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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Re: Point of View • by Bruce Bethke


This may come as a surprise, but I still study the craft of writing. 

I am… many years old. My work has been published professionally in a wide variety of venues since the 1970s. I have seen my work hit the bestseller lists and be nominated for and win awards for decades.

Yet I still study the craft. In part it’s to understand why I do the things I instinctively choose to do when I write. In part it’s to learn how to write better. Some writers have careers like ballistic missiles: they launch with great initial noise and excitement and then are content to coast along on a parabolic trajectory, repeating their crowd-pleasing shticks and tricks for as long as they can, until at the ends their careers they come crashing down and leave nothing but a smoking crater with bits of wreckage scattered all about.

Me, I’m always hoping to take my writing up to the next level. 

One thing I have struggled with in my own stories is the point of view. I have written and sold stories in both first-person and third-person p.o.v.—and second-person, too, come to think of it—but my most natural storytelling voice is first-person. I attribute this to my storytelling method. When I tell a story, I’m not me, telling the story in my voice. I’m performing a character, and telling the story in his voice.

While this seems to work for me—I’ve sold and seen published most of the stories I’ve written this way—I also feel this is a limitation. Most really successful fiction is written in third-person, and something I read recently suggested the reason for this. When you read a story written in first-person, one of the all-time great factors contributing to plot tension is removed from the equation. With first-person, you know the p.o.v. character survives to the end. The story then becomes about the p.o.v. character’s interaction with someone else, which immediately puts the reader two steps removed from any possible source of really strong emotional engagement.

Does this matter? The book I was reading suggested a test. Take a scene you’ve written in first-person and rewrite it in third-person (and in past tense, if needed). Then compare the two versions and ask yourself, as a reader, which scene has more energy?

For this exercise, I intentionally chose the opening scene from one of the most languid stories I’ve ever written, “Life in a Drop of Pond Water.” The original version and the rewrite follow. 

______________________

Original:

Shafts of long afternoon sunlight spear through the water, illuminating my world with a thousand delicate shades of green and amber. A school of gambusias glide past, oblivious to my presence, and shatter the sunlight into a glorious blizzard of mirror shards and sparkles. Floating just beneath the surface, I patiently wait for the minnows to leave, then return my watchful gaze to my tribe, as they browse among the sweet hyacinths and follow the weedy contours down into the safe, dark depths. My smiling face, the fixed expression of our kind, hides the scheming mind of a worried patriarch.

It does not help that my mind is haunted by distant and surreal memories of life on the land.

With no sense of urgency, I feel the need to breathe again and give my flukes a twitch. Face breaks surface: I draw deep, rasping breaths, the sunlight blinding my eyes, the raw air burning the delicate linings of my nostrils. Each time I break surface I hope that this is the time my instincts will drive me to submerge. And each time, I linger.

For here, at the surface, I can almost believe that I was once a human. For a few precious minutes, I can shrug aside the worries of a people and consider the colossal arrogance of one Dr. Eugene Meier, Professor of Mammalian Recombinetics, who so loved his creatures that he took their form upon himself and went down among them. And yet, not fully trusting his handiwork, he held back his truest self: When the memories get too strong, I must force myself to admit that I am not Eugene Meier and I have never been human. I am a thing of his construction: a modified manatee whose skull is threaded through with wires, filaments, and electronic pieces; a unique, living mind enslaved by his personality software construct. At some deep, primal level, I still remember life as an innocent beast, and I resent the fear and doubt that he has burned into my mind.

Still, if it did not augur such great danger for my people, I would find it amusing that the human who shares my memories now walks the shores of this pond, observing us and noting the details he wants to change in the next generation…

______________________


Rewrite:

Shafts of long afternoon sunlight speared through the water, illuminating Eugene’s world with a thousand delicate shades of green and amber. A school of gambusias flowed past, oblivious to his presence, and shattered the sunlight into a glorious blizzard of mirror shards and sparkles. Floating just beneath the surface, Eugene waited patiently for the minnows to leave, then returned his watchful gaze to his tribe, as they browsed among the sweet hyacinths and followed the weedy contours down into the safe, dark depths. His smiling face, the fixed expression of his kind, hid the scheming mind of a worried patriarch.

It did not help that his mind was haunted by distant and surreal memories of life on the land.

With no sense of urgency, Eugene felt the need to breathe again and gave his flukes a twitch. His face broke the surface: he drew deep, rasping breaths, the sunlight blinding his eyes, the raw air burning the delicate linings of his nostrils. Each time he broke the surface he hoped that this would be the time his instincts drove him to submerge. And each time, he lingered.

For here, at the surface, he could almost believe he was once human. For a few precious minutes, he could shrug aside the worries of a people and consider the colossal arrogance of one Dr. Eugene Meier, Professor of Mammalian Recombinetics, who so loved his creatures that he took their form upon himself and went down among them—and yet, not fully trusting his handiwork, he’d held back his truest self. When the memories got too strong Eugene forced himself to admit that he was not Dr. Meier and had never been human. He was a thing of Dr. Meier’s construction: a modified manatee whose skull was threaded through with wires, filaments, and electronic pieces; a unique, living mind enslaved by Dr. Meier’s personality software construct. At some deep, primal level, he still remembered life as an innocent beast, and he resented the fear and doubt that Dr. Meier had burned into his mind.

Still, if it did not augur such great danger for his people, Eugene would have found it amusing that the human who shared his memories now walked the shores of this pond, observing his creations and noting the details he wanted to change in the next generation…

______________________

Questions for Discussion: 

  1. Does the change from first-person present-tense to third-person past-tense improve the flow of the story?

  2. Does the stronger differentiation between Eugene and Dr. Meier foreshadow a possible conflict between the two? Does it increase the sense of potential risk to Eugene?

  3. If you were reading this in print and the last paragraph fell at the bottom of the page, which version makes you more interested in turning the page to find out what happens next? 

Submitted for your consideration,
~brb

3 comments:

DJ Olsen said...

My answers are based, I would guess, on the fact I always write in third person p.o.v., which is perhaps why I related more to the second version. It made more sense. I saw the character more clearly, found the telling more interesting. Then again, having read it a second time, the questions that had been rumbling around in my head initially were clarified; I knew where I was. That in turn, took away a bit of the mystery thrill, the "What the hell am I reading?", which I do find compelling. Still, it felt a bit like I was just plowing through the first read to get to the second (which could well have been how you set up this experiment). Sometimes when I read first-person p.o.v., it bores me. It seems selfish, self-aggrandizing and if I don't find some kind of hook I lose interest. Then, if I do plow on, eventually coming across an intriguing hook, I'm frustrated at having to go back and re-read, to see what I'd missed the first time. Laziness? Yeah. I guess. Still, there were good hooks in both versions, and if I'd read that far with either p.o.v., I would've turned the page.

~brb said...

DJO, thanks for your thoughtful comments. They help.

As for how I set up the experiment: actually, that was an accident. If I'd given it more thought I'd have posted the two versions as separate sub-links, so that readers could choose which version they wanted to read first. Ideally the order of reading should be random each time, to get real blind-study data, but I don't have the tools for that on this web site.

If I ever do something like this again, though, I'll at least make it an A-B comparison, so readers can choose which version to read first.

Thanks!

Mr. Naron said...

Maybe it’s because I was reading it a second time, but the Christ allusion came across better in the 3rd person version. An omnipotent POV making such an allusion can get real meta real quick.