Reviewing News and Views Newsletter - March 1, 2010
Your Guest Editor is NickiD89
[Table of Contents]
1. About this Newsletter
2. Letter from the Editor
3. Editor's Picks
4. Ask and Answer
5. Helpful Links
[About this Newsletter]
At some point in a writer’s journey, one realizes that Point-of-View Narration is a tricky subject. As novice writers, we enjoyed the organic bliss of penning a story as it flowed from the creative pool of our minds, through our fingers, and across the screen. The deeper we delved into the craft, the more we learned. And most likely along the way, we all made mistakes in narration.
This newsletter will explore two common narration mistakes: Erroneous Shifts in POV and Authorial Intrusion.
[Letter from the Editor]
Point-of-View Narrator (POV) – Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?
Before the writer typed the first word of the story you intend to review, she needed to decide who was going to narrate. She chose a character through whose perception the reader would experience the story. As you read a story for review, remember these important narration distinctions:
A First Person Narrator tells the story from his or her point of view and refers to him/herself as “I.” The reader can only know what this character can see, hear, smell, feel, and think. Readers have no access to other characters’ internal thoughts.
A Third Person Limited Narrator conveys the story, but refers to himself or herself in the third person. Just like first person, in third person limited the reader only knows what the POV can observe and does not have access to any other character’s internal thoughts.
Less common in short stories is the Third Person Omniscient Narrator. This narrator is not a character in the story, but rather an all-knowing, god-like observer who can tell the reader what every character sees, thinks and feels. This narrator can also tip off the reader about things the characters don’t know. Omniscient narration is best suited for long, epic stories where the tension and conflict are coming at the characters from near and far. In short fiction, many authors feel omniscient is a poorer narration choice. Readers are often left feeling less sympathy for any one character because they’ve been bombarded with the emotions and thoughts of all the characters.
Second Person Narration is a rarely employed POV option because it is so difficult to pull off without sounding goofy. With this selection, the narrator relates the story as if the reader were the main character. An example of second person is: You feel like you’d walked for miles by the time you get from your car to the front door. You stare at the doorbell, commanding your hand to rise from its stubborn position down at your side. Push the button, you scream in your head….
Erroneous Shifts in POV – Head-hopping
When a writer has established from the beginning of a story that Character A is the POV, it’s a mistake to let slip what Character B is thinking. Hopping from head to head within a paragraph, a scene, or even within a short story can be confusing for the reader and undermines the reader’s ability to fully sympathize with the POV.
Here’s an example of a head-hopping shift in POV that would merit a comment in a review:
I walked behind my sister, Jennifer, as we followed the hostess. Jennifer commanded attention as she sauntered; her slim hips swayed exaggeratedly with each step, tracing a slow, deliberate figure-eight pattern. Infinity. The hostess handed us oversized, leather-bound menus as we took our seats.
“Bring us a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1982, if you have it,” Jennifer commanded. There was no avoiding the imminent conversation about their mother, and that gave Jennifer a thirst mere water would never quench. I looked at my watch. 11:50 a.m. What the hell, I thought. A drink is probably a good idea. The hostess, whose patience was worn thin from dealing with boorish patrons like my sister all day long, said in a curt voice that she would ask our waitress to bring a bottle. But Jennifer had already dismissed her. “So,” she addressed me, “any chance we could just talk about the weather?”
The sister (referred to as “I”) is the first person narrator in this excerpt. Yet we hopped over to Jennifer’s head to learn she needed a drink in order to get through a discussion about her mother. In the same paragraph, we hopped into the hostess’s head and learned she was impatient from dealing with rude customers. Unless the narrator was psychic, she couldn’t have known either of these things, so the reader shouldn’t know them either.
What’s the Difference Between Head-Hopping and Multiple POVs?
It is not a mistake to have more than one POV in a story. However, if the transitions from one POV to the next are too close together, (i.e. in the same paragraph or scene), the reader can become confused or frustrated, and it constitutes head-hopping.
Many writers feel it's advisable to stick to just one POV in a short story. However, if a writer chooses to use multiple POVs, the shifts to subsequent narrators should occur at the beginnings of new scenes. Some authors use a short row of asterisks to mark a clear division between scenes, further clarifying that a change has occurred.
In longer works, authors often give entire chapters over to one POV, waiting to shift to the next narrator when a new chapter begins. If the POV shifts within a single chapter, similar techniques like those discussed above for short stories should be used.
Authorial Intrusion – Who said that, the narrator or the author?
A writer’s job is to animate his characters through a series of scenes, to tell their story. Typically, the writer stays hidden in the shadows, while the characters are in the spotlight. Authorial Intrusion refers to instances when the writer steps into the light and becomes momentarily visible.
Authorial intrusion was once a popular literary device, frequently used by writers of Victorian literature in the nineteenth century. In one of my all-time favorite classics, "Jane Eyre," author Charlotte Brontë regularly indulges in author intrusion. The story’s first person narrator is Jane Eyre, but, for example, Chapter XI begins with a statement offered not from Eyre but from Brontë herself, and it demonstrates authorial intrusion:
A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inns have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantle-piece… -- ©Charlotte Brontë, 1847.
Today, authorial intrusion is frowned upon, so when you notice it in a story you are reviewing, it should be pointed out. Here are ways author intrusion manifests itself in modern writing:
It’s authorial intrusion when the author or narrator addresses the reader directly. It doesn’t have to be as blatant as “Dear reader,” but the writer shouldn’t speak to the reader. For example: John held Kate’s hand as he led her to the edge of the pond. You wouldn’t believe how clear the water was! He could see Kate’s reflection like she was standing in front of a mirror. – The second sentence addresses the reader directly.
It’s authorial intrusion when the author tells the reader something that the narrator couldn’t have known. For example: Julie mounted the last stretch of escalators, checking her wrist watch, as had become her habit, to time the long ride up the mechanical staircase to the top. It was a silly little game, but it gave her sleep-deprived mind something else to concentrate on and forced her memories of last night’s horrors into temporary retreat. Behind her, a man stepped from the shadowed corner where he’d stood waiting. He looked up. His piercing eyes peered from under the brim of his fedora and locked on the back of Julie's head. -- If Julie was facing forward, she couldn’t have seen the man or known that he was staring at the back of her head.
It’s authorial intrusion when the author inserts her own viewpoints or style of language that is not in character with the narrator’s established “voice.” For example, if the POV is a six-year old boy who just learned his parents have died in a car accident, it’s unlikely that he would launch into an articulated argument against cremation.
It’s authorial intrusion when the author indulges in blatant forms of foreshadowing. For example: Amanda smiled to herself as she strode to her car, pulling a pair of sunglasses out of her purse as she went. Had she known what the next hour had in store for her, she never would have left her apartment. -- This form of authorial intrusion was once a device to create tension and suspense, but today it sounds gimmicky and over-the-top to modern readers.
A reviewer should be mindful of the writer’s POV choice(s). Noticing erroneous shifts in POV and instances of authorial intrusion, and discussing them in the review, will help the writer identify viewpoint issues he or she must address. And as the reviewer, your understanding of narration will grow in the process, and your own future writing will be stronger for it.
[Note - All writing samples in kakhi font are my own scribblings .]
As you read these selections, practice identifying the narrators and recognizing issues discussed in this newsletter:
[Ask & Answer]
In your opinion, should short stories, let's say between 1,000 and 3,000 words, have just one narrator, or do you think multiple narrators are permissible? What about longer short fiction, say up to 8,000 words?
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