Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Book as Experience--Week 3: Space, Part 2

Today's Topic: Space (Part 2: Perspective)

In design, there are two basic approaches to representing an object in three dimensions: isometric perspective and vanishing point perspective. While objects appear "3D" regardless of which perspective we use, there is one key difference between the two approaches.

In isometric perspective, size remains constant regardless of how near or far away an object is. This type of perspective is especially useful in drafting, where measurements and distances must be precise. Below is an example of a cube shown in isometric perspective. Notice that while our eyes recognize it as a cube (all sides are equal in size=the definition of a cube), the three-dimensionality looks a little "off."

In vanishing point perspective, on the other hand, objects appear smaller if they are farther away. Look at the cube in vanishing point perspective below. Notice how the sides of the cube appear to be different sizes, the closer they are to the vanishing points, yet our eye still reads the cube as a cube (i.e. we perceive all the sides to be equal size). In fact, this perspective appears more "real" to us than does the isometric perspective, where sizes remain constant.

How does this concept translate to writing? Three words: Point of View (POV).

Writers talk a lot about POV. There are tons of fancy labels you can memorize: first-person peripheral, third-person limited, omniscient, objective... the list is endless. Books on writing dedicate entire chapters to defining and understanding all these categories.

Thing is, when we get hung up on 1st-person versus 3rd-person, omniscient versus limited, it's like we're looking at the world of our story in isometric perspective. Sure, it looks 3D but there's something rigid about that doesn't feel quite right. This is where Narrative Distance comes in.

Narrative Distance (or Psychic Distance, as John Gardner called it in The Art of Fiction) is "the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story." Gardener uses the following examples of third-person narrations with varying levels of distance.

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
Narrative distance is the lens that allows the author to zoom in or out of the story. Of course, drastic changes in narrative distance can feel jarring to the reader (think back to our Tension = Expectations Theorem). But there is some wiggle room within point of view, and it's our job as writers to understand it and make it work for us.

Zoom Lens Exercise (inspired by an exercise from Now Write! Ed. by Sherry Ellis): Select a short section of narration from your current project (2-3 paragraphs should do the trick). Now rewrite it three times, keeping it always in third person. The first time, zoom in so close, you can practically see your protagonist's pores and skin cells. The second time, zoom out and give us a bird's-eye view of the protagonist and her world. Finally, choose a middle ground between these two extremes.

[Note: if you want to make it really challenging for yourself, try doing this in 1st person. I would advise against trying this exercise in 2nd person, unless you feel like giving yourself a migraine.]

Questions to Consider:

  • What kind of information does the reader have access to when you're in birds-eye-view mode? What about in pores-and-skin-cells mode?
  • Which of the three variations in narrative distance did you find most challenging? Which came easiest?
  • Who's telling the story in each of the 3 versions? Who's the audience? Do either of these things change as narrative distance changes? Why or why not?
Let's add one last wrinkle to this whole mess. Up until now, we've been talking about how we, as authors, portray the events in our stories and pull the reader into the story. There is, however, one more layer we're forgetting: the POV character. The information that the readers get from the story is not only affected by the narrative distance, but also by the characters themselves. If a character is narrating the story, the reader will only get information that the character reveals (regardless of the psychic distance). In this way, the reader's understanding of the story is shaped not only by how the author manipulates narrative distance but also by the characters' intentions.

Axiom #3: If POV is the telescope through which we view a story, narrative distance is the lens that pulls the image into focus.

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