There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.When I was in high school, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was required reading. It was one of the better books we were given to read, and it stuck with me. Fahrenheit 451, if you haven’t read it, is about a future world where books deemed dangerous to society are banned and burned, in order to protect people from their potentially inflammatory ideas (pun intended). The books so designated included anything historical and most of classic literature and poetry, lest anyone reading them be inspired to an original thought. I’m reminded of this book today after reading an editorial in the September 18th Springfield, MO News-Leader, entitled “Filthy Books Demeaning to Republic Education”. In this piece, Dr. Wesley Scroggins reports on some books that are part of the Republic, MO school curriculum, which he feels are inappropriate for the school system and should be removed. Which tasteless tomes has he targeted? Besides some sex education materials designed to explain the birds and the bees to the eighth-graders before they figure it all out for themselves, he picks on Laurie Halse Anderson’s young adult novel Speak. This highly acclaimed, award-winning book is extremely popular with both teachers and students, because it presents an ugly topic—teenage acquaintance rape—in a fictional, non-preachy, easily accessible format. Speak takes a painful subject, ordinarily relegated to whispered conversations, and places it squarely in the hands and minds of those who need it most. Dr. Scroggins objects to two passages in the book which hint at the rape of a high school freshman by a boy she met at a party. Dr. Scroggins refers to these passages as “soft pornography”. Pardon me while I laugh so hard I choke on my own spit. Speak is told in the voice of the victim, a young girl whose description of the experience is perfectly age appropriate and about as objectionable as an evening with the Disney Channel. Maybe less so. I find myself wondering what his real motive is, as I can’t see any reasonable person being offended by the material in this book. The Scarlet Letter was a whole lot racier, and does nowhere near what Speak can do to encourage young people to open up about their problems, rather than keeping it all inside. But what am I saying? I’m sure Dr. Scroggins hates The Scarlett Letter, too, since it opens up that nasty can of worms about religious leaders who abuse their positions of power… This attack on free speech hit a little closer to home for me, since it was my discovery of Speak several years ago that inspired me to write Little Miss Straight Lace. Speak was the first book I ever read that managed to explore the unpleasant aftermath of teenage sexual abuse in a realistic, but fictional format that would appeal to anyone. LMSL takes a similar approach, but focuses on mature adults embroiled in a conspiracy tying back to traumatic experiences in their youth. I can only hope that my words will carry a fraction of the impact that Ms. Anderson’s have. And I can also hope that some future-world maniac will threaten to ban my work from schools and libraries, as I could use the publicity. I suppose Ms. Anderson owes Mr. Scroggins a debt of gratitude for his very public, ultra-conservative tirade, since it has already spurred a renewed interest in her already popular book. Sorry, Dr. Scroggins, your book-burning plan just backfired.
—Ray Bradbury, Coda to a later edition of Fahrenheit 451
In the first part of this series, we took a look at the many different elements that combine to create the point of view from which your story is written. In this installment, we’ll take a look at first person perspectives and what to watch out for using this POV. First person POV offers an intimacy and authenticity that is more difficult to create with third person, but it also has some important limitations. Specifically, the reader can only see or know what the narrator knows. If you want to describe a murder that has no witnesses, either your murderer will have to narrate the scene, or your victim will have to tell the tale from the Great Beyond–not that that hasn’t been done! Furthermore, your reader will only have insight into the thoughts and feelings of narrating characters. A narrator may describe what he infers the other characters are thinking or feeling, but the only authentic thoughts and feelings will be his. Consider the passage below, which is told in the present tense, with a character narrator, and lots of inner dialogue:
The reader knows what’s going on with the narrator–she’s wearing her old sweats, but she’s chilled to the bone. She’s concerned that Jeremy will cut the walk short, and she’s struggling to enjoy herself despite that. The reader can’t know, though, what’s going on with Jeremy and will have to take the narrator’s word for it. Jeremy’s face is taut–that’s a clue–but maybe he’s perfectly happy to be walking with her and is just suffering from a toothache. As the writer, you will have to use conversation or other physical cues to let the reader know whether or not the narrator’s assessment of Jeremy is accurate, if indeed you want the reader to know! Another tricky aspect to first person POV is the need to convey details that the narrator wouldn’t naturally observe or think to comment on. For example, suppose you have a solo narrator who is an attractive, popular, high school football star, but you need your reader to know something about the shy, nerdy sophomore girl who is madly in love with him. Odds are, he barely knows she’s alive, so how can he tell your reader anything about her without falling painfully out of character? You can accomplish this, but you’ll have to be creative. Here’s one way you could do it:Jeremy and I walk hand-in-hand along the shore. It’s cloudy today, and cool, so even in my favorite old sweats, I feel chilled to the bone. I wonder how much farther he’ll let us go before finding an excuse to turn around. He’s never been one for taking time out to relax and smell the roses, or in this case, the salty sea air. I steal a sideways glance at him. His face is drawn and tight. I know he’s impatient with my insistence on us taking this little stroll, but I decide not to let it bother me and try to enjoy myself anyway.
Since Troy lacks the observational skills necessary to bring Casey to the reader’s attention on his own, have another character help him or do it for him. As in this scene, create a situation where the subject comes up naturally, so that the information exchange doesn’t seem forced. This example brings up one final but critical point about first person POV. If you’re going to go that route, and particularly with a single narrator, make sure that character and his style of story-telling are likable enough for your readers to want to hang with him for the duration. Not that it hasn’t been done, but bringing readers along for two or three hundred pages with a vitriolic old crone or a three year-old child is certainly going to be more of a challenge than having an intelligent, thoughtful, and amusing narrator at the helm.“Troy! ‘Sup, man?”I spun around at the sound of Billy’s voice. “Dude! Where you been?”Billy stopped, unwrapping his arm from around his girlfriend’s neck to high-five me. Then he grinned, saying, “We had a few ‘errands’ to run.” His girlfriend–Lisa, I think–started giggling, and he re-wrapped her neck.“You kidding? If you get caught leaving campus again, Coach will put you on suspension for Friday’s game.”Lisa spoke up, “We won’t get caught.” She started giggling again.“Whatever. Look, I’m late. Gotta run.” I turned back in the direction I’d been going, only to practically run over some little squirt who’d been coming up behind me. “Geez, uh, sorry, kid.” I grabbed her hand and pulled her up, and then all three of us helped her pick up the books she had spilled all over the place. Billy handed her back her glasses, and she shoved them on her nose and ran off like we were on fire. Didn’t even say anything. I looked at Billy and Lisa, “What’s her problem?”Lisa gave me a look like I was an idiot. “Duh! That was Casey McCoy.”“Casey…who?”“Casey McCoy. Sophomore.” She sighed impatiently. “She’s got a mad crush on you, Troy. The whole rest of the school knows that, don’t you?”I looked past them to where the girl was still rushing down the hall, trying to get all her stuff back in her backpack. Short, skinny, kind of frumpy-looking, but not exactly ugly. She had a crush on me? No, I didn’t know that. Fact is, I couldn’t remember ever seeing her before.
Point of view is second only to dialogue mechanics on the list of new writer trouble spots. It is one of the most common errors you’ll find in less polished works. If your reader can’t get through the first chapter without stumbling across major POV blunders, it is unlikely he’ll keep reading, no matter how much appeal the story or characters may otherwise have. He may not recognize what’s wrong; he only knows that the story “sounds funny” or that it’s hard to follow. Worse yet, POV errors instantly tear down the walls of your magical storyland. A sudden, jarring shift in perspective will rocket your reader from Victorian England or Planet Xenax right back into his living room, faster than the Starship Enterprise. Without revisiting fifth grade English, let’s look at the basics of point of view and how to avoid the POV slip-ups that can send your potential readers running for the hills…or at least the next e-book on their reader. Despite attempts to classify point of view into discrete categories, like first person, third person omniscient, third person limited, etc., there probably are as many variations on perspective as there are authors of fiction, and that’s one of the beautiful things about this art form. The key is to deliberately choose a perspective style that you are comfortable writing in and that will work with your story, and then stick to it. It is the sloppy shifts in perspective that you want to avoid. Flavors of POV From how many different points of view can a story be written? At least as many as the product of all these variations, plus all the ones I haven’t thought of.
- Person — First or third. Quite simply, first person means narrating with the “I” and “we” pronouns, while third uses “he”, “she” and “they”.
- Tense — Present or Past. Your narrator can speak in the present tense, as though the story were unfolding at precisely the moment the reader is hearing about it, or he can tell all or part of the story as though it happened in the past.
- Perspective — Limited or omnisicent. With limited perspective, the reader will be seeing only through the eyes of a single character for the duration of a given scene, chapter, or the whole book. In omniscient, the reader has approximately equal insight into all characters at all times, and may even see or hear things that no character has access to.
- Count — Single/Multi. You can tell the whole story from the perspective of just one character, or you can use multiple character/narrators, each in turn. Note the difference between count and perspective–you can have limited perspective (one person’s view), but have multiple narrators, by giving each character a “turn” at the helm. For example, many romance novels have as their narrators both members of the soon-to-be happy couple, each giving their perspective on events, perhaps in alternating chapters.
- Narrator — Are your POV characters major or minor actors in the story, or completely uninvolved observers? Most writers choose one or more major characters as narrators, since they are naturally present for the action, but it is possible and sometimes necessary or just fun to allow a minor character or even a non-character to tell the tale and offer their more objective insights into the events.
- Intimacy — A spectrum from very close to completely objective. Intimacy is not a 0/1, but rather a conscious decision on the author’s part about how far inside the head of the narrating character the reader will be taken. Will the reader hear a constant running monologue of every thought that passes through the narrator’s head, or will the narrator simply report objectively on what he is witnessing? Intimacy is something you can play around with, offering more or less, as parts of the story dictate, without completely alienating the reader. When the conversation or actions in a scene pretty clearly indicate what the narrator is thinking, inner dialogue is redundant and patronizing, but if your character is saying one thing and thinking the exact opposite, the reader needs that insight–unless you are deliberately keeping him in the dark!
- Fourth Wall — In either first or third person, you can allow the narrating character to speak directly to the reader. This isn’t common in fiction, but is a device some authors use to strengthen the bond between the reader and his narrating characters. In most cases, narrating characters speak as story-tellers without apparent awareness that anyone is “listening”, but if you want to break down the fourth wall, you can allow your narrator to acknowledge and directly address the reader through the use of the pronoun “you”.
I am continuously amazed at the otherwise intelligent, articulate people who misuse these three homophones in their writing. C’mon, folks, we learned this stuff in what–the third grade? Take a minute to refresh your memory. Two always refers to the number: “We are number two in our division.” Too is a synonym for also (“I’m hungry, too!”), or it is used as an adverb, which means it modifies a verb or an adjective (too hungry, too smart, too doggone tired). To is (almost always) a preposition: “Let’s get to it!” or “I’ve got work to do.” If those distinctions don’t help you, look for something in this list of examples that matches your situation:
|She had two children.||Motherhood was too much for her.||She took the children to her mother's.|
|There were two gloves in the pair.||They were too small for his hands.||The judge asked to see them.|
|Two is not the loneliest number.||Can I go, too?||We will travel to the moon.|
|When I was two, I could not read.||I was too young.||Eventually, I learned to read and write.|
|I counted off his good qualities: one, two, three.||He was sweet, kind, and funny, too.||Someday, I hope to marry him.|
|We two are joined at the hip (meaning, "the two of us are joined").||We, too, are joined at the hip (meaning, "like you, we--any number of us--also are joined").||To join these people in Holy Matrimony...|
|It was just the two of us.||She was too close for comfort.||I could never get used to that.|
|Did the game have two periods, or three?||They were too near the goal line.||The score was five to seven.|
In today’s word usage tip, I want to strike a blow at the heart of one of my biggest semantic pet peeves: lose vs. loose. I see this pair confused probably more than any other combination in the English language. For those of you who can’t keep it straight, here is the dope: The word loose rhymes with noose, and refers to something that is not tight or well controlled. It might help you to remember those two words together: If I were in a noose, I’d prefer it to be loose. The word lose, on the other hand, rhymes with booze, and refers to not knowing where something is, or to no longer having possession of it: If you drink too much booze, your license you may lose. Okay, poetry may not be my forte, but word usage is. Here are a few more examples:
|She went on a diet in order to lose some weight.||Afterwards, all her clothes were too loose.|
|Somehow, he managed to lose the incriminating evidence.||He was no role model to follow; his ethics were rather loose.|
|He was afraid to lose their confidence.||There was no way to loosen his grip on the committee.|
|She did not want to lose the election.||Her compensation was only loosely tied to her performance.|
|He may have won the battle, but he would surely lose the war.||He really cut loose at the victory celebration.|