Thursday, December 6, 2007

Psychic Distance, Exposition, and Information, Part III

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Tip 2. Use sleight-of-hand when you can

Big jumps in psychic distance are often confusing, and therefore risky. But sometimes these shortcuts work.

Big jumps are often undertaken at the beginning of chapters--open wide, and then jump down to a character in that landscape. It is also commonly done toward chapter ends, after a big scene. We’ve been in close, right in the middle of limited-POV drama, and suddenly we revert to a long-shot: the writer moves from the turmoil in the mind of the POV character to the sun setting in the smog off over the ocean.

Thriller and horror writers are very fond of these big chapter-end psychic-distance jumps, often when the POV character has just been killed. These usually don’t work for me; we are firmly embedded in someone’s consciousness, and now they no longer have a consciousness, so who the hell is suddenly telling me about the blood dripping down and forming puddles on the marble tiles at the base of the stairway?

On the other hand, successful sleight-of-hand jumps vault the reader up or down several levels of psychic distance without jarring them. One of the keys is ambiguity; the starting point can’t be too obviously the pure narrative voice, or too wildly divergent from the knowledge the POV character might have.

I’m very leery of quoting my own prose, not only because it seems egomaniacal, but also because my best examples aren’t short, and I don’t intend to paste two or three pages of my own fiction into the middle of this discussion. (In addition, putting down a paragraph of my own invites unwanted close analysis--i.e. you may decide it sucks.)

Nonetheless, I will put down the shortest example of my own (from Shock and Awe, of course) because I know how it works from the inside--any, anyhow, it was this chapter (though not this passage)Jeremy originally asked me about. Here's a somewhat-frivolous chapter opening from the middle of the book:

It is a puzzle to geographers that Switzerland, a land-locked nation, should be one of the world’s most important manufacturers of diesel engines for ships. But, then, there was really no logic that predicted the country would be a leading chocolatier, either, or that such a famously neutral nation should be a key source of mercenary soldiers, so Lorrie Sanchez added Taneli Filip Karvonen to Switzerland’s list of enigmas. A Finn with a refined British accent, heading a firm of naval architects in Geneva—why not?

That’s a very simple sleight-of-hand transition. It starts in an essayist voice, at the highest level of psychic distance, and then dodges into Lorrie’s perspective in the middle of a line. Lorrie’s smart (we’ve already established that), even a bit of genius. Does she really know all the random facts recited in that paragraph? Maybe. Does she care? Arguably. By the time the paragraph is over, we’re still not in tight, but we’re anchored in Lorrie’s POV, and nobody can prove in a court of law that we weren’t there in the first place.

There’s a later scene in the same chapter—one of the scenes Jeremy did ask me about— where we move from a dispassionate narrative voice describing the architecture of St Peter’s cathedral in Geneva to a few remarks about the Reformation to Lorrie praying in that same cathedral to a few of her thoughts about being there to a backstory element and then on into a dramatized flashback...after which we bounce back up to a series of Lorrie's current thoughts. If the sequence works, it’s because of sleight-of-hand tricks: no sooner establishing one apparent level of distance than using it to dive off into another…while still maintaining plausible deniability. We’re big on plausible deniability in America. We have a lot of lawyers over here.

Did I think about this kind of process while writing it? Hell no. I just muttered it under my breath three million times as I rewrote it, until it sounded okay and didn’t jar me at any point.

But sometimes the jump cut, even without the sleight-of-hand, is the best possible thing. In my view no one has ever outdone Jane Austen, the original Just Do It girl, in the opening of Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not…

And we’re off, standing on two authorial generalizations to dive headfirst into drama and character. (And "My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day..." is the most devilishly economical introduction of two characters in one line. Jane was one sneaky tactician.)

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Tim Stretton said...

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a blog wishing to raise its cachet, must liberally quote Jane Austen (I've done it myself...)

More seriously, any nuts and bolts analysis of how prose fiction works can only benefit from what used to be called "close reading" of Austen.

She's also interesting for the regularity with which she pulls the focus back to authorial commentary. It indicates how fashion changes: these days you could only get away with it if you were being self-conscious about it. One of my favourite Austen lines: "Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself" would outrage creative writing teachers. She's just "shown" us that effect, so she doesn't need to underline by "telling", does she? Fortunately, Austen knows better.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Tim--

Oh, all too true! Though the one thing I'd note is that when Jane tells after having shown, she always adds something in the telling that is the cherry on the cake--as in your example.

But seriously, have you ever seen a ski slope as steep as the opening of P&P? Up at the highest level of abstraction, and then voooom! right into dialogue. But do they teach her much in schools or workshops? Nope. And when they do, it's often devoted to her social criticism of gender relations (yeah, fine, yawn, we couldn't have figured that out on our own) but without any reference to how sly she was as a writer.

When you pegged Jane as one of the people writers ought to read, you were spot on. Now if you could only convince the Iowa Writers Workshop and the rest of the MFA programs to pay attention.

Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction actually makes an analysis of Emma one of the cornerstones of his argument--his argument being that the proper combination of telling and showing is the essence of great, durable writing.

One of the fundamentals, I think, is that irony and dry humor are hard to manage when you're in really tight, as characters tend to take themselves seriously--and sort of have to, if we are to take them seriously. Backing up high can add that little bit of spice to it...

Which may be why talented comic novelists from Austen (when she's being funny) to Kurt Vonnegut (when he's being funny) to Christopher Moore (who's always being funny) tend to zip up to the loftiest psychic distance when they have high comedy on their minds.

But it does have its risks--even more so if you're trying to be dramatic rather than comic--and I can see why teachers warn against it. It's like telling kids not run with scissors.

Tim Stretton said...

That's an excellent point about irony and distance, David. Irony happens when there's a gap between the character's perception and the reader's. That's easier, and gives the writer more options, if it's done at a narrative distance.

Done too frequently, of course, it makes it difficult to create sympathy. Booth, if I remember, inveighs against the kind of modern fiction where the characters are so indiscriminately ironised as to destroy any kind of emotional connection. (And isn't "The Rhetoric of Fiction" an intelligent critique of fictional technique - the only textbook I read at uni I still remember...)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

You're right--Booth advised (unsurprisingly, when one thinks about it) finding exactly the right combination of showing and telling.

You must have had a more interesting curriculum at college than I did!

Tim Stretton said...

I only remember the good bits...

Jake Jesson said...

On a side note, I've yet to read Austen, but she's at the top of my Unread Authors list. Reading plot summaries of her books have never interested me, but every time I see a bit of writing by her, the style and tone jump out and grab me. I feel like hunting down Pride and Prejudice right now - but I've a million other books to read, some for classes! Oh, the humanity...

On irony, apparently there's a bunch of social theorists that decry the "ironic sensibility" as both increasingly inherent to the Western mind and profoundly isolating. According to one of my Berkeley classes, anyway. Though I've always found that irony - being humorous - makes terrible things more bearable.

(Yes, I realize both those comments were tangential to the post's subject matter.)

David Isaak said...

I never cease to be amazed at how colleges teach things that were considered groundbreaking thought twenty to fifty years ago...but that wins some sort of prize.

Next thing you know, they'll decide Camus was alienated.