Grenade in the Room – Part 2

Disclaimer: The Writer’s Desk Logbook is not a podium from which universal truths and profound wisdom flow down to the masses. These posts are nothing more than personal observations about my exploration of the fascinating craft of writing. And for those of you who might not already know, I don’t believe that thinking about writing condemns the result to the trash heap.

The material presented here is mostly derived from reading about writing, and I have “borrowed” liberally from various source documents. One of my favorites is Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and hopefully he won’t mind.

That said, I’ve personalized it from my own experience at my writing desk and in group discussions with other writers. Speaking of which, in a previous post I likened the act of suggesting to a group of writers, “Let’s talk about point-of-view” as the equivalent of tossing a grenade in the room. In this and subsequent posts, I intend to expand on that topic.

During the years of my continuing struggle to become a better writer, I’ve listed for my own edification about twenty-six structural elements of fiction that in combination support the foundation of stories that work for me. Understanding the contribution of each element to the whole and how to utilize each to the most effective benefit has always been one of my goals. At the top of the list reside character and viewpoint.

As I mentioned in the previous “Grenade” post, I believe it’s instructive to consider the choice of person and viewpoint separately in order to evaluate the effect of these choices on characterization. I also consider the choice of tense as a crucial factor in the writer’s ability to create in readers the desired viewpoint experience within the fictive dream.

I therefore define the total subject of viewpoint as the sum of a writer’s decisions with regard to: person (first or third — ignoring second for my purposes here, tense (present or past — ignoring future), and viewpoint (omniscient, limited single, or limited multiple).

Overlying these elements is the question of voice. Who is telling the story, whose voice will the reader hear? The author’s, of course, but not exactly. The two most common choices are that of a non-participating narrator or point-of-view (pov) character. To begin, let’s address first things first ala Mr. Card.

First person is an eyewitness account. I can tell you only what I saw, did, what happened to me. I am limited to that one perspective. I can’t include anything happening when I’m not there, no other thoughts, no other attitudes. This is not a grammatical choice, but a strategy for telling the story. I can choose someone else’s voice, that of a character. But if so, I have to choose a new voice for every story (unless I’m writing a series or sequels) and they must not all sound like me.

In creating this narrator’s voice, I must also create attitudes, with an implied past, using speech reflecting education and regional accent, best shown only through syntax and word choice rather than odd spelling and pronunciation or use of contractions to show different speech patterns.

So, who should it be? The main limitation is that the character has to be present in all the scenes, so the main character is the most common choice.

Choice of first person requires a careful balance. The emotional experience must still allow coherent narration or it appears too melodramatic. Err in the opposite direction and the character appears too cool, heartless. This creates a situation in which the use of first person is both an asset and a liability. If I am a bore, the story will be. If I am relating great deeds, I will seem vain if I do not take care to show myself as brave without realizing it. And if I do something bad, why is it not a crime and why shouldn’t the reader despise me for it.

One problem is that a first-person narrator is physically taking part in the story, must have a good reason for telling it, and know who the audience is. Also, as a participant in the events, the narrator has to tell the story while looking backward into the past so that the telling is distant in time from the story itself. One solution is for the narrator to use present tense in what is sometimes called the “stream of consciousness” approach, but there has been little success historically using this technique.

First person also creates a technical problem. The narrator knows the ending. Why not just tell the reader in the first few sentences and be done with it? When you don’t, it is a constant reminder of the artifice, deliberately leaving the reader in suspense.

A common method for dealing with this problem is to always tell the reader everything known at the time and don’t hold anything back (which does nothing for creating suspense and only puts unwanted distance between narrator and reader). We are cautioned not to state that some unspecified event occurred and keep the significance secret until the end of the story. It’s okay if the reader and the character learn of the event at the same time and both discover the importance later, but to refuse to tell the reader about something the narrator did or knows isn’t “playing fair.”

First-person narration also prevents using an element of risk in telling the story, in that the threat of death can never be used because the narrator is obviously still around to tell about it. Why should a reader be worried when it’s obvious the character survived? Unless the narrator is speaking from the dead, of course, which has been done effectively, or so I’m told.

Although first person seems natural, and a simple way to tell the story, it is easy to lapse and add things that are not first person. No other character can see, feel, hear, taste, smell, inwardly emote, or think.

The first-person narrator must avoid relating only the what and never the why, must do more than watch him/herself, and must remember things from inside the person. The whole point is for the reader to experience everything through perceptions, colored by attitudes, and driven by motives of the pov character. The narrator must reveal the character of the person, be the kind of person who would tell the story, and clearly present these internal forces at work.

First person is by definition a limited-single viewpoint unless the story is told from the perspective of multiple first-person narrators.

This topic will continue with “Grenade in the Room – Part 3. Please visit again soon to check it out.

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