pov: the unreliable narrator

I’m not a huge fan of first person narration. In fact, I will admit that I often pick up a book and put it down immediately upon discovering that it is in first person. However, there’s one approach to first person that I truly like, and that’s the unreliable narrator.

writing is both mask and unveilingThe way to think about this is to imagine that the story you’re reading, the narrator whose words you are reading are not being addressed to you. The character is talking to a police officer or judge or some other authority figure.

You’re listening to somebody  spin a story. A narrator who has got more than the usual stake in being believed. We’re not talking the grandma narrator, the one who just wants to amuse you with funny stories of her girlhood. We’re talking grandma in the pokey, and the first time she sits down with her lawyer.

The first grandma might start:

We were poor, but I didn’t know that until I first went to school and found out that other little girls wore dresses that weren’t made out of flour sacks.

Grandma in the Pokey might start:

Now, you listen here. If I shoot a man between the eyes — and I’m not admitting I did anything of the kind — you had best believe I was acting in self defense. To let that black-hearted thieving scoundrel live even another minute would have been the death of me.

The first grandma may have a great story to tell, and she may write it down and sell it and find a niche audience and do very well. This Mitford-type approach is not so much my cuppa tea. I’m far more interested in the second grandma, grandma with a gun. She’s got a story to tell, but it’s only going to be one layer of a very complicated story, and I’ll have to pay close attention because now and then she’ll let her guard down and I’ll get a glimpse of what was really happening, how she came to shoot Jimmy O’Toole, he of the prize winning dahlias, between the eyes.

Here’s a setup that begs for a first person unreliable narrator:

Joan’s car is sitting in the garage with one fender smashed in, a ticket on the windshield, and the unmistakable smell of a common Illegal Substance wafting out a broken window. And the gas tank, which was full yesterday afternoon at three, is on empty.

Joan walks upstairs to the bedroom her twin daughters share and wakes them less than gently. They peek at her from underneath the covers.

Talk, says Joan. And it better be good.

All first person narrators are unreliable to some extent. They are limited by their own observations and memories, by motivations hidden and in plain sight, by necessity. But a true unreliable narrator is exciting. That narrator is a cat in a sack. Maybe a really mad cat with very long claws and a score to settle. Maybe a desperate little cat whose been lying so long to stay out of trouble’s way that she’s forgot how to tell the truth. Or maybe an evil cat, one who likes to mess with your mind. Purr and slash, just for the hell of it.
Two unreliable narrators come to mind first. Eudora Welty‘s “Why I live at the P.O.” is a wonderful short story with a narrator who will stick around in your head for a long time. And then there’s Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. If you are at all interested in unabridged audio, this book was produced beautifully and perfectly narrated by Frances Sternhagen with a pitch-perfect Maine accent (PW review here).

Dolores is a fantastic unreliable narrator, because she herself isn’t completely sure what happened, and what she wants to happen. She’s got strong opinions and she’s not afraid to tell you exactly what’s on her mind. Or at least, the parts she can bear to speak out loud.

 

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a laughing matter: dialogue tags

I had an email from a very irritated reader:

 

I am three quarters of the way through your book “Tied to the Tracks” which I think is a good book however I am so irritated, no more than that.. infuriated, that I almost threw your book across the room.  The reason for my angst…your stupid description of a laugh.   “burped a laugh”?…”hiccuped a laugh”?  For God’s sake.  I have never heard a person ‘hiccup a laugh’ or ‘burped a laugh’. Maybe you could get away with the description once but when it is repeated 2 orthree times in a book …geez.

 

If I may confess: on reading this, I hiccuped a laugh.

Only the serious know how to truly laugh

 

Now I’ll be serious. I’ve had this discussion before.  There is a contingent of people who are very adament — even passionate — about the way the word laugh is used. It seems that for purists, a laugh must stand alone. You can’t do anything while you’re laughing. You can’t talk, for example, while you’re laughing, or at least, this is the claim. I talk while I’m laughing all the time, but to claim that a character is doing so offends some readers.

 

In fact, biologists are pretty clear on the fact that there is more than one kind of laughter. One kind is stimulous driven, and other other is self-generated and strategic.

 

Laughter that occurs during everyday social interaction in response to banal comments and humorless conversation is now being studied. […] The unstated issue is whether such laughter is similar in kind to laughter following from humor.

[…] neuropsychological and behavioral studies have shown that laughter can be more than just a spontaneous response to such stimuli. Around 2 million years ago, human ancestors evolved the capacity for willful control over facial motor systems. A

s a result, laughter was co-opted for a number of novel functions, including strategically punctuating conversation, and conveying feelings or ideas such as embarrassment and derision.

Humans can now voluntarily access the laughter program and utilize it for their own ends, including smoothing conversational interaction, appeasing others, inducing favorable stances in them, or downright laughing at people that are not liked.

 

Gervais, Matthew and David Sloan Wilson “The Evolutions and Functions of Laughter and Humor: A Synthetic Approach.” Quarterly Review of Biology, Dec. 2005.

Even without scientific studies, it seems to me a matter of simple human intuition that there are many kinds of laughter and that voluntary laughter   can be used for a variety of purposes. A laugh can sound like a hiccup or a burp or a bray, most usually because there’s a message that goes along with it.

 

So I don’t get the outrage. Everybody has pet peeves and they are under no obligation to be logical or rational, but I don’t even get where this strong reaction to the use of the word laugh comes from. Anybody want to enlighten me?

 

 

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said, the undead

Asdfg asked about yesterday’s post:

This is very enlightening. Is this what you do for the first draft, then fill in the “he saids,” etc. for making it into appropriate dialog?

It’s possible that some people write their scenes this way, but I don’t. The process is all woven together for me, dialog and underpainting. I presented it this way only so I could experiment on it a little.

Below is my attempt to rewrite the dialog from yesterday into a scene. A really bad scene that incorporates all the things you can do wrong. I may have missed a few, but not many. Tomorrow I’ll try to articulate the problems, and look at them more closely.


“Ben, we talked about this last night, right here at this table,” exclaimed June. She tapped the table.”You talked about it,” Ben yawned. He examined his reflection in the toaster.

“By your silence, Ben, you were agreeing implicitly that the clothes you wear to school are–,” George said seriously.

Ben interrupted. “Didn’t you teach me always to get it in writing, Dad? Implicit doesn’t cut it. Unless you drew up one of your iron clad contracts and I signed it while hypnotized, I’m wearing what I’m wearing,” Ben announced.

“Son, that t-shirt is unacceptable,” June pleaded.

“It’s inappropriate,” thundered George.

“So’s the ketchup on your tie, Dad, ” Ben smirked.

June leaned toward him. “It’s obscene,” she hissed.

Ben looked at his t-shirt. “Obscene? Lick Bush? Whatever do you mean? You know that I joined the progressive democracy club at school, and I’m campaigning. You wanted me to get involved,” he explained.

“You know what your mother means!” George exclaimed.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to explain it to me if you want me to change my shirt. Is there some dark double entendre you’re seeing? Have you raised this with your psychiatrist, how you read sexual acts into even the most mundane language?” Ben sighed.

“You know the ephemism perfectly well. Lick is a reference to – to -,” June stopped. She moved the sugar bowl.

Ben drank the last of his juice. “Let me know when you come up with that word, would you mom? In the meantime I’ve got to get to school,” he said.

streamlining dialog

One thing I never take for granted: the threading of a dialog into the scene. Maybe some authors do this without thinking and do it flawlessly, but that is not the case for me. When I’m reading, badly threaded dialog will stop me in my tracks. You’re wondering what I mean by this.

Reading process
Reading process (Photo credit: giulia.forsythe)

In part, it’s the old he said/she said dilemma. How to keep characters distinct when they are in the middle of a game of cards or a rip-roaring argument or a business meeting — without drawing undue attention to the mechanics.

The more characters you’ve got, the harder the juggling act.

I’m going to put together a little dialog here, and set it up as if it were from a script (because one of the nice things about scripts is that you don’t have to worry about this stuff). Then next post I’m going to rewrite it as a novel scene in the most clumsy, awful way possible. After the taste of that is out of my mouth, I’ll start again and look at all the possibilities I can think of to vary rhythm, keep the dialog flowing, and draw character. C’e qui:

Mother

(taps the table top)

We talked about this, last night. Right here at the table.

Son

(studying himself in the mirror, with some pleasure)

You talked about it.

Father

By your silence you were agreeing implicitly that the clothes you wear to school are –

Son

(turning to face parents)

-Didn’t you teach me always to get it in writing, Dad? Implicit doesn’t cut it. Unless you drew up one of your iron clad contracts and I signed it while hypnotized, I’m wearing what I’m wearing.

Mother

(distressed)

That t-shirt is unacceptable.

Father

It’s inappropriate.

Son

(very relaxed)

So’s the ketchup stain on your tie, Dad.

Mother

(steps in front of the kid, hissing)

It’s obscene.

Son

(looking down at himself and reading the t-shirt upside down)

Obscene? Lick Bush? Whatever do you mean? You know that I’ve joined the progressive democracy club at school, and I’m campaigning. You wanted me to get involved.

Father

You know what your mother means.

Son

I’m afraid you’ll have to explain it to me if you want me to change. Is there some dark double entendre you’re seeing? Have you raised this with your psychiatrist, how you read sexual acts into even the most mundane language?

Mother

(busily moving dishes around on the table)

You know the euphemism perfectly well. Lick is a reference to – to -”

Son

(emptying his cup)

Let me know when you come up with that word, would you mom? In the meantime I’ve got to get to school.

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