Musing About Writing
In these blog posts I will discuss anything about writing that I
find interesting or informative.
find interesting or informative.
Who will tell the story? The author’s answer to this question determines the story’s point of view. Once a decision is made, that point of view must be maintained if readers are to follow the action easily. The omniscient third-person narrator can delve into any character’s mind to reveal information the first-person narrator cannot know. The third-person point of view works well for J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series because it enables her to show the reader things about the mystical world of Hogwarts that Harry Potter could not know.
Many authors employ the limited-omniscient first-person narrator. This narrator can reveal only information that one character, usually the protagonist, can know. For example, the narrator in my novel Thief! is Claire, the protagonist. The entire story is told from her point of view. The narrator telling the story can tell the reader only those things Claire sees, hears, or thinks. Claire cannot see into the minds of other characters or know their actions unless someone tells her or she sees them.
Malcolm was walking up and down the aisles when Claire and Ralphie entered the drugstore. He waved when he saw them. “You’ve heard?”
“Yeah, we heard,” Ralphie answered him.
Malcolm looked worried. “There was $300 in that safe. How can I explain that to Dad? You know the sheriff thinks you two are guilty, don’t you?”
This point of view serves both writer and reader well. The action lets readers know that a robbery has taken place and that Malcolm is worried about more than just the money. However, if Claire had not come into the drugstore with Ralphie, then he would have had to tell her about the incident if readers were to know of it. That’s how readers learned of the murder:
“She’s got a gun. And they say she killed William Golightly and buried him in her yard. He just disappeared and they say she killed him.”
This point of view doesn’t work for every story though. Lois D. Brown uses two first-person points of view to tell her story Cycles, the protagonist Renee and her friend Sam. This strategy could be confusing, but Brown separates the action into chapters that switch from Renee to Sam.
After the accident, Renee:
Renee didn’t recognize anyone. Somehow she needed to tell them she was alive, but she couldn’t move, let alone talk.
We don’t have time for this. We’re losing her.” The urgency in the woman’s words was clear.
A few pages later, Sam:
The voices became audible, and he recognized one of them—Dawson! Sam stopped a few feet short of the office door. Through the crack, he saw a pinch-faced woman sitting across a polished mahogany desk from Renee’s neighbor. Dawson’s hands twisted around each other like two hyperactive rattlesnakes doing the Salsa.
This is information that Renee will need to know, but she is not in the room when these two characters are talking. Sam eavesdrops and tells Renee later about the conversation he overhears. By giving Renee and Sam their own chapters, Brown keeps readers from becoming confused.
Brown even manages to weave into the book some essential backstory information that occurred many years previously. She is successful here because she inserts individual chapters as journal entries written in italics to show the reader that this material predates the story being told. These portions are told in the first-person point of view of someone who lived the actions described in an earlier time:
Helen’s Journal, July 25, 1960
In the middle of nowhere, California
My contractions hurt. The humidity doesn’t help. Lost and alone. This is not how I wanted to give birth, but it’s beginning to look like I have no choice. I know if my mother were here she would tell me to be calm. People said she was the best midwife in all of California. But she’s not here. She’s dead.
These illustrations demonstrate several ways to treat point of view, but there are others. Just be certain that you always help the reader follow the action of your story. Think carefully about your point of view, always keeping in mind who is telling the story.
When I came to teach in a college in Mississippi, I was amused, and somewhat dismayed, to learn that someone was to be “funeralized”, as in “John Doe will be funeralized at 10:00 on Saturday at St. John’s Church.” Then the other day, I learned that to ensure employees produce their best work, employers must find ways to “incentivize” them.
As a writer and English professor, of course, I was concerned about what the language is coming to. Then I began to think about the language. This is the way a living language evolves. Not at the academic level, but with ordinary people who speak the language. Look at the first sentence of this paragraph, for example. I have ended it with a preposition, something grammarians may still cringe over. Though after Winston Churchill’s famous rewording of one of his sentences after he was criticized for ending it with a preposition, I believe grammarians may have backed off some: “This is something with which we will not put.” In the end, the people using the language have the last word.
I have taught Milton and Shakespeare for many years. Those two created a word when one that was exactly what they needed was not available in the language. Milton is responsible for some 600 words in English. Some are “pandemonium, lovelorn, earthshaking, unaccountable, dismissive, irresponsible”. I am reminded here of “irregardless,” which is not recognized as a bona fide word, yet its use is so widespread it may someday be considered standard English.
Estimates of Shakespeare’s contribution to new words in the language range from 1,700 to 10,000. A few are “obscene, swagger, torture, skim milk, submerge”, and the list goes on.
So, to get back to “incentivize” and “funeralize”. They may very well catch on and, over a long period, be included in our dictionaries as standard English.
So how did people speak before the seventeenth century? English began as an obscure Germanic dialect that eventually became what it is today. The study of the history of the English language is fascinating to those who enjoy the study of words. If you are one of those people, you may enjoy reading Beowulf: A Trilingual Etymological Bridge by Charles Long, PhD.
Use the language as you need to use it. If a character speaks nonstandard English, then use it. The point is that to break the rules successfully, you must know the rules. Keep that dictionary nearby and use it. Good craftsmen understand how to use the tools in their tool chest. And keep writing.