Showing posts with label first person. Show all posts
Showing posts with label first person. Show all posts

22 January 2014

The 4th Wall


I wrote a story awhile back called "The Devil to Pay" and, at the end, Tommy is visiting his grandmother, who's living in a nursing home.
It's a beautiful fall day, crisp and clear, with just enough breeze off the river that she needs a lap robe. He's pushing her around the grounds in her wheelchair. The gravel on the path crunches underfoot. He's telling her a story, full of gangsters and gunrunners. She doesn't really follow it. Too complicated, too many foreign names, too many people she doesn't know.
The point, of course, is that he's telling her the story you've just read. There's a term for his, and I believe it's called metafiction– correct me if I'm wrong– meaning a narrative that's self-referential, where you play with convention, and the story comments on its own structure or dynamic. This, in turn, got me thinking about breaking the Fourth Wall.

Hamlet begins his story by addressing the audience, "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt…" Richard III does the same, "Now is the winter of our discontent…" Macbeth, after he first meets the witches: "If chance will have me king…" In each case, they don't step out of character, in fact, the reverse, but they step out of the play, to invite us into their confidences, and make us complicit in what follows. The soliloquy is a dramatic device going back to the earliest theater, but Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan playwrights, like Marlowe, use it in a very specific way, to enter a character's thoughts.

The equivalent these days would be first-person narration, where whoever's telling the story let's you know what's going on in their head, or admits they don't in fact know what's going on. MAGNUM P.I. often used voice-over, and one common phrase Magnum was fond of, as he went off on some errand you knew could only lead to trouble, was "I know what you're thinking, but–" This is actually a variation on a Victorian literary trope, had-he-but-known. Nor were the Victorians at all
embarrassed by addressing you directly: "And now, Dear Reader, we must leave this scene, and return to…" whatever it is. Dickens does it all the time. So does Trollope. The effect is to make you a party to the machinery, or joinery, and remind that this is all invention. It removes you from the fiction, so to speak, that the story is accidental.

We follow certain conventions, and I think rightly, because we assume a bargain between the writer and the reader, and you basically have to play fair. It doesn't mean you can't have an unreliable narator, or be deceptive, or simply mischievous, but the reader understands you're in collusion with each other. He or she surrenders to the illusion in hopes of being entertained, or invigorated, puzzled, or shocked, or surprised, even transported. When do you break the rules? In effect, only when you have the reader's permission. If you step out from behind the curtain, you have to do it in good faith. "I know what you're thinking, but---" In other words, the reader is your accomplice.

The trick, really, if I can put it that way, lies in not losing the reader's confidence. When you do close-up card magic, for example, the distinction is between the "effect," the agreed-upon narrative, what the audience sees, and the "sleight," meaning the method you use to pull it off. This is known in magic circles as misdirection, but the audience is asking to be fooled.

This is part of the bargain, that you enter into a world of masks, and the writer can let the mask slip, if you have what amounts to informed consent. You're dealing from a marked deck. The reader accepts this, if the narrative is convincing, and the sleight of hand reinforces it. What your reader won't forgive is the loss of trust. You've invited them in, after all, and they've made the choice to be included, to inhabit the fiction, the understanding that you'll give good weight. You promise, across the footlights, to make mad the guilty, and appall the free, unpack your heart with words. They'll take you up on it.

23 July 2013

Who's On First


Last Tuesday, Dale Andrews published a thought-provoking piece in this space about the first and third person points of view.  In it, he listed some innovative things recent writers have done with the first person, which I found especially encouraging.  In my own writing, I've always favored the first person point of view, and it rankles to occasionally hear it dismissed as simplistic, as a stage a beginning writer works through on his or her way to more mature narrative techniques.  As Dale's examples demonstrated, first person can be pretty complex.

Marlowe and (Almost Certainly) Treacherous Client
And it's the point of view used by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, writers who made me love the private eye subgenre.  First person is part of the traditional private eye story's deceptively straightforward structure:  a problem is posed and a hero sets out to find a solution.  It's like some ancient epic, except that the challenge isn't being set for the hero by some god or demigod, who may be treacherous, but by some client, who is almost certainly treacherous.  Chandler and Macdonald's take on this simple formula required that the private eye also serve as bard.


Covers Held at Bay

Unfortunately, even a simple formula can lead to some hard work for the writer of book-length mysteries.  Think of the challenge like this.  Your job as a mystery novelist if to hold the front and back covers of your published book about three quarters of an inch apart.  That may not seem too hard.  What, after all, is three quarters of an inch?  But the only thing you can use to get that job done are sheets of paper, none much wider on edge than a human hair.  And you can't scrunch the pages up, either.  (Leave that to reviewers.)  You have to lay them perfectly flat.  You'll need hundreds of them, about three hundred, in fact, to keep those covers at a safe distance.  Start writing.


Waiting for Godot
If you start writing in the first person, you've made the challenge even harder for yourself.  Everything that happens in those three hundred pages has to happen to or be witnessed by one person, the narrator.  The exceptions are stories told to the narrator by other characters, and you'll get a few of those in a mystery novel, as witnesses come forward and suspects try to clear themselves.  You can't overdo that, though, or your readers will start to feel like spectators at a play in which the only thing that happens on stage is talk.  Waiting for Godot, perhaps.   A less esoteric example is the Sherlock Holmes story "The Copper Beeches," which features not one but two long recountings by the client, Violet Hunter, and almost no on-stage action until the closing pages, when Watson shoots a dog.  (The doctor was provoked, but he was also probably tired of listening to Violet prattle.)


To keep the action on stage, you have to twist the plot and twist it again, because holding your covers apart isn't the only challenge you face.  You also have to fool your protagonist (and hopefully your readers) for three hundred pages.  The result can be a very complex plot, the kind Chandler and Macdonald were known for.  (One of my plots was called "labyrinthine" by a reviewer.  I didn't mind the adjective, but not being able to pronounce it still embarrasses me.)  After all, your detective hero is no dummy--it would be another turnoff for your readers if they were always way ahead of your Holmes, waiting for him to catch up.  So you'd better have convolutions within your convolutions.


It's no wonder that many writers relieve the pressure by filling their mystery novels with non-mystery material, like bread crumbs in the meatloaf.  The bread crumbs can take the form of romantic subplots, comic subplots, and updates on an extended cast of supporting characters that can start to read like a Christmas letter.  ("A funny thing happened last fall to Uncle Ollie at the state fair. . . .")



Another pressure relief valve that's been popular for a while is for the writer to slip out of first person to write passages or chapters or every other chapter in third person, often from the killer's point of view.  This approach offers the writer the chance to have it both ways, to have the distinctive voice and convincing inner life of first person and the fly-on-the-wall aspects of third.  For me, though, this technique "breaks the fourth wall," to borrow a motion picture term.  That's when Groucho Marx or some other comedian directly addresses the
Groucho, Breaking the Fourth Wall

camera to get a laugh.  ("I have to stay through this, but there's no reason you folks shouldn't leave.")  Breaking the fourth wall reminds the paying customers that they're watching a movie--or in the case of a mystery novel, that they're reading a book.  It can wake the reader up from the continuous dream that the writer works so hard to create.  And this is an even bigger sacrifice in a first person story, since this point-of-view shift can shatter the illusion that a Marlowe is sitting next to you at the bar, telling you his story himself.
 
 
 
And that's the great thing about first person, the thing that makes it worth all the effort it takes to stay in character for three hundred pages:  its intimacy.  And it's also the best answer to the charge that first is simplistic.  Creating a character like Marlowe from the inside out, who's familiar to the reader not because of some external trappings but because his inner voice is recognizable and believable and, on some level, not unlike our own, is anything but a simple job.  But if you pull it off, the reward is immortality.


Actually, it isn't.  But you do get to feel like you've done a day's work when you knock off for your martini.  Cheers.

16 July 2013

First Person


       In choosing a narrative voice most authors historically have opted for the “third person,” which, in many respects, simplifies the writing process since the voice telling the story can be omniscient and removed from the story itself.  The author, as a result, does not need to establish a personality for the narrator or worry about what the narrator knows and does not know.  

       “First person” narration has always had a somewhat larger presence in the mystery genre however, and there is evidence that it may be on its way to becoming the preferred voice there. There certainly are some interesting advantages in telling the story as a personal narrative of a character.  Since a character narrator knows only what that character would, in real life, know, use of the first person adds a complexity to the author's task and to the story’s narration.  As such, first person narration calls for some creativity and has often been used as a device for narrative experimentation.   It is a voice that can invite the author to get a bit sly.   Think of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, in which the narrator, while present throughout the story, is not clearly identified as Vonnegut until the firebombing of Dresden when the narrator is standing next to the central character, Billy Pilgrim, and breaks the fourth wall by saying “[t]hat was I.  That was me.  That was the author of this book.”
        The classic example of using the first person in a mystery is, of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, in which Dr. Watson is the narrator.  And the classic example of experimentation with the first person in the mystery genre is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, who serves as Hercule Poirot’s assistant.  While Dr. Watson, assisting Holmes, is very forthcoming, in Christie’s novel we know only what Poirot's assistant, Dr. Sheppard, wants us to know.   While he may be close to omniscient vis-a-vis what is going on in the story, we, the readers, are anything but.   Dr. Sheppard is, in fact, one of the earliest examples of the "unreliable narrator."

        The feat Christie pulled off in Roger Ackroyd in any event has been a gauntlet cast to other mystery writers.  It stands at the head of its class in terms of what it accomplishes with first person narration and using that voice as a means to spring an unexpected result.  As such the book stands as a challenge to other writers’ experimentations with first person narration.  Some recent mysteries have stepped up to that challenge and have continued to plow new ground with this narrative mode.

       Reminiscent in some respects of Christie’s approach is the first person narration in Gillian Flynn’s best seller Gone Girl. The book offers up “dueling unreliable narrators,” as it were -- Nick Dunne and his wife Amy. Like Christie’s Dr. Sheppard, each holds back crucial information as the reader attempts to figure out exactly what has happened to the missing Amy. Through the use of two unreliable narrations Gillian Flynn leaves the reader guessing as to what is going on and what is being held back. The result, in the words of The New York Times' review, is “a house of mirrors.”

        In The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold tells a haunting story narrated in the first person by the central character, Susie Salmon.  Discussing Sebold’s narrative technique requires no spoiler:  When the story opens Susie is already dead, the teenage victim of a rape murder.  She narrates the story from heaven -- a first person narrative that grants the narrator the omniscience Susie gains from her perspective in heaven, where she grapples with her family’s grief, her own demise, and the quest of everyone to bring down the monster responsible.  Little Brown and Company agreed to publish Sebold’s 2002 novel even though their view was that given the premise of the book they would be lucky to sell 20,000 copies.  In fact, The Lovely Bones sold well over one million copies and was on The New York Times bestseller list for over a year.  Susie's circumstances, so steeped in sorrow and horror, have caused many (my wife, included) to not give the book a try.  But I strongly commend it to you.  Read it and watch the catharsis that Sebold weaves amidst the sorrow, and watch how she uses Susie’s first person narration to pull it off.  
       Alice LaPlante’s debut novel Turn of Mind in fact turns any idea of omniscient first person narrative on its head.   The central character and first person narrator in Turn of Mind, Dr. Jennifer White, is an Orthopedic surgeon suffering from Alzheimer's disease.   She is not our typical unreliable narrator.  Rather than holding things back from the reader, here there are simply things that occurred previously that Dr. White, our narrator, no longer remembers.  As readers we are imprisoned in her mind, a mind that Dr. White herself describes as:
This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthetized patient.
       And, as readers, that is our state as well.  Dr. White may or may not have killed her friend and neighbor from down the street.  Unlike Dr. Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Dr. White holds back no information.  But, unlike Susie in The Lovely Bones, she is no where close to omniscient.  She, and we, have no idea whether she was involved in her friend’s murder. LaPlante uses this constricted first person narrative to deliver a taut thriller built on a growing fear and paranoia on the part of the narrator as, before our very eyes, she declines into dementia.

        Another recent debut novel displays yet another example of a constrained first person narrative.  In Before I Go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson, the central character and narrator, Christine Lucas, is a 47 year old woman suffering from a rare but recognized disease -- anterograde amnesia.  She awakens every morning with no memory of her previous life.  She, in effect, has to re-learn who she is anew every day.  The thriller therefore progresses with the reader closer to omniscience than the narrator -- we know all that Christine has discovered in previous days, which, each successive morning, is more than Christine herself knows. John O’Connor, writing in The Guardian says this about S.J. Watson's narrative choice:  “The structure is so dazzling it almost distracts you from the quality of the writing. No question, this is a very literary thriller.”

        And, finally, let’s end with a more subtle experimentation in first person narrative.  In Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing all of the flashback chapters, chronicling underlying events that transpired when the central characters in the story were children, are written in the first person. As mystery fans, when you read this book you will doubtless attempt (as did I) to figure out precisely which one of those characters is the unnamed and unidentified narrator of the flashbacks.  But if you investigate carefully you will find that for various reasons every single one of the characters can be eliminated -- there is no one in the book who individually could supply the first person narration in the flashback chapters.  Lippman hints at what is going on when, in several passages, she refers to the children as having been so close that they were like appendages of a single creature.  The strange but inescapable conclusion, then, is that the narrator of these chapters (like the collective narrator in Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides) is the entire group, speaking to the reader in first person plural.  In an interview following publication of her book Ms. Lippman has confirmed this conclusion and explained her decision to use first person plural narration as follows:
The decision was intuitive at first—that is, I knew it was right, without knowing why it was right. When I finished the book, I realized that these passages are a consensual version of what happened in the past, that the survivors have agreed on what happened and that’s why the story is, at turns, unflattering to each of them. They are working out their level of culpability in several tragedies and they just can’t face this alone. And that voice allowed me to include a subtext of gloom and foreboding—the story is being told by people who know how badly it ends.
        All of which goes to show that the choice of narrative voice has a direct effect on how the story is told.  The advantages of opting to tell your story in the first person also can mirror the disadvantages.  Following a more standard third person narrative approach gives the writer the relatively easy task of telling his or her story from the perspective of omniscience.  The narrator need not be given personal characteristics and the author can expect the reader to accept the narration as gospel.  

       By contrast, the first person narrator is a character that the author must bring to life and then employ consistently.  The narrator must speak -- throughout the entire story -- as that character would, and must act with consistency as that carrier also would given his or her background.  And particularly in the mystery genre, we have all (thank you, Agatha Christie) been taught to expect the unreliable narrator. The reader may not trust your narrator, or even like him or her very much.  But, as the works discussed above illustrate, writing within the constraints imposed by telling the story through the eyes of a first person narrator can spark an author's creativity and can be exhilarating and fun, both for the writer and for the reader.