Friday, June 28, 2013

Curtail Your God-Envy

You may not believe in God and I'm not going to try to dissuade you, but you realize that others believe in God. Christian dogma characterizes deity with three omni-words: Omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Deity can do anything; deity is everywhere; deity knows everything.

When I was a tender lad I would daydream about these omnis and of them I figured omniscient was the best. If you know everything, you can compensate for not having the others. (I think humans commonly fantasize about deity and all religious conflict is between competing fantasies.)

There's a problem with omniscience I did not recognize as a youth: My brain ain't big enough.

When you're a tender lad and everything's new you think your mind is Limitless (great movie by the way). After you acquire a few college degrees you realize the old noggin can't hold everything. So, despite my God-envy, I just don't have the hardware capacity for the job.

Christian dogma says that man is made in the image of God.

MY dogma says that the writer performs in the image of the Creator.

The writer knows what he's thinking about when he sets the valise down on the train platform. S/He does not know Hemingway's lost manuscripts are in the valise. S/he knows why the girl waits outside the train station for a passenger who never comes. And s/he knows the boy kept her picture tucked into the edge of the jet's artificial horizon. The writer knows the last thing he did was touch that picture when he crashed in Pakistan. The writer knows that years later the other boy will never learn what his wife is thinking when she looks wistfully to the west.

Did you get all that? I left out some connective tissue in that last paragraph. Omniscience can be hard to follow. That paragraph had only a finite number of words. Each word bears a finite semantic content. Its length is limited by your attention span and my ability to articulate.

So, the takes his exhaustive knowledge of the story, then chooses the parts that will fit in a novel. The poor writer does not realize s/he's doing this and s/he chooses poorly. I advise you think of all the sensa impinging upon your body right now. A lot of that never makes it to your consciousness. Like the temperature of your left heel right now. Your mind filters out the unimportant sensa and you are aware of what's left, like I'm aware of the words on the screen right now.

(When someone advises the writer to "show, don't tell" that is an exhortation to write words that depict sensa to the reader for the reader to interpret. Interpretation should be left to the reader.)

To solve these problems the reader needs to define a Point Of View (POV). Most commonly, this means you decide upon a POV character whose sensa, perceptions, and some interpretation are presented to the reader. The best way to think of a POV character is as a lens through which the story is projected to the reader. God or some other omniscient being may be chosen as the POV character.

This brings to mind another problem of omniscience. Omniscience causes trouble for storytelling. In a whodunnit, the omniscient storyteller knows it was Mrs. White with a Rope in the Library who committed murder most foul on page one. The omniscient storyteller is just holding out on you as s/he/it strings you along for the next 250 pages.

That's why you want to think very carefully about what you the writer knows about the story, and what you want the reader to know about the story. In each scene you need to choose someone in that scene who can present the narrative to the reader. Sometimes perspective is in-your-face obvious like Rashomon or Arrested Development season 4. Often it is less so.

This is a decision you need to make when you're writing your story.

A rookie mistake is to start a scene in the POV of one character, and then in that same scene disclose to the reader things that the POV character cannot know.

One of the coolest things I noticed when I started writing was a trick I saw Ernest Hemingway do. In "The Killers" he tells the story from the POV of Nick Adams. Toward the middle of the story, the narrative shifts to events that happened in another room.

For a moment, I thought, "Hemingway freakin' committed POV drift!" Then I read a little more and Hemingway explains that the cook was in the other room and the cook related the events he'd witnessed at that time to Nick Adams. Then I thought, that's awesome.

I know some writers tell the whole story from a single POV character. I think those are the best writers. Others will stick with one POV character in a chapter and change only at chapter breaks. Or even scenes within a chapter. I generally growl at my friends in writers group when they move from one POV character to another POV character without some clear line of demarcation in the prose.

I had a lot of fun once writing a first-person POV character who I kill off in the second-to-the-last chapter. The last chapter consists of his ghost floating to the enemy starship's bridge moments before he witnesses it blow up and he's joined by a lot more ghosts. It's a gimmick, and if you think you want to try something like that, have fun.

You know your story and you should think of what your POV character can directly experience in the story. This argues against making your space opera hero the Galactic Emperor, or an Admiral of a giant space fleet (and it generally feeds into that avoid superlatives and Mary Sue's  thing). Instead, a guy whose job is to swab the decks may have the better view of the action. Emperors and Admirals tend to do nothing but sit in meetings and read reports. Yeah, that'd make for riveting action.

If you've got a space marine, you'd better get him cross-trained in sensors or something, because you owe it to your readers to let them know what's going on. And if he's in mushroom mode (kept in the dark and fed horse dung) that'll be less interesting than those meetings & reports in the last paragraph.

So, take a look at your story from 10,000 feet, and pick through the most interesting events therein. How can you plausibly put one character at the center of all those events. Then ask yourself, can I tell this story from that character's POV? Curtail your God-envy.

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