Mon 14 Jan 2013
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.
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.
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.