybody a damned bit of good. He taught me that middens are the best place to learn the truth about people.

I loaned him my copy of Motel of Mysteries, and in return he gave me "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema."

I hadn't talked with him since I left school. He probably thought I was smart but flighty, and didn't apply myself.

He would have been right.

Good teacher. Good man.

bear by san

(no subject)

The cat just ate cold salmon with wasabi and soy sauce and ginger. And now she is staring at me.

I'm not sure if this is "you're going to hell, biped," or "more please."