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Monday

Flash Fiction Craft: Use POV To Close That Distance in a Flash

I nev­er ful­ly grasped point-of-view until I read David Jauss’s amaz­ing essay “From Long Shots To X-Rays: Dis­tance and Point of View in Fic­tion” in his col­lec­tion of essays Alone With All That Could Hap­pen. Jauss writes, “Per­haps the most impor­tant pur­pose of point of view is to manip­u­late the degree of dis­tance between the char­ac­ters and the read­er in order to achieve the emo­tion­al, intel­lec­tu­al, and moral respons­es the author desires.” He fur­ther argues that the ques­tion of “where the lan­guage is com­ing from” is one of the most impor­tant issues in point of view.

This idea of point-of-view as the tool writ­ers use to “manip­u­late the degree of dis­tance between the char­ac­ters and read­er” becomes espe­cial­ly impor­tant to flash writ­ers who must find ways to close the dis­tance quick­ly. Also, Jauss pro­vides an easy way for me to know when I’m clos­ing this dis­tance: the more the lan­guage of the piece comes from the char­ac­ter, the more I am clos­ing the dis­tance between char­ac­ter and read­er.

I find that I often get to the character’s lan­guage at the end of the first para­graph, using third-per­son (he/she) lim­it­ed (the read­er only has access to that one character’s thoughts) through­out, stick­ing to that first-estab­lished POV until the very end.

Here’s the open­ing of my still-in-process sto­ry “Reen­act­ment”:

     He smoked out­side the mall, east of Pitts­burgh, where they filmed the orig­i­nal Dawn of the Dead. He had an inter­view to join Undead Rean­i­ma­tors, a job that involved cre­at­ing your own zom­bie char­ac­ter and act­ing in any undead func­tions: mall pro­mo­tions, birth­day par­ties, fund dri­ves, and the like.
     “Zom­bies don’t smoke,” some assis­tant to the head guy said, and so he tossed the cig­a­rette away.
     “I’m think­ing they would lit­ter,” he said to the assis­tant.
     The assis­tant ignored him. Maybe that was part one of the train­ing, but he didn’t need it, had that part down pat.

Even though the piece is writ­ten in third-per­son, I still tried to make the lan­guage read as if it were being writ­ten in first per­son, so it is as if the char­ac­ter (not the author, not an invis­i­ble nar­ra­tor) is telling us “some assis­tant to the head guy said.” In oth­er words, that lan­guage is not mine, but the character’s. Writ­ing third-per­son pieces that use, as much as pos­si­ble, the character’s lan­guage, then, is one way to speed up the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process.

Why not just write it in first per­son then? Well, that’s a great ques­tion. I like the flex­i­bil­i­ty of third per­son, the chance to bring in infor­ma­tion and char­ac­ter descrip­tion in when I feel the read­er needs it. In first per­son, I feel more con­fined and more awk­ward about bring­ing in any out­side view­point.

Also, this point-of-view seems to work as most point-of-view does, by begin­ning at a dis­tance and work­ing itself in. [I have, how­ev­er, seen plen­ty of flash pieces move inside out to dra­mat­ic effect].

 

View­point Intrud­er

I found the term “view­point intrud­er” in a great arti­cle by Kris­ten John­son Ingram to describe those words that get between a character’s view­point and the read­er, cre­at­ing dis­tance that the writer usu­al­ly doesn’t want. Ingram writes, “Remem­ber, it’s under­stood that once you’re in a character’s view­point, you stay there until the end of the scene, and there’s no need to place her in every sen­tence.” As I looked back on my own writ­ing, I found these lurk­ing in one of the very first flash­es I wrote, “Lit­tle Mag­pie”:

I find Mag­gie squat­ting on the kitchen floor beside the door to the garage. My eyes always go to her bel­ly first, as if she has swal­lowed a globe. There’ve been two mis­car­riages, both ear­ly. Nev­er have we got­ten so far. Then I notice she’s pick­ing some­thing off the floor, putting it in her mouth. Get clos­er. They sur­round her. Hun­dreds of them. Ants. Mag­gie is eat­ing ants.

The I find and the then I notice are both exam­ples of view­point intrud­ers, as they make the action come to the read­er not direct­ly, but fil­tered first through this character’s view­point. Here’s that same para­graph edit­ed:

Mag­gie squats on the kitchen floor beside the door to the garage. My eyes always go to her bel­ly first, as if she has swal­lowed a globe. There’ve been two mis­car­riages, both ear­ly. Nev­er have we got­ten so far. Maggie’s pick­ing some­thing off the floor, putting it in her mouth. I get clos­er. They sur­round her. Hun­dreds of them. Ants. Mag­gie is eat­ing ants.

Some oth­er pos­si­ble intrud­ers that pop up in my own writ­ing includ­ed “turned to,” “looked at,” “heard,” and “thought back to that time.” The sense I have of read­ing over these intrud­ing words and phras­es is of some­one once-removed from the char­ac­ter, writ­ing down what the char­ac­ter is doing and feel­ing and sens­ing, as in this exam­ple:

She turns to look at the light. It feels very bright to her. She then remem­bers that she had a sim­i­lar light in her bed­room as a kid. That makes her feel anx­ious, and she can feel the sweat go down her back. She then notices that the light has begun to flick­er.

Con­sid­er that same piece with­out that once-removed reporter tak­ing notes and with the infor­ma­tion com­ing to us as expe­ri­enced by the char­ac­ter.

The bright light, like the one in her bed­room as a kid, sends sweat down her neck. The light flick­ers.…

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