Friday, May 16, 2008

The Butler in the Chandelier

I’ve long had plans to share this topic with you, but I hadn’t decided when to do it until this afternoon. When I found the butler in the chandelier again, I knew I had to do it today.

Butler? Chandelier?

As usual, we need some background. When I wrote Tangled Strands in the late ‘80s, I wrote as I was used to reading. If a guy and a gal were conversing on a dinner date, the reader was cued in on what each was thinking as they talked. You knew what she felt about what he said, and you found out what he thought about her response.

Somewhere in the intervening years, someone decided (or perhaps a conclusion evolved with many authors) that it was confusing to the reader to be jerked from one head to the other. Wouldn’t it be better to keep the reader comfortable in just one character’s head per scene? Doing otherwise became known as “head hopping.” Formally, it is point of view, or POV. One author titled a chapter about it, “Keep That Camera Nailed Down!” A book should have only a few point-of-view characters. Many have only one or two.

I first became aware of this change five or six years ago. When I initially read about it (in that “Camera” book), it didn’t even register with me. When I finally did begin to get it, I was incredulous. How could one write that way? What would it do to a story? My brain was still programmed to want to know what each one was thinking during that romantic interlude. I began making some inquiries and found myself hearing the same thing from others. When I had a chance to question a real author about it, she confirmed that it as the new “trend” (just this month I heard her say she is now a “purist” on the subject).

Slowly I began working my way back through my story trying to practice the new style. Slowly I began adapting my thinking. Slowly I began getting the hang of it. One scene at a time I found ways to stay with one character. The writer signals a POV change, just as one signals a change of location or characters, by leaving an extra line between paragraphs.

Some scenes were simple to fix. Some were not. The most interesting challenge I had was when I found a scene where the best way to describe the POV was “the butler in the chandelier.” I hadn’t written the reader into anyone’s head. Instead, it was as if some unnamed, disembodied person were watching the whole scene from a vantage point up above it all. “Omniscient” is actually a valid point of view, but it isn’t good to sprinkle it around indiscriminately. Small snatches of it are now called “author intrusion.” I had to decide which character would be good to live that scene and then rewrite it accordingly.

What does that have to do with today?

Today I was shocked, after all this time, to find yet another “butler in the chandelier” scene. I was especially surprised because I worked on that very scene last evening. I was, dealing with a different kind of problem, and it never dawned on me that we weren’t seeing the scene through the eyes of anyone in the scene.

At first I drew a blank about whose scene it should be, but it came to me quickly. Instead of starting out “After they were seated, Alec shuffled papers on his desk…,” it is now “As they took their seats, Chris watched his father shuffling papers…” That’s good. Chris is already a “viewpoint character,” and he could use a few more scenes.

I must have made progress on this matter because in the contest I entered this spring, I was gratified to have more than one judge comment that my POVs were fine. Whew!

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