Reader Reactions & Anecdotes


29 November 2008

You are a camera — (Or Point of View is Good for Yiew)

For some unfathomable reason, the past few weeks have seen a flurry of questions from blog readers who are also aspiring authors. And the most frequently asked is this: How do you keep the reader oriented when you have a cast of thousands, four interwoven themes, and 18 different locales? How do you keep the reader hanging in there through all the complex, convoluted whoop-de-doo despite his/her need for a good night’s sleep?

I want to be helpful, but I also want to keep things simple. So I’ll just provide an answer I’ve used in some of my creative writing classes and append a dialogue on the subject with one of my aspiring-writer friends:

For you writers who abhor outlines — the classic tool for keeping track of just where the hell you are in your 100,000-word opus — I recommend that you pretend you’re a movie camera.

The movie maker who hopes to make money takes on only those projects whose potential as audio-visual entertainment vehicles is obviously great. By contrast, the novelist has no audio-visual working for him — the movement, the tension, the interaction of characters can be accomplished only by words. Too many words put the reader to sleep. Too few confuse him and send him to the telly. The words have to be just right in number and just right in what I call “pictorials.” But for all the advantage the movie-maker would seem to enjoy here, he still deems it necessary to use film techniques that offer the best chance of holding the audience’s attention for two hours.

For instance, the movie-maker knows that if a 120-minute movie were to be photographed by one camera and from a single angle, the audience would be asleep or en route to the nearest saloon in five minutes. To beat this rap, he creates movement and interest by changing the camera’s point of view — that is, by giving the audience alternating vantage points from which to watch the unfolding action. Even in a static scene, in which, say, a man and a woman talk softly while in an embrace, the point of view will shift back and forth, ”favoring” first one, then the other, as the lines are spoken. As a result, the viewer has the sense of seeing the woman as she appears to the man, and vice versa.

And here’s the key: The camera knows and shows only what it’s pointed at. When King Kong approaches, we see and hear the crashing tree from Fay Wray’s POV. We do not see Fay Wrays’ terrified face full-on until the camera cuts to Kong’s POV. And at no time can the camera show us what Fay, Kong, or any of the others characters are thinking. That must be left to words — and the actors’ faces and manner as they speak them.

Like a good movie, a well-written action-suspense novel holds to a singleness of aim; it will have many scenes and many POVs, to be sure, but it never wavers in course, abandons its target, or confuses the audience with irrelevancies. And it has coherence, moving by way of smooth transitions, bridging, or connective devices from one scene to another, or one thought to another, without losing, or distracting, or overworking the audience.

The action-suspense novelist (any good novelist, actually) achieves emphasis with “camera” POV. He helps the reader to see various elements of the story in their relative importance. Like the camera, in the scenes he creates with words, the author moves back and forth, here and there, among varied angles to emphasize or highlight. He might portray the isolated, storm-lashed farmhouse from the approaching criminal’s POV, then, with an adroit description or line of dialogue, to let the reader “see” or “feel” the ingenue’s terror as she watches her bedroom door knob turn and creak.

The tricky part for you, the author, is to keep clear in your mind just whose POV you are depicting. To stick with one POV through 100,000 words is to guarantee reader coma. But an impulsive leaping back and forth through the manifold elements and nuances of such a novel can lead to total confusion, or, at best, an “overlap” of one element by another. And, worst of all, your own impatience or weariness can seduce you into showing characters as having knowledge or insights they can’t possibly be privy to at any given part of the narrative. The best way to beat this rap:

Always remind yourself: I am the camera. What do I, as the lens, see here, at this part of the story? Just where are we? Who’s in the scene, and who’s doing the talking? How do the others in the scene react to what’s being said; what do their faces show, what do their actions show, what are their comments? Then, like the screenwriter, who — via “quick cut to,” or “fade to” — directs the camera to move to another scene, you use literary transition devices, some as elementary as “meanwhile, across town,” or “as this was going on,” or “later, though,” to lead the reader into the next idea or a new subject.

Remember, three forces — unity, coherence, and emphasis — work together to move a piece of quality writing smoothly and logically from beginning, through “muddle,” to ending. And the effective amalgamation of these forces is often best achieved in long and complex stories when the author, playing camera, keeps constantly mindful of POV.

Reader comment: Jack, I'm kind of partial to the first-person POV, which requires tighter writing because you can only reveal the other guy's emotions from the protagonist's “camera,” and sometimes leaves both the protagonist and the reader wondering what the other guy is thinking. But then I’m one of those nasty writers who doesn’t answer all the questions anyhow, leaving the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. At least I get ’em thinking!

My answering comment: The first person has a certain allure, especially for those who write short stories. But whether in short story or novel it’s a very tricky form to handle. I’ve written at least two full-length espionage novels with that technique (The Expendable Spy and One of Us Works for Them) and found it to be loaded with land mines to be tippy-toed around with great care. For the most part, it makes a laborious process even more so, because the writer must continually strive to find ingenious ways to break the implicit monotony of a single POV which will turn off editors and (even if it’s done well enough to get past a hassled editor) the vast majority of readers who insist on knowing what everybody’s doing and thinking. I’ve found that the recreational reader (that is to say, the reader who wants to be entertained) is quick to abandon a writer who subordinates entertainment to unresolved enigma. You may indeed be ”making him think” but he may be thinking something you wouldn’t want to hear. I’m talking commercial fiction here. Experimental and artsy-craftsy fiction and poetry have limitations, problems, and audiences all their own, but from the tone of your comment I’m assuming that you have your eye on commercial fiction.

Frank Stockton, a well-established pop writer of the late 1800s, got away with an open-end shortie via his classic, ”The Lady or the Tiger?” precisely because he had built a large audience that was likely to accept — or at least tolerate — this story’s invitation to self-examination. But in today’s literary world, if you haven’t yet built a Stockton-like renown it’s usually advantageous to avoid deliberately annoying editors and readers with questions unanswered or things unexplained.

And, by the way, first-person rarely works magic in the effort to write “tight.” Whether novel or short-short, writing tight requires the same hard effort, the same ruthless editing, the same reflex suspicion required by any of your words, phrases, or paragraphs whatever the genre or POV. (Especially those that bring you special delight. Take a look at these tomorrow, and chances are that the stuff you thought was so absolutely “tight” and wonderful last night is wordy, over-wrought and just ain’t that great.)

As you imply, dear friend, it never gets any easier or better. In today’s literary world it takes a freaking miracle just to get into the game — and there’s no lasting equity if you actually do. Every time out is the first time out, because these days publishers’ tastes, editors’ whims, and readers’ caprice change overnight, with money reigning cruelly over them all. So it’s to your eternal credit that you are willing to keep pounding on the gates and searching the frontiers. I know how much it demands of you, and I admire your readiness to pay the price.



Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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