Thursday, April 8, 2010

POINT OF VIEW: Blackbringer - First Post


Dear Heather and Meg,

That is me patting us on our collective back for choosing Blackbringer as our April noveI, as I found it to be overflowing with lessons for writers, and I am not alone in this finding. Consider this little nugget from Betsy Bird’s Fuse #8 blog:

Laini Taylor’s balancing act with this novel should be studied intensely by those wannabes that want to break into the world of fantasy writing for kids. It’s one-of-a-kind and worth a taste. I meant what I said and I said what I meant. If you read only one fantasy book this year, read this one.

But what about if you are not a fantasy writer? Are there still any lessons to be learned from Blackbringer? Again, Betsy Bird:
Okay, but what’s the most important thing in any fantasy novel? The quality of writing, duckies.

And the quality of writing in this novel is superb—so much so that I read the whole thing making scarcely a note because I didn’t want to take time to stop, I was that absorbed in the story, that caught up in the mystery and the adventure and the world. Thank-you, Laini Taylor, for making my recent flight to Mexico feel like a cross-town bus ride. Blink. We were there!

When we agreed on Blackbringer as our April novel we chose to analyze it in seven-chapter segments, taking turns looking at some aspect of writing that really spoke to us in that portion of the book. Choosing what to discuss in these first seven chapters is like being given a gift certificate to the Secret Garden Bookshop and being forced to choose just one book. Do I discuss the excellent way she intersperses scene and summary, with scene being used to propel the action and summary to build the world (see the StorySleuths discussion on summary and scene)? Or do I spend time analyzing the distinct and consistent voice? The well-rounded characters? Ah well, in the end, I have chosen to talk about point of view.

My boys (ages 10 and 13) are familiar with point of view from video games. When asked how he would define first person my ten-year-old, Eli, said this, “First person is when you see everything through that guy's eyes. It’s good because you feel like the guy, but you miss a lot of stuff.” A great definition, I think, and very much like writing in first person from the “I” perspective where, because everything is seen through the protagonist's eyes, you are only able to see what she sees. About third person Eli says, “Third person is like you’re still seeing what your guy sees, but from farther away. It’s easier to skewer a guy on your lance from third person.”

Well, there you have it! It’s easier to skewer a guy from third person!

Generally in writing we speak about a third person limited, or objective, POV meaning our view is limited to how the world is perceived through the eyes of a particular character. Here, the story is told by a narrator instead of the character herself, which allows for the camera to be pulled back a bit, allowing the reader to potentially see things from a broader and potentially more reliable perspective. I didn’t ask my kids about third person unlimited, or the omniscient point of view, but to make sure we are all on the same page here—this POV is less commonly used in novels and is more of a storyteller voice—the omniscient narrator knows and sees things the characters cannot possibly see and know.

So which POV is used in Blackbringer? Well, here in the first seven chapters Taylor starts with omniscient narration, switches to a third person limited POV, changing the viewpoint character no less than six times, and tosses in a little first person POV for good measure.

But wait a minute—is that even legal? In Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, Janet Burroway says this:

Once you have chosen a point of view, you have in effect made a ‘contract’ with the reader, and it will be difficult to break the contract gracefully. If you restricted yourself to the mind of Sally Anne for five pages, as she longingly watches Chuck and his R&B band, you will violate the contract by suddenly dipping into Chuck’s mind to let us know what he thinks of groupies. We are likely to feel misused—and likely to cancel the contract altogether, if you suddenly give us an omniscient lecture on the failings of the young. (p. 54)

I believe that the contract will not be broken by a POV shift as long as it is done well, and with intent. Let’s take a peek at how Laini Taylor does just that.

Prelude: An omniscient narrator opens the story. This narrator stands in the distance, and knows things none of the characters present in the scene can possibly know, seeing well into the future: “For the rest of her life, when this child grew into a faerie with bright eyes and a laugh as loud and unladylike as a crow’s, that spot on her head would never lie flat,” and “Many of these creatures would be long dead by the time this babe had grown up and taken her place in the world.”

By opening with the omniscient POV Taylor is not only giving us important background information, she is setting the tone of the story. Imagine a movie opening when the camera is pulled way back, allowing the viewer to get a large-scale sense of the world in which the story takes place. This is an excellent use of the omniscient narrator POV.

Chapter One: Here, the camera moves in and the POV is a third person limited with Magpie as the viewpoint character: “Magpie Windwitch didn’t know many words, but she knew this one.” Magpie is the “she” about whom the narrator speaks. Using this POV the narrator is able to tell us things about Magpie that would be awkward to describe from a first person POV, like, “Magpie had a hunter’s respect for fear: it sharpened the senses,” and “Her own dragonfly wings were sleek as blades, many-paned like stained glass and as swift as any wings under the sun or moon.”

Taylor wants us to have a sense of the splendor of Magpie Windwitch. Using a first person POV it would be very hard to pull this off without causing Magpie to sound arrogant. Also, her choice of third person narrative allows Taylor to use language in a poetic way that would be impossible in first person as it would completely change the nature of the viewpoint character. For example, Magpie would never say, “Usually pity was the last emotion humans inspired in me, but something about those empty shoes tugged at my heart.” Stepping outside of Magpie’s skin, Taylor can describe Magpie’s emotional state in a way that feels true to both Magpie and the story.

Chapter Two: This chapter starts with an omniscient story teller voice. The camera is pulled way back as the narrator describes the scene, “Across the water in the hidden places beneath a vast city, a new thing was taking possession of the darkness.” As the chapter progresses the camera moves in closer, closer, and finally we are in a third person limited POV, this time from the perspective of the villain about whom we still know very little: “He savored the moment. As soon as he commanded the wind to expend its final fury in snuffing that dim ember, a new age would begin, and age of unweaving. An age of endings. The hungry one laughed, and began to speak.”

Chapter Three finds us back in a limited POV, again with Magpie as the perspective character.

Chapter Four: Again, we are in a third person objective POV, but this time the perspective character is an imp called Batch Hangnail. Consider this description: “Batch moved on, a pendulum of drool swinging from his lower lip.” Lovely! And just the sort of outside, reliable perspective you could not achieve were this being told from Batch’s first person POV. Toward the end of the chapter look at how Taylor expertly pulls the camera back as she describes the Magruwen’s long arms of smoke:

They grew longer and longer until they disappeared through the ceiling of the cave. Up they reached, across strata of earth and rock and root, through the bleached ribs of a dragon and a dark spring swum by water elementals and their imps, through layers of rabbit warrens and forgotten plague cemeteries, finally reaching the school vegetable garden.

Because Taylor opened her book with the omniscient narrator, we as the reader are perfectly comfortable when she temporarily steps outside of the viewpoint character’s perspective to broaden our view of the scene as she has done here, and does sporadically throughout the novel.

Chapter Five: We return to a third person POV with Magpie as the objective character. But then, we have a chance to pop directly into Magpie’s head when she takes out her bottle of ink and writes in her journal, thus giving us a quick blip of first person POV, “How I wish there was someone I could talk to about it!” I love this! It allows me to hear, in Magpie’s own words, about a deeper need. Yes, she wants to catch the snag. But here, because Taylor has allowed Magpie the chance to speak for herself in a first person POV, I as the reader have a sudden and deep connection with her. Up until now I have seen her as a warrior. Here, I see her as a troubled kid longing for someone to talk to who could really understand what she is going through. An excellent use of the first person POV.

The chapter progresses and we get to see a letter from Magpie’s parents which offers us yet another perspective, and then Taylor closes the chapter dipping into the head of the crow Calypso, “Calypso noticed a raven who lingered longer than most.” This demonstrates again the beauty of a third person perspective--it allows the author to show the reader things that that the main protagonist would have no way of seeing.

Chapter Six: We are back in Magpie’s third person POV, “Magpie heard the thunk of the ebony peg leg she’d carved for him. . .”

Chapter Seven: Hold on to your hats! All the while in a third person POV we start with the perspective of Batch Hangnail, shift into Poppy Manygreen’s POV, move into the perspective of Snoshti, drop into the perspective of a new character, Talon Rathersting, and finish with the camera pulled way back as Taylor closes the chapter with her omniscient narrator, “His father wasn’t coming back, and neither were his cousins.”

Phew! Omniscient narration, third person limited/objective, first person—Laini Taylor does it all, and she gets away with it because she does it well, and with intent. First person pulls us in close and gives us a sense of Magpie’s emotional truth. Third-person allows us to see things that Magpie has no way of seeing. Omniscient narration sets the story's tone and gives us glimpses into the future.

StorySleuths Tip 61#: Switch POV in a story only if you have a very specific reason to do so or you will violate your contract with your reader.