it's a great life, if you don't weaken (matociquala) wrote,
it's a great life, if you don't weaken

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The self-aware narrative

This is something I've been thinking about for a while--in part due to a panel at Boskone where ellen_kushner and I got a little stroppy over the recent focus on tight-limited third-person narrators in genre, and in part because of some stuff that came up for discussion at the WisCon writer's workshop I attended, and in part because I have been watching Hustle and Criminal Minds, both of which are very aware of their own narratology. Hustle regularly breaks the fourth wall, or borrows from such forms as the Broadway musical (in one episode, they lift the "tap dance" joke from Chicago) or the Bollywood epic (complete with sung soliloquys). Criminal Minds exploits a narrative technique in which it frames the show with quotations, and also a very cool trick where the characters, FBI profilers, can conjure--and interact with--ghost images of the suspects and victims who are their work.

Diegesis rather than mimesis, in other words.

(If those words make no sense to you, quick, go read this Wikipedia entry. It's not a really nuanced view of POV (It misses the idea of sliding omniscience, and of the objective narrator (i.e. Dashiell Hammett), and some of it is confusingly written, but... it'll do for a start.))

Anyway, I'm kind of pleased to see a minor revolt going on in genre. For a long time, driven--I suspect--by books such as Techniques of the Selling Writer and Received Wisdom, genre writers in particular have been pushed toward a very tight sort of third-person limited omniscient. To the point where we are told that any information that is not current in the POV character's brain when he is moving through a scene must be eradicated. That we must be perfectly mimetic, immersive writers, and efface ourselves from the narrative.

Well. Yes and no.

No and yes.

It's a perfectly valid choice, in other words, and for some books it is undoubtedly the best tool for the job, but I don't think it's helpful to fetishize this particular species of narrative above others. The more I write, the more confortable I become with a very tight third-person limited (my natural POV is a weirdy: most people seem to write either 1st-person, true omniscient, or tight third naturally: my own default POV is a psychic steadicam floating over the protagonist's left shoulder, so I had to learn 3pL the hard way) the more interested I become in other POVs and their uses.

I still write a lot more 3pL than anything else--it's easy, and it's an unobjectional default unless one needs a narrator with more tricks in his bag, and one doesn't even have to mess around with being *aware* of the narrator (as one always does in omni or 2pL) because the narrator *is* the POV, after a fashion, if the POV is tight enough--but I'm starting to figure out what omniscient is good for, for example. Not sure I'll ever write another novel in it (Whiskey & Water was exhausting.) but it does come in useful in short stories. And the narrative confidence I had to learn to pull off an omniscient book (If first person narrators live or die by their sense of humor, omni narrators live or die by their self-assurance) serves me very well in daily life.

As does omniscient's ability to condense a massive amount of information into next to no space at all.

The thing is, omniscient is intrinsically diegistic. It's a narrative that's aware of itself as a narrative. It's playing narrative games, managing information, storytelling. There's no illusion of immersion in a single character's POV.

Which is okay, in some ways. Because writing is like engineering (and everything else) in that everything about writing is a trade off. You can have strength or lightness; you can have immersion or scope.

The trick is to pick your battle, commit to the tricks you're going to use, and work them for all they're worth to try to maximize the effect of even the things you are sacrificing.

Even the Gossamer Albatross has to hold up its own weight.
Tags: writing craft wank, writing is like everything else

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