Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Get to the Pointillism

point of focus, the--a temporal perspective from which a narrative is related. There are two major points of focus, the immediate NOW, and the retrospective.

A story is related by one or more characters as though it were taking place in the immediate now, which means the narrator has a vocabulary and emotional range of experiences commensurate with that character's age, background, and experience. Using this point of focus, the narrator is under the pressures of having to make evaluations and decisions as they occur; the story is set right now. Thus if the narrator is a youngster of, say, pre-teen years, the story is rendered through the filter of a character of that age. An eight- or nine-year-old does not have the vocabulary, emotional and intellectual understanding, and response mechanisms of an adult.

In the other available point of focus, the retrospective, the narrator resides in the immediate present, coping with some occasion of stress while recalling the events and consequences of a story that took place earlier--perhaps years earlier. This accounts for the If-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now approach; it also allows the narrator to use a more sophisticated and worldly vocabulary and awareness.

The writer needs to consider with care the advantages and disadvantages of setting a narrative at a particular point on the horizon, particularly to avoid focus leak, a situation in which a young character appears to have intellectual or intuitive information well beyond the age range of the narrator.

Each point of focus has a potential for underlying irony, the most exquisite of which is when a more mature narrator relates a story of childhood focus in which the outcome could have been different or even prevented had the narrator only known at the time, then before the readers' eye, proceeds to make the same error as an adult. (A notable example of this irony resides in Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier.)

As an illustration of how rules for dramatic writing await being broken, consider the Brazilian Balzac, Machado Assisi, and his memorable Epitaph for a Small Winner, and years later, Alice Seybold's The Lovely Bones, both of which take wing against the conventional wisdom of narrating a novel from the point of focus of a person who begins the story already dead.

writers' conferences--places where, under the guise of wanting to learn more about their craft, writers attend to insist they are right about what they have written.

writers' workshop advice--if they tell you they want more details and background for your characters, it means they are hooked. Never take the reader where the reader wants to go.

show--don't tell--an admonition directed against fiction writers by publishers of thick novels and teachers who have written relatively little. The adjuration to "show--don't tell" is meant to direct the writer to dramatize important information rather than doing so in narrative, warning that doing so is like holding up a sign that informs the audience such details as "it was raining," "the moon is up," "he didn't feel well," "she didn't watch where she as going," and similar bits of information thought to be relevant to the story. Publishers of weighty novels charge more for a thicker novel; showing everything certainly adds to the bulk. "It was raining when Fred got out of his car," if merely an observation, will not offend many readers whereas a number might stop reading altogether if Fred takes up too much time and space in performing largely mechanical steps. True enough, fiction is an evocative rather than descriptive art but seasoned writers have learned the wisdom of telling the smaller, inconsequential details rather than distracting from the emotional bite of the story by overpopulating it with information.

Dramatizing an event gives weight and importance to it. If every step in a story appears to be of the same weight, dramatic intensity will suffer. So will the readers' patience. A good ratio to keep in mind is the one between narrative and dialogue: Show only what moves the story along, complicates it, and/or reveals information about characters. Tell the rest.

kicking a character when he is down —a condition common among entry-level and intermediate writers in which, having established an antagonist, opponent, or other force with a negative agenda or attitude, they proceed to vilify that/those characters in deed, dialogue, and description. Thus someone who means the protagonist no good becomes enhanced to the point of being personified as evil incarnate.

Truth to tell, the good guys of your story need some opposition with dimension; pure, unbridled meanness, lust for power, or greed doesn’t get it. Further truth to tell: if you want the reader to experience genuine concern that your protagonist is up against a formidable opponent, one of the best ways to address the situation is by creating a thoughtful, quick-witted, well-versed individual, steering clear of such dialogue attributions as snorted, sneered, and smirked. There have been enough smirks in nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction and twenty-first century politics to last us for some time; we don’t need any more cads or temptresses smirking in this century.

The entire philosophy of kicking a character when he is down comes from the fledgling writer’s insecurity of not being sure the reader will grasp the depths of meanness to which an opponent will go to bring misery down on the head of the protagonist. This is a world of moral absolutes, a comic-book world in which ex-mates have no redeeming qualities, all opponents are mean spirited, and the Boy Scouts who help little old ladies across the street are pickpockets, working for Fagin.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to allot about sixty percent of the brains, good lines, and tenure-track jobs to those who oppose your good guys, saving the remaining forty percent for your favorites. Then, when your anointed ones prevail at the end, the reader will see them as having triumphed over a believable and significant force.


Querulous Squirrel said...

"Focus leak." I'm sorry, I had to laugh out loud. My focus leaks all the time. Do you know a good plumber?

lowenkopf said...

Mightily glad, O querrelous one,to have caused the laugh.