Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grenade in the Room

Within a loosely structured set of guidelines, AIW authors have the opportunity to blog about all things indie, including: the decision to go indie (well, duh), marketing, media, promotion, blog and book tours, industry, and, of course, the craft.

For myself, this isn't about trying to convince anyone of anything. I stand behind no podium, virtual or otherwise, with the intention of showering the benefits of special wisdom upon a rapt audience. It's about sharing personal experience with others, nothing more.

This post is tagged craft, and although the title may seem off-point, I think you might ultimately agree with the symbolic connection to the topic. To find out, I invite you to read on.

You're sitting in a room with a bunch of writers, and so far there have been no fistfights. Unusual, I know, but it happens on occasion.

After awhile you notice something a bit surprising. In the midst of all this intellectual prowess and word savvy, miscommunication sometimes occurs. It's kind of like people talking around something and never quite getting there because a satisfactory end to the conversation sits behind yellow DO NOT CROSS tape.

So you decide to test the atmosphere, see how many of your writer friends are really listening to themselves and others around them. During the next relatively quiet moment you say, very clearly and with sufficient volume so everyone can hear, "Let's talk about point-of-view."

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a grenade in any room populated by writers. To follow up with the virtual equivalent of that grenade:

I believe understanding viewpoint and how to control it is important. That's not to say every writer should take the same approach, and I'm sure there are many examples of superb storytelling from authors who have never for one second thought about viewpoint. But for those of us engaged in communal exploration of the craft, one of the main reasons discussions on this topic can end inconclusively is the effect of vocabulary.

All disciplines use specific words to mean distinct things. If a chemist uses a term describing the reaction when substance A comes in contact with substance B, any other chemist understands without having to stop and talk about it. The result is predictable and repeatable.

The vocabulary writers use is much less well defined. That's a good thing because we aren't engaged in a science. But it's worth keeping in mind the definition of effective communication. Science might say we need a transmitter, a receiver, and a transmitting medium. I'll offer two additional items: common language and vocabulary.

During the years of my continuing struggle to become a better writer, I've listed for my own edification about 26 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.

I also believe it's instructive to consider the choice of person, viewpoint, and tense separately to evaluate the effect of these choices on characterization, in addition to how these elements interrelate as crucial factors 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, tense, and viewpoint.

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 viewpoint character.

Note: The material presented here borrows 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. To begin, let's address first things first ala Mr. Card.

The vast majority of modern fiction is written in third person. Readers are familiar with it, which makes the writer's choice invisible. That's not a bad reason to use it.

First person probably isn't all that noticeable, and few readers have ever rejected a book on that reason alone. The differences in the reader's experience with the story are far more subtle and we'll deal with that in a moment.

Second person is so rare as to be really weird. It's been done, but readers need a good reason to get by it and spend enough time with the story to move the writer's choice into the background. That's a steep hill to climb, and the writer better have a prize waiting for the reader at the top.

I find it most useful to follow Mr. Card's lead and consider three viewpoint choices (omniscient, limited-single, and limited-multiple), two choices of tense (present and past), and two choices of person (first and third).

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 viewpoint 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.

The choice of third came naturally to me because I wanted to tell my stories from multiple viewpoints, and using multiple first-person narrators seemed more experimental than I was ready for. Someday I'd like to try it.

As one who launched into writing fiction without benefit of formal training, my journey has had to rely on a combination of how-to books, participation in writer's groups, and what seems like a never-ending gauntlet of trial and error. And of all the structural elements of fiction, none have evolved more for me over the years than viewpoint and its relationship to person and tense.

My initial understanding of third person can be summarized as follows: the narrator 1) is not present as a character, but tells what happened to other people, 2) is distant in space, never there, always invisible, 3) can be omniscient or limited, and 4) can be limited-single or limited-multiple.

I'd been writing off and on in isolation for about ten years before I joined the Novel-in-Progress Group of Austin and discovered how terminology can degrade communicating with other writers. The words I used to describe my understanding of viewpoint were different than those of others around the table, and it became obvious that periodically getting hung up on semantics was part of the process. In retrospect, however, I realize that using different words also prevented me from seeing deeper into the viewpoint pond for what lay under the surface.

My first novel had been completed and revised more than once when I joined the group. At that time, the relatively small number of members actively submitting material and the fact that I had a complete manuscript allowed me to receive feedback on about 150 pages in the first year. A persistent critique comment had to do with characterization. The main character was too distant, too much of an automaton, too wimpy, and too inconsistent with regard to his attitude toward family and career.

As a writer's-group newbie, I hadn't yet learned how to process critique comments well enough to avoid the inevitable "pendulum-itis" effect: trying to satisfy every member of the group with wild swings in my treatment of characterization. Once I learned to better evaluate comments, they settled into three categories: 1) the absolutely right on, 2) the totally bogus, and 3) the largest group, worthy of consideration in whole or part.

And throughout this learning experience, a number of readers mentioned on multiple occasions that they didn't feel close enough to the main character. While not a unanimous verdict, the frequency and persistence of the assessment convinced me to do something about it.

All I got for my trouble was increased frustration as successive submissions failed to eliminate the comments. I've since concluded that this stagnation resulted from a combination of my not understanding how to do what readers wanted, and readers not being able to come up with just the right words to help me break through the roadblock. It's no one's fault, just the reality of learning, that sometimes it takes a synergism of input and reception to turn on the light bulb.

For me, a brighter moment occurred after I joined another writer's group we call Little Group, or El Gee. I'd begun submitting from my second novel in a planned series, and the same comments dogged my efforts. But as often happens in smaller groups, with less structure than is required to keep a larger group on track, we began a more wide-ranging discussion on viewpoint and person. For the first time I heard the term "distant third" and another especially intriguing one, "first and a half."

The discussion soon evolved into whether a third-person narrator can ever achieve the same closeness to readers as a first-person participant. Relative to what I'd read about third-person narration when I first began writing (as detailed earlier in this post), I realized that over the course of my effort, I'd drifted away from the concept that choosing third person necessarily dictated distance, invisibility, and non-participation in the story. I believed I could draw readers into a third-person participant's world if I could only learn how.

Then one of the members explained the concept of psychic distance as explored by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction. Although to characterize that moment as an epiphany might be judged as hyperbole, that's the way it felt.

For my subsequent submissions to El Gee, I tried to incorporate the concept of psychic distance. To paraphrase the famous line, readers responded with, "By jove I think he's got it!" Since that time, I've honed my understanding and practical application of what I term "the zoom lens." And although I can't claim any particular expertise, I have managed to eliminate the previous comments from readers about feeling as if they were being held at arm's length by the main character.

With the exception of shorter pieces, I've never used present tense, and I seldom encounter it in the fiction I read for pleasure. A few years after I began writing, I opened a novel by an author I'd never read and immediately felt as if I'd been stiff-armed by the first page. First person and present tense just didn't read right. In an unusual (for me) fit of literary devil-may-care bravery, I forged ahead. Imagine my surprise when I became aware of the fact that I'd completely forgotten about person and tense and the story had me. Someday I'd like to try first person and present tense. Scary.

But for now I've settled into a comfort zone with past tense because it's the most common and therefore more comfortable for readers, who tend not to notice it. It helps channel information between writer and reader rather than create a barrier. Readers are conditioned to it by convention and interpret a past-tense verb as happening right now. For any "rewinds" into backstory, the technique I use is to indicate transition from current story time into the past with one past-perfect verb,  switch back to simple past for the duration of the rewind, then use one more past-perfect verb to clearly signal the shift back to current story time. Readers are conditioned to this as well.

As for the question of viewpoint, the following is paraphrased from Card's Characters and Viewpoint and describes my approach by comparing the characteristics of omniscient with those of limited:

Omniscient is Godlike. It shows every character's thoughts, dreams, memories, desires, using any moment in the past or the future. What omniscient does best is switch back and forth between characters and allows readers to see in each person's mind at the time of the event. Another major quality is that no character knows as much as the reader knows, and the only accurate view is the reader's.

Omniscient can cover lots of event time in brief passages. It can tell the story in less time and reveal more characters, but this prevents readers from fully engaging with any one character. Readers are constantly reminded that the narrator is telling story. Readers can't become fully involved and identify with characters, feel what they do, share emotions. The view is more distant, watching rather than experiencing. Omniscient is like looking at the world through the wrong end of binoculars. Readers see it all, but it's far away.

In limited-single viewpoint, readers are led through story by only one character. They see only what that character thinks, wants, remembers, and they can only guess at inner thoughts of another character.

In limited-multiple, the author can change viewpoint characters but only with clear division, like a chapter break or scene break and never in mid-scene. Transitional scene breaks are marked  with a line space, and sometimes with three asterisks or other symbol, which appear in the finished manuscript only at page break. (This is a formatting issue that in my experience has divided the world of legacy publishing into armed camps. One tiny advantage of going indie is that I don't have to deal with any particular agent's proclivity for nitpicking attention to some pet peeve or another.)

At chapter/scene breaks, readers are conditioned by standard convention to anticipate the possibility of a major change in location, time, or viewpoint, and the writer must establish immediately after a break what change has occurred, if any. This has become especially important due to today's trend of inserting chapter breaks every couple of pages.

Card: A major advantage of limited/third person that makes it the overwhelmingly dominant choice for today's fiction is that it trades time for distance, obtains more intense involvement, and prevents the feeling of readers being outside looking in. Limited can't see as many things in the same period of time as omniscient, but what it sees is up close and personal. It combines the best features of narrative style by allowing a closer look at the world through the viewpoint character's eyes without the constant reminder that the narrator himself is showing the reader by looking back at events from some point in story's future. 

Once again borrowing heavily from Orson Scott Card's Characters & Viewpoint, I have found it helpful to consider the following when deciding between omniscient or limited viewpoint and first or third person.

Do I want a presentational or representational style to telling my stories? These terms refer to the method of relating to the audience. Card recommends thinking of it in terms of a stage play.

Representational adds a "fourth wall" to the set. This one-way invisible barrier allows the audience to see through into the play, but the actors never interact directly with the audience. In presentational style, this fourth wall is torn down, allowing the actors to contact the audience.

In fiction, these terms relate to the storyteller's relationship with the reader. Representational never addresses the reader. The narrator never expresses personal opinion, all focus is on events, and everything is presented through the viewpoint character.

First person is more presentational than third, omniscient viewpoint more presentational than limited. Readers will notice the narrator more. Because I want readers emotionally involved with characters with minimal distraction, I choose the representational approach of limited viewpoint and third person. The combination is clean, unobtrusive, and the writing can be more ignored by the reader. Omniscient viewpoint or first person, on the other hand, invite the writer to play with the language even as they can distract readers from the story.

Leaving the discussion of literary versus genre fiction for another time, suffice it to say that at this point in my writing effort, I'm most interested in telling a good story that entertains because I believe the majority of readers in my targeted audience want that. And for me, limited viewpoint and third person serve my purposes because the combination is the most common. As Card points out, It provides the flexibility of omniscient with the intensity of first person, doesn't require the same mastery of language, seems more familiar and feels more natural to both writer and reader, and it is also the best reason for avoiding present tense. Past tense reads as happening in the present and appears invisible.

Another driving factor for choosing this strategy is my desire to tell stories from multiple viewpoints. I get to play more than one role with this approach. Weaving the scenes together presents an interesting challenge and offers readers the benefit of experiencing the tale up close and personal from more than one perspective.

So for now, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (Fall 2012), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit. Visit him online at