Six impossible things

Comments on Wolf’s snippet

Alright, last week I promised Wolf that I’d do some comments on the bit he used as an example. For those who didn’t see it or don’t want to go back and hunt it up, here it is:

      “I’ve often wondered—why did your people send only one man? Why not a squad, or a regiment?”
       “We reasoned that way there’d be less of a chance of provoking a fight. A group of humans thrown in among a pack of wolf-kin…. You have to admit, that’d be a volatile arrangement.”
       “Whereas if just you piss us off, it’s one quick death, and it’s over with. Is that it? Are you that expendable?”
       Was she ribbing him, or was it a legitimate curiosity? [Grissom POV] Grissom smiled ruefully, took a deep breath. “I like to think I’m of some worth to my people. But that may have been part of their rationale, yes.”
       Sonja looked at him in that studied way of hers, and he knew he was being read again. “What?”
       She turned her head. “Just that a bit ago you said ‘we’, as though you had something to do with the decision, and just now you said ‘they’, implying that your superiors guard all the bones.”
       Grissom nodded. “For the most part, we all have our say, but the final decisions always lie with those in power.”
       “Even if you disagree with what they say?”
       “Even if we disagree.” He held his hands open in front of him, but close to his body, as though he were showing her something but not offering it to her. [Sonja’s POV] “We choose people to represent us, and we rely on them for their wisdom and guidance. We give them authority with the understanding that we will abide by their judgement as long as it serves the greater good for the long term.”
       Sonja looked back at him and shook her head. “Yours are a very strange people, Grissom.”
       “I won’t deny that.”

This is pretty clearly not the opening of the story; that’s obvious from the way the conversation moves. Nonetheless, I can draw a lot of conclusions about what is going on, which means Wolf is doing a whole lot of things right. For instance, right in that first line the “Why did your people send only one man?” tells me that the two speakers are not from the same people (which could mean different countries, different tribes, or different species; my bet is on countries, and ones that aren’t terribly friendly based on the following “Why not a squad, or a regiment?”). “…send only one man” implies that the second speaker is an ambassador or envoy of some kind. The use of “squad” and “regiment” tells me that this is probably not a medieval or earlier technology level (a bit of googling tells me that those terms came into use in the 16th and 14th centuries, respectively, so they would work for Renaissance-level tech, but to me they sound even more modern, especially “squad.”)

The second paragraph confirms the ambassador/envoy theory as well as the not-friendly theory, and adds some more information – the first speaker is probably non-human and one of the “wolf-kin.” This kind of thing continues all through the piece, telling me a lot about the situation and the background without being too obvious about it. That makes me trust that the author knows what he’s doing, that he has worked out the background and is making effective use of it as more than a cardboard stage set.

On to the viewpoint, which is where this got started. Wolf labeled the opening of the fourth paragraph as Grissom’s POV, and the middle of the fourth-from-last as Sonja’s POV. The fact that he felt he had to label them makes me wonder if he’s not entirely clear on just what viewpoint this scene is supposed to be in, which is more or less confirmed by the way the scenelet flows.

In the story, there is presumably a lot going on prior to this passage that would anchor the reader in one type of viewpoint or the other; here, we have very little. The snippet is mainly unlabeled dialog, plus a very few bits of stage business. It works fine (partly because of the slightly awkward phrasing in some of Sonja’s lines – she sounds like someone speaking a second language fluently, but not quite the way a native speaker would), but it leaves us with all of three lines to clue the reader in to which viewpoint it is. They are:

“Was she ribbing him, or was it a legitimate curiosity?” – Clearly Grissom’s viewpoint, and it’s a direct quote of Grissom’s thought, not a rephrasing like “He wondered whether she was ribbing him, or legitimately curious.” This way of showing internal monologue is really common in tight-third, much less so in omniscient, so this line indicates tight-third, Grissom’s viewpoint. It is also very close-focus on Grissom (you can’t get more closely focused than directly reporting the character’s thoughts like this).

“Sonja looked at him in that studied way of hers, and he knew he was being read again.” – The “he knew” puts this equally clearly in Grissom’s viewpoint, but the way it’s phrased is a bit more distant than the previous line. That makes it a toss-up – we’re still looking at things from Grissom’s viewpoint, but the line itself would be equally at home in tight-third or in omniscient. I’d call it medium-close focus: we’re still in Grissom’s viewpoint, but it’s more distant than that first line.

“He held his hands open in front of him, but close to his body, as though he were showing her something but not offering it to her.” And this line is ambiguous. Read one way, the way Wolf labeled it in parentheses, it’s what Sonja sees when she looks at his body language, so Sonja’s viewpoint. However, you could also read it as Grissom being very conscious of his movement, trying to convey something to Sonja by deliberately using some very specific body language, which would be Grissom’s viewpoint. Either reading works fine as omniscient; reading it as Sonja’s view would obviously be inconsistent with a tight-third-Grissom viewpoint. But if the viewpoint has been solidly established as tight-third-Grissom over the first umpty-some scenes of the story, the reader will be predisposed to read the line the second way, as a self-conscious Grissom, and will probably blip right past it without registering it as a viewpoint bobble.

As far as distance goes, this is the most distant of the three; it’s not clearly in anyone’s head (“…as though he were showing her something, but not offering it to her” is somebody’s interpretation of the body language, but “somebody” could be Grissom, Sonja, or the omniscient narrator). It fits the passage, because leaving so much of the dialog unattributed gives the whole snippet a somewhat distant feel, but it’s a rather sharp contrast to that first bit of internal monologue.

And that is the real viewpoint difficulty in this snippet: the viewpoint isn’t clearly tight-third or clearly omniscient; it could be either. Also, it moves from quite close, tight, internal focus to a more distant and general one. It reads to me as an author who’s writing omniscient but who either didn’t intend to, or isn’t comfortable with it.

Dealing with this snippet is fairly straightforward (it is another matter entirely when one has a whole novel full of this sort of thing to deal with). If you want it to be tight-third, the only sentence that doesn’t quite work is that third one, so you add a few words and rearrange the others to make it less distant and to make it clear that it’s Grissom’s view of his body language, not Sonja’s observation of it: “He opened his hands, keeping them deliberately close to his body to mimic showing her something, rather than offering it” or “He nodded, then opened his hands, carefully holding them close to his body…”

If you want the passage to be omniscient, the only sentence that isn’t as clearly omni as it could be is the first of the three cues (because directly quoting the character’s thought like that is so strongly associated with tight-third, and because it is so internal). To fix that, you move the focus out a bit to make the distance match the other two cues: “She might be ribbing him, or she might be legitimately curious; Grissom couldn’t tell from her expression.”

Or, you could just delete the three sentences I fingered, and call it camera-eye. That’s not unusual for a passage that’s so dialog-heavy, and so light on internal monolog and emotional reaction (not that this seems like a particularly high-emotion conversation).

Keep in mind that in the context of the actual story, the type of viewpoint is presumably well-established by the time we get to this scene. The reader will be expecting tight-third or omniscient, and will therefore be predisposed to read this snippet that way, so “fixing” the rather subtle possible difficulties in this passage may not be necessary at all. Except to make the author feel better.

13 Comments
  1. Very interesting. It’s nice to see the break down.

  2. Agreed, an interesting analysis.

    The question that comes to mind for me is, are readers objecting to the switching POV because it’s confusing, or because they’re convinced you Shouldn’t Do That? It’s hard to judge a snippet out of context, but for me, this wasn’t confusing. That third sentence could be ambiguous, true, but if it weren’t labeled I think I’d just read that as a transitional step from one POV to the other. It wouldn’t throw me. (I am not, granted, a good test reader, because I actively like multiple POVs in a scene, if the story suits it.)

    On another topic, it looks like the RSS feed for comments might be working again? (Posting this partly to check.)

    • “The question that comes to mind for me is, are readers objecting to the switching POV because it’s confusing, or because they’re convinced you Shouldn’t Do That?”

      I was not confused. I do not think that I would have picked up on this viewpoint bobble. I stated this in the original thread, but now, I am much surer of it.

      Good analysis, Patricia, especially the ending ‘… so “fixing” the rather subtle possible difficulties in this passage may not be necessary at all. Except to make the author feel better.’ Sometimes, it is better to leave well enough alone.

    • And yes, the comments RSS is working again. Thanks, web guru!

  3. This analysis reminded me of one of the problems that I’ve been having. I hadn’t thought it was a veiwpoint problem, but it might be. My problem is with paragraph breaks in scenes with a lot of dialogue. In this scene we have sentences of description along with quoted dialogue, but how do you decide where the paragraph break falls? If you’re writing tight third, or even omniscient, but there is action inside a broken up line of dialogue, can you have the veiwpoint characters reactions in there, if they’re not speaking, or do you have to wait? What are the rules for this?

    • Asking for rules is dangerous, because, as someone once said, “There is only one rule in writing: Don’t confuse the reader.” And I can think of instances where even that would not hold true, though it does seem to apply here. Write it in whatever manner you think works, regardless of established conventions—but be sure to get your story reviewed by beta-readers to ensure that it really *does* work.

      I’ve seen action in broken dialog handled both internally and externally, and in both cases it worked because the author made it clear just what was going on.

      • I’d love if this were the case, and it’s the principle I usually subscribe to. Unfortunately, all of my readers are picking up on something I’m doing wrong here, but no one’s been able to really point out what it is. I’m usually good at self-diagnostics, but I’m totally blind on this one. I’d like to know if there are some proper established conventions, so I can see what I’m doing, and then choose to break them or not.

        • But is it a problem? Sometimes, people overcorrect. I remember submitting a report during my computing diploma. It was returned to me with an editing “correction”. The correction was correct English, but my original writing was also correct.

        • I’m not sure if this is what you want, but when I was in school, IIRC, the rule was new speaker, new paragraph. To some extent, I also tend to think that if I introduce a new actor, I may need a new paragraph in non-dialog text. The new actor must be named early in the paragraph so the reader knows who is who.

          YMMV, and “the rules” only work if they are working.

        • Are they telling you why it’s a problem for them — as in, what impact it’s having on their perception of the story? That may be a more useful diagnostic than trying to point to specific usages.

          As a general rule, action between pieces of dialog belongs to the speaker, and if you’re changing speaker/actor you change paragraphs. But a “rule” is at best a thing to do if there isn’t a good reason to do anything else….

    • I do this occasionally — viewpoint’s reaction in the middle of somebody else’s dialog — and it seems to work fine as long as it’s clear whose dialog is whose (via distinctive speech patterns, a sufficiency of dialog tags, or whatever). At least, my alpha reader has yet to complain.

  4. Very nice treatment. I’m glad to have been able to provide something you could use as an example.

    And thank you for the kind words. I like to think I know what I’m doing, but it’s nice to have it confirmed now and then.

  5. I am coincidentally listening to Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (I read it years ago and noticed it had been issued as an audio book). In the section on points of view, she proceeds to go through the “rules,” and then gives examples of writing that has successfully broken them. It’s actually a formula she repeats throughout the book. I think that, while it is not impossible to stumble blindly into an error that works, it’s useful to learn the rules if we ever want a decent chance of breaking them well.

    I think it’s a useful book to periodically revisit.

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