10/17/09

Experimental Point of View

Head-hopping has become the bane of romance authors. We are told to stay in one point of view throughout a scene and delve deeply into that character's thoughts, feelings and gut reactions, all with the intention of dragging more emotion from our words. All well and good. In fact, books with head-hopping (say, those written prior to 2000) mess with me. What do you mean we get to know the hero AND heroine's thoughts in a single conversation?? Blasphemy!

But I'm fascinated by tenses, and unconscious conjugations in particular. For example, when a person switches to 2nd person singular, it's a psychological distancing technique. A solider who's just witnesses a terrible battle might describe his reaction as: "You just feel numb. You feel like the whole world's on fire." He wouldn't say, "I feel numb. I feel like the whole world's on fire," because that would bring it too close to his vulnerable, personal feelings. He still wants to express his feelings but in a general sense, making it easier to bear.

Another favorite comes from A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens was not generally a guy to mess around with tenses. He stuck with 3rd person--for the most part. I re-encountered this passage after high school (because who notices this stuff in high school?), when I found my breath accelerating and my eyes flying over the page. Why? Because Dickens pulled a fast one. What follows is the chapter 13 description of Lucie and her father fleeing Paris, hoping that Madame Defarge's spies aren't in pursuit and that Sydney Carton's heroic switcheroo will succeed.

"Look back, look back, and see if we are pursued!"

Houses in twos and threes pass by us, solitary farms, ruinous buildings, dye-works, tanneries, and the like, open country, avenues of leafless trees. The hard uneven pavement is under us, the soft deep mud is on either side. Sometimes, we strike into the skirting mud, to avoid the stones that clatter us and shake us; sometimes, we stick in ruts and sloughs there. The agony of our impatience is then so great, that in our wild alarm and hurry we are for getting out and running--hiding--doing anything but stopping.

Out of the open country, in again among ruinous buildings, solitary farms, dye-works, tanneries, and the like, cottages in twos and threes, avenues of leafless trees. Have these men deceived us, and taken us back by another road? Is not this the same place twice over? Thank Heaven, no. A village. Look back, look back, and see if we are pursued! Hush! the posting-house.

Leisurely, our four horses are taken out; leisurely, the coach stands in the little street, bereft of horses, and with no likelihood upon it of ever moving again; leisurely, the new horses come into visible existence, one by one; leisurely, the new postilions follow, sucking and plaiting the lashes of their whips; leisurely, the old postilions count their money, make wrong additions, and arrive at dissatisfied results. All the time, our overfraught hearts are beating at a rate that would far outstrip the fastest gallop of the fastest horses ever foaled.

At length the new postilions are in their saddles, and the old are left behind. We are through the village, up the hill, and down the hill, and on the low watery grounds. Suddenly, the postilions exchange speech with animated gesticulation, and the horses are pulled up, almost on their haunches. We are pursued?
Notice the "we" and "us" peppered throughout, as well as the present tense? What kind of literary freakazoid uses first person plural? Well, one who wanted to make hearts accelerate! The "we" makes it far more immediate. That's the only place in the entire text he makes use of that particular trick, because you wouldn't want to over-use it! Good ole' Charlie.

And then there's Sting. Sacred Love is fraught with tense changes, which makes me think he was bored. My favorite is "Never Coming Home," where Sting sings to a woman (You turn towards the window); uses omniscient third to describe her (The passengers ignore her, just a girl with an umbrella); becomes the man she's leaving (I stumble to the bathroom door); omnisciently describes the man's thoughts (In his imagination she's a universe away); and declares his liberation, which could be from either POV (I'm gonna live my life in my own way).

I find it all fascinating. But I'll stop my word nerdiness now and leave you with this classic clip from "Cheers." Skip ahead to 3:17.

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