Monthly Archives: January 2012

How to Manage Narrative Perspective in Story-Telling

Effectively managing narrative perspective in story-telling is one of the most important and difficult skills to master. By perspective I mean the hierarchy of vantage points the writer adopts in relating the story to her audience or readers. There are three main levels of perspective: the author’s (she decides when, what and how much to reveal), the protagonist’s/characters’ (who act as if they have a life independent of the author’s), and the reader’s/audience’s (who interpret the story according to their own expectations). Most commonly, perspective is intimately tied to the protagonist’s point of view. Hence, in the absence of authorial or directorial declaration, what the protagonists sees and perceives to be truth is transmitted to the audience/reader as being true – until the revelation or point of schism. In the film The Matrix, for example, the audience is initially as unaware that the depicted world is an illusion as is Neo (Keano Reeves).

The Point of Schism

The plot thickens when our point of view separates from the protagonist’s. Before this moment, we share the protagonist’s confusion, bewilderment, and surprise as events unfold. Here, our association with the protagonist is one of subjectivity and identification. After the point of schism, we see beyond this limited vision – we perceive the dangers and are made privy to the traps planned for him by the antagonist. I call this moment the point of schism – or a tear in perspective – and regard it as a narrative device whose importance is comparable to that of a turning point or mid-point. The insight afforded us at this moment increases the suspense we feel for the protagonist, since we see danger approaching more clearly than he does. An example of this in The Matrix is the meeting between agent Smith, and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) who offers to lead Neo and the others into a trap in exchange for being re-inserted back inside the matrix as “someone important”.

Reversing the Schism

Sometimes, however, the schism works in reverse order: the protagonist knows the truth while the audience doesn’t — in The Hunt for Red October, the audience believes that the defecting Russian submarine has been sunk by the Russian fleet, when in fact, it is a trick played on the Russians (and the audience) by Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) in order to slip through the Russian net and seek asylum in the United States.

Simultaneous Revelation

Occasionally, the story’s true perspective — the perspective of the author — is revealed to both the audience/reader and the protagonist simultaneously. Here, the author withholds crucial information from us and the protagonist till the revelation. In the film The Sixth Sense, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist, who is shot in the stomach by a disturbed patient at the beginning of the film, ostensibly attempts to help his young patient Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) to deal with problems arising from his ability to see dead people. His relationship with his wife continues to deteriorate as Crowe spends more and more time in his basement alone, and continues to treat Cole. The film, which is a master class in sleight-of-hand, reveals the biggest twist of all towards the end of the film when Crowe notices that his wedding ring in no longer on his finger but in his sleeping wife’s hand. We suddenly realize, along with Crowe, that it is he who has been dead all along as a result of having been shot in the stomach.

A Short Exercise

With reference to three films or novels you admire, answer the following questions:

Where is the point of schism in each?
Describe the type of schism.
What is the effect of the schism on the story and how could it have been done differently?

In Summary

Choosing precisely when, where, and how to introduce a schism in perspective, and what form it will take, requires an understanding of how it will change your story and what effect it will have on your readers and audience. A skillful use of schism is an essential aspect of accomplished writing.

Understanding Scene Construction

A scene is a story unit involving one or more dramatic beat(s). Much has been written about scene construction, but in today’s post, I want to highlight two important aspects: general function and function relative to story-position.

The general function of any scene is to provide the reader/audience with essential information in order to progress the story in a manner that is engaging and stylistically consistent with the rest of the work. Each scene, therefore, has a specific purpose. We realize that important scenes are nothing other than the structural units we’ve been referring to as the inciting incident, pinch, turning point, mid-point, climax, resolution, and on on. Hence, the function of the inciting incident scene is to kick-start the story, the first turning point’s function is to turn the story in an unexpected way, etc. Identifying scenes in this way highlights their function (described in numerous books and blogs), tells us where they belong in terms of story sequence, and allows us to map them along a path, which traces a beginning, middle, and end.

Pragmatics & Stylistics

What about the pragmatics of scene construction? A general rule is that most scenes should start late and finish early — meaning that a scene should be devoid of excess fat. It should fulfill its function and finish, allowing the next scene to perform its function and finish, and so on.

Scenes should also adhere to the generic stylistics of the story. Stylistics inform how the scene delivers its information — the climactic scene in a love story, for example, is very different to the climactic scene in the action or thriller genre, in terms of setting, tone, tempo, and protagonist/antagonist interaction. In a love story the antagonist and protagonist might very well end up having sex and getting married; in a thriller, they might end up killing each other, again, in an appropriate setting.

Out of Sight

In the superb comedy/action/crime/love story movie Out of Sight Jack Foley (George Clooney), a failed bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) a US Marshall, share an ostensibly antagonistic relationship, which conceals a growing attraction between them — an attraction usually associated with a full-blown love story. The outer journey — the cop chasing the bank robber — neatly echoes the inner journey — the lover’s chase. The accomplished but disjointed time-line adds to the sense of uncertainty in which the viewer is unsure whether Sisco is out to arrest Jack or make love to him.

In Summary

Scenes correspond to the structural units discussed in previous posts, and in innumerable books and blogs. Each scene has a specific task to perform and is located at a specific point within the overall story. Generic concerns influence the stylistics of scene creation — such as setting and type of conflict.

If you’ve enjoyed this blog, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. I post on Mondays.

What is “Tone” in Story-Telling?

This post come about as a result of a suggestion by Mark Landen, a regular contributor to this blog, that I say something about tone in story-telling, and its impact on narrative elements such as theme and plot.

First, a brief definition: By “tone” (or the slightly more imprecise, “mood”), I mean the moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude the writer/narrator adopts towards her material in narrating it. Tone can be satirical, comic, serious, or tragic. It is no coincidence that a description of tone corresponds to the overarching genre in story-telling; it is genre, more that setting, plot, or theme, that determines a story’s tone by inflecting the aforementioned elements. Hence, a similar setting in a musical such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show or a classical horror such as Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) can produce a disparate mood of levity and dread respectively, precisely because it is modulated by a difference in genre.

Theme

Does tone help to determine the theme of a story? The short answer is: not necessarily. If we take theme to be the (moral) lesson delivered at the end of the story as a result of the final conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, then it is clear that a musical or a comefy can produce as viable, serious, and independent a theme as drama, or tragedy. In this sense, theme tends to be a universal and etherial ordering element, floating above the specific textural concerns of genre.

Plot

What about plot? Here again, at the most quintessential level, tonal elements are not fashioned by plot itself, but by genre: The exploration of the going-on at Frankenstein’s castle, for example, may receive a traditional horror treatment, or may be rendered comedic or satirical, as in a musical, giving rise to a different emotional experience. Again, it is genre, not plot, that creates the tonality of the story.

In Summary

Although tone is deeply rooted in the generic demands of the tale, it is inflected by the writer’s moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude towards her story and her method of narrating it.

If you’ve enjoyed this post or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting.

I post every Monday.