Monday, July 12, 2010

In the beginning

Back when I first started writing Unbinding the Stone, I had no idea what I was doing. I had read a great many books, of course, done well in my English classes and almost qualified for the National Spelling Bee for my state ('risque', if you're interested). I had even taken one class in creative writing at college. But I was not moved to write anything until long after, when I was a grad student in Philosophy. I had a dream one night, told my wife about it, and she prompted me to think about writing a story. My Hero became the embodiment of a concept I heard about in a Philosophy class, a man who did the right thing because it was the right thing to do. At some point a first sentence appeared in my head and I wrote it down.

What to do after that?

In the books I'd read, there would be a lot of decription, perhaps, details about the environment my hero lived in, the people, the country, etc. I had one sentence and I'd just written it. The only thing I had left was the information from my dreams, where he was going and what he wanted. So that's what I wrote. He was going into the forest to get a particular piece of wood for a particular purpose. Did I want to describe the forest, or the wood? No, I did not. I didn't know a lot about trees or woods, but more important, they weren't important to the story. Perhaps thatwas just my lazy cowardice talking, since I didn't want to go to the trouble of learning about trees and woods, but I put the focus on my hero, Tarkas. Did he care about the woods? No, he'd lived in them all his life. He wouldn't care about them unless they were part of his immediate purpose. Similarly the village he'd just left. The carnivorous plant between him and his goal mattered, but only a little, since he avoided it. The path mattered, in so far as it took him to his goal.

Already I had gotten far away from any lessons the books I'd read might have taught me. I wasn't writing in first person, but I wasn't exactly writing in third person either. I was writing third person as if it was first person. Everything was seen from Tarkas' perspective, using Tarkas' words and concepts, as if the reader (me, in this case, even though I was the author as well) was in Tarkas' place but was not Tarkas. I the author was invisible. The side effect of this was that it applied to all characters, not just Tarkas, head hopping as a built-in feature. The usual technique of scene breaks when POV changed wasn't going to work here. I wasn't writing scenes, I was writing characters and what they saw and did. When Tarkas was the focus, everything was from his perspective. When the focus changed the perspective changed, and the focus could shift from one paragraph to the next.

Similarly the dialog and even vocabulary was subject to perspective shifts. When Tarkas didn't know a word I couldn't use it. It is a sign of change in a character, usually Tarkas, when he starts to use a word he didn't know before. I couldn't use certain syntactic form like contractions when Tarkas was in focus, because Tarkas would not use them. But other characters would. The world itself changed, based on what concepts the character in focus had to describe it with. Tarkas' world grows as Tarkas grows.

And me with him, of course.


Anonymous said...

I think it varies with genre - romance readers are utterly intolerant of head hopping, expect it to happen only at scene changes and not to have more than the main two characters. However, fantasy readers are a lot more open to different perspectives, so there's more room to play. I think a paragraph in a perspective is a minumum - most of the time, maybe line breaks to help flag up the shift, and then it should be fine. What's gone out of fashion is that more Victorian approach where the anrrator stands seperate, omniscient, catching glimpses of the insides of all the heads in quick succession Which is a pity, because sometimes its very useful to be able to do that.

Author Guy said...

If the only characters allowed to have the focus are the two leads I would only have to worry about not changing focus without flagging the transition, which I could probably do. I'd have to reread to look for it but I think St. Martin's Moon does less hopping.

Sarah said...

Head hopping was something I'd not heard of until Bryn started editing my stories, but I could see why the perspective needed changing to "be kind to the reader". I heard from another author recently that his novel had been rejected because he included a narrator's voice. He was told that such a device was unfashionable!