On Narration

Yesterday I had a long Twitter conversation with Ann Leckie, author of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. This was a privilege in and of itself, and I am amazed she took so much time out of her day to have such a discussion. The discussion was on omniscient narration, both the pitfalls and the perks of the construct.

In this discussion we touched on the aspect of tension in fiction, and more importantly, in F&SF. I mention that I thought a lot of tension comes from the concealment of knowledge from the writer. Leckie, on the other hand shot this idea down. She said that tension comes from caring.

 

But then–that brings up how caring about a desired outcome works at all. If you’re told the story is a happy story from the very beginning and that everything ends up alright–how can you care about the actions in between the beginning and the end of the story.

This is the difficulty in writing with an omni narrator. It is more difficult to discern the information that the reader needs, from what they want, to the effect it has. I’m not saying writer’s shouldn’t use it, I’m saying it needs to be done with extreme care.

I think this is especially true for F&SF genres, that the “what happens next?” question is so important that if it’s given away by, lets say, an omniscient narrator, it dispels all tension. I can only relate it to watching a soccer game I already know the results of. It’s a total snoozefest and I’ll turn it off, or put down the book.

Of course, this is omniscient narration at its worst. There are ways to preserve tension with it. It’s just difficult to do.

Of course omniscient narrators don’t always ruin the plot for readers. Tolkien wrote LoTR with an omniscient narrator and it works great. But the largest issue I find in omni narration is the distance it builds between the characters and the reader. As soon as the narrator describes something that the protagonist(s) don’t know or couldn’t see–it removes me, as a reader, from the experience, and instead I feel like an observer, not so much within the story. And this can remind me that I’m sitting on my couch instead of actually living through the adventure. Like Leckie I think tension comes from an investment in characters, and if I don’t feel intrinsically connected to those characters because I’m being taken on a journey away from them to see events unfold that they can’t know about it’s easy for me to feel as though the actions of those characters are stupid because, with the information I have, I’d do something else. But since the characters don’t have that information we can’t experience the same thing, and so I’m not as connected as I want to be or should be. And this is why omni narration is so, so difficult to pull off.

Charity by Charles Baxter (Fiction Breakdown)

It’s been months since I’ve posted any news. But for those at all interested, I’m alive and well. I believe I am nearing the time at which I will be more consistent with my blogging, as it is something I enjoy greatly, though once I return I am afraid it will probably be a weekly practice rather than daily. I simply have other obligations.

For this entry, I’d like to share a breakdown of a short story I read just yesterday. This kind of breakdown is something that was introduced to me by one of the faculty in my MFA program, and if this feels a little too MFA-ish than it’s probably because it is. For those who enjoy dissecting fiction, for those who seek to understand why it works, and why it is or is not fulfilling, read on.

I’ll start with this graphic I created (I apologize for the resolution):

Charity by Charles Baxter (BASS 2014)

 

Base Situation:

The story starts with Quinn newly arrived in the United States after some time spent in Ethiopia. While he was squeaky clean before he picked up some type of contagious arthritis, and though he’s in some trouble now, he still thinks he’ll find his way out. That’s where he is physically. Emotionally, he’s optimistic about his boyfriend whom he met while abroad. They are separated by distance.

Initial Event (or Inciting Incident):

This puts the story in full motion–sure you could argue that the inciting incident is Quinn’s contraction of the arthritis, but that’s summed up so quickly in the piece, I don’t see the story starting until he runs out of painkillers and has to visit a drug dealer in a shady bar.

Conflict:

The visit to the drug dealer spawns conflict, as Quinn doesn’t have money enough to pay for the painkillers he needs to feel human. As a result of this he mugs someone in the middle of the night. Once he takes the painkillers Quinn understands how much shit he’s in.

And this is where the whole story goes sideways–the reader hasn’t actually been in Quinn’s PoV at all. We’ve been listening to someone named Harry tell the story of what he’s been able to put together of what happened to Quinn. Oh, and Harry is Quinn’s boyfriend. So Suddenly the reader takes a step back and there is another. . .

Initial Event (or Inciting Incident):

. . . but this time the inciting incident spurs Harry on within the story, because quite suddenly, Quinn disappears.

Now, I think this is what makes this story tick. Both Harry and Quinn feel like very real, very complex humans because we see an inciting incident for both of them, which makes readers think about inciting incidents for everyone in a fictional world. Stories are happening everywhere and this piece hints that inciting incidents aren’t isolated. The whole world is ruled by cause and effect.

S0. When Quinn disappears Harry takes up the story in his attempts to find his beloved. We get a scene of Quinn when he was well, and why Harry falls in love with him–important backstory. Because we’ve already seen Quinn fall, this flashback is in place of the rising action of the story. It builds tension like few backstories I’ve ever seen, because we feel and see the love Harry has for Quinn and we want Quinn to be okay.

Climax:

In response to Quinn’s Disappearance Harry goes and confronts the drug dealer that Quinn had gone to see. It’s a tense moment because we don’t know how the drug dealer will take to a gay man asking questions–but in due course we find that Harry is pretty bad ass.

Critical Moment:

Following the drug dealers tip, Harry finds Quinn completely out of his mind near the river. This is a critical moment because it is in this moment that Harry realizes that Quinn is a different person than the one he fell in love with. He wishes Quinn was his old self, but he suspects that’s impossible.

Falling Action:

Harry returns to the drug dealer and beats the him up for what he had done to Quinn–getting him addicted to painkillers. Then Harry takes Quinn to Seattle and gets him on his feat. At this moment readers wonder if Harry can learn to love the real Quinn; the one that exists now.

Resolution:

Quinn attends meetings for addiction. He and Harry talk all the time. Harry has Quinn over for dinner and Quinn says some things that make Harry realize that Quinn doesn’t believe he’ll ever be good or whole again. There’s no “recovered” from something like this just “recovering” forever.

Quinn brings it full circle by invoking an Ethiopian toast, by upending a drink on the floor. Harry does the same–the toast is one that is given to signify leaving the past behind. For the two characters here, it signifies leaving their old selves behind–and once and for all, Harry understands he can’t ever go back to loving Quinn.

That’s my breakdown of this story–if you are interested in reading it you can find it in The Best American Short Stories 2014, edited by Jennifer Egan. It’s full of great stories, and a couple duds, but what collections aren’t? If you have anything to add, please, leave a comment and I’ll respond promptly.

Happy reading.

A.

9/3/2015 Linked and PoV

Within my novel, which is a series of novelettes, are bridges between each novelette.  Until recently these bridges were written in the second-person PoV i.e. “you wake up, stretch and crawl out of bed.” Now, obviously this is a problematic literary device in many ways. Readers typically reject being told what they do, and, more so, how they feel–even if the You character is specified to be an actual person other than the reader. In an attempt to serve the novel rather than my own literary eccentricities, I’ve rewritten these bridges in the third person PoV i.e. “He does this, he does that.” Not only this but I found myself adding great swaths of backstory for my protagonist, who turns out to be something of an anti-hero, unintentionally.

Wow. I had no idea what this characters, what this guy, had been through. I mean I know he had a tough childhood, but he was seriously emotionally abused–completely on accident. But he was also sorta a weird kid to begin with.

I find relating each bridge thematically to the novelette before it a perfect way in which to guide me in this revision process. So, I think a great rule, or at least guideline, is, when revision and noticing the lack of verisimilitude, if you just re-read the chapter or story, that chapter or story will actually let you know what happens next. It will feel right when it is connected thematically and emotionally. I think that’s what I’ve been able to accomplish in the last week, and it’s been extraordinarily satisfying. Sometimes writing through something only gives you more things that don’t fit. Sometimes you have to read your way through it, and stop trying to think critically about technique and craft. That’s what I’ve found, and thus far, it feels right.