Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“When Renata awoke that morning…”

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"When Renata awoke that morning..."

Note: This post is the twelfth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 11. You can read the earlier installments here.)

A writer makes a lot of decisions before he starts to put words on the page, but the most important choice is easily that of point of view. Determining whether a narrative should be written in the first person, third person, or some other variant not only shapes the concrete choices you make from one sentence to the next, but it fundamentally influences the kinds of stories you can tell. A writer’s preferences are a reflection of his tastes and personality, and I’m no exception. I won’t go as far as Henry James, who believed that the first person was “barbaric” for anything but short works of fiction, but it’s no accident that of all my published stories, only one, “Ernesto,” makes use of the first-person point of view, and it’s also the shortest story I’ve ever written. (I decided to write it in the first person partially as a personal experiment, but also for sound narrative reasons. It’s a scientific detective story featuring a thinly disguised version of the young Hemingway, and by telling it from the perspective of another character, I was able to avoid the temptation to write it in a bad version of Hemingway’s style. It was also an homage to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: if your lead character is a genius, it’s often best to narrate it from Watson’s point of view, or else your hero will spend half the story commenting on his own brilliance.)

For the vast majority of my stories, I use a third-person omniscient point of view, in which I can dip at will into the thoughts and perspectives of any character, although I do what I can to keep it under control. Most of my scenes and chapters are effectively written in third-person limited, which means that I stick to one character’s perceptions until the chapter is over, switching to another only when the next scene begins. I prefer this to the approach, which you see in such authors as James Clavell, in which every character’s thoughts are fair game at any point: it can often feel as if you’re switching between perspectives at random, and it makes it hard to keep any secrets without actively cheating the reader. When I do switch between perspectives in a scene, as is sometimes necessary to intercut the action, I try to do it only once, at a pivotal moment, and I do what I can to make the transition clear. The result has served me well through three novels and multiple short stories—most of which are written in pure third-person limited—and I’ve come to think of it much as Paul Graham thinks of the Lisp programming language:

If you’re not sure yet what kind of program you’re writing, it’s a safe bet to write it in Lisp. Whatever kind of program yours turns out to be, Lisp will, during the writing of it, have evolved into a language for writing that kind of program.

"Renata ignored her..."

Yet the third-person omniscient point of view also has its pitfalls. It offers the constant temptation to switch between more perspectives than you really need, and more than two or three can be hard for a reader to follow. We’re naturally inclined to focus our emotional energies onto a single character, which is why most movies have a clearly defined star part, and it can be hard to know where to fix our attention if multiple characters are competing for time. This is particularly troublesome when long gaps go between appearances. Some readers find the shifting perspectives in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire difficult to manage, and I vividly remember losing patience with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, an otherwise excellent novel, when it became clear that each section was going to be told from the point of view of a different character, and that we’d never return to that perspective again once the section was over—which made it very hard to invest in any one person. I’ve learned from hard experience to provide a narrative home base for the reader, which is why each of my novels start by emphasizing one thread slightly over another. In The Icon Thief, it’s Maddy’s story; in City of Exiles, it’s Wolfe’s. So I always begin each novel by cutting back repeatedly to this main thread, usually in every other chapter, until the core of the narrative has been established.

As a result, there’s a point in each of my books, usually around Chapter 10, in which the story branches out into a more expansive structure. If you map it out on paper, the moment when this happens is clear at a glance: it’s when I drop the alternating structure of the opening section, having established the protagonist, and start to move more freely between different characters. In City of Exiles, this occurs in Chapter 11, which is told from the point of view of the photographer Renata Russell, who has appeared until now only in a supporting capacity. Giving this chapter to a tertiary character serves a structural as well as a narrative function: it’s a signal to the reader that from this point onward, the scope of the novel will widen. It also allows me to incorporate information that couldn’t easily be provided from the point of view of any of the characters who have taken center stage thus far. Here, Renata pays a visit to James Morley, a fund manager who has agreed to have his portrait taken, and at first, its significance to the larger plot isn’t entirely clear. Hopefully, though, the reader will take it on faith that this scene will pay off later on—which is why it lives most comfortably here, and not earlier in the novel, when the rules of the game were still being established. As it stands, it’s a nice, short scene that also gives me a chance to explore the headspace of an interesting supporting character, and as it turns out, it could only happen now. Renata, alas, won’t be around for much longer…

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2013 at 9:16 am

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