POV shenanigans

This next exercise from Steering the Craft is rather long; as such, I've only posted my results from Part One. It's similar to yesterday's exercise, in that Le Guin suggests that the reader write several versions of the same scene using many different points of view: first using limited third person, then a detached narrator*, next an observer-narrator**, and finally using the involved-author point of view (that is, "omniscient" narration). Each scene should run from 200 to 350 words, or thereabouts, and should involve more than two people doing something. Le Guin notes that the event or activity involved doesn't have to be elaborate or hugely significant, but something should happen. She also notes that it's important, for this exercise, to keep dialogue to a minimum, as dialogue can obscure the POV-- and the point of the exercise is to be aware of the sorts of voices that result from using each type of narration.

Part One: Two Voices

First: Tell your little story from a single POV-- that of a participant in the event-- an old man, a child, a cat, whatever you like. Use limited third person.

Second: Retell the same story from the POV of one of the other people involved in it. Again, use limited third person. (Le Guin, 92)***

The scene I ended up writing, then rewriting, is one that I've had in my head for years but which never made it into the first draft of That Unfinished Novel I mentioned yesterday. It really should have done. I should note that Eugene and Blanche are divorced (Eugene has actually remarried), and that Cookie is their daughter. The scene takes place something like ten or fifteen years after they've split up.

I find myself thinking more and more about That Novel as I work through the exercises in Le Guin; maybe it's time to pull it out of that dark drawer and get back to work on it, eh what?


Josie really did look like a marshmallow in that dress, Blanche decided-- even two marshmallows, one stacked atop the other. But her face shone, she was happy, she beamed; Blanche had never seen Josie looking more beautiful, or more grown up. Blanche covered her lips with her fingertips, to stop them quivering. It really was a lovely, lovely wedding. Everyone laughed and clapped and cheered as Josie and Rich poked dainty bits of cake into each other's mouths, then kissed, haltingly, like kids.

Blanche excused herself and edged to the back of the hall, into the coatroom; she fumbled open her compact and dabbed at the mascara smudges beneath her eyes with a kleenex, peering this way and that into the little mirror.

"It's a great party," Eugene said.

Blanche turned. She couldn't help smiling at him-- he looked so small in that awful, rumpled jacket, his hands stuffed into his trouser pockets-- "Yes, it's a lovely party," she said, and they stood smiling at one another, shifting their feet. Blanche sniffed, and squeezed the wadded handkerchief in her hand; the other fumbled with the compact, till it snapped shut.

Eugene took a step forward and took her gently by the arm. "Everything okay?" he said. Blanche would have answered him, but he kissed her, softly upon her lips and so briefly that she wasn't certain it had happened at all. He kissed her a second time, and she let him-- it had been such a long time since she'd been kissed-- she leaned in and rested her hands, each still closed tightly about the handkerchief and compact, against his shoulders. He kissed her: it tasted as though he'd been smoking a pipe. When on earth had he taken up pipe smoking? she wondered. Her eyes drifted open; there was Cookie, standing in the doorway, jaw hanging slack, her mouth a perfect red-tinged O. Still Eugene kissed her, sliding one arm round her waist. He kissed her, and she let him kiss her, pleading silently with Cookie, her eyes wide.

"Mom! What on earth are you doing?" Cookie gasped, rushing in with a hand outstretched, to break them up.


Everyone laughed and clapped as Josie and Rich fed each other large fingerfuls of cake, but Eugene couldn't take his eyes off Blanche. She was crying. Her hand flew up to her mouth, and her mascara began to run. As the newlyweds embraced for one more smeary, cakey kiss, she edged slowly into the crowd, nudging her way through till she finally disappeared, somewhere at the back of the hall.

Eugene clapped and hooted, and gave Josie a big thumbs-up; Josie burst into laughter and waved happily from the dais, flapping her fingers open and shut. He gave her a wink, and turned to see Cookie frowning at him from her seat at the head table. He grinned, gave her a wiggle-fingered wave. What are you doing here? she mouthed.

"Don't worry. I'm on my way out," he said. He couldn't tell whether or not she understood. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, cocked his head toward the exit. It seemed to satisfy her. He headed off to find his coat.

Blanche stood in the very center of the coatroom, with her back to him. Coats hung on every side, muffling the noise and laughter of the hall, and Blanche seemed small, maybe even a little lost, amid them. Eugene rapped gently on the door frame. "It's a great party," he said.

Blanche turned, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. She sniffled, then smiled-- it was a strange thing to see. She hadn't smiled at him like that in a very long time. He smiled, too, and they stood there without speaking, shuffling their feet. "Yes, it's a lovely party," she said. She turned a little compact mirror over and over in one hand; after a moment, it snapped shut. Blanche glanced in the direction of the noise, chuffed a quiet little laugh, and Eugene reached out, reached for her.

"Everything okay?" he said, and he knew as he said it that it soon wouldn't be. He kissed her anyway-- just once, just a peck-- and then again, more deeply, sliding one arm around her waist. To his surprise, she let him. She leaned in, rested her hands-- each closed stiffly about the compact and handkerchief-- against his shoulders. He held her, and he kissed her; he nearly had a heart attack when he heard Cookie gasp behind him.

"Mom! What on earth are you doing?" He turned in just enough time to avoid Cookie's hand-- reaching out, it seemed, in order to slap him.

I read a very good article in the AWP Writer's Chronicle some time ago-- I wish I could remember which issue-- which advocated bringing back the omniscient or involved-author point of view. I've often thought I'd like to try it, but I've never been able to get it to work; I like to hang around in character's heads, and an omniscient narration doesn't seem to fit that sort of thing as comfortably as limited third. At least, it doesn't for me. The idea intrigues me, though. Dickens uses omniscient narration extremely well. My favorite uses of point of view, though, are in Virginia Woolf's work-- she begins from something like limited third, but shifts from one character to the next with stunning grace and ease; by the end of a novel like To the Lighthouse, the narrative voice doesn't seem to belong to any one character or even to the author, but-- as Le Guin also notes-- to the book itself. It's incredible stuff.


* A "detached" point of view is that of a "fly on the wall"-- the narrator describes what it hears and sees, but has no access to the characters' thoughts or emotions.

** The observer-narrator is a character in the story, but is not the main character; he or she observes the action of the story from within.

***Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 92.


spacedlaw said...

That's really good!
The exercise does remind me a little of "An instance of the fingerpost" by Iain Pears, which must be the last book I have read that uses that technique.

Jess said...

You mean it uses both-- that is, it tells it the one way, then the other? I can think of one story, written by a a former prof of mine, and to which I've lost the link (argh) which sort of does that-- and it works because each part of the story (told from a different POV) centers around a painting, and the characters' relation to it. It's repeatedly coming back to that painting which ties the whole thing together-- it's a tricky sort of thing to pull off, but the author does it really well. I wish I could remember the title, now!

The novel I was working on actually did attempt something like a choral-narration effect, but I kept each of the major characters' points of view very separate; each viewpoint character actually got her own novella-like section, and each takes place at a different point in time. I had a hard time figuring out how to bring all four narratives together-- which was part of the reason I never managed ot finish it.