Sunday, June 28, 2009

POV Part VIII: The Wide World of Third-Person, Section 2

(Jump to next post in series)
(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)

Back in my tinyhood, when I was being hustled through a bewildering array of church denominations, one of the catechism classes I attended taught me that God Almighty had three key attributes: He was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnivorous. Well, something like that. I admit I wasn't paying full attention.

As far as I know, only one of these--omniscient--is a narrative stance, but damned if I know what it means. Strictly taken, it means that the narrator knows everything, but as used in common writing parlance it is more a source of confusion than anything else. (The narratologists have tried to clarify things a bit, and have their own more-precisely targeted terminologies, though they are still locked in battle with one another. Emma Darwin once recommended an excellent book on the topic, Dorrit Cohn's Transparent Minds. If you care for such things, it's a great read--but be warned that, although readable and stimulating, it doesn't purport to be anything other than purely academic. Indubitable proof of this is in the pricing--$37.50 for a paperback.)

The omniscient narrative voice was the dominant approach of the nineteenth century, and its gradual displacement in the twentieth century has often been attributed to the supposed philosophic transition of the modern mind: The "death of god," loss of meaning, and increasing moral relativism, according to this theory, made an all-knowing narrator seem implausible to readers.

This makes for a nice story, but I think it's poppycock. (That seemingly insipid word, by the way, is from the Dutch pappekak, which literally means "soft or wet shit." Makes it a touch more vivid, doesn't it?) Although Somerset Maugham said that in his brash youth he adored an omniscient point of view, while as he grew older and less certain of anything he felt increasingly uncomfortable in anything but first-person, he is talking about his own writing process, not about what readers are willing to accept. In general, I don't think most readers have a problem with anything that stops short of knocking them out of the story, and I don't believe many readers wonder "How does the narrator know all these things?" any more than most movie-goers are wondering "How did there happen to be a camera there when all these events transpired?"

Some of the common conventions of older omniscient writing--for example, the direct address of "Dear Reader"--do draw the attention of the reader to the artifice of a novel. When done deliberately, this is often thought of as having a distinctly meta-fictional, post-modern flavor of the sort found in Barth or Vonnegut, but there is nothing new under the sun; Sterne took this sort of goofing around to its limits, and there is a distinctly ironic smile behind many of Austen's asides, encouraging us to enjoy the story both on the level of the tale itself as well as drawing our attention to the story as a constructed thing. But such intrusions are not a necessary part of the omniscient voice, and most readers couldn't tell you whether a book they've read is omniscient or not.

When you hang out with writers, you will find "omniscient" to be used inconsistently. It can mean any of the following:

1) A narrative voice that operates independent of any particular point of view and has knowledge that, if not necessarily boundless, is not bound to an individual

2) A third-person narrative voice that knows the future

3) A narrative voice that can enter multiple consciousnesses

Now, a true omniscient stance encompasses (at least as potentialities) all three of those. Among many writers, however, 'omniscient' is more often used as a label of condemnation than as a simple designation.

Complaints about omniscience usually don't include item 1). As discussed in the previous post, even works well-known for being written in the third-person-limited form often deviate into narrative that doesn't have a point of view attributable to any character in the story. This is common for scene-setting and exposition. In thrillers, suspense, horror, and adventure novels, it is often used to rachet up tension: The narrative switches to a description of the hurricane brewing out in the deserted ocean, or to the bomb ticking in the privacy of the vault, or the primeval ooze (contaminated with radiation of course) gradually coalescing into a shape vaguely humanoid. This approach is widely accepted by writers, and probably not even noticed by readers who are not writers themselves.

Item 2), a third-person narrator who knows the future, presents us with a curious situation. Except in the case of present-tense narratives, a narrator must be assumed to be placed somewhere in the future relative to the events being recounted. So the narrator ought to know all manner of things about the future course of the story, and, in principle, readers ought to get annoyed at all that is being withheld from them. Lucky for all of us who ever write in past tense, this doesn't seem to bother paeople.

(The same problem is presented in its starkest form in first-person past-tense. Should the writer tell the tale entirely as perceived by the narrator at the time the events were taking place, or should the narrator also enlarge the story with retrospection by looking back on those events? For purposes of drama and suspense the story is usually stronger without retrospective commentary--though many first-person narratives are bookended with retrospection, while the spine of the tale is related in a more naive fashion.)

What most writers mean when they complain about "omniscience" about the future is that the narrator is engaging in intrusive foreshadowing. There's nothing wrong with foreshadowing--in its sneakier and more symbolic forms it's one of the glories of storytelling--but intrusive foreshadowing of the "Little did he know..." variety is not only often cliche, but usually has the effect of knocking the reader right out of the flow of the story. Bad writers do this in the same way that bad film makers use blaring trumpets to tell us when to pay attention and syrupy violins to tell us when to cry.

On the other hand, the jarring and intrusive effect of this kind of clairvoyance can be used to great effect. For example, recall the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Like most strong effects, these mixings of time need to be used with some caution; but there is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about them.

The most common way the word omniscient is (mis)used, however, is as in item 3), meaning writing where the narrative travels into the minds of several characters.

Now, the odd thing about how most people use the term in this sense is that it is restrictive. If you only enter the mind of one character per chapter, they call it "multiple POV third person." And, in fact, if you go into more than one mind per chapter, but have a white-space break between the two POVs, it is still "multiple POV third person" to these folks. It is only talked about (or, more often, complained about) as omniscience when there is no whitespace signal, be it a chapter break or simply some blank lines.

Why the insertion of a few blank lines makes the narrative stance non-omniscient is a puzzle to me, but there it is. I agree it takes more skill to navigate from one mind to another without inserting a clean break, and that if done unskilfully it runs the risk of confusing the reader or diluting the effect of the story, but I'm not sure it constitutes the adoption of an entirely different narrative form.

In the same way that any exposition whatsoever can bring about cries of "info dumping" from a certain kind of writer, any shift in POV consciousness without a break can summon forth accusations of "head-hopping." Now, exposition that is boring or intrusive is generally a bad thing, and the same can be said of modulating between different minds in a jarring or confusing way, but that doesn't mean that exposition or shifting POV are inherently bad. Yet there seems to be a whole generation of writers who have been warned about the dangers of info-dumping and head-hopping and have taken these cautions about technique as moral lessons. It's fine to warn children about the danger of matches, but to see grownups clustering together and urgently whispering, "Fire bad!" is a little unsettling. It might seem as if they are hurting no one but themselves, but these writers might end up as critics or teachers some day.

Since Omniscience = Head-hopping in the minds of many, I'll devote a post or two to the ways different writers have attacked modulation of POV. For me it's always an entertaining topic (although sometimes substantial blocks of text need to be quoted to show the techniques). Plus it will allow me to fill up blog space without the necessity of inventing the sentences myself.

(Jump to next post in series)
(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)


Frances Garrood said...

David, how on earth do you find the time for intellectual (and thought-provoking) posts like this one, and writing The Novel? And by the way, you've ruined 'poppycock' for me. I used to think it was a rather charming word. Not any more. How sad...

David Isaak said...

The truth is, I can write this sort of nonsense when I'm not on form, but I can only write fiction when I'm in the zone.

Sorry about 'poppycock.' I was amazed when I discovered its origin. It seemed like such a mild word...

Alis said...

OK, now I know I'm truly exhausted and in need of a holiday (only 10 days to go...) That made my head hurt...!

Anonymous said...

I LOVED this post. About the Taboo head hopping thing.

I recently read a piece of a romance novel that was being critiqued on a forum.

She...head hopped. Yes...I know.


The way she did it, I thought, was CLOSE to acceptable. It needed tweaking sure got slammed right off.

This is how it looked:

Him him him..him him him
him him him him him him
for the first 1,000 words.
She she she..she she she
she she she she she she she
for the next 1,000 or so words.

To me...that's not head hopping. It was more the equivalent of a scene change without the double white space or whatever else they use nowadays.

But what I really liked about it was this:
She didn't change scenes on me.
She didn't rotate back and forth like a tennis match.
She didn't make me wait till an entire scene later to get into the other main characters mind.

Yes, we're dealing with a romance novel where you rotate throughout the entire romance between two people's point of view. His and hers.

So, the reader naturally wants to be in the minds of both characters at different times. If it's done in a way that isn't considered countersinking or hand holding, wouldn't it be okay?

David Isaak said...

Modulating from one mind to another is like modulating from one key to another in musical composition--it takes some skill to avoid hitting what is perceived as a note that is out of tune. But composers modulate keys all the time, and good writers don't hesitate to modulate POV.

The folks who declare these things to be inherently bad are simply people who love rules. Rules are for children, not artists, and good for you that you don't let the knee-jerk reactions of a bunch of wannabes on some forum get in the way of what feels right to you!