Rule 4 for New Writers
Let us imagine the vast hollows of history that are the Vaults of Babel. Picture, as in the panorama of a wide angle shot, an infinite hall of infinite desks, all empty. There are no viewpoint characters to wonder at the immensity, no one standing at the Great Door we now zoom in on, that door of solid oak, not merely closed but locked -- the rusty iron key that will open it in the care of a gatekeeper who is returning even now, but not yet arrived, not yet. For now, everything is still, only a solitary cigarette burning in an ashtray here, a reed rolling off a clay tablet there. Quill and parchment, typewriter and laptop, all lie abandoned. If there is any action born of agency in this scene it is only the shifts in perspective of the all-knowing observer who relates all of this without being a part of it -- the omniscient narrator.
The omniscient narrator, unbound by space, able to tell what happens anywhere and everywhere. The omnisicient narrator, unbound by time, able to speak of past, present and future. Unlimited.
Now the key turns with a clank, the door swings open, and innumerable authors file in, each with their own thoughts. Here, Thomas Hardy thinks of how he will end Tess of the Durbervilles. There, Charles Dickens ponders the death of Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. Given that these are the sort of writers who epitomise the use of that particular style of point-of-view, traditional approach that it is, they might well be favourites of the omniscient narrator; omniscience does not mean objectivity, the narrator being just as capable of demonstrating quirks of attitude and opinion as the next character -- disliking cats, for example, beastly things that they are. But in this story? No, there will be no favouritism. There is a vast cast of characters who must all take the spotlight in this scene or that. One of the scenes that will unfold, for example, will open with the focus on Dickens as he approaches his comrade, close with the focus on Hardy as his colleague walks away after their little exchange.
The advantages of an omnisicient narrator barely need explaining. This is an all-seeing God who may weave into the story anything and everything that's happening in the fictive world. It should be borne in mind, however, that this capacity may be offset by a degree of detachment, and by the difficulty of maintaining omniscience if one is not cognisant of the distinction between this approach and multiple third person limited.
It began with a section break, his perspective. It began with a section break and him standing at the door looking into this vast hall -- the Vaults of Babel, someone had said. Suddenly he was just there, and the focus of the narrative was there with him, like a camera over his shoulder, in his eye, inside his head. He could feel it as a presence, which was weird -- not at all the done thing, he knew, being a writer and all. But, of course, this was metafiction -- that's what they'd told him in the briefing -- an attempt to illustrate multiple third person limited, the way a narrative tells the story as experienced by its characters.
-- We want to show the immediacy it gives, the sense of immersion. Through the narrative, the reader should be right there with you, living it as you do.
-- Seeing what I see, he'd said, noticing what I notice, knowing what I know. Yeah yeah, I know the score.
He was kinda glad the narrative had cut that briefing, to be honest, just flicked back to it in this reflection. He didn't need it all spelled out; they just needed enough to bring the reader up to speed as they followed his chain of thought.
You can hear my thoughts OK? he thought.
He jumped as some old guy shuffling past leaned in to hiss yessss in his ear. Shit, no need to be fucking creepy about it. It was kinda creepy enough as is, waiting for the section break, He didn't know how long his perspective would last, see, but he knew what was going on, being a writer and all, knew the multiple third person limited approach meant the focus on him would end with a section break too. Then that perspective would shift to some other character. He had no idea who. He looked at the other writers pushing past him on their way inside, wondering which it might be -- caught a glimpse of Charles Dickens, and another writer who looked real familiar, but... he couldn't quite place the face. Fuck it, never mind. He pulled the map from his pocket, found the desk marked as his own. Hopefully the focus would last till he reached the desk. Him making his way through the crowd, taking in the sights of this crazy place -- that seemed like a sensible passage. Then it would cut away as he settled down to work maybe.
He shoved the map back in his pocket and set out, wondering if there was any way he could extend his period in the limelight. Maybe he should start a fight on his way. Kick up a stink so there was a reason for the narrative to stick with him.
Damn, if only it hadn't been multiple third person limited...
-- Poor bastard, she said. Didn't even see the transition coming.
She turned from the balcony, leaving the nameless writer to... well, whatever. Like she cared. The authorial mouthpiece stood at the top of the stairs, peeling off his fake grey beard. He wandered up to stand beside her at the balcony, leaned out. There was a little furrow to his brow as he turned to her.
-- You think it worked? he said. I mean, just to get the vague idea across, you know, why this might be a more common approach in contemporary fiction.
She shrugged. How should she know? Like she was fricking omnisicient?
-- Maybe, she said, maybe not. You might want to go into the downside of ditching that detached perspective, you know, the way you can't tell anything beyond a character's experience, not without disrupting the flow.
He looked at her and winked slyly, looked kind of smug in a way that made her wonder what he was planning.
-- All in good time, he said.
All he had to do, after all, he thought to himself, was drop a section break, and hop from her head to his. Then that multiple third person limited would just be fucked. It'd be jarring as hell for the poor reader, like one second the camera is in her head and the next it's in his. And then...
She let out a curse in some foreign language. An omniscient narrator would've been able to place it, of course, but not him. He chuckled to himself.
-- Hey, can't you signal when you're going to do that? she said. Take the focus, I mean?
She'd realised what he was up to now, trying to fucking demonstrate the erosion of POV, the crumbling of multiple third person limited into muddled third person limited -- that jolting dislocatory sense of the steadicam perspective of the narrative being tossed back and forth at random. And she didn't like it.
Little did either of them know that the amnesiac omniscient narrator was at play here too. For even as they spoke, events were transpiring beyond their ken. Down in the hall, unwatched by the schemers, the writer had reached his desk. As he sat down, he realised the focus was back on him. Cool, he thought, I get to --
Suddenly, an idea flashed through her brain. If I just think, she thought, then the focus should come back to me! But even as she swore again in that unrecogniseable tongue, but this time from a sense of victory, she didn't see the authorial mouthpiece sneaking something from behind his back. Then he had the gun in his hand, pointed straight at her. His cold heart hardened as his finger squeezed the trigger. The last thing she saw was the flare from the barrel.
He felt so sorry as he stood looking down at her corpse. He didn't even know her name -- which was Mary Sue. But it had to be done. And now he had to finish the job. He raised the gun to his own chin. If this was the only way to demonstrate the botched POV that emerges when you don't decide between multiple third person limited and an omniscient narrator, how you end up with just a jumble of clashing strategies -- well, so be it. He pulled the trigger.
Down in the hall, the writer looked up from his desk at the second gunshot. And felt confused.
Labels: Writing Craft