Saturday, July 27, 2013

Narrative Techniques: Multiple Narrators Offering a First-Person Account

Today, fiction writing has evolved to provide writers with elaborate and complex choices. Sometimes more than one narrator emerges, stepping forward for a defined section such as a entire chapter. Barbara Kingsolver, following upon the advancement made by William Faulkner's imagination in As I Lay Dying, created five distinct voices for five distinct women who share the telling of The Poisonwood Bible, but multiple narrators also appear before the twentieth century dawned. Robert Browning’s murder mystery in poetic verse, The Ring and the Book, features several narrators recounting the same set of facts from individual unique perspectives, leaving readers to decide which narrator carried them closest to the truth. And, of course, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in The New Testament tell their own stories about Jesus, each from his personal knowledge and perspective, each revealing differing aspects of Jesus and his story.

Photo: An Okapi, a creature once dismissed as myth by Westerners, but now often seen outside of Africa in zoological parks and on the pages of The Poisonwood Bible.

Still many writers in earlier ages struggled to tell stories involving multiple narrators. The challenge of changing location and point of view baffled many so they often resorted to a single narrator who somehow manages to know everyone’s story. Geoffrey Chaucer invented a witness for The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales so that all those pilgrims traveling together could create a tapestry in words of the socio-economic groups of the Middle Ages and their relation to the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Cardinal Virtues. Chaucer’s witness speaks with each of the pilgrims on the night before their departure and then recounts the facts as he knows them. His impressions acquaint readers with all the personalities and character types from wealthiest to Parson most poor, from holy nuns to sullied wife, and from Knight most chivalrous accompanied by son most lascivious. Thereafter, each pilgrim speaks for him or herself, sometimes providing a prologue to the story he spins, all in the hope of winning a free steak dinner at journey’s end. The single narrator and the device of staging a story-telling contest allow Chaucer to juggle many points of view logically and clearly.

Photo: A sample Medieval text.

Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights, has a complicated task in telling the story of three generations residing at Wuthering Heights and of their neighbors, the Lintons. She invents an outsider, Lockwood, unfamiliar with the region and its ways. Lockwood leases the Linton estate and stumbles into Wuthering Heights just before a terrible storm. Heathcliff’s inhospitable treatment leaves Lockwood quite frail so Nellie, the long suffering housemaid with work experience at both the Heights and the Linton estate, cares for him. During their hours together, Nellie tells him about those for whom she worked. She knows all the sordid details, including Heathcliff’s machinations, and she knows everyone’s vulnerabilities because she was a sympathetic ear for them.

Photo by Al Griffin. The Lupine of Maine in lavender.

Writers often choose a single-point of view so that just one person tells the tale. If that person is also deeply involved in the story, as Nellie was on occasion, we readers must ask ourselves how reliable the narrator is. Does she have an agenda? A secret she hides from us as well as others in her life? We must determine how reliable the narrator is and search for the moments and clues when she gives herself away.

For example, much of The Sixth Sense, a stellar film debut by M. Night Shyamalan, unfolds through the lens of Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), but poor Dr. Crowe is as unaware of his true state of being as we are until the surprise pay-off in the end when all those strange encounters between Malcolm and his wife as well as Cole Sear's mother become comprehensible. Then we realize that Dr. Crowe couldn’t tell his own story clearly and correctly because he didn't know his own truth.

Photo by Al Griffin. St. Mary's Georgia, 2010.

So Readers, be wise. Engage your critical thinking when a first-person narrator tells the tale. He may be lying, or he may be completely unaware of the truth.

A third-person limited narrator is equally untrustworthy. Consider Nick, the narrator for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He would prefer to believe that Gatsby has the perfume of nobility rather than the taint of ignobility. He would also like us to believe that his motives were pure, that he was just caught up in Gatsby’s illusion, and that youthful indiscretion explains his naïveté and complicity. As readers, we must step away from the glamour and the glib to hold accountable Gatsby, Jordan, the Buchanans, Nick, Myrtle and George.

In conclusion, a single narrator is a writer’s good friend. You may invent a frame inside of which a narrator tells the tale as Chaucer and Brontë do. You may also create chapters or sections, each told by a different narrator as Faulkner and Kingsolver do, or you may develop a third-person narrator who does not know everything. He only knows what he witnessed, did, or was told, and these are the only facts he can share.

Remembering these models will guide you as tell stories. You have so many models, so many options with which to spin a tale.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or all of the models offered as examples for today’s post:

  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Sixth Sense directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Writing Challenge:

Invent a story, then tell the same story from different points of view. For example, several people may witness the same event (a concert, a traffic accident, an inauguration), but none of the witnesses sees and hears it exactly the same. Their locations, their backgrounds, their ideologies will affect what they see and hear so let each narrator tell his version.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Writing for My Life!

My husband and I bought a 25-foot tritoon recently. With it, we received four life jackets, but the miniature dog we adore needs one, too. Our daughter and her husband need high-quality ski jackets because they trust us enough to throw out a rope and tow them through the wake on boards or tubes. And, of course, our granddaughter needs the type that will insure her head stays above water should something unimaginable occur. So we’ve been shopping for life preservers.

Photo by Connye Griffin, 2013

During the same period, I heard a brief televised report about a new study for folks my age. This one upheld the benefit derived from a daily walk if one wants to delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, one common form of dementia. The more significant benefit derives from delaying retirement, affirming the value of intellectual activity as well as physical exercise. 

Snapshot taken by Al Griffin during a walk together, this one through the Oklahoma City Zoo, 2012

Forgive me for a bit of cynicism, but I can’t help wondering if the emphasis upon NOT retiring might be linked to the U. S. push to raise the age at which people qualify for Medicare and full Social Security benefits. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that information was used to spin the truth to some political advantage. Even though this study comes to us in the U. S. from France where social programs and networks are fraying due to the 2008 economic downturn, who knows what happened in translating into English the results first reported in French.

But I digress.

I retired in 2010, but I retired into more time to write and write I have. Three unpublished novels, one how-to book about writing, several short stories, and three years of blogging keep me intellectually engaged. My husband, Al Griffin, has also devoted more time to his avocation, photography. With him, I participate in several photography forums through Google+, and these challenge me to comment upon the fine work I see daily, using specific vocabulary and communicating the effect of the photo.

So much artistic talent exists in this world. I hope that all people are able to find the time to flourish as we have.

Photo by Al Griffin, "Emma," Our Walking Companion Until Her Passing Recently

I’m convinced that writing as much as I do daily is wonderful intellectual activity. I see my experience from many angles, through various lenses. I discover memory and ideas as I write. I uncover what I think and feel by forcing myself to express both clearly and effectively.

I also walk daily and swim three times weekly. And I know how lucky I am to be able to so.

May you be lucky, too. Write for your life. Wrap yourself in words to keep your head above the confusion. Stay strong and persevere.

Reading Challenge:

Read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. In that fine book, you will read these words:

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Writing Challenge:

Write every day.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Froufrous are frilly decorations: ruffles at collars and sleeves, many layers of gauzy fabric at windows, and pillows in all shapes and sizes tossed on the floor each night when we finally lay down our labor and crawl under the covers to rest.

(Photo by Al Griffin, 2013)

I am guilty of frilly decorating. Those pillows in the photograph above are one example. Some came with the bed comforter; others were picked up here and there, on sale, in shades I thought would suit the new décor. I now have too many and rather than stowing or donating some, I arrange them each morning, often in new, different ways.

I do this so often that my husband drops out of helping out when we stand, face to face across the great mattress divide sharing the task of making that bed for the day. He tosses the pillows my way, leaving me to my own imagination except this past weekend after we’d entertained guests for five days. He offered to take care of our bed while I took care of the guest bed, and with a twist and sense of humor, he invented an entirely new pillow sculpture for my delight.

I enjoyed his gesture and still chuckle to remember seeing them stacked. I think of those towel-art surprises left by cruise ship worker-bees, and I think of writing. The many designs for those pillows are like the many varied ways of communicating a message. There are so many patterns, so many possibilities, proven by the thousands of texts that live and thrive year after year, many conveying the same themes on creation and destruction, love and hate, peace and war, bounty and loss, yet each text stands alone, distinct and different, none exactly the same.

I think also of the unnecessary frills we often employ in writing:
  • Exactly the same (Aren’t things that are the same exact copies of each other?)
  • Advanced warning (Do warnings often come after the storm?)
  • Safe haven (Isn’t haven a place where we feel safe?)
Such froufrous in writing ought to be avoided no matter how common or popular they seem to be. Strip the ornamentation and determine to say it clearly, plainly, beautifully.

Reading Challenge:

Consider the deficits and assets of purple prose as you enjoy an article about it: 

Writing Challenge:

Make purple the following simple sentence: The cowboy fell.

Help us all understand: What kind of cowboy? What did he fall from? Where did he fall? How serious were his injuries?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Writers Read! Classic Romance with a Touch of Gothic, Wuthering Heights

Some of the classic titles have fallen out of favor, replaced by fine, contemporary works, and I agree.  The literary canon should move into the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, some of those older titles have helped me learn and understand the human experience, especially when it reveals itself in comparable modern work.

One of the older titles that I abandoned in the classroom is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a nineteenth-century novel that I’ve read at least a dozen times. Sheltered and naïve in the seventh grade, I didn’t fully comprehend the forces that drove Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar, but the passion and longing unfolding on the pages pulled me back year after year for an annual holiday read. In fact, one of the many snippets from my youth is of me, feet tucked up into a wide, high-backed, well-worn armchair, reading in the dim light of an open-gas flame heater, the flames flickering shadows upon the pages and dimly lighting the darker recesses of the human heart.

Photo by Al Griffin

The wild abandon of the moors called to me then as do the rugged, rocky shores where waves crash and threaten. I have yet to walk upon those moors, but one day hope to, and I will think of the exotic foster child, Heathcliff, chasing after Catherine who did not abandon him after his adoptive father passed. She continued to grant him the security of belonging even as Hindley Earnshaw spurned him.

Having been afflicted and spurned as a child myself, I identified with Heathcliff and admired Catherine for making great sacrifices to secure a home for Heathcliff, foreign in appearance and of lowly birth at a time and place in the world when appearance and birthright were more important than character. The drunken, self-indulgent, spiteful Hindley has rights he does not deserve while the put-upon, loving Heathcliff can expect little more than abuse and judgment.

And that inequality tells another tale: oppression and injustice may twist and stunt a child’s promise. Heathcliff is not born cruel and bitter; he’s made that way by intolerance, prejudice, and abuse. Even his beloved Catherine becomes his enemy when she fails to follow her Heathcliff into oblivion and want. She prefers to sell herself into nobility on an estate where she can provide a home for Heathcliff. She will protect him as best she can, pledging herself to love a man who knows nothing of the wild, human heart. Edgar is too refined to comprehend raw desire and unbridled enmity. He possesses Catherine in name only; Heathcliff possesses her soul.

Many years later, I selected this work for an Advanced Placement class as a work from which to examine contrasting settings and themes related to betrayal, love, lust, loss, madness, rage, and grief. Young teens tend to believe that love will right all wrongs and compensate for any deficits; Wuthering Heights tells a far darker tale, one that high students seeking college credit need. But my students were never carried away by the tale. They experienced it as they might an episode of Big Brother where people isolated from the outside world establish a new set of rules by which to live. My students also found the fever-pitched grief that breaks Catherine and tortures Heathcliff  as little more than self-indulgent melodrama. Modern in every sense of the word, my students were unable to appreciate a culture in which the invisible lines separating one class from another are as taut as wire between fence posts. Consequently, the students failed to empathize with Catherine’s dilemma and believed Bronte’s characters brought tragedy and hardship upon themselves.

So I left Bronte to the nineteenth century and replaced her with other titles that offer some of the same insights. These were better received and achieved the same ends, but Heathcliff and Catherine are iconic figures, ghosts that drift in and out of my consciousness even as they are said to drift across those fictional moors.

Reading Challenge:

Andre Dubus's House of Sand and Fog and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner are two contemporary novels that offer the same lessons as Wuthering Heights. Each book features well-defined and contrasting settings, dysfunctional attractions, misunderstandings that lead to unnecessary cruelty, tragic losses, and redemption that comes at a terribly high price.

Writing Challenge:

Think of a time and place from your youth when a treasured book was the best companion. Describe that time, place, and book.