Introduction to the Levels of 'Show
Components of Narrative Storytelling
Narrative Type Part 1: Dialogue
Narrative Type Part 2: Dramatic Action
Narrative Type Part 3: Exposition
Narrative Type Part 4: Pacing & Rhythm
Last time, we discussed Show vs. Tell, and why popular advice falls short for the majority of writers.
I introduced the idea of levels of Show, creating a foundation on which engaging writing can be built.
I quickly outlined how Show all comes down to imagery. So for the remainder of this series, the terms Show and Tell will mean Strong Image and Weak Image, respectively.
Thinking of Show vs. Tell in this way may be confusing for some of you because of previously heard advice. In many instances, Show vs. Tell advice writers will give examples of showing that lack so much imagery they may as well be examples of telling, or telling examples that create a beautiful image. But as we move through the series try to remember that just because something doesn't follow the "rules" of show you are accustomed too, doesn't mean it isn't strong writing.
Because good writing happens on multiple levels, yes?
So here we are at the first of these levels. The POV.
This post will be fairly...obvious....relative to the others coming in this series because there is only one thing to say about showing through POV, and I think most writers know this, at least in their subconscious.
And that is this:
POV is all about Emotion.
I said in the last post that a good image is physical, emotional, and psychological. When choosing a POV for your story, your first concern should be for the emotional.
Ask yourself these types of questions.
What mood am I trying to convey in my story overall? (Scary, mysterious, grimy, romantic, etc.?)
Do I want my readers to become emotionally moved more by the setting/world or a few specific characters? (For instance, a historical novel may work better with a stronger, emotionally provoking setting, like the moods and environments associated with wartime Europe.)
Do I want the readers to lose themselves in the characters or distance themselves from them? (Plot-driven stories vs. character-driven stories.)
There are many other like questions you should ask yourself, but you get it.
Starting your writing process in the realm of emotion will set you up far stronger than anything else. You may be writing your novel for any number of reasons, but without emotion, you do not have a story. A POV chosen for emotionless reasons can only create an ultimately Telling story.
"A novel is a record of emotion; the story of a human life touched with emotion; the story of two human lives under stress of emotional arousement ; the story of domestic life with emotion pervading it; the story of a great historical character in his day of aroused emotional activity; or the story of the romantic adventures of some person in whom we are forced by the author to take an interest...For the novel does not stand in literary history as a record of achievement. It stands as a record of emotion."
—Evolution of the English Novel, Francis Hovey Stoddard, 1900
Each POV has nuances that can be used to show (create a specific image/emotion) in a unique way. Though some POVs are easier to write than others, none are worse at Showing than another so long as the writer has chosen the most appropriate one for their needs.
I'm going to only quickly break down the typical POVs and explain the mechanisms of Show that can be utilized in each (though these are only examples, and all can be used for any purpose the author is talented enough to use them for.)
1st person. Strong emotional connection can be made quickly between the reader and a single character. Can lose narrative tension if the author isn't careful. The author must be skilled at manipulating the reader's emotions without "betraying" them. If done well, 1st person narratives can create suspenseful and meaningful character stories that tug on a reader's emotions at every step.
Example: Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.
'When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.
I'd know her head anywhere.
And what's inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I've asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?'
This has to be one of the best book introductions I have read in a long time, and it is perfect for our discussion of choosing POV for the sake of the emotion it brings to your story. Now it is hard to isolate just the POV when the "layers" of show work so seamlessly as they do in this book, but we can discuss some of the things that this POV allows the author to do.
1. Instant emotional connection to the character/narrator. When I say emotional connection, I do not mean that we instantly like him, though he does have a great appeal to the reader whether positive or negative. We want to read more about him, and for a psychological thriller like this one, interest in the character is paramount.
2. Setting takes a back seat to character. Along the same lines of what I said above, NOT situating your reader in the environment relatively quickly is OK when you use this type of POV. In a way, the character's head is the setting.
3. Strong Mood. I did say that the point of choosing a POV is to create the strongest mood possible for your story, and this one has done just that. I can think of one word to sum up the mood of these first few paragraphs and entire book. Uncomfortable. Something is decidedly wrong throughout the book, and that feeling is perpetuated by the choice of POV.
3rd person. Great for creating emotional connections with characters (arguably as well as 1st person with hard work). Can easily manipulate the reader's emotions by leaving them in the dark without needing to be as careful as one would in 1st. Can create larger worlds outside of the character's head. Great balance between emotionally charged settings, characters, and plots.
Example: K.E. Barron's The Immortal Serpent.
'Vidya's vacant stare hung over her mother's face. She studied the skin stretched tight and yellow around the mouth and eyelids, disfiguring her once flawless features. Exquisite, cream-tinted wings laid to rest over her body, primary feathers freshly plucked. Dark loose curls just dusted with white flecks at her temples—the only perceptible indication of her fifth decade.
She was such a beauty . . . then who must this be? She didn't look real much less beautiful. Her slender neck, blackened with bruises and broken veins, the handprints of the one who'd inflicted such mortal injury now engraved upon her olive skin. Vidya's fists clenched and unclenched. Her cheeks burned with a sudden familiar heat from the smoldering fire in her stomach, making her want to vomit and scream at the same time.
[. . .] Vidya could no longer bear her mother's diminished form and turned her gaze to the sea instead. The swiftly fading sun cast fiery pink strokes across a heavily clouded sky that reflected down onto the rolling water's surface, the wet beach glistening like stained glass.
When Vidya lowered her eyes to the crowd ahead of her, she gulped at its size. Not only was the Mother's Assembly in attendance, but their daughters as well. Even some male faces appeared among the throng—most of them husbands, some of them military commanders and their lieutenants. The Citadel's ground floor was nearly full. Only a few stragglers, some slow-moving elderly, continued to plod up the white marble steps to take their places before the altar. The sun bathed half their faces in a warm glow, but its falling draped the other in damning shadow.'
You will notice immediately with this example that the author was able to easily switch from the internal mood of the character to the external mood of the setting. With 3rd person limited POVs, there is slightly more distance between the reader and the characters but the author is able to create a larger world that encompasses a wider range of "emotional atmosphere."
3rd Person Omniscient. Is great for creating moods in books with large casts of characters and getting readers emotionally invested in the overall settings and environment, and plot.
Example: Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove
'When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.
"You pigs git," Augustus said, kicking the shoat. "Head on down to the creek if you want to eat that snake." It was the porch he begrudged them, not the snake. Pigs on the porch just made things hotter, and things were already hot enough. He stepped down into the dusty yard and walked around to the springhouse to get his jug. The sun was still high, sulled in the sky like a mule, but Augustus had a keen eye for the sun, and to his eye, the long light from the west had taken on an encouraging slant.
Evening took a long time getting to Lonesome Dove, but when it came it was a comfort. For most of the hours of the day—and most of the months of the year—the sun had the town trapped deep in dust, far out in the chaparral flats, a heaven for snakes and horned toads, roadrunners and stinging lizards, but a hell for pigs and Tennesseans. There was not even a respectable shade tree within twenty or thirty miles; in fact, the actual location of the nearest decent shade was a matter of vigorous debate in the offices—if you wanted to call a roofless barn and a couple of patched-up corrals offices—of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, half of which Augustus owned.'
Unlike some omniscient writers, McMurtry chose to keep the POV a little closer to the characters, while also taking the time to give us a good dose of the setting. The initial emotion the reader gets from this opening is much more calming than the last two examples. It's not uncomfortable or dark, but it does get the mood of the book across quickly. Empty, open, unforgiving, etc. This feeling is prevalent through the entire book, paralleling the theme all the way through (as a good book should).
Now there are a million other things I could say about how POVs can be used to manipulate reader's emotions and help Show, but honestly, it isn't an exact science, and a creative writer can do almost anything with any POV they choose.
In the examples above, I mainly focused on the reader's investment based on characters vs. setting, but there are endless places you can use emotion through POV to accomplish the same thing.
What I do want you to remember is that reading a novel is an emotional experience, and that should be your primary goal from the very beginning of the writing process.
The best thing you can do is read through the beginnings of as many books as you can and try to determine how it makes you feel. What emotions is the author trying to get across? Are they even doing it successfully? Is a mood created immediately? And how does their choice of POV help make that happen?
For instance, read the beginning paragraphs of a mystery novel. Is the reader involved with a character or does the POV keep them at a distance and make them merely "watch" a murder unfold, creating a sense of foreboding and ominousness—a technique that is so common in the genre.
There are many reasons to choose a POV, but ultimately the best one will allow you to give the reader a highly emotional experience that will keep them invested until the end, and that they will remember for the rest of their lives.
One final note on POV. You have probably heard a lot about "deep POV" or narrative "closeness" in the past. In most cases this is explained as writing to let your reader get lost in the character, and making them forget the author exists. But what deep POV comes down to is emotion, how emotionally invested readers are in your story. How well you have tapped into them then not breaking that connection. However, don't think that this isn't possible with a POV that distances the reader from the character—closeness can come with an emotional connection to plot and setting just as well. All POVs can be "Deep," but getting there requires not only choosing the perfect POV for your novel, but also understanding the other Levels of Show to come.
Next time, we build on this foundation and get into the main components of fiction writing.
Comment below and tell we what mood/emotion you are trying to get across in your novel, and how your POV is helping you toward that goal. If you have any questions, be sure to ask, and I will do my best to answer as quickly as possible.
Until next time, your friendly neighbourhood editor,