Sunday, December 2, 2007

Psychic Distance, Exposition, and Information--Part I of (Who Knows?)

{Jump to Part II]

Jeremy James dropped me a note asking if I could share my thoughts on a particular point of craft. He noted that I sometimes start out at what might seem like an omniscient POV and then segue down into what is a tight limited third-person POV, and he’s right—I like doing that.

In fact, I love doing that, and I even do it in first-person POV, though that makes it a far trickier matter, since the only narrative voice allowed in first-person is that of the narrator. But give something like The Great Gatsby a very close read, and watch how Fitzgerald modulates the voice—at one moment, very intimately Nick Carraway, but at another quite writerly. (Indeed, some of the most famous passages are the writerly ones, while the most famous scenes are more intimately Nick.)

If I understand the question Jeremy’s posed, it was twofold: First, how do you get away with this without the initial sections sounding overinformative and too expository? And, second, how do you get from the seeming omniscience down to a tight interior POV without the reader sensing a POV shift?

Now, it’s not as if Jeremy hasn’t done this sort of thing himself—I’ve read some of his work. And writers do this sort of thing all the time (with greater or lesser intrusiveness). But I think the reason Jeremy tossed me this question was simply to grin while he watches me tie myself in knots trying to answer it. You won’t see this discussed in any book on craft I’ve ever come across: a common problem of technique, commonly ignored. We don’t even have an agreed-upon name for it.

Okay, I can take a challenge. (And I can fail, too.) How do you do this? I’m not sure. Even though I quite often blather on about aspects of craft, I’m generally an intuitive writer. I’m sort of sure what effect I want, and somewhat sure (though my judgment is not wholly reliable) when I am getting that effect. So I putz around until I think I’ve got what I want, which usually involves gnawing my knuckles raw…all to produce something that a reader is unlikely to pause to admire.

And, in fact, I don’t really want the reader to pause and admire. Elmore Leonard says, “If it sounds like writing, I cut it.” I won’t go that far, because I dearly love passages that ‘sound like writing’. But I don’t want the reader to pause and admire, I want the reader to nod, or smile, or frown, but keep on reading the damned story.

I’ve been mulling this over for a couple of weeks now. I think there are four principles at work here. Two of them relate to how psychic distance is modulated; the other two deal with the expository, seemingly omniscient, essayist voice itself.

* Manage psychic distance until it feels perfect
* Use sleight-of-hand when you can, and when you can’t, just say it
* In exposition, be swift, bold, and fearless
* In exposition, be shameless and have some irrelevant fun

I once knew a brilliant professor of intellectual history who claimed he knew he had his lecture prepared when he had three points, and that if the three points all started with the same letter that he had a spectacular lecture ready.

I don’t have three points, and they don’t all start with the same letter, so I’m making it up as I go along. Feel free to chime in, gang—I’m floundering here.

Jump to Part II


Tim Stretton said...

I will enjoy reading this.

For now, I'm just congratulating myself that at least I understand the question. Who knows, I may even understand the answer...

Jeremy James said...

Thanks! I've been eagerly awaiting this series.

I'll chime in later on my blog...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yeah, it's a hard question to frame, isn't it?

It is really strange to me that

1) Writing is a craft, and
2) Our only tools are words, and yet
3) We don't have agreed-upon jargon for so many important things.

It's a little embarrassing.

Rob in Denver said...

Interesting question... and I think it's a lot like asking someone to describe air. Is it temperature? Wind speed? Does it have fragrance? Weight?


And, no.

What we do is inexact. I try not to question it often... I fear it will drive me bonkers trying to answer.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Rob.

Yep. I'm describing air.

Of course, here in Southern California the air is more tangible than elsewhere...

sexy said...