How many people are allowed in this story anyway?
Just continuing our Thursday tradition of me taking your questions — like, for example, this one:
I’ve been mulling over your stories for quite some time. "The Falls" and "The Puppy” both give the reader a close view of two separate characters. Is this intentional? A way to make a story more complex and interesting, or do you have just as many stories with a singular point of view?
As I’ve been developing my writing craft in recent years, I tended to concentrate on getting one strong voice and point of view into a story, but would the next logical step be to build on this with other characters? Or as a reader and teacher, are you equally satisfied with stories of both types?
Yes, so what follows is just a purely personal esthetic idea – it’s not necessarily true for everyone but it is honestly how I think about it.
I start with the assumption that the classic short story should be restricted to one point-of-view. It’s simpler that way, more classical, more elegant. And I really try to stick to that.
Both stories you mention started as single-viewpoint stories, in a voice I think of as “third-person ventriloquist.” (This is very close to the standard close third-person limited point-of-view, except that I try to get as quickly as possible into the subjective voice of the character – I fall into that person’s diction and let the narration follow his or her thoughts and verbal habits and neuroses. In this, that “third-person ventriloquist” can start to resemble first-person narration — it can feel intimate and interior.)
But anyway – I try to stay in that one person’s perspective for the whole story. That’s my goal. But sometimes, the story seems to start saying that I need another person in there; it refuses to move ahead without another perspective. At that point, I really try to fight back and not let that happen. If the story keeps insisting, I’ll give it a try, but even during that, and even late into the game, I’m always trying to cut that second narrator out.
My feeling is, when a new narrator gets introduced, it “costs” the writer something. It takes just a little extra readerly effort to make that switch. Is that O.K.? Sure. But I think the writer should be aware that this mini-toll gets levied when she changes point-of-view. (This is also true of other “discretionary” moves – like flashbacks, time leaps, and so on.) It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do these things – but we should, maybe, try to refrain from them if they’re not needed, since they cost us something.
So (the argument goes, in my head, anyway), there should be a reason for us to add a new narrator, other than “it feels flashy” or “might be cool” or “I want to show that I can do this.”
With “The Falls,” the expansion to two narrators happened in a funny way. (I’ve written about this before.)
I’d finished what, in the final version, turned out to be Morse’s first section. Then, starting a second story (I thought), I wrote what turned out to be Cummings’ first section – at this point, I didn’t understand the two sections as being part of the same story. So, you know — I had two stories going (hooray!).
Only then, the first story (the Morse one) went nowhere – I couldn’t get anything to happen. So, in an act of mild desperation, I just thought, “Well, both of these bits are pretty good. Maybe I’ll just throw them into the same story and see what happens. Then at least I’ll have…well, I’ll have two good bits in my story (hooray!).”
And once the two guys were in the same story, things came alive. First, it became clear that I had to put something into the story that both men could react to. This turned out to be that canoe with the kids in it. But the other thing I noticed was that the two men, almost automatically, started molding themselves, in their speeches, around the same central issue — in this case, something like “realistically taking responsibility for oneself.” So, the story became, in the end, a meditation on that. (To simplify a bit: Morse was the kind of person who takes responsibility for himself, and Cummings, not so much.)
With “Puppy,” same sort of deal. I had Marie in there and I think I had written through most of the story without Callie, but the story was failing to ascend into story territory. It was just: “Lady sets out to buy puppy, is put off by the person selling it.” That was O.K., but whatever it is that makes a story a story…wasn’t happening. I felt, dimly, that I needed something to complicate Marie’s decision, and that thing wasn’t appearing naturally in the action of the story. The feeling I got was something like, “Yeah, O.K. these things happen. But why should I care?”
Callie was already there, in the story, so…I tried it to write a scene in her head. And suddenly Marie was walking out on someone — on a specific person, on Callie. And Marie’s deciding not to buy the puppy was suddenly fraught with consequences that she, Marie, didn’t know about, and couldn’t, because she wasn’t in Callie’s head (but we were).
There’s something about this moment of adding a narrator that somehow realigns the focus of the story. Instead of “Will Marie, working with her own issues, buy the puppy?” it starts asking, “What are the effects, on Callie, of Marie not buying it?” And then it becomes a reflection on…well, privilege, I guess. In any event, it becomes a two-person system, and the story’s aspirations and focus have shifted in the process.
With these multiple-narrator stories, the two big questions during revising are always, 1) “Whose head should I be in at any given point?” and 2) “When should I make the switch?” These are really structural questions and the only reliable way for me to answer them is by feel — by trying things over and over. Sometimes the key is to find what comedians used to call “a good line to walk on” - a good, crisp, ending to the section. Once I’ve got that, I don’t want to ruin it - I want to leave that section intact. Which means I have to switch over to the other narrator.
Sometimes section length is a good indicator. If Person A’s sections are 4, 5, and 6 pages long, and Person B’s first section is 12 - there’s something inelegant about that. And often that section “wants” to be subdivided, or I’ll find that half of it really isn’t needed after all, and so on.
“Victory Lap” (big-time spoiler ahead, if you haven’t read it) has three narrators (Alison, Kyle, and the assailant). Which is really….to much, for a short story. I was really violating my own guidance with that one, ha ha.
There was one moment (while it was still a two-narrator story) when I couldn’t get the basic action to work out – I don’t have the book with me but it’s the moment when Kyle suddenly understands that Alison is being abducted, and then decides not to go to her rescue, and then rationalizes this to himself. (In The New Yorker version linked to above, it’s around the lines, “He was a kid. There was nothing he could do. In his chest he felt the lush release of pressure that always resulted when he submitted to a directive.”)
In an early draft, in the next instant, he just…reversed himself and did, indeed, go to her rescue. This wasn’t believable and it didn’t make sense. It felt cheesy and convenient. Reading it, I just didn’t buy it. (I decide not to jump off a cliff, make a great case for not jumping off the cliff…then jump off the cliff.) Also, that section was, at the time, running long, compared to the others in the story.
I felt I needed a change in point-of-view, to keep the section short; I also needed some event in there to “cause” this change in his attitude. I didn’t know what that might be. I thought to switch the camera over into Alison’s head. But that didn’t work - as scared as she was, she wasn’t capable of performing that inner verbosity I’d previously assigned her. She basically kept saying stuff like “Oh, shit!” and “No, no, no!”, that read falsely, didn’t convince, and also wasn’t moving the story along. (The beat was basically just, over and over: “Alison continues to be scared.”)
So…who else was around? Well, the guy who was attempting to abduct her. Did I want to go into his head? God, no, I did not. Because he was creepy and also because we’ve seen one too many of his ilk on TV and I wasn’t sure I could make him non-cliche enough to come to life.
But I’d tried everything else, so into his head I went, and in there I found his mental checklist, which includes a terrifying little note-to-self that, if Alison resists, he should assert physical dominance over her. (“If she wouldn’t get in the van, punch hard in gut.”)
And a few lines later, that’s what he did. And this was the thing that changed Kyle’s mind - seeing his friend hurt like that woke that obsequious little guy right up.
The point is that that assailant had to earn his way into the story, and the reason I let him in, at the time, was mostly just structural - I needed to get out of Kyle’s head and into someone else’s and Alison wasn’t available.
So, I always try to default to one point-of-view, told in continuous time, minimizing flashbacks and any big backward or forward time leaps and so on. To me, that’s just cleaner and more classic. It might be something like a songwriter assuming he’s going to write in classic verse/verse/chorus form — until he doesn’t. Until, that is, the song requires him to do otherwise.
I would likely never start a story with the intention: “OK, the goal here is a three-part story from the POVS of A, B, and C.” I want the story to force me into adding narrators, so that this departure will feel earned and therefore elegant.
Here’s something Paula and I saw while driving down Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. the other day - not as cool as that dog-stuffed car, but…
(Spiderhead — which is based on my story “Escape from Spiderhead,” from Tenth of December — premieres on Netflix on Friday, June 17.)
Soon, I’m thinking, we’ll launch into a period of exercises on style and editing. It’s one thing to study and admire great stories analytically, but how might we get our prose to become more intense and undeniable and…more like us?
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