Monday, July 13, 2009

POV Part IX: The Wide World of Third-Person--Shifting POV

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There are certain terms in writing that are used only when a common technique is used in what the critic feels is an unsuccessful fashion. For example, exposition that annoys is "info-dumping." Explaining that seems redundant in context is "countersinking." And switching POV in a disorienting fashion is "head-hopping."

All of these are in the eyes of the beholder. There is an unfortunate species of writer, common in the US (I'm not sure how well they breed elsewhere in the world), who believe that good writing never contains exposition, re-emphasis, or switches in POV (or, at least no switches in POV without breaks in the text). Since many masterpieces of literature contain some or all of these, it isn't clear to me how folks maintain this particular critical stance; but, then, since they are obviously idiots, we need not worry further about them here.

Frequent switches of POV without a major break don't usually bother me--though I don't tend to do it in my own fiction. This a probably in part owing to cowardice on my part (it's hard to do well), and partly a matter of choice in craftsmanship; I believe that shifts in POV tend to expand the scope of a scene, but pay the price of a reduction in intensity.

Larry McMurtry is a brilliant prose stylist and storyteller who has the ability to write in many different POVs. In the quartet of books spawned from Lonesome Dove, he shifts from head to head in the most blunt and unapologetic way. A particular passage from Lonesome Dove has become (in)famous as an example of head-hopping, and has been so widely quoted it is often just called "The Buttermilk Scene":

aaaaa"Want some buttermilk?” July asked, going to the crock.
aaaaa“No, sir,” Joe said. He hated buttermilk, but July loved it so that he always asked anyway.
aaaaa“You ask him that every night,” Elmira said from the edge of the loft. It irritated her that July came home and did exactly the same things day after day.
aaaaa“Stop asking him,” she said sharply. “Let him get his own buttermilk if he wants any. It’s been four months now and he ain’t drunk a drop—looks like you’d let it go."
aaaaaShe spoke with a heat that surprised July. Elmira could get angry about almost anything, it seemed. Why would it matter if he invited the boy to have a drink of buttermilk?

Most people would call that "head-hopping," and I'm inclined to join in with the chorus. Certainly it doesn't anchor us in any particular perspective, nor does it ratchet up the intensity of what is, after all, a rather trivial scene.

On the other hand, it is part of McMurty's strategy in the book. The whole style of the novel is rather laconic, and matches the nature of most of the characters (even the one character who is given to long, prosy speeches isn't inclined to a great deal of self-revelation). The narrative voice of the book is spare, like the barren landscape of Texas, and although that voice is omniscient, it is also rather reticent. It gives us a sentence of dialogue, an accompanying thought, an action, but it resists the urge to smooth our way. What you see is what you get, with the unusual proviso that what you see is sometimes inside a character's head. The novel has a straightforward, plain, declarative tone, and although it is fiercely ironic in places, the writer never stops to wink at us; indeed, the writer is relatively invisible.

At the other end of the spectrum sits a writer like Patrick O'Brian. O'Brian loves the intrusive expository voice; he is on record as believing that English prose style reached its height with Jane Austen, and there are many sly Austen references in his novels. Although in the Aubrey/Maturin novels he often embeds us deep in a character's POV, he feels quite free to flutter from one head to another, sometimes even revealing the thoughts of animals. The transitions in POV are often done by pulling back from a character's thoughts to a great psychic distance and then working down into another POV, but he is also able to vault from one POV to another without confusing or jarring the reader.

There are some passages where action carries us from one POV to another. For example, O'Brian will have a scene where we are in Stephen Maturin's POV while Maturin talks to an officer; we will then follow the description of the officer's movements as he travels through the various levels of a ship and arrives at Jack Aubrey's cabin and we will then slide into Aubrey's POV. This sort of "geographical" transition in POVs is clear, never jarring, and almost unnoticeable unless you are watching for it as a matter of craft.

But O'Brian can also use geographic shifts in a more rapid way. In the novel The Commodore, Aubrey and Maturin have captured and boarded a slave ship off the coast of Africa. We are first embedded in Aubrey's mind as he explores the horrors of the ship, and then:

aaaaaHe returned to the Bellona, took off his clothes, stood long under a jet of clear water, retired to his cabin and sat there considering, revolving the possibilities open to him, thinking closely, taking notes, and writing two letters to Captain Wood at Sierra Leone, the one official, the other private.
aaaaaDuring this time, or part of it, Stephen sat with Whewell on the slaver’s capstan, the wind being abaft her quarter and the air clean as the squadron stood south-east. He was reasonably satisfied with his patients; he had put salve and clean linen on many and many an iron-chafed wrist, and there was a somewhat more human feeling on the well-fed deck.

Simple as that. Many writers, of course, would have added a white-space break between the two paragraphs, but the omniscient interjection of "During this time, or part of it" makes that unneccesary; there is no real need for a break in the flow of the text.

On occasion, O'Brian will leap directly from head to head, and it is always fun to watch how he goes about it. Unlike McMurtry, who uses dialogue to let us know where we are and then drops into the speaker's thoughts without further ado, O'Brian usually carries some sort of a thread, like a classical composer modulating between distant keys. In another passage from The Commodore, we are deep inside Aubrey's mind as he reads his secret orders from the Admiralty:

aaaaaDisregarding the assurance (their Lordships’ graceful finishing touch) that he must not fail in this or any part of it or he would answer the contrary at his peril, he called Stephen in from the great stern-gallery, the most engaging piece of naval architecture known to man, in fact. But hardly had the Doctor turned before the radiance in Jack’s smile, face, eyes dropped by two or three powers: the French clearly intended another invasion of Ireland, or liberation as they put it, and he felt a little shy of broaching the matter. Stephen had never made his views vehemently, injuriously clear, but Jack knew very well that he preferred the English to stay in England and to leave the government of Ireland to the Irish.
aaaaaStephen saw the change in his face—a large, essentially red face in spite of the tan in which his blue eyes shone with an uncommon brilliance, a face made for humour—and the papers in his hand.

Once again we have made the transition via an omniscient observation--the look on Jack's face. This is an 'outside' observation rather than Jack's POV, mixed in with the narrator relating to us Jack's thoughts from a slight distance. This look on Jack's face, when seen by Stephen, acts as a thread that slithers us neatly into Stephen's POV.

I first read the O'Brian novels for the characters and stories, but I have returned to them simply to watch the ways O'Brian plays with the craft of writing--and 'play' is the operative word. O'Brian makes omniscience look like great fun.

But, then, snowboarding looks like great fun, too; nonethelss, I suspect it's actually rather hard work.

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Tim Stretton said...

The "Buttermilk scene" does give me a certain queasiness. I've no problem with POV shifts when there's a purpose to them, and they're well-executed (as in the O'Brian). The McMurtry passage just makes me dizzy.

Maybe I shouldn't eat so many refined carbohydrates.

David Thayer said...

I agree with Tim.The Buttermilk exchange reminds me of the church scene in BLAZING SADDLES where the town folk await the arrival of the new sheriff.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim. Less carbs--or maybe less buttermilk.

It's an odd thing. The dialogue itself revolving from person to person isn't dizzying at all. But add to it the process of popping in and out of minds at each step and it becomes somethg altogether different, doesn't it?

David Isaak said...

Ha! Yes, David, you tagged it exactly!

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