Friday, September 2, 2011

Second Person Point of View in Literature

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Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

In John D. MacDonald’s Please Write for Details (Ballantine 1959), you will find this paragraph:

It was wonderful the way she was so patient. He’d [Harvey Ardos] never got such a boot out of anything as out of the long talks they had. He’d never talked about such stuff before. Thought about it, in a kind of fuzzy way, but never talked about it. Religion, philosophy, mankind. The real big things. And she [Monica Killdeering] never laughed at your crazy ideas. Not once. And she kept telling you what a good mind you had. Which is a lot of crap, but makes good listening (180).

Most English teachers and editors would circle in red the word you, appearing twice in the next to the last statement of this paragraph. Why? Because MacDonald shifts from third person to second person, one of those writing no-nos one should obey--unless, of course, you happen to be John D. MacDonald with plenty of success after twenty-seven novels published before 1959 when this one, Please Write for Details, appeared. Like Stephen King today, MacDonald was a prolific writer, bringing twenty-seven novels to print between 1950 and 1958 and four more in 1959, including Please Write for Details. His Travis McGee series, a total of twenty-one books, began in 1964, the last published in 1985. To claim that the man enjoyed success and a long career is understatement. He told good stories that people then and now like to read.

So if John D. MacDonald fails to uphold the rule--thou shalt not switch POV in a paragraph--how seriously must we take that rule? Well, very seriously. We should not break the rule without a very good reason, and MacDonald has one. Allow me to explain.

Monica Killdeering is a teacher, a model of decorum from day one to the day students leave for the summer. Then, she too leaves town, the town of Kilo, Kansas, to develop her interests and talents. She has studied dance and during the summer relevant to the novel, she studies art. Each summer, she hopes to connect with one other human being, and she does, but not in the way she’d like. Men are drawn to her incredibly taut, perfectly proportioned figure, but they are repelled by her face, “the startling and unmistakable face of a sheep. Slope of brow, wide and fleshy nose, long and convex upper lip, square heavy teeth of the ruminant, brown nervous eyes--all were in a deadly pattern” (67). Thus cursed, Monica finds no long-term soul-mates, only men who enjoy her body at night with the lights turned out, men who are gone with the dawn.

Like her exterior, Monica is divided. Whereas her body responds passionately to the touch of men, he mind vows not to be used and discarded again. And this summer, the summer of art study in Mexico, she seems to succeed. Her body mesmerizes Harvey Ardos just as it does other men, but he is younger at twenty-four than her twenty-nine years, and he lacks all sophistication and finesse, especially around women. He has no formal education either, but does not let that stop him from his dream: to be a “real good artist” (30). He’s an unmarried stock clerk who saves his money so he can take art courses. He believes he’s “got something to say,” (32) and if only he could get a break, the world would listen.

In Cuenervaca, Harvey finds a listener in Monica, and he adores her. She enjoys his company, too. In fact, they become close, sitting together at meals, walking into town and talking long into the night. Harvey cannot believe his great, good fortune just to have been chosen by such a kind, intelligent woman. Completely unaware of Monica’s past summers as a slut, Harvey places her on a pedestal and does not dare touch this paragon of wisdom. He simply basks in her beauty and attention.

Thus, when MacDonald switches from third to second person POV suddenly at the end of a paragraph, he communicates that Harvey cannot quite believe her when she says that he has a good mind. In fact, he declares that the idea is a load of crap. Harvey boasts that he’s got something to say, but still doesn’t know what that is. He cannot quite believe in himself and however much he wishes to believe in himself, Monica or perhaps countless others will have to weigh in and convince him before he can. He’s still detached from the notion of having a good mind so that mind belongs to you, not him--at least, not yet.

Reading Challenge:

If you have not already begun or read Please Write for Details since I first mentioned it, please do so now. It’s full of quirky characters and rules broken for very good reasons.

Writing Challenge:

Write a story in which you break the rule against shifting POVs, but only when you have a very good reason.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Read your own writing journals, essays, stories, or free writings. Place a checkmark in the margin, left or right, when you have shifted POVs. Rewrite to correct the error--because most of the time, it is an error.