Monday, November 12, 2007

The Small, Wingless Man Hovered in the Corner, Unseen by the Boy and his Mother

I want to talk about POV and scene shifts a little more, but rather than replying, I though I would bring the argument to the main table. Spill wine on the holiday finery, and all that.

I’m not about to vigorously disagree with most of what Kelly wrote about POV, but I am going to note that there are certain sub-genres of SF/F--most notably alien encounter stories and high fantasy stories--where this sort of mid-scene shiftery is not only acceptable, but normal.

Now, I do think he’s got an absolutely essential point in with regard to banisters--you just cannot go pulling an Escher with your plot direction without hinting to the audience “Hey, hold on, bit of a left turn, here”, or you’ll send them spinning off out of the story, and they may not come back. I’m all for banisters. And, properly used, I’m all for POV shifts.

I think there are certain types of stories--most notably horror, but certainly plenty of others do this as well--that fill in the audience ahead of time that certain mischeifs are afoot. This can be seeing the alien-shaped shadow prowling into the scene after our heroes have just departed, or it can be obtaining little bits of knowledge about what the enemy is planning by watching private scenes that are completely outside the realm of our main POV. These stories can be marvelously well delivered. Read Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne or Tigana and tell me that the shifting between multiple POV’s doesn’t deliver a wonderful, complex, rewarding story. Tell me how Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye isn’t scarier and stranger by knowing what the aliens are thinking when they are observing and learning about the humans.

Like all tools on the writing workbench, POV shift has its applications, and like all tools, overused or poorly used, it will yield a weaker, less-engaging story. Does Kelly identify some of those potential problems? Yes, quite accurately, and I’ll hold that his point is usually correct. But it isn’t the whole story, and I think that as with all techniques, practice can teach us what we need to know to achieve a better telling.


Kelly McCullough said...

Change the timing in this: but I am going to note that there are certain sub-genres of SF/F--most notably alien encounter stories and high fantasy stories--where this sort of mid-scene shiftery is not only acceptable, but normal. from is to was, and you'll be much closer to the situation as it stands.

These examples are from works that were written quite some time ago by writers who entered the field much longer ago then that. As I said, these things shift over time. Also, the folks in question are Big Name Authors (BNAs), and the rules are very different for BNAs than they are for the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

I'll accept that Niven & Pournelle were BNA's when they wrote MiGE, but Kay was only an up-and-comer with those books, and he did it (less well) in The Fionavar Tapestry, too.

And Scott Lynch did it last year.

Beyond which, I don't buy that BNA's are the only folks who can use alternate story-telling techniques; some of them were using these tricks when they were just getting started. Perhaps they just had to get them in front of the right editor on the right day.

I know that you are discussing in general writing basics, not Rules To Write By, but I think that this is a situation where the argument goes stale. Any technique can be used effectively, if it is understood sufficiently well by its weilder and if it is used in accordance with its nature. Show, Don't Tell works for the vast amjority of the time, but there are occasions when that doesn't hold up. I think the case is the same here.

Kelly McCullough said...

I didn't say only BNAs can do this, just that the rules are very different for them. In fact I started my original post with a note that good writing trumps all. Which it does. Do anything well enough and it will sell. On the other hand, jumping around between POVs in scene is going to make a tough task (selling a novel) harder.

As for Kay, he effectively started into the business with a significant advantage over the average new author. His work with Tolkien's Silmarillion had put him on the radar of every editor in the business.

Scott, in addition to being a damn fine writer also had some advantages not immediately available to the average first time author in terms of pulling this particular trick off-namely selling his entire series based on a small sample of writing from the beginning of the first book. I think he'd be the first to tell you that his case is not a good one from which to extrapolate industry standards.

Beyond that, I'm perfectly happy to stand by this earlier statement: I personally have trouble with in-scene POV shifts. In my experience, jumps outside of a scene's established POV tend to be weaker writing. I personally find MiGE to be one of the weakest of the Niven/Pournelle collaborations--that doesn't mean it's not a great book or that others shouldn't love it, just that I find it not entirely to my taste.

Kelly McCullough said...

So, I just looked at your post a little bit closer and I'm not sure we're talking about the same things at all.

First, as I said in my original post, different genres have different conventions. Which is why I didn't address horror at all, or lit-fic, or Western for that matter.

Second, I was very specifically addressing in-scene POV shifts. Multiple POVs that shift from chapter to chapter or scene to scene is a whole different animal as is multiple protagonists, both of which I want to address as a separate issue, which is why today's post was a "part 1."

Anonymous said...

Eagerly anticipating "Part 2", then!