Shifty characters

I have a lot of trouble making point-of-view shifts in fiction; it's often the thing that can bring whatever I'm working on to a screaming halt. My instincts tell me to shift like I'm driving a Jag convertible at a hundred miles an hour along a clifftop, with the sea crashing on jagged rocks below. Reason reminds me that I never learned to drive a stick in the first place: and for that matter, the cliffs are awfully high, aren't they, oh dear, and if the car ends up in the ocean, you'll be sucked right to the bottom, won't you? You'll drown, and you'll die, and the sharks will rend and tear and gnaw at your salty, bloated corpse for the rest of forever.*

Ursula Le Guin, on the other hand, would have the writer live dangerously:

Version One: Quick Shifts in Limited Third

A short narrative, 300-600 words. You can use one of the sketches from Exercise Seven, or make up a new scene of the same kind: several people involved in the same activity or event.

Tell the story, using several different viewpoint characters (narrators) in limited third person, changing from one to another as the narrative proceeds.

Mark the changes with line breaks, with the narrator's name in parentheses at the head of that section, or with any device you like... (Le Guin, 109)***

I went ahead and used the narrative from yesterday's exercise for this bit. I'm not sure how well the passage works; it was something of a struggle to string the different perspectives together, especially in so short a space, and to signal each shift well enough in advance to keep a reader afloat. It feels a little clunky to me, yet. But the point isn't to make great literature, here-- just to play, and to notice how the narrative changes. What's fantastic about this exercise is that I'm beginning to understand the characters in a way I didn't before. It's interesting how so simple an exercise can reveal gaps you might need to fill.

Version One

Josie wound an arm about Rich's neck as she pushed the sticky fingerful of cake and frosting between his lips; he turned his back to the crowd, turning her gently with him, sucking at her thumb and forefinger for just a little too long. Josie giggled. "Oh my God." He grinned, took her face in both hands and gave her a big, wet, cakey kiss; she could feel a wad of frosting smear across her temple, into her hair. Everyone laughed and clapped and cheered, and Josie peeped around Rich's shoulder to wave to her aunt and uncle, who stood in front of the crowd at opposite ends of the dais. She flapped her fingers open and shut like a toddler, beaming first one way, then the other.

Aunt Blanche laughed, waving back, then pressed her fingers to her lips to stop them trembling. Josie looked like a marshmallow, Blanche decided, in that dress-- perhaps two marshmallows, one stacked atop the other. The thought made her want both to laugh and to cry; and yet Josie had never looked more beautiful, or more grown up. It really was a lovely, lovely wedding. Blanche's eyes began to well up, she couldn't stop them; she edged into the crowd, gently nudging her way to the back of the hall, and Eugene-- hooting, clapping, pumping his fist in the air with a big thumbs up for Josie-- couldn't take his eyes off her. She melted into the crowd, vanished. He raised himself for a moment to his toes and searched, but there was no sign of Blanche; she was gone. He turned to see Cookie frowning at him from her seat at the head table. The flowers on her headpiece had begun to wilt.

What are you doing here, she mouthed.

I'm on my way out, he mouthed back.

He tapped at his watch, jerking a thumb over his shoulder toward the big double doors at the back of the hall. Cookie gave him a curt nod; as he turned to go and find his coat, she watched him, drumming her fingers quietly, impatiently, against her knee. Rat-a-tat-a-tum-ba-doom. She had seen Blanche totter into the coatroom with her hand over her face, and knew it was best to leave her alone. Cookie drummed and stared into her lap. There wouldn't be much she could do to comfort her mother anyway.

Josie squeezed her shoulder. "Where's your dad going? He isn't leaving, is he?"

"He's got a long drive," Cookie began, then wriggled from Josie's grip, out of her chair. She saw her father walk into the coatroom. "Oh no," she breathed, and hurried after him. She suspected it was already to late.

"He only just got here," Josie called after her. "He has to dance with me! Tell him he has to dance first!"


Her father's arms were locked firmly around her mother; they were kissing. Cookie froze in the doorway, then lurched forward, one hand outstretched. "What on earth are you doing?" Her parents started and backed from her, still clinging to each other, like a step in a dance. "What on earth are you doing?" said her father. He sounded a little out of breath.

The second part of this exercise is much more difficult. Virginia Woolf is an unparalleled master of the quick POV shift; she uses the technique far more successfully (particularly in To the Lighthouse) and effortlessly than I ever will.

...Version Two: Thin Ice

In 300-1000 words. Tell the same or a new story of the same kind, deliberately shifting POV from character to character several times without any obvious signal to the reader that you're doing so.

You can of course do Version Two merely by removing the "signals" from Version One, but you won't learn much by doing so. "Thin Ice" calls for a different narrative technique, and possibly a different narrative. I think it is likely to end up being written by the involved author, even though you are apparently using only limited third-person viewpoint. This ice really is thin, and the waters are deep. (Le Guin, 109-10)

The passage which follows is actually the final two draft paragraphs of That Story-- a short story about a woman who gets herself stranded in London which I've been struggling with for several years. I've been wrangling with this ending for some time, but have never managed to get it quite right. The second paragraph attempts to bring together-- very, very clumsily-- the narrative perspectives of four different characters: the main viewpoint character, her sister, the man she ends up with in London, and his downstairs neighbour.**

Version Two

The door clicked softly closed as Ronnie trudged back down the path, back to the end of the road; she took a random turn, following the next street to wherever it might lead. Even if she could find the station now, where was there to go? She could ride the Underground all week till her first ticket ran out, she supposed, then buy another one and ride on that till it ran out, and on and on till all the money she had ran out and she had to walk, round and round London, one face in a million faces; up and down the Mall, Nelson’s Column shrinking and Buckingham Palace getting bigger; back again, the column rising; then down the Strand, to turn off along some cobbled side street; from there into a grimy alleyway, then a smaller, grimier one. Pressing sideways between ancient row houses and warehouses nestled up against each other, she could make her way like that, all over London, squeezing round corners and along pathways so narrow she’d have to hold her breath to get through.

Watch Ronnie. She hikes all the way to the end of the street, heat shimmering off the pavement ahead, off telephone booths and high windows and the hoods of parked carslike New York in mid-August. Traffic rumbles somewhere in the near distance, rumbling along the eleven miles separating her from the restaurant in which Graham now sits, thinking of her. He can barely taste the unnaturally rectangular slice of pork terrine nestled on the plate in front of him amidst the radicchio; he idly pushes one leaf into the wine-tinted drizzle at the plate’s edge, coats it, puts it in his mouth. The memory-tingle of her lips is still on his, and a faint, sour taste of morning mouth, as though he only just kissed her, but watch: she turns a corner and emerges into an explosion of commotion and noise on the high street. People walk rapidly this way and that, in and out of shops, darting out of each others’ way, or sometimes into the street, forcing the traffic to a crawl and a frenzy of honking horns (she'll never hear the frowning girl sing now). She pauses only briefly before falling into step with the crowd, her quick, staccato footsteps inaudible amidst the hammer-tread of a hundred other feet, her shaggy blond haircut no more distinguishable than that worn by any of the countless other girls crowding the street with their fat leather handbags. Miles away and only a moment ago, Helen started at a reflection she saw coming at her in the window, rising sharply as she crossed the room; it was only her own after all, but keep your eye on Ronnie: her head bobs just above the level of the crowd. Soon she will disappear completely, though the minute Ronnie calls back—what else can possibly happen?—her sister will be ready to run, and Ronnie walks, walks into nothing and no where, her heart wide open (And how does she feel, Graham wonders, now she has a sugar daddy?). Now you see her. Now you don't.

I'm rather distracted today: for those who don't know, I've been dragooned into filling twelve minutes of a poetry reading tomorrow evening; I still haven't chosen the poems. Probably the one about the moth. I have a couple others in mind. I'll need to sit down with a stopwatch at some point, and try to figure out how to read without my voice cracking. I do not read very well.

Are my nerves showing?


*There: that's that metaphor pummeled soundly to death.

** The passage may well be of most interest to Jen, who's seen several versions of the story and knows just how far I've overwritten the thing. Jen is a very wise and patient reader. It's a lucky thing to have a friend like that at one's disposal.

***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. 109.


spacedlaw said...

You'll do fine and the moth poem is a good choice.

Jess said...

Thank you. I think I may try to write another one today, just to make myself feel like I've got backup-- turns out at least one of the scheduled readers can't make it, so we've all got some extra time. I won't have enough material at this rate! It's not like I have a giant back-catalogue of poems from which to choose, here. I've only been writing them for a month or two. Agh.

Jess said...

Update: The reading went okay. I wasn't nearly as nervous as I thought I'd be, and got a lot of nice comments from people afterward. So that was nice. And I only had to fill six minutes after all! Phew. Don't ask me how I got it in my head that I had to do twelve.

spacedlaw said...

Good on you!
Each of these minutes could feel like they were cast in lead, I suppose.

Jess said...

That's why I picked short poems. :D