Monday, May 9, 2011

Point of View & Writing Style

            I’ve had a few discussions with other (aspiring) writers in recent weeks regarding point of view (POV) and style and it seemed to me that the two were related and interwoven in a significant way.  First off, I should mention that my novel is written in the first person.  When I started writing, I began in the (close) third person which, in my experience, is how a great majority of stories are told, so it seemed natural to write that way.  I’m sure I’ve read quite a few first person narratives, but I must say I was never really aware of it, that is until I read the young adult novel, Twilight by Stephanie Meyer.  YA is not my usual fare, but I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.  Now, I realize Twilight is not exactly literary fiction.  Not even close.  It’s simple and told in a straight forward voice—an uncomplicated juvenile voice at that—but it struck me as very honest and relatable to its audience—mostly teenagers and young adult women.  While reading, I was actually aware of the voice which I had never really paid all that much attention to before in most of the books I read.  I found I enjoyed the first person POV and being in the protagonist’s head.  I felt close to the action and embroiled in her emotions, however corny and anemic the story might be.      
There is a major drawback to the first person POV, however:  the reader only knows, sees, hears or feels what the protagonist knows, sees hears or feels.  That can be rather limiting and make it difficult to tell a complete story.  Two of my favorite authors, Greg Iles (The Devil’s Punchbowl) and Michael Connelly (The Reversal), solved this dilemma by writing in both the first person and close third person, alternating the voices between chapters.  This worked well for them, as well as for my dear friend and critique partner, writer Lisa Regan, in both her novels, Finding Claire Fletcher and Aberration. 
I considered this technique and decided against it because I really needed my reader to be fully engaged in exactly what the characters—both the main character and his victim—were feeling.  It was, after all, the victim’s reaction to the main character’s crime that made the main character reconsider his path.  And the victim’s journey is just as important as the main character’s.  They could only truly find what they needed through each other.  Third person felt too remote and detached to accomplish that.  Not exactly what I was going for since my story is so wrought with emotional turmoil.  At one point, I actually considered changing half my story to close third person POV but my critique partner strenuously advised against it.  And I did not have a character to rely on who could conveniently supply large amounts of information such as a reporter, a shrink, a private investigator or someone else in the know.  I had only four characters to do this.  One of them dies early on and another is physically absent for a large part of the story.   
So I rethought how I would tell the story and decided that the only way to truly deliver on the pain and agony of the main characters was to tell it from their perspectives.  But I’d only read a handful of multiple POV novels before and most of the time, those perspectives were differentiated with a change in font type on the printed page (Iles & Picoult).  Visually, it provided a good kick to the reader, letting them know a different person was narrating, but I think the writing itself should do that and the difference in voice should be obvious.  And having too many voices can be confusing, so while I knew I could not tell the whole story through just one character’s perspective, I did not want to have more than two at any given time. 
I decided the best way for me to show who the narrator was, was to simply put the character’s name as the chapter heading and allow the reader to associate a name to the voice.  I tried to make the two voices sound and feel different so even if the reader happened not to glance at the chapter heading, they could automatically feel and hear the difference.  This was important because I did not always alternate characters between every chapter, yet I did not want to make the chapters overly long, so I relied on my writing style to naturally differentiate the voices.  This, in turn, brings me to my other topic:  Style.
I have an online friend who offered me advice on style after reading a few chapters of my manuscript.  In his humble opinion, though I had A style, I had not yet found MY style.  Well, I disagreed wholeheartedly and while I am open to constructive criticism and felt he was not purposely unkind, he was a touch condescending and that was what put me off so much.  He used my opening line on chapter one and rewrote it, but to me, it was all about the words and how pretty they sounded when strung together.  And while they were pretty, they made absolutely no sense whatsoever, especially when you consider the voice of my character. 
He is an “everyman,” your average Joe, trying to make the right choices in a complicated world.  And what struck me right off the bat about my friend’s advised revision was what so many agents warn writers against:  do not let your writing get in the way of your story.  In other words, if the average reader has to work too hard to discern a meaning from a single sentence, they will grow frustrated, bored or weary and simply put the book down forever. 
I’m not trying to write literary fiction.  I don’t want to challenge the reader, as my friend suggested.  I write for the average reader who just wants to be taken away for a few hours here and there.  And I don’t write to impress anyone, least of all myself.  In MY humble opinion, overworked writing is like people who speak just to hear themselves talk.  My motto is “Just tell the freakin’ story already!” 
So while I do think style is very important, you have to write like you’re the person experiencing the events in your story, especially if told in the first person.  Trying to be eloquent for eloquence sake makes the novel all about your writing, not the story.  And in most cases, nobody even wants to be aware of your writing and style.  They want the writer to disappear and the character to emerge.  Now, that’s not say that a character cannot be overburdened by excessive introspective narrative.  In some cases, that’s who the character is, but in my case, it was not.  Nor do I think it the case in most adult thrillers. 
I recently followed an online recommendation and read—or tried to read anyway—The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber.  I must admit it was beautifully written.  The voice practically sang the words.  But the author took too long in getting his point across and moving the story along because, frankly, he just used too many words, and while they were lovely, it was just way too much. 
It reminded me of that moment in the film Amadeus, when Mozart asked the King what he felt the problem was with his latest opera, The Marriage of Figaro.  The King said quite simply, “Too many notes!”  (I disagree with the King on that point, by the way.)  It was the same with The Book of Air and Shadows.  While I enjoyed the written word, I got bored waiting for the story to progress.  I get that the protagonist—and the writer—was very bright, and I’m no slouch myself, but I have only so much time to read and if the author is not going to get a move on, then forget it.  I’m just going to put that blasted book down and never pick it up again. 
So while I appreciated the effort my friend took in advising me—though not his method—in the end, it made me see how important style relates to the POV.  First of all, I had to keep my novel around 85,000 words or so, as no agent or publisher wants to take on anything from a new writer much longer than that, so I had to convey a semi-complicated plot in easy to understand language and voice while doing so in as few words as possible.  I wrote like I was the protagonist, like I was just sitting there, perhaps by a camp fire, telling my story, trying to keep my listener interested. 
Agents constantly advise writers to read in the genre in which they write.  And I do.  In fact, that’s practically all I read, though I do break it up from time to time so as not to get burned out.  What I’ve noticed is that none of the writers I read—Connelly, Bell, Iles, Crighton, Brown, Clancy, Grisham, Follet, Gardner, Cross, Flynn, just to name a few—ever overwrite, either their narratives or their dialogue.  They tell a straight forward story in plain English.  And my favorites on that list write primarily in the first person, so while some people think that writing in first person POV is taking the easy way, I think they write for the reader, not themselves.  I don’t believe they write the way they write because it’s easy or hard—to challenge the reader or not.  They write that way to be interesting, to entertain, to keep the reader involved, and to express a voice.  I’d like to think, like them, I write for the reader.  Not for me.  


Laila Knight said...

I write my fantasy in first person as the heroine, but I alternate persons to let my hero express himself. Since there's a lot of love/friction going on between the two, I think it works rather well. I find that I connect better with the story that way, but it is more difficult than third person.

I write my paranormal stories in third person. It does allow more freedom to move between the characters.

Nancy, everyone will try to give you advice, and it's well and good and appreciated, but when it comes down to it we're all happy writing what we love as best as we can.

I recently picked up a book where the author writes in second person. (you this, you that.) I won't even try that.

Yeah, it gets on my nerves too when an author won't move the story along. However, I read recently that all that elaborate prose might be making a comeback.

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks, Laila. That means a lot to me. Second person, huh? I just read Stolen by Lucy Christopher & it was written like that. And I actually liked it. Go figure!

Lisa R said...

Amen to that! I love a beautifully written book as well but sometimes it is too much. I mean everyone I know practically has told me that Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is the best thing ever written in the history of the world. One of my friends even said that it is not worth reading another book after reading that. I got halfway through it and it was exactly as you said--it was very beautifully written but it was taking way too long to progress. I kept getting bored. I sat back and said to myself, "wow, I am halfway through this book and NOTHING has actually happened". When I was in college I would grit my teeth and keep going but now I have so little time to read, if it doesn't keep me actively engaged, I will put it down. Period. One day I will finish it since so many people have raved over it. It is quite good but it also lost me somewhere in all the beautiful words.

Also I love first person stories!

TaraNator said...

Now, I'm a sucker for some literary fiction, but I have to admit...I tried and tried to read Atonement and just couldn't get into it. I'm sure it had a great plot, etc., etc., but I couldn't read enough of it to know whether it did or not. Apparently, though, quite a few people loved it. I guess I'm just not 'learned' enough to get it. ;-)

You know, I picked up one of my favorite books the other day (Jane Eyre) and, while rereading it, I thought about you, Nancy. Jane Eyre is another VERY well written book that is in 1st person POV and it's one of my favorites. Personally, I just don't like the way that I write when I write in 1st person - I let myself get sloppy. Not that I expect to blow everyone else as well as myself away with what I write, but I'm critical of myself, no doubt overly critical - just as many of us are. You are right, though, 1st person does allow us better insight into the character - how they think and how they 'talk'.

Great post!~

Nancy Thompson said...

@Lisa, I think you've permanently scared me away from Franzen!

@Tara, I actually liked Atonement except for the ending. I mean, after putting in all that time, who wants to hear, "Oh, just kidding. All that never actually happened?" And someday, I'd like to read some of your stuff, third person or otherwise. BTW, from what you write on your blog, I'd say you sound pretty "learned."