Thursday, September 4, 2008

All That Glitters Is Not Told

Narrative, when it is not used as a generic term to suggest a story or tale as it progresses along its arc, is meant to imply the landscape or setting where a particular story takes place. It is also meant as descriptions of characters, things, physical locales, and the actions characters take or do not take, and the way these actions are performed or not performed. Narrative is anything but dialog or interior monologue. Conventional wisdom for long- and short-form fiction holds narrative as being sketchy or macrocosm; if you want the filmic equivalent of a close-up, you inject dialog, which narrows the aperture with an attendant increase in depth of field.

Current conventional wisdom has narrative undergoing its own Darwinian progression, principally from the point of view of the author to the point of view of one or more characters.

Charles Dickens, notable among others, has taken first-person point of view to a point in Great Expectations where we certainly need to look to that work for inspiration and energy. A close pal of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, gave us another milestone for the multiple point of view novel, particularly in The Moonstone. Yet another Dickens contemporary, Anthony Trollope, gave an added template for multiple point of view in The Way We Live Now. All three novels are up and running, which is to say in print after almost a hundred fifty years.

In addition to the three novels being compelling reads, they obviate the questions: Whose point of view determines the narration? Is the author's point of view relevant any more?

Taking the last question first, the only author in recent fiction who took over the narrative was Somerset Maugham. But even his use of it speaks to the fact that the author has to either assume a role in the story or assign it to one or more of the characters. To put it another way, if you want a say in your story, write yourself in as a character and give that character your lines. Otherwise you do what most skilled actors do; you butt out and create the character. (Parenthetically, most skilled actors report a greater difficulty in "getting" a character similar in temperment to themselves. This is because they can't readily separate themselves from the characters. True enough, even if you're a strict vegan, there is still a Hannibal Lecters facet within you.)

Narrative reflects the vocabulary (emotional and verbal) of the person at bat, including her degree of sophistication, inner urgencies, fears, biases. You could all do quite nicely portraying Carly Fiorina or Sarah Palin, even though you went door-to-door campaigning for Hillary. You could portray such right-wing extremists as Dan Rowan and Dick Martin even though your heart flops for Obama. You can do this because you recognize the importance of the story being embedded within the characters, individuals who will release vital information in emotional (dramatic) situations, or who will indeed create dramatic situations in order to release the information they swore they would carry to the grave with them. (Writers and actors do not in their professional lives betray people, they betray emotions. What they do in their public life is another matter.)

Narrative reflects the character at bat, the one to whom the dramatic details occur, the one who reports on them, reliably or not, to the reader. If you pick the right character, that individual will give you clues about his or her reliability, take on reality, sense of self, trusting you to get him or her down on paper "accurately."

So okay, you're now the narrator of a story about a art exhibit at a major museum. You are the major art critic for a major newspaper or art journal. You have worked your way up the ladder with slow, patient precision to the point where your opinions are respected. About a month ago, you were less than professional, having had one or two too many flutes of champagne at a museum opening. You met someone you'd been flirting with for some time, and she'd been just as interested and so, after the opening, you and she, shall we say exchanged genetic information. You don't know what possessed you to do so but you told her your secret. To the extent that you often conflate or confuse shades of green and gray and blue, you are color blind.

"I don't think I've ever slept with a color-blind man," she says.

You of course regret your indiscretion. Trying to defuse it, you say, "Truth to tell, neither have I."

She laughs and a part of you thinks it's no big deal, except that there it is, out. A color-blind art critic. Someone knows your secret. Can you trust her? Even more interesting, can you trust yourself with her because she is the only person you've told about this defect of yours.

The narrator--narrators if it's a longer story--see the events. They become prisms through which the reader sees the bent light of their reality.

When you put out a casting call for a character, one of the things you should know about that person is how observant, articulate, quick on the feet, distractable, honest that person is.


Anonymous said...

And what if they surprise us and aren't any of those things? How long do you have to wait to know?

lowenkopf said...

As long as it takes.

Anonymous said...

Shelly, I've had a book in the drawer (as the saying goes) for 15+ years. It's gone through several drafts. POV rotates from chapter to chapter among [...counting...] six main characters, and an occasional seventh. The thing is, the characters each have different VOICES as well. I mean, each chapter is written in 3rd-person POV, but with frequent lapses into the mind of whichever character leads in that one, using various verbal tics, thought patterns, and so on -- a weird blend of 3rd- and 1st-person narrative.

My question: The Missus tells me (from her old graduate English days) there's a name for this technique, which presumably means other books use it. However, we can't think of any off the top of our heads, and she can't remember the name of the technique -- which means we can't even look up examples online. :)

Any ideas, in either direction?

(Btw, this technique is really HARD to pull off satisfactorily.)

lowenkopf said...

Sounds to me as though you're talking Multiple Point of View. Most John D. McDonald not in the Travis McGee series will do as examples, ditto Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone or Trollope's The Way We Live Now. In more recent years, Jim Harrison's excellent Waiting for Death does the trick with usual Harrison splendor. Not to forget Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.