Monday, February 28, 2011

Archaic Points of View?

I was poking around the various bookshelves in my house recently, trying to find something I'd not read before (or at least not in a while), when I found a Robin Cook novel that came with my wife. (A bookreading spouse is a definite plus in my opinion, and one who doesn't mind when I attempt to be funny is even better!)

The book, Godplayer, was not one I was familiar with, but within 35-40 pages, I had a fairly good idea what was going on and who the probable bad guy was (turns out I was wrong, which is a good thing.) But what I'm writing about today isn't about whether a story is predictable or not. Rather, I'm speaking to the passage of time.

A long time ago, in a readership far, far different from what we see now, it appears that commercial fiction allowed things to happen that are frowned upon by we sophisticated 21st century readers. Two points in particular caught my attention: dialogue tags and shifting points of view. First a couple of definitions for those Bookshelf readers who might not be familiar with the jargon of writers.

A dialogue tag is the stream of "he said, she saids" that sometimes accompany dialogue. It can also include those annoying Tom Swifties. For example, "I won't wear the snow plow," Thomas tooted haughtily. The adverbial descriptor is not only unnecessary, it distracts the reader from the story.

Elmore Leonard is a proponent of using "said" almost exclusively. But Leonard also doesn't add words that needn't be added. The following would probably piss Elmore off:

"I shot him," she said.
"But why?" Crispy asked.
"Because I couldn't stand the idea of him leaving me," she replied.
"But he wasn't leaving you. He was breaking up with her. He told me so himself," Crispy said.
"Oh no! What have I done?" she sighed.

Ok, aside from it being terrible dialogue, I think you'll understand what I mean. This conversation takes place between two people, so we don't need to identify who is speaking each and every time. Context means something.

The other thing I wanted to address was point of view shifts. Perhaps this helps:

Without turning on the light, Sandy threw her coat on the bed. She missed Derrick, and it pained her to have to spend another night alone. As she unbuttoned her blouse, she stroked her hand along her cleavage.

"I would be happy to help you with that, if you'd like," Derrick said.

She jumped at his voice and stumbled into the closet door.

Derrick smiled. He wondered whether she was happy to see him or whether she'd forgive him for sneaking into her apartment. ...

Did you see that? All of a sudden, we're in Derrick's brain. How'd that happen?

While I've read lots of older books in which perspective hops from head to head in subsequent paragraphs, the approach is frowned upon these days — at least by many readers I know and talk with. One reason is because it's annoying. A reader likes to feel like she's in the character's mind, seeing everything from that perspective. Then, faster than you can say "Being John Malkovitch," you're in someone else's head!

Back to Godplayer. What I noticed in Cook's book is that not too many years ago, head-hopping was publishable. Today, not so much. You can still jump from perspective to perspective, but you need to show breaks — asterisks between paragraphs or empty space between paragraphs — to allow a reader to understand that things were changing.

Like I said, sometimes the tool can be effective. It can help show a scene in a camera-like manner. But if you do it too much, it's more annoying than the hand-cam view that's become popular in films since The Blair Witch Project.

Will head-hopping and flagrant dialogue tags ever come back into vogue? I doubt it. What do you think? And what other literary tools do you think have outlived their usefulness?


dr3am3r said...

Head-hopping is just plain confusing. I mean sometimes when I'm writing things I'm not aware of the fact that I just changed perspective because being the writer I know these things. However, the reader has no idea what's going on.

Novels today get less and less descriptive in scene. I've noticed that a lot of romance novels are more like one night stands rather than something full of nuances similar to Jane Austen or Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Brian James said...

Interesting post. Often people in the industry (ie. editors and reviews) forget that there are stylistic trends that come and go. My point of view is that there is no 'wrong' stylistic approach as long as the story comes across compellingly.

Another note: In writing for children, dialogue tags are often requested, even in conversations between two characters, because its easier for younger readers to follow.

Matt Sinclair said...

dr3am3r, it can be. I think it can be done on occasion and in specific circumstances. I'll admit I've done it in my own writing and my critique group partners are pointing out each example, which is one reason why a critique group is so important.

Thanks for your comment!

Matt Sinclair said...

Brian, I love when you comment because you always make important contributions. I wasn't thinking about writing for that age group, and it's an important caveat. Thanks again!