Mark Terry

Friday, November 17, 2006

Who's point of view?

November 17, 2006
Obi Wan Kenobi rather memorably told Luke Skywalker that most of our cherished positions depended greatly on our point of view. Of course, he was talking about how Anakin Skywalker was his friend, but Darth Vader was his enemy who killed his friend.

Anyway, point of view is one of those things that writers are always going to trip over unless they're working solely in first person, although 1st person offers up its own problems and challenges. Even within third POV we've got issues of how close to be--are we writing from deep in the POV character's head, or are we somewhat omniscient, in between, or are we doing everything all at once, a technique that is generally frowned upon and with good reason.

The rule of thumb is that you pick a pov character, at least in each scene, and stick with it.

So I'm reading DEAD RUN by PJ Tracy and what are we to make of this passage?

"Annie was hoping for sanctuary. Her heels were already blistered from the ill-fitting purple high-tops, and her muscles were screaming from tension and all the unaccustomed exertion. All she wanted was a few blessed minutes to stay in one place and let her heart slow down, and the barn seemed like a logical place to fulfill that fantasy. Even if the soldiers did come back, it would take a hundred of them to search every nook and cranny in a building that big.

"Sharon was hoping for some kind of drivable vehicle behind the giant tractor doors, since there hadn't been a single one in town. Every old barn she'd ever been in contained a vehicle of some sort, from old hot rods buried under decades of hay dust to pristine classics preserved under heavy tarps. This was no bachelor pad; this was a family farm, and if there was one thing farms had in abundance, it was vehicles. Normally they were scattered all over the yard, tucked in long grass behind buldings, sheltered under an open shed, and certainly lining the drive. But there wasn't one of any kind in sight here, and that, almost more than anything else, seemed so dreadfully wrong. Surely the people who lived here couldn't have driven away in every single car they owned.

"Grace was staring intently at the barn. Too big, she thought. The damn thing had to be at least eighty feet long, and that was too long to be out in the open. But if the inside was safe, they could travel through the barn to the back and, she hoped, a way out of this godforsaken town. She took a breath, glanced at the others, then moved.

"They all darted from shadow to shadow across..."

OK. What lessons do we learn from this acclaimed bestselling author (who is actually a pseudonym for a mother-daughter writing team, not to be confused with PJ Parrish, a sister-sister writing team)?

Well, one lesson I think we learn is that if you're a bestseller you can get away with things unpublished authors maybe can't. Don't like that? Tough. Become a bestselling author and you can do what you want, but until then you're probably out of luck.

Second lesson, well, I happen to think that PJ Tracy made a mistake in this book. They have three lady friends on the run in rural Wisconsin and instead of choosing one of them for pov throughout the book, or even in each scene, they mix and match. Frankly, although I think they're good writers, I hate it. I'm reading along, comfortably in somebody's head, then I get all confused because the POV has changed and it KEEPS TAKING ME OUT OF THE STORY!!!

They do this all the time. The is the third book of theirs that I've read and I enjoyed the previous 2 reasonably well, but given the amount of acclaim these women and their books have received, bestsellerdom, good reviews, blah, blah, blah... I've always expected better. Sorry, that's me. Their first novel, MONKEEWRENCH was hoisted on the reading public as a miraculously fresh, startling take on mystery and suspense, and so when I read it I thought, "Uh, they're good, but..."

To their credit, at least in this passage, each POV change is marked by the character's name. That is not always the case, and that's why this novel is driving me a little nuts.

There are two other points about this particular book and these particular authors that I want to make.

One, they're really good writers. Their writing sparkles. It's lively, imaginative, vivid and entertaining. This helps them jump hurdles like bizarre shifting POVs that less dazzling stylists might have problems with.

Two, they're good storytellers. I was on the listserv DorothyL for several years. A thread was going on about the various rules of writing, citing Elmore Leonard and a whole bunch of others. I posted to suggest that the only writing rule that mattered was, "Don't be boring." Somebody e-mailed me personally to tell me that my comment wasn't worth the bandwidth it took up. Which inspired me to drop out of DorothyL, because, well, life's too short. And I stand by my comment.

The reason PJ Tracy gets away with this is their book is entertaining. It's not boring.

From what I can see, these ladies had a technical challenge--they had 3 characters on the run and they wanted to get inside all of their heads. So their solution was to go with a shifting omniscient POV. It's not a choice I would have taken (or recommended). But they sell a hell of a lot more books than I do. Did they decide consciously to do this? I don't know. I hope so, but it's possible they didn't, they just went ahead and wrote it.

And just for a moment, I want to strengthen a point about being boring. I read an essay about Stephen King written by his friend Peter Straub, in which he talks about his first exposure to King was in his novel 'SALEM'S LOT. And he printed out the paragraph or two where Barlow, the vampire, first appears at the dump. Then Straub goes on to talk about all of the things that are wrong about that passage, the use of passive voice, some awkwardness in the writing, and then he says something along the lines of: "And none of that mattered. It was breathtaking how Stephen jumped a hurdle without even showing any effort."

It's always better to use good technique. I think of it as being like a boat. Our story is our cargo and our technique is the boat we built to carry it. If the boat springs a leak, is sluggish in the water, the whole thing might sink or take too long to get the cargo to where it's going. Or as King himself commented, "You can drink Dom Perignon from leaded crystal or you can drink it from a Flintstones Jelly Glass. It's still Dom Perignon, but there is a difference."

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

If you use that many points of view all the time it's kind of omniscient isn't it?

I believe story trumps everything. Although, the more inept the technique the better the story has to be to trump and, of course, some writers have such bad technique that it makes the story unintelligible, no matter what it is supposed to be.

What I have actually said, often, as Mary will no doubt attest (having heard it far too much) is when it comes down to it the only thing a writer really really really has to do is to keep things interesting. The reader has to feel compelled to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page. As long as that is accomplished it makes no difference how.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Exactly, Eric. Story trumps everything.

Damn, that would have made for a much shorter post, wouldn't it?

5:28 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

When I read published work that reads like this, I get confused. It kinda breaks all the rules I've learned to this point. I don't think a first timer could get away with it. I wonder what would have happened if you had posted it without naming the author and let people critique it?

6:39 PM  
Anonymous dory said...

You're right;and it drove me nuts.

When I see fast flips of POV in narrative form, I tend to skim.

I guess that's another form of 'fast-paced-read,. ha ha

From and ed's POV ;), I would have said, "Figure out which head you want to be in, keep it there, and use DIALOGUE to get the info across."

Use of good tag lines and Body Language makes for a more enjoyable read, especially when it's a good story.

Then, some folks are good story-tellers, but NOT good writers.

And, Eric, I didn't read the book, but you are probably right, it is omniscience. . . at least that portion.

8:06 AM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Head-hopping doesn't bother me so much, but I've been well-trained as a reader by the Nora.

Aimless Writer, I don't think it's established vs. unestablished that allows established writers to get away with this. I think it comes down to the fact that you have to know the rules, to break them. You have to understand and be able to work within the rules, to have the ability to break the rules effectively.

I don't know why. Plenty of first-time novelists head hop like Nora, and it doesn't work. Some head-hop after many novels, and it works. Why?

Maybe because they understand the pitfalls, problems, and challenges of head-hopping, and do something--I don't know what--to ease the reader's way through all those heads?

6:08 PM  
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9:09 PM  

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