narration

back to business: padding verbs

It is really hard to keep focused when the cyber universe is going nuts, as it has been since mid January. In the last couple weeks readers and authors and bloggers (primarily in the romance community) have been trying to outshout each other until everybody is deaf and hoarse, too. Saying even the calmest, most reasoned thing (and there were lots of people who tried to do this) could get you called outside for a fist fight. I tried to stay out of it for the most part (I’ve already got one Author Behaving Badly badge, after all). Though I admit it was tempting to say some things. Some things that might have brought the mob to my door. I could be incendiary and get lots of attention that way, or I could get back to talking about writing. One simple sentence before I do that:

Plagiarism is morally and ethically wrong.

So there you go, my stance on the subject. Now, about padding verbs.

Right now in fiction the trend and fashion is for very distinct point-of-view boundaries. Head-hopping is frowned upon. A story written in third person will have more than one POV character, and the writer switches back and forth between them. So you experience the beginning of the argument from inside Maria’s head, then comes a break (usually a double return so you get an island of white space on the page) and you experience the rest of the argument from inside Gwen’s head. Gwen sees Maria’s reactions and interprets them, and you get that information in the narration.

Maria lifted her upper lip and Gwen had to turn away or laugh. Mandy was right, Maria did look like a chipmunk when she was mad.

This clearly comes from Gwen and not from Maria, who observes Gwen in her turn:

She’s not going to leave this alone, Maria realized. This is that ridiculous episode with the toilet plunger and the squirrel, all over again.

One of the challenges of this switching back and forth is signaling the switch to the reader without being too blatant. This is managed most usually with little coded phrases

Maria thought (so you are inside her head)
Maria felt (ditto)
Maria saw the color leave Gwen’s face.

This might not seem like a big deal, and in many ways it isn’t. But this constant signaling the reader (yoohoo! we’re over here now, in Laura’s head!) can be a burden.

You might write: Gwen felt the sweat soaking into her silk blouse, or, more vividly: Sweat blossomed under the arms and along the collar of Gwen’s silk blouse. The difference starts with that padding verb: felt. I think of this as a padding verb because it steps between the reader and the action or emotion in order to establish POV. This habit can get out of hand.

I try, when I’m writing, to look for these padding verbs and if I can do without them without confusing the reader’s sense of which character has the POV, I’ll cut the little intruder right there.

Elizabeth saw Nathaniel reach down and grab at a root sticking up out of the ground.

Do we need those first two words? Maybe not. Probably not.

Of course, if you are writing a first person narrative this will not be much of a problem for you because there’s no POV switching at all. On the other hand, you’ll have to figure out a way to keep the reader informed of all the stuff they need to know — but you can’t tell them because the narrator doesn’t know them.

On a different front: I’m delaying the photo contest, and I may fold it into the other, bigger giveaway. The same prizes, so never fear about that.”

once again, with feeling: POV and head hopping

First, I can’t remember where I found this link. If it was your blog, I apologize for not giving you credit. Whoever you are.

So here, Therese Fowler’s weblog. She’s got her first novel coming out soon, with a high profile house that’s putting a lot of marketing energy and money into her debut. I’m looking forward to reading her book.

On the other hand, after reading her post on the perennial POV debate and thinking about it for a while, I would like to boil the whole discussion down to a few points and get in my two cents at the same time:

1. POV is one of many technical skill that fiction writers have to master.

2. For some that will be easier than for others. In the same way, all of us have our strengths and weakness (dialog, description, etc etc).

3. Writers reading other writers are far more observant and critical than the average reader out there. In the same way an accomplished tailor will look at a garment and find all kinds of flaws I don’t see, most readers won’t be aware of POV cheats or shortcuts.

4. Nevertheless, I would say that a serious writer works to get these things right.

5. Maybe there’s an annual convention where tailors sit around arguing about hemming shortcuts. I would guess that some of them truly enjoy such ongoing discussions. Authors love to bat around the big questions: POV, present vs. past tense, third vs. first person narration, etc. I’m not such a fan of these discussions, but I can see that they are important to some people.

6. If there is a rule that says: no POV switching within a scene, then that rule is a matter of fashion and aesthetic. Trends come and go in fiction as they do in most things. Minimalism hung on for a long time and has slid away, mostly, into the shadows. The obsession with the semi-colon — fueled to some degree by John Irving in his Garp phase — faded.

7. There’s a difference between breaking a rule, and bending a rule to suit your needs. If you break the rule and the story falls flat because of that, you have not succeeded. You took a chance, it didn’t work. Back up, think it through.

8. Some authors are better at bending the current rules than others.

9. Some don’t care to try, out of fear or laziness or whatever.

10. Rather than contemplating this on-going, never-ending debate, I (and you) should be writing.

Note: In the spirit of full disclosure: I am not Nora Roberts, but I do switch POV within scenes sometimes. I believe that it mostly works for me, but feel free to disagree.

italics

I had an email from a reader I think I need to talk about:

Just finished Queen of Swords. While it was wonderful and you are a gifted story teller…. I felt shortchanged. What was with the great chunks of italics? It looked as if your publisher tried and succeeded at making you shorten the book. As if you just copied your storyboard to fill in the blanks. I would have loved to have read about those parts in detail. Let the story be huge if it is necessary. Your readers will not fear it, but embrace it.

When there is a particularly intense scene, one that is exceptionally vivid, I often find myself slipping from past tense to present tense. If I do that, I also italicize to make the shift more immediate. I think of present tense as the storyteller’s voice. If you’re telling a story to some friends, and you get very involved in the telling, you will likely shift to present tense.

“And then she says to me…”
“So I pick up the newspaper and there it is…”

It’s almost as if you are watching what happened and narrating it as the scene plays out in your memory. This is a narrative strategy in spoken English that you’ll hear across social, geographic, economic boundaries.

In writing a story, that shift to present tense (usually omniscient) is a message from me to the reader: listen closely now, I’m going to take you right into this scene, step by step. It’s not meant to be a short cut to telling that part of the story: just the opposite, it’s a slowing down of the narration, so it’s seen more clearly.

In Queen of Swords, much of what Honore experiences in the last third of the book is told in present tense. I narrate what he is seeing, thinking, feeling, remembering. The effect (I hope) is to pull you into the disturbed and almost hallucinogenic passing of days.

But maybe other readers feel the same way. Maybe present tense scenes strike them not as intense and direct, but as simply distracting. If that’s the case, I’d sure be interested to hear about it, because it runs so contrary to my sense of how stories work.

the ultimate first person 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.

A few exceptions: first, novels that are written in alternating first person narration often work quite well. The most recent novel I can remember reading that really pulled this off was Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. Each person in a family terribly disrupted by the serious illness of one of the kids takes a turn, and with every turn the reader’s understanding of the story evolves.

There’s one approach to first person that I truly like, and that’s the unreliable narrator.

The way to think about this, or at least a way that worked for me when I was teaching this stuff, is to imagine that the story you’re reading, the narrator whose words you are reading are not being addressed to you, but 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 getting their side of the story across. 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:

It took you long enough to get here. Surely you must realize there’s been a mistake. If I shoot a man between the eyes — and I’m not denying that I did just that — you had best believe I was acting in self defense. To let that man 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 her neighbor, the one who grew prize winning dahlias, between the eyes.

You can think of a lot of scenarios where the narrator is going to be unreliable. 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.

Speak, says Joan. And it better be good.

And the speak. Oh boy, do they.

All first person narrators are unreliable to some extent. They are limited by their own observations and memories, 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 protect herself 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. 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.

Any unreliable narrators you’re especially fond of?