Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Catcher in the Why

Once you've seen enough impressive narrative material from a client or, for that matter, a beginning student, you are likely to make a suggestion to them that will have a profound effect on them, perhaps even profound enough to cause them to wish to be quits with you as an editor/teacher/mentor.

Fair is fair; you often make the same suggestion to your own writing self, offering you the opportunity at length to cause you to wish to be quit of the editor/teacher/mentor aspects of you to yourself.

For the sake of example, let's say the client or student has brought a narrative along with the use of the close third-person point of view.  Why don't you set this material aside for a time, then re-do it in the first person?

The frequent expression you see radiating from the client or student is quite enough to convince you of the intensity of your suggestion.  Once again this reminder:  you;ve done the same thing for yourself.  You know the comfort of the discovery that you've chosen a major aspect of the story that cause you to feel a sense of familiarity with the narrative.  

Narrative familiarity feels so good, you almost wish to think of it as comfort, even though you know you do not write to achieve comfort or anything resembling comfort.  What writers do you know and respect who write for comfort?  

The state of being familiar with your characters opens you to the possibility that they might share a secret or two with you, thus as reader or writer, your intent is devious.  Your intent is to probe deeper, to know more, to test for reliability and intelligence.  As reader and writer, you know how suspicious the more intelligent characters are.  They are capable of producing serious reversals and surprises.

After the suggestion is made, the client/student might be tempted to say, "I'll give it some thought."  You did not always have the luxury of choosing clients and students who did not see the suggestion about another point of view as a threat.  There were times when your suggestion brought a response questioning your overall assessment of the writer as a human being, then as a writer. "So you're saying my writing was not up to par and I ought to start over."  "Was there anything about my material that didn't offend you?"  "What job are you suggesting I take instead of writing?"

Your personal favorite narrative filter is the multiple point of view.  What better way to bring the reader into the equation, not knowing which of your narrators to rely on, then forcing them at some point to make a choice.  By all accounts, the novel at about the halfway point should have passed the point of no return, that bench mark where enough significant events have been set in motion to prevent the elements in this fictional microcosm ever to return to their position before the story began.  At this point of no return, the reader will have met the major characters, or in rare cases, will have at least heard of all the major players.

The reader will have experienced enough different narrative voices and visions to form some opinions about which they can trust and who among the ensemble are to be questioned.  Congratulations; you've introduced dramatic ambiguity, a sense of uncertainty so palpable, you can almost count off the beats of its pulse.

This is the point at which you may even send the reader back to early events, looking for the possibility of missed clues.  You like to link this sense of frustrated curiosity to those moments in detective stories where the lead detective has returned to the crime scene, looking for missed inferences, looking for a vision the perpetrator may have had.  You want to be frustrated as a reader.  You want to be challenged as a writer, hopeful your character will reveal something she or he has not confided before, in you or any of the other characters.

And now the major issue, in particular if your suggestion had been to switch from third person narrative to first.  Why?  Since you as author are not the narrator/stage manager, your surrogate is the lead character, the Dorothy Gale of The Wizard of Oz, the Ishmael of Moby Dick, the Pip of Great Expectations, the eponymous Huck Finn.

Fair enough.  Now tell us why this character is motivated to tell his or her story.  To provide the simulacrum of Reality, why has this first-person narrator decided to tell this story?  Think about it, and think hard, because it is not a question we're apt to ask of a single, third-person narrator, nor the ensemble of narrators in a multiple point of view venture.  These worthies have as a part of their job description the requisite that they add a note of narrative ambiguity or, if you will, sufficient uncertainty to cause an atmospheric sense of tension.

The first-person narrator is another matter.  What did Salinger gain when he presented Holden Caulfield to us as a first-person filter for the history and observations and behavior to come?

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