The Critics’ Corner
Point of view and composition
I have a rather interesting discussion going on with Mike Leier — and this letter can be used in the letters section of BwS.
It is about narrative perspective. He and I read each other’s work and discuss it quite a lot. I pointed out that his stories start in third person perspective (usually the opening scene) and then change to first person when the hero of his stories, Rick Vargo comes on the scene.
Now, I queried him about this, here’s what I said:
I just have one query, and this is to do with style, rather than content. In The Skull Hunter you change perspective from the opening scene (which is third person) to the parts with Rick (which is first person). Now, I would never “switch” perspectives like that, and I must admit you do it really well. Is this acceptable? Or are you really taking liberties here? I don’t know. Just thought I’d ask, so I can get your grey matter working even more... LOL!!! Mmm, that would be an interesting challenge letter, wouldn’t it?
His reply was:
That is a good question. I never really considered it a problem since I used those little *** to separate the scene.
I would love for you to ask the question when the story comes out to hear the responses. My only answer would be that I write visually. I am an avid television and movie watcher. When I write I don’t think the story, I see it happening just as though it was on the screen and just write what I see. The opening scene in The Skull Hunter stories would be like the opening action scene of a TV drama just before the opening credits. I can almost hear the music building as it cuts away to the theme music.
Strange I know, but then again I am kind of weird.
Now, I don’t consider it a problem. Just different. I like it, but I posed the question that perhaps the opening scenes should be separated more someow. I’m not really sure though. So we decided to open this all up for discussion.
What do you think?
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Point of view
We have three points of view in this article: Clyde’s, Michael Leier’s, and mine. They’re indicated in different ways: by block quotes or our standard three-asterisk separator. Very handy, eh?
The only “rule” I know of in choosing point of view is not to confuse your audience. Like following the rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar, the author’s successfully controlling the point of view helps the readers follow the story without distracting them with irrelevant mechanical details.
You have a choice of three persons: first, third, or even second. But the second person can be too limiting: the only successful use of the second person that I know of is in Michel Butor’s novel La Modification. Perhaps our readers can supply an example of one in English.
Should Rick Vargo’s role be played out in the third person, since that’s how Fred Dellette’s part of the story is told? I don’t see why: the change of person from third to first creates no confusion at all; it’s quite reminiscent of film technique. And consider the alternative: Dellette’s scenes would have to be a flashback in the scene where Vargo meets Brogan and Dellette at the police station. That would be painfully cumbersome.
However, chronological order is not always best: we have a story coming up in the next issue that is based on simultaneous actions; only a flashback would keep the story from becoming almost entirely anti-climactic.
You also have a choice of mode: how much does the narrator (or point-of-view character) know?
As the author, you can be the narrator and have complete omniscience. That means you can tell us what all the characters are thinking as well as what’s happening behind the scenes. Some of the greatest authors of the 19th century use complete omniscience very effectively. But it takes a genius to keep the story from becoming dry and sounding like it should have been an essay; even the greatest authors don’t always succeed.
Clyde, you use full omniscience in at least one point in “The Orion Incident”:
It was about time, according to her, that he faced reality. And she was going to provide that reality check. She would give it willingly and without apology. God, she now felt good. She faced him, ignored his sarcasm. She was proud of herself.
The readers may take full omniscience as an acceptable shortcut, but they’re more likely to take it as a brick on the foot: it’s a prime example of “telling” rather than “showing.” The writer has to know what he’s doing at all times; even if he doesn’t, the readers certainly will.
Today, writers normally choose partial omniscience. The narrator serves as a kind of projection of the reader by observing his surroundings within the story. Like the reader, the narrator has questions about what’s going on and what the other characters are doing and thinking.
In “A Haunted Past,” in this issue, Mike Leier uses partial omniscience with two point-of-view characters: Fred Dellette, in the third person in the opening scenes, and then Rick Vargo, in the first person in the rest.
Logically, there is a third mode: total ignorance. The only example I know of is André Gide’s short novel La Symphonie pastorale, where you discover at the end that the first-person narrator has been lying to you and himself from the very beginning. It’s considered a minor masterpiece.
Mike also mentions that visualization plays a big part in composition; it’s like watching a film or play. That’s not weird at all, Mike; that’s standard operating procedure! Obviously, visualization and vocalization support each other (cf. Carmen Ruggero’s “Short Fiction vs. Novel,” in issue 188).
Sensory deprivation is a technique that can be useful in making stories richer.
How would you write a story from the point of view of someone who can see but not hear?
Likewise, how would you write a story from the point of view of someone who can’t see? The character may not have the sense of sight at all or may simply happen to be in a very dark place.
At one point, Clyde puts his two main characters in a dark place in “The Orion Incident.” The danger becomes quickly apparent, of course: sight and hearing are considered normal, and any deviation from the norm risks becoming comic, whether you intend it to or not.
Danielle Parker does the same thing in the opening scene of Mad World Band. In that case, events threaten to have a bad outcome, and sooner rather than later. When that happens, they move across the scale from comedy to tragedy.
You don’t have to write an entire story in sensory-deprivation mode, but imagining a scene from first one perspective and then another can enrich the story by emphasizing different modes of sensory perception rather than relying almost exclusively on sight.