POV


by Erin Kelly

Have you ever read Wuthering Heights?

If you’re a writer, you should. At the risk of sounding like your high school English teacher: Add it to your reading list. Even if you don’t care much for the story, Brontë’s narrative technique is one of those things that’ll make you go hmm.

Rather than tell us the story of Catherine and Heathcliff through either of the principals or through one of the secondary characters, Brontë chose to tell us most of their tale through Mr. Lockwood, who is hearing the story from Nelly Dean, one of the family’s domestics. Basically, we get the scoop from Mr. Lockwood, who’s getting the scoop from Nelly, who only hears and sees what she observes.

Tricky, no?

Removed narrators exist mostly in an era that precedes contemporary literature, but writers of any era can appreciate the astonishing craftsmanship that would have been involved in this narration-by-proxy method. Every time I read Wuthering Heights, I wonder how different the story would have been if it had been told from a different POV.

Here’s why Brontë’s method works:

  • Nelly experiences Catherine and Heathcliff at the height of their most dramatic moments — when they’re arguing in the kitchen, crying on Nelly’s shoulder, or sneaking behind Mr. Linton’s back, for example. These are the experiences that Nelly relates to Mr. Lockwood. Compare this to, say, Jane Eyre. With Jane’s story, we’re taken through some of the more mundane aspects of courtship. Jane Eyre is its own masterpiece, of course, but in her relationship with Mr. Rochester, we experience their conversations, their insights, Jane’s interior monologue and Mr. Rochester’s stoic playfulness. With Wuthering Heights, those aspects are largely glossed-over in favor of dramatics. When you read Wuthering Heights, you’re caught in a whirlwind. With Jane Eyre, you’re on a steady and picturesque trod with varying terrains.
  • Mr. Rochester becomes a stand-in for the reader; you learn knowledge as he learns it and your reactions often mirror his. This prevents the reader from feeling too far from the story. It’s as if you’re the one hearing Nelly dish all the goods, rather than watching someone else listen to the dishing.
  • Nelly interjects her own opinions of both Catherine and Healthcliff, which shape how the reader views the couple. Nelly tells us Catherine is spoiled and stubborn, and then provides examples. She also tells us that Heathcliff is vengeful and dangerous, and provides examples of that. Although Nelly is an unreliable narrator in many ways, she provides us an interesting perspective of Catherine and Heathcliff that would have been largely different if we’d heard the story from either of the principal characters — or their family members.

The above examples provide a capsule of my larger point, which was not to obsess about Wuthering Heights to a larger audience, but to encourage you to think about your point of view.

This sounds like obvious advice, but it may not be as obvious as you think. As writers, we often proceed within our initial vision. We think: I’m going to write a story about a mother who lost her child to a drunk driver and is now a vigilante. Then we sit down, craft an outline, and start writing the story of a mother-turned-vigilante. We don’t give the POV much thought, in most cases. In a mother-turned-vigilante story, the mother seems the obvious POV character.

But what if, before you jotted down the first scene, you took it a step further and thought: How would this story read if it were told from the POV of the drunk driver? 

It would be a much different story. It might even be a better story. Or not.

Even so, when you step away from your work and consider all its angles, you can better appreciate the three-dimensional nature of storytelling. You may not write the story from the drunk driver’s POV, but knowing what his POV is – even if you never write it and even if your Vigilante Mother never knows it – makes for a richer story.

Considering alternate POVs in flash fiction is particularly useful because we can take more risks in flash. We don’t have to worry about our readers abandoning the story on page fifty-three because they don’t want to read about an unsympathetic drunk driver . Our characters have to be compelling enough for our readers to reach the one-thousandth word, not the one-thousandth page.

An unconventional POV may not carry your novel the way it carried Emily’s, but it can certainly carry a masterful piece of flash.

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Erin Entrada Kelly is staff editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her fiction has been published widely in places like Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer National Fiction Prize and the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. Her debut novel is forthcoming from HarperCollins’ Greenwillow Books. She currently works at Swarthmore College. Read more at www.erinentradakelly.com. Find her on Twitter here.

Michael J. Mattsonby Michael J. Mattson

A writer’s task is to bridge the chasm between readers and text. The worlds to which we build our bridges ride the ether above that chasm. Good writing creates a bridge that is nearly imperceptible, and when we publish our work to the world we ask readers to step out into the void on our invisible bridge.

Most writers to intuitively sense the breadth and depth of that chasm, but intuition often fails in one of the most critical decisions we make: that of narrative voice.

With our words we either save or destroy the imagined world we create; we either earn or break the trust a reader places in us. Our task is to engage their minds and emotions, hold their attention and avoid jarring them out of the narrative flow. No simple matter regardless of form, the need to quickly create emotional immediacy poses a particular challenge in flash fiction. First person seems a ready-made solution. So we think.

The default modes of first- and third-person are polar opposites: third is inherently distant, and the bridge between reader and text relies heavily on character development. First person easily verges on the invasive and the writer’s focus must be on voice.

The unique demands of crafting first-person narratives are directly related to a single word, a single capital letter. From early childhood our minds are trained to recognize the uniqueness of “I.” This combines with the fact that we employ first person in our self-talk all day, every day until we hardly notice. In our thoughts it is not intrusive, not out of place or too emphatic, and in this guise it slips into our writing where it competes against a reader’s inner monologue in all its variations, against all the stories readers have spent their days telling themselves. With the exception of dialog, when we use “I,” we are telling, not showing.

But we’re not just telling. We are putting a spotlight on an already powerful word; we use a megaphone when we should whisper. That pesky little pronoun forms the bedrock of every reader’s being. Undisciplined use of it doesn’t just give readers a mental bounce – it makes them the epicenter of a psychic earthquake. Overuse of I is the literary version of a painter putting arrows on a portrait to ensure viewers don’t miss exquisite examples of masterful technique.

When tempted to shrink away from the emotional distance of third-person, one should carefully consider the adage “show, don’t tell.” It means crafting prose in a way that cooperates with the reader’s independence. It implies a kind of personal space around the reader’s psyche, space in which the reader can experience the events as they unfold through the narrative. From that dictum we can infer the writer’s task is largely that of creating and directing the emotional distance between reader and narrator.

Writing in the first person is not a shortcut. It is one of the most difficult ways to show without telling.

The demands of character and voice cannot compete within the limits of flash fiction. Given its compressed nature, there is simply no time or space for the slightest bump in the road – a single jarring phrase can destroy the whole effect of a piece. In first-person narratives it is all the more essential for these aspects of craft to work hand-in-hand because they must balance the combined visual and conceptual power of that dominant single-letter word. Every reader has an eye for an “I.” So should every writer. With a judicious application of capital punishment we can prevent readers from retaliating with their brutal yawns and vicious mouse-clicks.

A good example of well-crafted first-person narrative is To Kill a Mockingbird. Writers of flash fiction can learn a lot from Harper Lee. “I” occurs one time in the first hundred words. The second “I” doesn’t appear for another fifty, but it is the third use that tells the real tale – nearly nine hundred words into the story. A recent bestselling crime novel is far more typical of first-person narratives and offers a study in contrast: one hundred forty-six words on the first half-page, eight of which are “I.”

Years ago Harper Lee taught me the significance of my emotional connection with characters. I learned a story has succeeded if I miss the characters when I finish the last page. Lee’s genius lies, at least in part, in her wisely withholding information about one central character. She left me wanting to know more about Boo Radley.

Narrative voice should be like him: unobtrusive, quiet, all but invisible in a dark corner of the room, graciously allowing Scout to see him in her own time, and by that quietness defining and giving shape to everything, and being the bridge to another world.

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Michael J. Mattson earned top honors in Foundling Review’s  2011 fifty-word ‘Pachaas’ contest and recently met The Baltimore Review’s one hundred-word challenge with his short piece,  Legacy, (scroll down). He has freelanced as a copywriter for Red Futon Films and is the founder and  Executive Editor of The Hellroaring Review.