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Neil Gaiman’s novel-length fairytale Stardust employs an omniscient narrator and occasional authorial interjection–both play a crucial role in not only the telling of the story, but also in the reading of the story.
The omniscient narrator was common in ye olde Literature (think Austen, Bronte, etc.), but is actually kind of frowned upon in modern writing classes.
Instead, fledgling authors are encouraged to use first person or limited third to allow the reader to get close to the character. There’s nothing wrong with getting inside a character’s head, but sometimes it’s nice to not have to deal with someone else’s neuroses (I don’t know about you, but I have enough of my own, thank you).
Authorial interjection, also known as breaking the fourth wall (although that’s more of a stage term, the first three walls being the right, left and back sides of the stage, the fourth being the invisible one between actors and audience), is much more common, but sadly almost always relegated to a comedic special effect in contemporary literature.
Gaiman’s use of these techniques serves to make the story feel more old-timey, more like a fairytale that our grandparents might have told us when we demanded they tell us a story before bedtime.
But more than putting us into the proper frame of mind, the use of the omniscient narrator creates suspense and tension, and is perhaps the most important device in the story (it’s a device because it’s used to present the story in a particular way, and it comes with certain expectations, like the main characters falling in love and living happily ever after).
Without an omniscient narrator, we would know only as much as Tristan, the main character, and half of the suspense would evaporate before it had a chance to even condense in our minds, since the forces wishing Tristan evil often do themselves in before they have a chance to do Tristan any harm.
Since we know more than Tristan, we often get the urge to yell at him for being stupid, or for not following advice or directions. Plus, it makes us feel nice and smart and quite good about ourselves for being so smart.
While the few instances of authorial interjection are used in situations where the characters are not in any grave danger, they don’t fall into the category of comedy for comedy’s sake. These instances serve to pull the reader more fully into the world of the narrator, and by extension, the characters the narrator brings to life for us.
Any emotional distance we may have felt from the characters because of the narrative filter is replaced by a closeness with the narrator. By speaking to us directly, he’s made us a part of the story. And how can you feel distant from a story of which you’re apart?
About two months ago I finally broke down and bought an ereader in anticipation of an upcoming trip. I had been thinking about getting one for graduate school (I will start working on my MFA in a few months), and ultimately decided a small, portable device would be better for travel than school.
I decided to purchase the Sony Reader Pocket because of its size, the ability to check ebooks out of my local library, the fact that it DOESN’T have internet access, and its touch screen (I am a huge sucker for touch screens). This doesn’t seem to be one of the more popular e-readers, but so far I absolutely LOVE mine.
I had the chance to really test it out on my recent trip to New York City. I don’t really want to buy ebooks, because I can check them out of the library and because Google Books offers thousands upon thousands of classics for free and because I’m not sure how I feel about ebook pricing and author royalties on ebooks. I’ve already put more books on my ereader than I will probably read in my life time, and I’ve only spent $2 (for the complete works of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters).
But aside from economics and/or the availability of cheap/free books, the thing I enjoy most about my Reader is the actual reading experience. With audio books, you get a performance so it’s a completely different way to “read” a book than picking up the physical copy and reading each line. Reading an ebook, in my opinion, is pretty much exactly the same as reading a real book.
No, you don’t get the smell of ink and glue (and I do tend to smell every book before I buy it), and you don’t get the same tactile sensations you get from a real book, but you do still get some tactile sensation with the Sony Reader because you’re using your finger to “turn” the page via the touch screen. The lack of smell didn’t bother me, because I don’t normally notice the way a book smells unless I shove my face into it, and I don’t normally do that while I’m reading.
The e-ink screen looks an awfully lot like paper, and it’s incredibly easy to hold the Reader in one hand. I read on my side in bed quite frequently, and was worried I wouldn’t be able to with an e-reader, but it’s actually easier than with a real book, especially when we’re talking about giant hardbacks.
The only thing I can’t do is thumb ahead to check when the next chapter breakis, which is a small annoyance but nothing major. The Reader tells me which page I’m on out of the book’s total pages, so although I can’t physically see how much I have left or how far I am into the book, I still have a way to tell.
A lot of people are freaking out over e-readers and saying things like “books will change because of this.” I really have to disagree. I didn’t think anything different about the book because I read it on an e-reader. I didn’t feel as if anything got lost in translation. It contained the same words the physical copy did, and that more than anything else is what’s important.
Other things about books and storytelling are changing. People are going back to the serial novel, cell phone novels are increasing in popularity and events like National Novel Writing Month are “democratizing” the whole writing/authorship process. Ebooks certainly allow independent authors a chance to break in to the market and reach an audience in new ways, but at the end of the day, we’re still talking about literature. Only its availability has changed.
I love physical books, and plan to continue buying them. I only use my Reader for library books and free books, and use it primarily when I’m traveling, and I love that I have the option to do that.
And let’s be honest. At the end of the day, if a book really pulls you in, are you going to notice whether or not you’re reading a physical copy?
What do you think about e-readers and e-books?
Mr. McGreggor certainly isn’t ugly, but his main attraction for me was that he played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. And The Men Who Stare at Goats is basically a two hour Star Wars joke.
And I’m okay with that, because I’m the kind of Star Wars fangirl who gets X-wings tattoos, dresses up like Mara Jade at Star Wars cons and covers her office in wall-to-wall posters (my favorites being a Celebration IV exclusive print of Vader killing the Emperor, a Japanese poster of R2-D2 jetpacking over a derivative of Hokusai’s famous “Great Wave off Kanagawa” painting and a map of the galaxy that came in one issue of Star Wars Insider many many moons ago).
After the movie (Men Who Stare at Goats, not Star Wars) ended, I had a feeling that it wasn’t really a very good movie, but I thought it was awesome anyway. The main problem I had with Goats is not that it’s one giant Star Wars joke (that part was awesome), but that the story never quite got off the ground.
I’m going to blame the complex narration and use of extensive flashbacks for that. Ewan McGreggor narrates the story from the present. He tells us how his wife left him and he went off to Iraq and met George Clooney’s character.
And then, throughout their journey, we get flashbacks to the 1980s when the army was playing around with making these psychic super warriors. Sometimes we get flashbacks within flashbacks. Eventually everything gets wrapped up, but the problem is that we’re following two, and sometimes three story lines, as the flashbacks comprise at least half of the movie.
McGreggor and Clooney do a lot of sitting around, which is when Clooney tells McGreggor his story. Even though we don’t see them sitting around a lot because of the flashbacks, it’s kind of tiring to have them sitting in the desert alone for so long. That being said, the flashbacks are done extremely well and are easy to follow.
In one sense too much is going on, and in another sense nothing is going on, and it creates frustration for the viewer. I do admire director Grant Heslov’s ability to navigate these multiple layers of narration, but I don’t think they quite work here.
Another problem is that this movie is based on a documentary (you can read about it on Wikipedia here, and I highly suggest checking out the links at the bottom), so it’s trying to impose a narrative structure on a story that doesn’t necessarily have any.
Again, the plot does accomplish what it sets out to do in satirizing the ridiculousness of the military and war in Iraq, but it still falls flat, perhaps because it’s trying to do too much. Or perhaps because it’s a comedy, so you can never be sure what’s included solely for comedic effect, or how much of the movie is based on the “truth.”
In the end, I think it’s worth watching for the acting (which is excellent), the Star Wars jokes and the layered narrative, but considering the title is The Men Who Stare at Goats, there were not enough goats!
About a month ago, after I finally got around to seeing the latest Harry Potter movie, I decided to re-read the books. I hadn’t read most of them since high school, and the last one since early in my college career, and none of them right after the other.
I also convinced my husband to watch all the movies, through the sixth, with me. Watching the movies again after so recently reading the books (I finished Goblet of Fire yesterday) brought some interesting tidbits to light.
The fourth Harry Potter movie is really the first one where major subplots have to be cut out because of the book’s length, but even in the first three the directors made some interesting choices in presenting the story. Aside from paring down the details to the absolutely essential, though, the thing that stood out to me the most is that in almost every action scene, the movies one-up the books.
Having dropped a screen writing class halfway through the first day during my senior year in college (they really expected me to sit through a four-hour class for a measly three credits?!), I’m no expert on screen writing or movies. But I have to ask one question: Why? What is the benefit of ramping up the tension in a movie, especially when other details or scenes are cut to make room for the additional action?
I’m guessing those who wrote the scripts will say it makes the movies more exciting. In any movie adaptation, things must be cut from the book. Regardless of how faithful an adaptation is (and I would say the first three Harry Potter movies are quite faithful as far as adaptations go), it will never be an exact visual replica of the book, because there simply isn’t the space or time to allow it. That being said, why cut more than is necessary to make room for more action, especially in books that are not inherently action-adventure?
If you haven’t seen the movies or read the books, you may wind up a bit confused as I’m leaving out most of the plots, sorry!
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The first two-thirds of this movie follow the book closely. Things diverge slightly when Harry, Ron and Hermione chase Quirrel into the guarded chamber that hides the sorcerer’s stone. The movie takes a few of the enchantments that guard the stone and makes them more exciting, while it cuts out others completely.
- The first enchantment, the Devil’s Snare, has Ron screaming, panicking and almost dying in the movie (after Hermione tells Harry and Ron they need to relax in order to get past it). In the book Hermione saves them all by exposing the plant to light.
- The second enchantment, the room with the keys, has Harry chasing a winged key while the rest of the keys attack him. In the book, there is no attack. The challenge is to find the right key amid thousands of them, which the kids do by using logic, not speed or strength.
- The fourth enchantment, in which Hermione has to solve a riddle concerning vials of potion that will either kill them, do nothing, send them back to the Chess chamber or send them forward into the chamber containing the sorcerer’s stone. This enchantment was cut entirely from the movie, probably because it’s all intellectual, without any action.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Two scenes stick out to me in this movie, though there were others that has more tension than their printed equivalents.
- When Harry and Ron follow the spiders into the Forbidden Forest, Mr. Weasley’s old Ford Anglia saves them from being eaten by Aragog’s children. In the movie, this scene is longer and involves a spider clinging on to the car, among other chase antics, that were not present in the book.
- Harry’s final fight against the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets was much longer and more drawn out than in the book.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
This is the book/movie in which the omissions made in favor of more action do the most harm, in my opinion. A large chunk of the back story about Sirius, Lupin, Peter and Snape is completely left out in favor of more fighting and action sequences. The back story becomes important later on, especially in the development of Snape’s character. And you can’t really argue that Snape is unimportant. (Full disclosure: Snape is my favorite character!) So rather than allow time for Sirius and Lupin to elaborate on the back story, the following scenes were infused with more action:
- Harry riding Buckbeak the Hippogriff. In the book his flight is quite short and uncomfortable. In the movie it is long and glorious.
- The bogart scene with Professor Lupin. In the book, Lupin does not allow Harry a chance at the bogart because he fears Lord Voldemort would appear. In the movie Harry does face the bogart, and a dementor appears, and Lupin must save Harry.
- The entire sequence in the Shrieking Shack with Snape interrupting and Peter trying to get away. The movie elongated those action sequences, which in the book were quite straightforward.
- The scene where Lupin turns into a werewolf. In the book he simple runs into the forest, allowing Peter to escape. In the movie he and Sirius engage in battle and then, of course, he goes after Hermione and Harry.
Why these small details matter
While re-reading the books, I was struck with how tightly and beautifully plotted they are. J.K. Rowling’s prose may not hold up to the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, but her plots are among the best. Perhaps they are cliche to a certain degree, but you can’t exactly say Lord of the Rings uses a new concept, either. The movies, of course, rely on the books’ plots to stand up. But in chopping away small (and large) details in the name of greater action, I think some of the beauty of the books is lost.
Harry Potter, in my opinion, is not an action-adventure story. The books are more about solving puzzles and mysteries than fighting evil. Even in later books, the object is to figure out Voldemort’s secrets, then find the Horcruxes. Ultimately the goal is to defeat him, and that of course involves a fight. But what goes into the fight is a long process of figuring out how to defeat him. In the books, each scene advances the plot or helps us better understand a character better.
But in the movies, the added action is gratuitous. It does not advance the plot or tell us more about the characters and therefore, in my opinion, detracts from the story.
For example, the reveal that Sirius is on Harry’s side and Ron’s pet rat was the one who betrayed the Potters is far more rewarding in the book version of Prisoner of Azkaban because as we read, we try to solve the puzzle. First, why is Sirius after Harry? Second, how could Peter Pettigrew be in the castle when he’s dead? The pieces don’t add up until the reveal at the end, and we are rewarded with the full back story and are able to appreciate the characters all the more.
By turning the movies into more action-oriented stories, I feel we lose a large part of what makes these books great, and what makes the characters truly compelling.
During the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s 2011 Winter Read-a-Thon, Jan. 8 – Feb. 19, I will be blogging about the books I read. For more information or to see a list of books I’m reading, go here. Although Harry Potter is not on that reading list, I am not yet far enough into any of those books to write about them.
- Hours read as of 1/9: 2.5
- Funds raised as of 1/9: $20.50
I’m back! You can once again look forward to weekly posts on metafiction, structure in fiction, and storytelling! This post is a bit of a mash-up, but lately my thoughts have been a bit scattered, so there. Also, daily views have been way up, even though I haven’t been posting, so thanks for reading, internet people!
I also added “the art of storytelling” to my tag line, because it’s pretty much true. Not sure I’m 100% happy with how long it is now, but I feel it’s much more accurate.
Never fear failure
Well, I “failed” NaNoWriMo. And I also failed at updating you, the reader, on my progress! It doesn’t feel like a failure, though. I figured out what made NaNoWriMo important to me, and why perhaps it will become much less important in the future–or perhaps not.
NaNoWriMo taught me one very important thing: I can write a novel. A whole, complete, finished (if imperfect) novel. I am capable of putting pen to page for 50,000+ words, and taking my characters from the beginning, to the middle, to the end.
I tried Nano in 2007 but quit after a few days because of some boy trouble, and in 2008 I came back at it with a strong sense of determination that paid off. I had a blast, and I proved to myself that I could finish a large writing project. 2009, was in some ways, I think, a reaffirmation of that. The first time wasn’t just a fluke. When I won in 2009, I was proving to myself that I had more than one novel in me.
This year, I didn’t need to reassure myself. I had, the week before, finished another book (the infamous metafictional travel memoir). I knew I could write a novel, and I knew I could write it in 30 days. Maybe I was tired from writing the other book (true). Maybe I was too busy with work and hosting my first Thanksgiving (true). Maybe I was busy with the book drive (also true). But in the end, at the very heart of the reason I gave up on Nano this year, is that I didn’t need it, and I wasn’t having fun doing it.
It felt kind of like riding a bicycle with training wheels, after you’ve graduated to a “real” bike and have been riding it for months or years. It doesn’t feel the same. You feel constricted, like you’re not really free, because you have to write x number of words per day for x number of days. That’s how I felt during November, until I gave up, and said to myself “I might finish this novel, but not right now.”
So will I do Nano next year? I don’t know. Probably not, as I will be up to my ears in an MFA program. Will I ever do Nano again? I’m positive I will. The next time I come to a mountain I can’t climb, or a hill I’m terrified to go down, or I have to graduate to a unicycle, I know NaNoWriMo will be there to help me through it, and teach me what I need to know about the grand adventure that is writing. So it goes.
Audio books, or why my car rides will never be the same again
I always thought audio books were “cheating.” You’re not really reading, you’re listening. And maybe I still think that, a little bit.
But I LOVE them! I decided to give them a try during my monthly newspaper deliveries to help the time pass and make delivering 4,000 newspapers in all kinds of weather tolerable, if not fun. I found a few audio books on cassette for sale at my local library, and have been working my way through them. I’ve listened to three book so far, and am on the fourth. I wrote a review of the first one I listened to, which you can find over at The Figment Review!
In a way, I feel as if I’m rediscovering reading for the first time. I’m hungry for audio books. I suddenly want to drive places alone so I can listen to them (no cassette player in the house). Whenever I see one now I want it, no matter what genre, no matter what author. I’ve yet to almost get into an accident, but if I find driving has distracted me from listening, I rewind the tape to make sure I didn’t miss anything. In other words, it’s wonderful.
This is how I felt when I was a kid, and I read anything I could get my hands on. Of course I still read constantly, but never as much as I like. Or perhaps I’m only striving toward some childhood ideal that I’ve inflated in my mind but never really existed, you know, a childhood in which I never watched TV (false) and spent all day curled up with a book (also false). I read a ton, but I also watched cartoons and spent lots of time playing outside (riding my bike, catching minnows and salamanders in the creek, roller blading, shooting my brother with super soakers, etc.) Of course, many of my pretend games were inspired by books (Narnia and Big Red are two examples), though that doesn’t count as reading.
That was kind of a tangent, but you get the point. I feel like that again, listening to audio books. The act of listening, absorbing and understanding the spoken word is so similar, and yet so different, from the act of reading those same words. I think I still prefer reading, because it feels more active, but there is something to be said about the way the human voice delivers these stories to my ears.
In all the audio books I’ve “read”, the readers subtly change their voices for different characters. This creates an effect beyond the differences in characters’ written dialogue. It adds to the book. I like it, because that’s what I do in my head when I read, but I also don’t like it, because the reader’s voice is forcing the idea of a character onto me (kind of like watching a movie and then reading a book, the image of the character from the movie is probably all you can think about while you’re reading).
Even still, the thing that matters the most is the words that the author has put down. The reader can only bring so much to what’s already there. A great reader isn’t going to save a crappy book, and a crappy reader probably won’t ruin a great book. So I think the difference between reading a book and listening to an audio book is subtle, but something I’d like to explore in more detail as I listen to more audio books. I’ve recently got a copy of 1984 in audio book format, and since I’ve actually read that already, I’m looking forward to being able to compare the two versions/experiences.
How about you, do you listen to audio books? Like them, love them, hate them? Let me know in the comments!