Wednesday, October 30, 2013

revisiting POV and an observant use of distance in narration

If it embellishes the fictional dream,
see him thread the minnow on the hook
 rather than tell us what he's using as bait later.
Point of View, or POV, is often a dominant factor in creating a compelling story on paper.  The POV a writer chooses to tell his story, and a decision whether to use only one, or multiple POVs, can make all the difference in whether a writer fully exploits the opportunities presented by the choice of characters, the place setting of the story, and the drama of the plot.  After deciding POV, at first perhaps tentatively, the next aspect of writing strategy to be kept continuously in mind is maintaining the most effective psychological distance of narration.  The reader might, at some point, be kept at an objective, fly-on-the-wall distance as the scene unfolds before a POV character, and then might move deeper to describe the introspective thoughts of that character in response to the scene, and perhaps ultimately into the mind of the character expressing his thoughts in his own, silent diction.  However, equally important to a proper use of distancing, the writer should be wary of introducing disruptive distancing effects in his narration which could tend to jar a reader's sense of a continuous, fictional dream (see "The Art of Fiction," by John Gardner).

I am frequently reminded of this distancing aspect as I read for my own pleasure, and notice an author's seemingly inappropriate use of a distancing effect.  My attention was once drawn at a writers' workshop to the use by many authors of disruptive distancing, as when the author is in a third-person, objective point of view, and introduces a descriptive passage beginning "There was," or some variation of it.  The workshop recommendation was that, on the first revision of any completed draft, get rid of all such disruptive instances.  I immediately recognized how often I'd been using that sort of distancing, and how much more immediate a story seemed without it.  Just describe what the POV character is observing, without stepping back as if committing the scene to some recording document, or journal entry.

I just finished the novel, "Return to Oakpine," by Ron Carlson, and though I felt it to be a warm, sensitive story, some pages seemed to move at a dawdling pace, with lots of single line, he said and she said, volleys of idle dialog.  That effect is a sort of distancing too, and perhaps I should use a specific paragraph of 'Oakpine' containing a few of the distancing effects I've noted.  Bear in mind that the book has enjoyed some good critical review, and any successful novel might have things other writers could quibble about.  Sometimes it's simply a question of whether we might make a good book better.
The Pronghorn had been a little tavern three miles south of Gillette, a place the roughnecks could stop on the way back to town.  Over the years it had grown, first with a room on one side for four pool tables and then a large quonset in the rear with a hardwood floor for dancing. This area was lined with tables behind a low, wooden corral.  There were neon beer signs everywhere, red, and blue, and green, so the general glow added to the odd effect of having three ceilings of different heights in the gerrymandered room.  Tonight all the tables were full, two and three pitchers of beer on each, four, and the dance floor, too, was packed with a fluid, partisan crowd, groups of people churning forward, cheering their friends, under a glacial slip of cigarette smoke that drifted toward the high center.
First we might notice the use of historical exposition, which is a bit distancing from the story at hand; perhaps we could have just let a POV character see what he sees, and then move briefly into his thoughts on things he's noticed. Observe, too, that we have an instance of the journaling phrase,"There were...," and perhaps a few writers might choose to examine whether some stretched or odd adjectives like gerrymandered, fluid partisan, and glacial slip, are suitable for this rural Wyoming crowd.  If not, remember, any such 'flags' interrupting the fictional dream tend to introduce some distancing effect for the reader.

I decided to read again an old favorite, James Joyce, and see how he handled some of his elaborately descriptive scenes in his famous short story, "The Dead," without any seeming to be forced, or notably distancing.  Here's a paragraph describing the Christmas banquet of an upper class Dublin crowd:
A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks.  In the center of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry.  On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colors of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.
The entire paragraph has an immediateness to it.  Joyce makes it seem as if you, the reader, are right there at the table, looking down the length of the table and marveling at the numbers and luxury of food and dessert items, without any noticeable authorial presence interposing distancing effects to interrupt a marvelous fictional dream (though I might have gotten rid of one 'there' and have written 'In the center of the table stood').  Some of the more emotional scenes elsewhere, when Joyce moves deeply into the minds of his characters, are enormously effective and memorable.  Check out this classic story.

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