Sunday, January 09, 2011

Conventions of Literature: Time, Place, and Point of View

I wanted to share a couple more thoughts about the conventions of novel writing, which according to most are by virtue of being a novel, "always fiction." (I have a small issue with this, but it's not what I want to talk about right now.)

I have yet to fully explore, expose, and perfect the kind of narrative tool-kit that I would like to have. I've only been at this for 12 years or so. I mean this in regard to storytelling for whatever medium- so far I've written / co-written novels, screenplays, comic scripts, scripts for plays that are to be films, and so on, and am very eager about the potentials posed by transmedia. But I am always working to get closer to this unattainable goal, which involves, among other things, espousing a particular philosophy (in part borrowing from phenomenology, existentialism, and God knows what else I've consumed over the years as well as, of course, my own experience), and the philosophy of mythology that, though still merely a larvae, I'm working on getting into the world with the upcoming release of the 250,000 word behemoth The Immanence of Myth. I don't want to just talk about these things askance, as philosophers do. No. I want it to be embedded within all the stories I create.

Let me step back a bit...

Somewhere out there, a bit over a thousand hard copies of Join My Cult!, my first novel, are floating around. I still occasionally get emails from people who were given it by a friend, who randomly found it in a cafe - in the past I've suggested readers do that if they are willing to part with their copies when they are done - and oftentimes that bothers me because the thing is so "true" to the core group of self-indulgent teenage characters that it can be a bit painful to read.

But what I'm not embarassed by is that it is a complete train wreck of tense, of linear plot structure, of point-of-view. And the most constant criticism levelled at this book, and the follow-up I've since completely re-written, (originally Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning, now Party At The World's End), has been this. Maybe some don't realize that, possible errors notwithstanding, those shifts are intentional and I simply don't grasp the difference between first and third person or present and past tense (let alone perfect tenses, etc); some love it; some simply refuse to try to follow a story where the consciousness that they are "inhabiting" as a reader shifts so frequently that they have to struggle to find clues to figure out whose head they're in now; and some probably rightly wonder what the fuck I was thinking when I chose to refuse almost all the tried and true narrative structures all at the same time with my first book.

That last one is pretty valid point. I guess it's just my style. I'm sometimes cautious by nature but if I'm going to jump in, I tend to do it face-first. This process often involves landing on hard concrete many times, however it is those scars that teach us best.

But, believe it or not, I'm not trying to look back yet again on that damned book. It's rubber-necking at a gruesome accident. What I want to do is push the line of thought I explored with this post ("Your Novel Is Not A Sandwich") and consider some of these narrative traditions not from the perspective of the marketplace, but from the perspective of story-writing. I want to look at what I was trying to do when I started writing, what I'm doing now, and where I'd like to take it in the future. I hope this also has relevance to other writers out there, because without feedback and discussion this becomes a really sterile exercise.

As I pointed out in that post, our expectations of narrative structure are actually incredibly unnatural. Our cognitive experience is not linear. Someone says something to you. You are reminded of something a few years ago. You wonder about the future. All of these things can happen while you are also walking and other things are happening around you which themselves may have past, present, and future layers occuring simultaneously, again from the perspective of their perception. Stories may bubble out of these past recollections and future fantasies such that a simple stroll down the street, two people chatting amiably, could be the grid or backdrop of a story that explores their entire relationship, past present and future. That could be a novel, if you wanted it to be. And there's no way to do it right if you're going to constrain yourself to any expectation of consistent point of view, tense, etc. Obviously, Joyce got this, and he wasn't the first. Which isn't to say I am James Joyce. (This is also not an argument that accidental tense inconsistencies in a passage shouldn't be fixed post haste. And for the record, there are some of those lingering in PATWE, though they're being worked on this very moment in another window...)

There's nothing stopping you from writing a story where different points in time effect one another, or overlap. Theoretical physics is a weird thing, and even a bastardized understanding of it can lead to some very interesting story ideas. There have been times in my life where I felt like I was living the present as a message to my future self, or receiving messages from future selves, or even future alternative selves. There are endless possibilities with time, and frankly, time is something we really don't understand, unless we are considering it purely chronologically as a unit of measure to compare the rate of change of various functions.

Consider that a book, film, comic, or etc allows you something truly wonderful. It allows you to enter the mind of many people. In most of our lives, we're stuck inside this "one square foot of real estate," the whole time. Cradle to grave. This is where I like to soar a little, and let go of this pretense of some kind of literary Cinéma vérité. You could jump from the mind of a bank robber, to the bank teller, to the person lying on the floor pissing themselves. And to do so, you're going to have to track the transition not by crude tells ("HELLO, I AM THE BANK ROBBER NOW,") but rather by the shift of their internal monologue, of their perception of the events around them, and so on. It does ask a lot of the reader, I realize, and it also asks the reader to just experience what they're reading and not always know exactly what's going on, right away, all the damn time. Some people like this and it drives some people totally nuts. As an author I need to stop straddling the fence, I'll take ownership of that. But I also think there is value in trying to learn various approaches to storytelling.

This "fractured" approach is one that I've always wanted to make work, because it's more akin to how I experience life and conceive of stories in my mind, and in a way I've been slowly beaten back by fellow writers, by editors and by the surprising minority of readers who just don't get what I'm on about with that. (Surprising because there are still people who tell me my first book was my best, and I think they're telling me this not because it is the best written story I've put together - it isn't - but rather because it was the most ballsy in this regard. I really didn't give a flying fuck about marketability at that point in time. I had a vision for how I wanted to approach narrative and I ran with it, for better or worse.)

Worst of all, I've been scared off of it by writers, agents and publishers who have told me that if it's an approach I want to take, I can flat out forget ever making a living off my writing. Which may be moot since it's hard to make a living off of writing fiction no matter how you go about it.

Well. Right now, I'm focusing on telling stories that will reach more people. I'm working on honing craft while still working with the characters I want to work with, and some of that means paying homage to conventions which sometimes feel imposed. It's an aesthetic taste really. I know many if not most people prefer stories with a single protagonist, which occur in a single tense, and which have a very clear series of plot motions and conflicts from beginning to end. I feel like some of this has been ingrained in us, because when I look to my own experience, this is not how life flows, aside from the primacy of the protagonist. But I certainly see how cliff-hangers are like crack to us, and we have to identify with a protagonist, imagine ourselves in the story somewhat so as to become truly engaged with it, and for that to happen we have to understand what the hell is going on.

So Party At The World's End is an attempt at working with all of that in mind, and yet there are still points at which I found myself forced to fall back on my old devices because the tradition simply wasn't working for me. When characters are dreaming, a constant past tense flow doesn't work. I don't dream like that, do you? Sometimes my perception is that of the room that I am, sometimes I might shift from one mind to the other, or be watching from the eyes of a raven. I can't imagine I'm the only one who experiences dreams in this way.

In general, first person narrative almost always works better in present tense in my opinion, because subjective experience is grounded in the present; if it shifts to first person it should also shift to present tense unless if the character is dreaming or on a great deal of hallucinogenic drugs. When was the last time you experienced yourself in past tense? No, your memories may bubble up from the past, and can be either explored as they are (in past tense) or explored in the present (from within the context of your own mind- first person.)

Till next time: authors. What are your thoughts on this? Am I wandering in the tall grass here or...?


  1. Breaking the rules can be a beautiful thing. Look at James Joyce.

    I think when you're trying to make a statement, sometimes taking those conventions and throwing them out the window can draw a very distinct line between literary fiction, and fiction that hinges solely on the desire to jump on a bandwagon to make money.

    It all boils down to how clearly you break the rules, and how easy those rule-breaks are to follow without finding myself lost amidst words that feel like they have no purpose int he story.

    Having read your manuscript, I do think the first person escapes work well for the protagonist, as long as a clear line is drawn between perspectives to demonstrate the shift.

  2. Thanks!

    I think the flip side, of course, is that by the time Joyce got to Finnegan's Wake (or even Ulysses, really), most people need a fucking guide and several college courses to have any idea what he's on about.

    I do think that in FN: PATWE it's pretty obvious what's going on. There are some places where you have to get a paragraph or two into a shift before you go "Oh, okay. I see what's going on here."

    The one place I refer to where I break the rules I set for myself with this particular project is that bit I mentioned where Lilith walks up to the concierge, "all eyes and breasts" or whatever it is I said, and then there's a break and for half a page you're inside his head. That's a place where you said you weren't sure who the first person was referring to right away. I just don't know how else to show that part of how she works on people is through their self-image. It's that vanity, posing in the mirror thing. She doesn't manipulate people so much by how she looks as by how people look at themselves. When I wrote that part in third person, it just kept seeming like he was simply overtaken by her appearance, because all you can show from the outside, like an actor, is ACTION. (Or what you say.)

    One of the many reasons why I felt Memories of a Geisha was less successful as a movie. They tried to glam it up too much, but I think that's partially because what carried that story was the internal monologue and experience of the protagonist. If it had been written from outside of her, it would've been either tedious or a weird mix of glamor show / PG humiliation porn.

    That's fine for a memoir where you an keep first person throughout. But there are some stories that lend themselves to a mix, or even to a change of protagonist from chapter to chapter. That's where you start to potentially lose people. My goal isn't to be obscure just to be obscure, it's to find the best way to tell the story I want to tell.

    Anyway-- no answers. Just thoughts.

    BTW, I'm considering a post about the ongoing "is college age YA" discussion too, because I've seriously gotten a different answer on that one from almost every agent, editor, and author I've talked to about it. Kind of odd.

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  4. It may be that the linear first-person narrative is popular not because it's realistic but because it's unrealistic. A lot of people read in order to feel like they live in a safe, ordered universe that they have already accurately modeled (and I imagine -- or hope -- your audience has little overlap with this group).



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