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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?
When I had the chance to interview Sherry Shahan, author of Purple Daze, for the Figment.com blog, I jumped on it. Figment is a website that gives young adult writers a place to experiment, write and share their stories with each other. It’s pretty cool, and you can join even if (like me) you aren’t quite a teenager anymore.
Purple Daze is a novel comprised of interconnected poems, letters and journal entries, and tells the story of six teens in an LA suburb throughout 1965. One of my favorite aspects is how she weaves the characters’ personal stories into the broader story of the year: Malcolm X’s assassination, race riots in LA, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Rather than just contextualize the characters’ stories, it allows us to see how their experiences truly represent the time, and the difficulties young people faced coming of age in that era.
Since Figment is a site for writers, I based many of my questions around that theme. Some of them, though, also speak to the themes I often address on this blog: those of storytelling and how to put a story together. Many of the questions I asked about how she wrote the book, and in what order, didn’t make it into the final interview cut, so I’ve included them here. Please read the whole interview first over at Figment: Interview with Sherry Shahan.
Sherry Shahan Interview “Outtakes”:
Q: Which poem was the hardest to write?*
A: While cleaning out a closet I found a shoe box jammed with letters from a friend who was a Marine in Vietnam. I’d kept his letters more than 40 years. The character Phil in the novel evolved from them. Developing his story arc was quite painful, since I had to be inside his skin while during the living hell of Vietnam. Even now, after years of writing and revising, I have a hard time reading the poem about Phil’s friend getting shot.
Q: The easiest?
A: This haiku appears about three-quarters of the way into the novel. It’s from Cheryl’s perspective, after she learns that her boyfriend (Don) has had sex with her best friend:
HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE
HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE
I HATE DONALD DUCK
This was particularly gratifying to write since my boyfriend really did sleep with my best friend.
Q: Which poem was the most fun to write?
A: Downtown L.A. was burning (Watts Riots), Vietnam was raging, peaceful protesters were being attacked with billy clubs. At the same time, these kids had the pressure of high school, expectations of parents, and relationship issues. Amazingly enough, they still had an absolute blast. I wrote the rock concert poem while listening to Jefferson Airplane.
Q: Which poem did you write first?
A: I don’t remember which piece came first. I began by scribbling notes on a lined pad. Sketching characters and playing around with ideas. I sometimes wrote letters from the viewpoint of my characters. I let them ramble on and on. Later, I highlighted passages that showed insight into their innermost thoughts and feelings.
A: The manuscript had been accepted by the editor when I found an article about Norman Morrison, a devout Quaker and father of three young children who set himself on fire in an act of self-sacrifice to protest the Vietnam War. I knew this had to go in the book.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A: When I began I didn’t have a support group or know any other writers. Today it’s much easier to connect with like-minded people online. Check the local newspapers for events that include writers, such as poetry readings. They’re usually free and you’ll meet such interesting people. Writers are generous. We’re willing to share information, just ask.
*This question and answer did appear in the original interview, but I wanted to include it here for completeness.
For more information on Sherry and to check out her other books (she’s written more than 30!), visit www.SherryShahan.com.
To celebrate and show my support, and to wish the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh a happy Valentine’s Day, I am sharing all the reasons I love my library. Please share why you love YOUR library in the comments!
1. On the second floor of CLP Main in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Oakland, a bank of windows let you look into the dinosaur exhibit of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. There are a ton of great nooks up here to browse some books, check out the dinosaurs and watch all the kids stare up in awe at the giant skeletons.
2. CLP has an enormous book collection, and you can request books from any CLP library and have them sent to your neighborhood branch for easy pick-up and drop-off. My local branch is one of the smaller ones, but thanks to this feature I can get any CLP book, and walk a few blocks to pick it up. Pittsburgh has more than 80 neighborhoods, and while there aren’t 80 library branches, wherever you live in the city you’re never too far from one of the 19 neighborhood branches.
3. It takes me about 10 minutes to walk to my local branch, the Allegheny Library. The Allegheny Library was actually the first Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1895. It was housed in its original building until 2006, when lightening struck the clock tower and caused a lot of damage. (No, seriously, it happened! Read about it in the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review.) In 2009 a new Allegheny library opened up the street. I attended the grand opening, and I got to sign the original 1895 guest book, which has the signatures of everyone who attended the opening in 1895, the signatures of everyone who attended the centennial celebration in 1995, and now everyone who attended the grand opening of the new building. Pretty cool, huh?
4. The Pennsylvania Room on the third floor of the main branch is the first place I go whenever I want to learn about my adopted city. I especially love the books of old photos, or the ones like Pittsburgh Then and Now which shows photos of various Pittsburgh locales in the past and the present. Another of my favorite finds from this section is The Steps of Pittsburgh, which in addition to detailing the history of the city’s more than 700 public staircases, provides walking tours for many neighborhoods.
5. CLP also has a large multimedia collection. DVDs, CDs, ebooks, audio books, eaudio books and more. I just bought a Sony eReader, and the ability to borrow electronic books from my library was a big factor in my decision. I especially love CLP’s collection of foreign movies. A few years ago I worked my way through most of the Spanish movies and found a lot of gems. They even have anime, documentaries, TV shows and work out DVDs.
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, to see a list of books I’m reading, and to make a pledge, go here.
- Hours read as of 2/14: 42.75
- Funds raised as of 2/14: $202.38
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