October 25, 2011

Writers, Show Us Your Scenes!

I keep encountering books in which a crucial emotional scene happens off the page and is only presented to the reader in the form of one character describing the events to another. It seems like a fairly obvious writing guideline that it's always more exciting to show a scene and let the characters react in real time rather than to have someone tell a scene, so I've been puzzled by the author's choice in some of these examples, though in other situations I can understand why it had to be done that way.

The problem with writing a novel that sticks to one character's viewpoint, whether in first or third person, is that the reader can only be shown scenes that the viewpoint character has some business being present for. Sometimes the logic of the plot requires an important event to take place without that character. When this happens, the author has to decide whether to switch to another point of view for a specific scene (as J.K. Rowling does several times in the Harry Potter series, usually at the beginning of a book), entirely rethink the POV choice, or let the viewpoint character and the reader learn about the scene from someone else after the fact.

The last option isn't necessarily a bad one, but it bugs me when the author basically writes the scene the way they would have with the character present, and then encloses the whole thing in quotation marks. A person talking about an event is not going to make the same descriptive choices that the author would in writing a scene, so this comes off to me as phony.

In one example I encountered, a character -- not a particularly poetic individual -- was telling the main character about his visit to a building where he was to receive some potentially horrible news. He described the exterior of the building, including the flowers. Who would relate those details in that situation, even if they'd notice at the time, as a character experiencing a scene might? I had to assume that the author had originally written the scene from the main character's point of view, but later decided it stretched credibility for her to be there, so converted the scene into the other character's account. I sympathized with the difficulty of how to present the scene to the reader, but I wasn't impressed with the solution.

I was even less impressed with a different novel when I came across the same problem of a character describing an event exactly as the author would write the scene, but the character was the book's first-person narrator. And the scene she recounted wasn't some long-ago event that might have been awkward in flashback, but instead an incident that occurred in the gap between the current chapter and the previous one. I'm still baffled as to why this scene, which was exciting and action-packed, couldn't appear in the novel as an actual scene, rather than a clumsy conversion to dialogue.

Writers, please: Let your readers experience the important events in your novel along with the characters. And when that isn't possible, please, please attempt to make your characters believable storytellers.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Vintage & Anchor Books presents The 10 Oldest Books Known to Man: "Typically of Egyptian, Sumerian, or Akkadian origin, the world's first works of literature provide an integral glimpse into how the peoples who initially recorded their histories, stories, and religious beliefs lived out their daily lives." (Thanks, Conversational Reading!)

→ Alicia Rasley at Edittorrent offers great advice on describing settings and character actions: "Filtering through the character ... means presenting [description] as an observation by this person. What would she notice? How would he describe it? This gives the description the secondary purpose of developing the character."


corndog said...

This is really good advice. It's too easy to get caught up in other things and forget that you need to involve your audience -- show your work!

But one small exception comes to mind, and that is when the pivotal scene which drives the plot is deliberately not shown, such as in the movie Reservoir Dogs (you never see the actual robbery around which the whole movie turns). This is a narrative device that challenges the characters, and therefore the author, to rise to the very challenge you've made in your post here -- to show what happened as vividly as possible through the eyes of the characters.

Lisa Eckstein said...

There are definitely exceptions, and that's a good example. As with any guideline, when a writer really understands it and really understands why they aren't following it in a particular case, the results can be excellent.

Henri said...

Exactly. A good writer could use this device to tell us something about the person narrating the scene. Or the narration could be inaccurate in interestingly confusing ways. But I imagine the ones you are complaining about don't do that. Have you read Nabokov's _Despair_? The whole book is based on the fact the narrator is, well, out of touch with reality.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yeah, in the examples that led me to complaining about this, there either didn't seem to be a good reason to not show the scene, or the character describing the scene did it in an unrealistic and un-character-revealing way.

I haven't read Despair, but I'm a big fan of unreliable narrators in general.

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