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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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