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Archive for March, 2013

Dear Reader

In the previous post, I touched on the subject of a narrator who withholds information from his reader for no other reason than to create a surprise.

It is unavoidable that a narrator who is aware of all the facts of the story at every point of its telling must give some order to those events. Events can be narrated in the order that they occurred, as they most often are, or they (as in works as different as The Great Gatsby, Beowulf and Oedipus Rex) events and details can be revealed out of chronological order, as they are discovered or as they become relevant.

If William Shakespeare were to tell us, “Did I ever tell you the one about the Danish prince who delayed avenging his father’s murder for so long that, by the time he eventually got round to it, eight people, including the prince himself, were dead?” we would say, “No, but you just did.” (Of course, many will object that we read and watch Hamlet over and over, always knowing how it will end, without our enjoyment being diminished in any way, but Shakespeare’s unfolding of the story never changes.) The reader’s desire to be entertained is greater than the desire to know everything as soon as possible. Nevertheless, if the withholding is not done subtly enough, the reader will question the mechanics of the narrative, and will almost certainly be annoyed and feel cheated. (See the previous entry, regarding The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.)

A few years ago I began working on a novel about an old man who, while preparing his house to receive his daughter and granddaughter, finds a journal he had very briefly kept over 40 years earlier, and decides to begin writing in it again. The novel takes the form of this journal.

Although not without its own problems, the approach appealed to me. The narrator is not just a voice speaking something of a vacuum; the act of narrating is now incorporated into and justified in the narrative itself.

When I moved to Greece in January of 1997, I began to keep a journal, which has now reached 17 volumes. I gave to the narrator of my novel the same motive that led me to start my journal: the desire to keep a record of myself that might be of interest to my descendants when I’m gone. I thought how fascinating it would have been for me if my grandfather or great-grandfather had left such a document behind.

Some people feel the need to address someone when they’re writing a journal entry, like Anne Frank’s Kitty, or simply by writing “Dear Diary”. My narrator begins keeping a journal for whatever descendants may come across it days before meeting his granddaughter for the first time, and then the idea occurs to him to address the journal to her, at which point the novel essentially takes on the epistolary form.

The problem with this approach is that if the narrator is addressing someone involved in the story, then he runs the risk of embarking on exposition to someone who is already well enough aware of the facts. When this happens, the characters are talking over each other and to the reader. One need only see this done in a film to see how artificial and annoying it is. It is a technique used by Theo Angelopoulos in his last films, especially the last two, The Weeping Meadow and The Dust of Time. The latter in particular was so full of this kind of exposition that most of the action had occurred somewhere else, in another time, and the film consisted mainly of people standing around relating things which had already happened and which everyone involved already knew about.

But what I like about these inherent risks is that they are, more than anything else, challenges that, when they are overcome, make your writing stronger.

My next entry will be about a specific problem that I am in the process of dealing with.

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A Return

This blog has been inactive for nearly three years. I have often thought of returning to it, but the thought of physically writing a post would leave me weary before I even started. Then the desire to do so, except for these brief moments, when I didn’t even have a subject in mind, would simply disappear. There was a sense of community and excitement when I started it back in late 2004, which I feel is gone now, at least for me, and so I have to start again in another frame of mind, another spirit, and slowly reacquire a readership.

Lately, though, I’ve been giving some thought to writing about something has occupied some of my time over the past few years: the writing of my novel. I’ve thought of charting its development and the technical problems I face in its composition. I’ve even thought that blogging about it would be a sort of commitment that would encourage me to write more regularly in the novel, as well as here.

The central problem that I’ve grappled with has been one of perspective, more so than most readers would be interested in, and but less so than some writers and critics whose works I’ve dipped into. The question has been this: Who is telling the story, and why is he telling it? If the story is told in the third person, the question leads me to the answer – however unsatisfactory – that there is a silent understanding between the reader and the writer, or the narrator (or both) that can be summed up thus:

  • I, the writer, will entertain you by relating a sequence of events as they though they were true and you will visualize them as though you believed them;
  • I will play with the pretense of being omniscient about what is happening in various places, at various times, as though I had access to people’s thoughts and knew their motives, although these things have no reality (although they may resemble reality) outside my own mind (i.e. my inability to know something is merely my refusal to imagine and create it);
  • since your entertainment is my ultimate goal, and since that is based on sustaining your desire to know what happens next, I will withhold any details from you until such time as their revelation will heighten the entertainment, and in exchange, you will agree not to question the logic of this withholding.

By “withholding” I mean when a narrator decides not to tell the reader something he already knows about simply because it will ruin the surprise or the suspense. For most readers, the surprise is more important than the question of why the narrator, who already seems to know all the facts, has played the game this way. But I suspect readers are becoming increasingly impatient with this technique.

One of the worst examples in this respect is Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the unreliable narrator admits in the final pages that he is the murderer. One can easily understand his reason for concealing this fact: he doesn’t want to get caught. But the act of narrating occurs after the events, when Poirot has already discovered the truth, and the narrator has already been caught. Once our shock and surprise subside, if we continue to think about the transparent mechanics of the plot, we feel cheated. The only reason the facts were withheld was to create the surprise at the end.

The use of tense, one can see from this example, also plays a role. In a Greek book about fiction writing (Το εργαστήριο του μυθιστοριογράφου του Παντελή Καλιότσου, The Novelist’s Workshop by Pantelis Kaliotsos) I read the following:

[The tale-teller’s] story, even if we already know it, creates an illusion which can lead to this unconscious thought: “Here is a person who finally knows the whole story! Let’s listen to him carefully…” The secret sense of relief is enough for us, although we know that it is an illusion.

The writer doesn’t feel the same magic. He does not have the authority of the omniscient tale-teller, because although he too narrates a story that has happened already occurred, he does not appear to know what is going to happen, since all his verbs are in past tenses.

And later:

I ascertained that with the present tense, the writer moves farther away from the tale-teller, because, when the action is in continuous development, no one knows where it will lead, not even the writer. This uncertainty reduces his authority as opposed to the tale-teller (who knows where it will lead). The present tense is enough to remove the writer from the story.

Kaliotsos says that, for this reason, he returned to writing in the past tense after using the present tense for one book. But for myself, the illusion that the narrator does not know the outcome, and the questioning of his authority, are things I want to maintain. And I want, as much as possible, the mechanics of the narrative to be an inherent part of the narrative itself.

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