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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?
Take note that while I call this “fiction” I don’t call it a “story.” Is it one? What do you think?
(Also, please take the time to visit kellylynnthomas.com and let me know what you think of the new design!)
And without further ado,a nonstory:
A short list of strange things that I have seen during my job as an interior designer:
1. A giant squid vase. The glass made it look like it was moving when you looked at it out of the corner of your eyes, and it made me nervous. Everything else in the house was entirely normal, except for that vase.
2. Pantyhose wrapped around the base of a lamp. I wanted to ask why they were there, but decided my imagination did a better job explaining their presence than any truth could. At first I thought the owner might have a thing for erotic asphyxiation or wearing pantyhose on his head, but I didn’t get any erotic or sexy vibes from the rest of the house, so I decided that he had a secret lover who would come over when his wife was at DAR meetings and they would make love on the couch, and she wrapped them around the lamp so his wife would see, and he never noticed because he wasn’t attentive like that. I don’t even know if he had a wife, but I hope so. She would be the jealous kind, but he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t care, he just floats through life and waits for her to bring him a beer, and the only reason he took a lover in the first place was because she came to him and he was bored, so he thought why not?
3. An entire house covered in the letter Y. There were Ys in picture frames, wooden Ys, metal Ys, lamps in the shape of Y, other objects arranged into Ys, even a music stand that was an upside-down Y. The person’s name was Melissa Bracken, she didn’t even have a Y in her name. I did ask her why all the Ys and she shrugged, like maybe she didn’t have an answer, or she didn’t want to answer. I’m not sure why she even hired me, she didn’t want me to change anything, and every time I told her she needed to cool it with the Ys she rolled her eyes at me and put her hands on her hips like I didn’t know what I was talking about. In the end she asked me if I thought there were too many Ys, and when I told her I felt like I was drowning in alphabet soup with all the letters, she looked at me and smiled like a shark, like I had confirmed everything she ever thought.
4. A completely straight, single man in his 30s who had furniture shaped like human reproductive organs. There was a vagina arm chair, a penis couch, end tables that were shaped like the naked backs of muscular men and breast lamps where the nipples are the lights. I guess human shaped furniture shouldn’t weird me out, but it does. Especially the vagina armchair. I sat in it when he went to the bathroom and you sink so low into it, and the colors seem so realistic, and it’s made out of a slippery soft leather, that you really do feel like you’re sinking into a vagina. The penis couch isn’t very comfortable, in my opinion, because it’s so firm, and I had to keep reminding myself not to stare at the lamps so the guy didn’t think I was a lesbian or something. I’ve seen plenty of human shaped furniture and art, but having so much of it in one living room seems gratuitous.
5. Stuffed monkey heads in a bedroom. This woman had like 50 stuffed monkey heads, taxidermy, not stuffed animals, all different kinds of monkeys. They were mounted in groups on each wall, like a honeycomb but instead of bees and honey, monkey heads. I don’t know how she slept at night, with hundredss of dead monkey eyes staring down at her. I wondered why she didn’t have all the monkey bodies too, maybe in the basement or the attic, and maybe with a metal pole that she could screw the heads onto. Each monkey head was labeled, with its Latin name and all kinds of information, country of origin, preferred food, size, weight, everything. The stranger thing was, there wasn’t a single monkey anywhere else in the house, not even a figurine or a stuffed animal or a picture or even a book about monkeys. Just the monkey heads in the bedroom.
When I visit a house like that, no matter why they hired me, I seriously question my decision to enter this field in the first place. People are fucked up.
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.
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!