Saturday, November 22, 2008

Who Tells the Story and Why?

There is always an opening for a transformational ingredient to appear in a story, edging it on its way to a state of memorable rather than simple entertaining. One of the more transformative of such ingredients is to be found in the narrative voice or voices used in relating the story. As an extreme illustration, consider Snow White being presented through the point of view of all seven of the dwarfs. Not only would such a presentation be a form of anarchy against the simplistic children's romance, it would open the door to the mischief of attitude and agenda, undermining the sugary Disney foundation, replacing it with new levels of potential interest.

Thus must agenda be a factor when deciding who or whom the narrative voice(s) is/are. Who has been acted upon in the telling or by the very act of telling? Who has come to see what the reader already sees or, conversely, persists in not seeing what has begun to grow apparent to the reader? Mr. Stevens, the prism through whom The Remains of the Day is witnessed, comes to mind here, serving not only as a splendid butler but as well a splendid example.

Because of our predilections, we tend to favor a first-person point of view, a third-person point of view, a multiple point of view, in which we delegate to characters the information, intent, and limitations we apply to our characters. It would be difficult, for instance, to see anything but a subtext of irony in a story about a group of professional basketball players told from the point of view of a midget or dwarf. Indeed, such an approach may bring down the disapproval of individuals under the height of four six as well as the scorn of individuals who are, say, six four.

But wait, before we go digressing off on that meme of the narrow cusp between irony, humor, and bad taste/judgment, let us consider the two remaining points of view, the omniscient and the authorial. The rich-as-linzer-torte William Trevor owns the former, using it with equal facility in short story and novel. To understand the effects and techniques that inhere in his work, you need only read one short story--any of his copious stories--or one novel. The irony is that you won't be able to stop at one of either. A number of authors use the authorial point of view, Don DeLillo coming to mind and as well Ha Jin, not to forget Cormac McCarthy; these authors tell you the story, constantly infusing the attitudes and agendas of their characters into their work, allowing you excruciatingly pellucid views of the characters but never entirely relinquishing the stage to the characters. This position does not come from the author's distrust of characters nor an abundant need to control the audience, rather to guide the reader through events and logic dear to the author's heart, places where the author is finally able to become vulnerable enough to let agenda slip through the cracks.

Let's get one important issue straight: all characters lie. They lie to themselves, they lie to other characters, and they most certainly lie to you. That is a given; it needs no defense.

Another important issue to lay on the table: all characters have agendas. All of them. The sooner you find out what these agendas are, the sooner you will be able to decide how many bricks of your story you will trust them with. Perhaps a full load? Perhaps a half load or quarter? Up to you.

It has often been argued that the major trait of authorial voice is identified in agenda. (If it has not been argued, then it should be.) Some authors are likely to find their voice as a result of something executed in nonfiction, the complex package of attitude and intent mingling in an essay, which is after all an examination of a subject to allow the author know how the author feels and thinks about the subject. We now bring to the table an opponent of the author's thesis and voice, admirably attired in impeccable logic, a better speaking voice than the author, and perhaps even a bit more intelligence than the author. Having evolved that antagonist, we now fictionalize the protagonist, he or she who speaks the author's belief system. Then we select a point of view and turn them loose within a confined area, an arena if you will.

All too easy to say it is Fred's story; I'm going to rearrange the furniture and select the other characters to suit Fred. The why of this is attached to the too easy part of the equation. Easy went out with all the stuff we do not ourselves wish to write. Easy is the same as saying oh science fiction? I can do that? Oh, fantasy. I can do that. The essence of the story is the arena within the smithy of the writer's soul, where ease and rest and device are not allowed through the front door. This essence is found in the exhilarating and curious mixture of fun, awe, despair, curiosity, and envy. Not fair that after all these thousands of hours I have spent practicing my craft, a less practiced writer should come along and seem to be having so much fun while at the same time covering such a large canvas. If such is the case, so be it; that contributes to the agenda. And not to worry if it does; on revision, you'll soon recognize it for the complaining it is, remove it, and get on with the fun at hand.

Lest this seem an argument of art for art's sake, allow me the opportunity to disagree. It is no such thing. It is agenda for agenda's sake, fun for fun's sake, risk for risk's sake.

Most of us who have some experience with writing have also some past experience with jumping off of things, things that were there in other guises but seen by us as things to be jumped off. In my case, the things were garages. Why would you want to jump off my garage, an outraged woman asked me when I was seven. Because, I replied, it invited me.

Point of view often extends an invitation. We need to keep alert to make sure we accept the correct one.


Anonymous said...

I jumped off a garage when I was 12. No one asked me why, but it was because my step-sister wouldn't. I'd never been able to out dare her before.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Shelly- this is immeasurably helpful. Time re-read Trevor and McCarthy and figure out my own agenda, where it might be useful and where I should be very, very wary of it.