writingsmog

mostly fiction, sometimes fact

Category: Point of View

Reading as you write – A Swim in the Pond part II

So, it’s time to take a dip in the pond. In this post, I plan to do a writerly-readerly meta-analysis of the opening few paragraphs ofmy work-in-progress novella Understanding. To get a sense of what I aim to do here, you can access my previous post on the subject here. In short, this analysis has been inspired by George Saunders’ book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain in which he conducts a bunch of close readings of published stories and look at the decisions writers make with each word, phrase, paragraph, character, scene and how they open up questions and narrative paths that need to be resolved in one way or another during the story.

As I said last time, my story is still fairly embryonic. I’m only 20,000 words into the first draft and I’m progressing very slowly due to a host of other commitments at the moment – which in itself is interesting (at least to me) as it creates a different relationship between me and the work than I get with my usual approach which is one of destructive urgency.

Writing slowly means the subconscious writing that I do away from the desk happens in a more subtle way and gives me permission to try on a greater various of outfits for each new section before returning to the work. It’s not something I necessarily recommend – and I’m a firm believer in Stephen King’s idea that you have to show up as a writer, although I can never see myself writing 2,000 a day, six days a week, which has been his regime.

So, here goes…

Understanding

His naked feet dangled inches above the water, coaxing them up from the deep. From an upstairs window she kept watch. Glancing at the woods. The barn. The bleached straggly grass which had once been a lawn. And then back at him at the end of the diving board. Her binoculars weighed a ton.

An opening passage is always going to create more questions than answers. I’ve so far written this story in a linear fashion and started with this simple image in mind. I didn’t know who they were – the he and she in this short extract – or, indeed, where they were. Although I now know a lot more about their backstories, some of this initial ambiguity lingers – and I like that, because it means I too will be surprised by some of the things I learn about them as I write. In that sense I try to keep a feeling of alignment with the reader. I’m aware that this approach doesn’t work for every writer but it works for me, even if it requires more rewriting and retrofitting once the first draft it done.

The opening sentence is grammatically ambiguous. Strictly speaking the antecedent of “them” is the grammatical subject of the sentence – “His naked feet”. But the sentence also suggests there is something in the deep beneath his feet – an ominous “them” in the deep below him.

Although written in the third person, it is not clear who the narrator is (is she or he writing from inside or outside the fabula – who is focalising?). When I started writing, the narrator saw the world through his eyes in a close third person, but this soon changed as her character asserted itself in the text.

At this stage we don’t know who they are and what their relationship is to each other. We get a sense of their environment. With trees and a barn, it doesn’t sound urban and could be in the country. The diving board suggests a pool (although it could be over a lake or sea), which then reframes the notion of there being a deep below him. How deep is the deep end of the pool? And what lives in the pool? And why does she need to keep watch with binoculars? There is definitely something strange about this set up that I wanted to explore as a writer and a reader.   

He peered down at the grey-green darkness she herself saw when it was her turn. The bottom invisible beneath the algae. With sudden violence – it always came sooner than she expected – he slapped the water with the back of the frying pan. The sound ricocheted off the trees that surrounded the garden. In the early days when he did this, she’d watch the birds scatter against the bluest skies. She knew them all by name. Goshawk. Buzzard. Swallow. Long-tailed tit. Today, apart from a distant squawk, there was nought.

This passage provides more details of their environment. It is a swimming pool. They are in a garden surrounded by trees. The list of birds suggests somewhere rural.

The narrative is explicitly from her perspective. Watching him, she knows what he sees from her own experience, yet she is still shocked by the strange ritual. She’s bright and possibly prone to distraction. “She knew them all by name” is a deceptively innocuous statement. It could be read as a simple piece of exposition – the narrator imparting information. But there is a childish boastfulness quality to it that suggests she herself would state this. The statement seems to come from her, and not just the narrator. Is it part of her character to be boastful? If so, is it because she likes to show off? Or is there another reason? A sign of defensiveness, perhaps?

He slapped and slapped. His thin, sinewy back glistening in the midday sun. It had been her idea to empty the fish tank into the pool after the winter rains. She hadn’t expected the carp to survive. When he’d killed enough – the fish floating on the surface of the green water, their bellies like bones – silence reigned over the clearing once again. He stared up at her briefly, checking she was paying attention. She pouted crossly and showed him the binoculars. The buckle on the leather strap dug into her neck. When he made a gun shape with his fingers, she lifted the rifle from the rug and held it up to the window with both hands.

Satisfied, he leant down and scooped up the dead fish with the frying pan, flinging each into the long grass by the pool. She scanned the treeline on both sides of the yard – nothing – before returning her gaze to her brother who wound up his arm as he tossed the pan deep into the grass before sliding along the board on his belly towards shore.

So what’s happening here? She is armed with a gun, which he checks she has – indeed, he checks “she was paying attention”, which underscores the notion she might be easily distracted, which might be because she is young, presumably younger than he is. The narrator seems to pop into her brother’s head for a moment (a shift in focalisation/point of view), reflecting on her brother’s reason for looking up, but it could just as easily be another part of the routine that she knows and expects – the narrator could still be focalising from her perspective when commenting on his motive for checking she is watching.

Her brother’s status becomes more evident in this passage too. He seems older and has an air of being the responsible one. When writing this story, I’ve been acutely aware of the different forms of status between them and how that, in itself, can shape their behaviour and drive the story on. (See Keith Johnstone’s book Improv for a great introduction to status.)

The nature of what he is doing is strange. Why slap fish in a pond with a frying pan? Why not try to fish them out another way? How have their lives evolved to introduce this pattern?

And I admit, I don’t quite know myself, but I like its oddness and feel that its strangeness is an appropriate metaphor for the odd patterns of behaviour people can adopt, especially when isolated.

I’m aware that readers will try to decode this world through their understanding of their own worlds. The story certainly has elements of magical realism or possibly even slipstream, but I’m not aiming for either genre. Rather, I’m attempting to write an appropriate metaphor for the strangeness many of us have felt in the last year or so while confined due to Covid-19. The key, though, is to do enough to make that implicit for readers – to show rather than tell.  

She looked out at the yard. There was cow parley and elderflower and sprigs of glass that looked like wheat but didn’t taste good and dandelions and a tree that produced the most delicious pears and a slime-green pool. In the breeze it all seemed to come to life, moving silently, hither and thither, hither and yon, yon and thither…she held these words in her warm mouth like yoke in an eggshell. She felt their roundness on her tongue before each was released with the shallowest aspiration. There was no one there to hear them, which was just as well for her brother hated her silly words. She had little time to recall when she first heard them – to remember which of her parents used them – because her brother had stopped dead in the middle of the board.

His gaze fixed on something in the forest.

A curve in the treeline meant she couldn’t see what he was looking at. Still, she raised the rifle and pointed it in the general direction of the forest path, her gluey tongue working its way along her top lip.

He followed the usual procedure, taking a deep gulp of air before sliding into the water, keeping his fingers curled over the edge of the board so he could sense any movement. If the board wobbled, he would know she had failed. He took a final gulp of air – his beard lingering on the water’s surface like eelgrass she’d read about in the National Geographic – its proper name was Zosteraceae – before pushing his head back under the water.

Shit, she said quietly, so her brother wouldn’t hear.

This last bit extends on many of the ideas I’ve mentioned already. She lives in an isolated and fundamentally scary world. She is intelligent and has a tendency to withdrawal into her mind, possibly as a defence against scary things happening outside, e.g. she thinks about the proper name for eelgrass which she sees as an appropriate metaphor for his floating beard and playing with words in her mouth – words that she has obviously heard spoken to her at some point in her life, but that she can’t properly recall. Then, in the final line of this extract, we get a stronger sense of how she feels obliged to modify her behaviour for the sake of her brother – another marker of their differing status. Perhaps her intelligence is actually a defence against his dominance. Her knowledge and understanding are things he can’t control.

He submerges himself in the water, presumably to hide from something he has seen – some source of danger that she knows she has to deal with. Yet, she still thinks of the eelgrass – how much danger are they actually in? It is real or perceived?

In summary, the story starts at a point of potential danger for the girl and her brother, and offers glimpses into their internal and external lives, but leaves many unanswered questions about who they are, where they are, and what will happen to them. The overriding feeling is one of fragility. And as I write I am aware of the questions I am opening up, which creates a kind of puzzle that I must solve. Not only do I need to learn the answers, but I have to make decisions about how I will represent them on the page for readers to learn – a process which exemplifies the separate notions of the story and the fabula. But often, the decisions are made for me in the process of writing the fabula. That’s the fun of writing fiction.

Thanks for reading.

© Aaron Cox 2021

Breaking the narrative circuit

In today’s blog I am going to briefly discuss the relationship between narrator and character by looking again at Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows. Taking a structuralist view of fiction, it is possible to identify key narrative levels (author/reader, narrator/narrate, characters) that create narrative circuits. Pulling apart a story into its various narratological components can provide some really useful analysis of how a story hangs together. In particular it can help you identify and understand moments of transgression between narrative levels, whether intended or not, and what effects they might have.

Today, I am going to look at the relationship between the third person (external) narrator and the direct speech of a character. Of course this division is a fabrication. The narrator (arguably, as a proxy of the author) provides the situations and events and the architecture of the world in which a character speaks. However, it is a line that shouldn’t be crossed if the suspension of disbelief is to succeed and therefore the narrative is to be believed as a realist text.

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If this separation of narrative levels is transgresses, you can inadvertently destroy the illusion of reality and draw attention to the story as artifice. It can lose its sense of plausibility.

Direct speech should seem to be the words uttered by the character. If it isn’t the character speaking, the risk is that it may seem that the character is not embedded inside the text but is rather saying what the narrator wants him or her to say. As such, the character can seem like a reader of the story he or she is meant to be part of with a kind of meta-awareness of the narrative itself.

That’s all well and good if you are interested in Brecht’s A-effect or plan to write meta-fiction that messes about with how a story is framed, but it can otherwise make a realist story seem contrived.

As discussed in my last blog, Favel Parrett uses close third person narration in Past the Shallows to great effect, splitting the narrator’s gaze between two key characters, Harry and Miles. Although this form of narration sees the world pretty much through the eyes of one character (or in the case of Parrett’s book, one character at a time), when it comes to direct speech it is still important that the division between the narrator and the characters’ voices remains clear. Direct speech is the purest expression of a character’s voice, thoughts, attitudes, point of view etc.

In the opening scene of the book, Harry is at the beach with his two older brothers Miles and Joe. While the others are out surfing, Harry forages and has an epiphany that I find quite jarring because it seemed like an observation of a much older character and seems heavily laden with an ideological point of view from outside the story.

Harry picked up an abalone shell, the edges loose and dusty in his hands. And every cell in his body stopped. Felt it. This place. Felt the people who had been here before, breathing and standing alive where he stood. People who were long dead now. Long gone. And Harry understood, right down in his guts, that time ran on forever and that one day he would die.[1]

A few moments later he tells Joe: “This place is old.”[2]

On the one hand, this could be read as a boy feeling a sense of his own mortality. Death is present in his world. We learn that his mother has died, for example. However, there is more to this revelation than that. He seems to feel as though he is an interloper, made other by the history of landscape. It seems to me unlikely that picking up a shell would trigger such an observation in a boy of his age (I assume he is younger than ten, possibly as young as seven).

He seems to perceive something bigger in a kind of spiritual sense of place that is more akin to indigenous mythology than the musing of a young boy on a beach. Although not overt, there does seem to be a nod here towards the Aboriginal Dreamtime, a place beyond time and space accessed during dreaming and altered states of consciousness.[3] When reading this scene I wondered if Parrett was in some sense working within a particularly Australian canonical tradition which obliges writers to create a sense of place that confirms something about the Australian identity and how a sense of Australianess is conveyed in literary and artistic works. This in turn confirms the book as “Australian” satisfying a desire for cultural confirmation that seems to prevail among local publishers and readers and seeks to actively resist outside influences.

Looking at this scene in the context of events to come, I am also concerned that he seems to foreshadowing his own death, which makes the epiphany seem especially contrived and offers that sense I mentioned earlier about a character being a reader of the story itself. Again, it seems to show overt intervention rather than something earned or borne out of the story organically.

Is this short scene an example of authorial intervention? Is this an example of indigenous Australian culture being appropriated by the mainstream? There were enough of these qualities on the page to make me step back and wonder about these things. Rather than coming organically from the story, the sense of place and its inherent cultural identity seem somewhat forced upon Harry. But I am aware that my reading is just that, my reading. Others may beg to differ. I am an interloper here too, reading the book through my own lens.

I guess it hits home to me that when writing, maintaining a sense of authenticity about a character’s perspective, no matter how artificial, can be very challenging and there are lots of paper-thin walls that you can inadvertently pass through.

[1] Favel Parrett, past the shallows, published by John Murray, 2011, pg. 4

[2] Ibid., pg.5

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreamtime

Past the Shallows – when seeing through two eyes can be better than one

When it comes to writing fiction, few choices are as important than the choice of point of view. Who is telling the story? If they are a character in the story, what is their role and how to do they perceive events? If the third person is adopted, what is the narrator’s attitude to the story or it’s characters? Does the narrator see over the shoulder of one character (i.e. close third person) or is the narrator an omniscient god-like figure?

The answers to these questions will help inform the sort of voice that is adopted. It will influence the tone of the narration, how narrow or expansive the narrator’s worldview will be and therefore how much the reader sees. It can have an impact on issues of a narrator’s reliability and whether dramatic irony might be used.

From my experience, it’s not an easy decision. Getting point of view wrong can really kill the writing. But when you get it right, the narrative possibilities can really open up before you.

Favel Perrett uses point of view to great effect in her novel Past the Shallows and that’s the topic of today’s blog. She adopts a “close third person” style. This form of point of view involves looking over the shoulder of a character and is thus more limited in vision than an omniscient style of narration. Close third person creates intimacy. Flaubert, the master stylist, famously used this style to great effect in Madame Bovary.

What is interesting about Parrett’s use of the close third person is that she employs it with two characters rather than one and this point of view shifts between chapters.

Before going on, a rough outline of the book may be necessary for those of you who haven’t read it. Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the end of the novel, so you may not want to read this blog if you plan to read the book.

past-the-shallows-by-favel-parrett

Past the Shallows is a harrowing story of two boys, Harry and Miles, who live with a violent father, an abalone fisherman in southern Tasmania. Harry is the younger of the two and I figure he is around eight years old. Miles is presumably a teenager. The story chart’s the boys’ quest for survival and their journey to find out more about the suspicious death of their mother, who died in a car accident. Questions remain about whether Harry is in fact the child of their mother’s lover, which adds to the sense of risk for him in the household: the father figure treats him more disdainfully than he treats Miles. Their harsh domestic existence is matched by the precariousness of life on the sea.

The close third person point of view shifts between Harry and Miles (they have an elder brother, Joe, who has a more minor role than the other two). This works really well to control the flow of information and to show differences in how they understand and negotiate with similar experiences. The contrasting lenses also convey tension; for example, when Harry defies Miles’s wishes and disappears to find solace at the home of George, an ambiguous character who lives an unobtrusive life alone in the bush. The dual points of view also allow Parrett to carefully control time and the unveiling of information: for example, she uses ellipses to great effect, although the story can seem too elliptical at times, at the expense of some character development. Many events occur off screen, including the potential death (or otherwise) of Dad in the climatic fishing accident in which Harry dies. Interestingly, we are left hanging about Dad’s fate.

However, the device is most powerful when Harry dies at the end. By implication, one of the points of view is killed off. As a reader, I felt the loss of a narrative position gave his death greater immediacy. I no longer had access to his point of view.

Parrett could have achieved something similar by using two first person points of view. This might have been quite effective. Given how young the boys are in the story, Parrett could have exploited dramatic irony, allowing the reader to understand more than the characters. However, the Parrett’s evocative, dreamlike narrative voice would have been lost if she’d chosen to write in first person and field of vision of each character more limited (a third person, even a close one, allows a certain amount of peripheral vision). Overall, I believe Parrett’s use of dual close third person points of view works.

There is more to be said about how point of view works in Past the Shallows, which I will leave until my next blog. That discussion will look at point of view in terms the particular way a character sees the world. I will look at a section early in the book where I feel the narrator seems to impose a certain perspective on Harry, making his way of seeing appear somewhat contrived rather than an observation he might make himself. It will hopefully be an interesting discussion. Thanks for reading.

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