The Point of Telling

One other thing Junot Diaz discussed when he visited Montgomery County Community College earlier this month was what he called the point of telling. He started his explanation by discussing his experience reading unpublished fiction and realizing that although the pieces in question had a lot going for them, something was just – off. This something, he said, is frequently hard to identify, but frequently the problem lies in the point of telling.

The point of telling is a little bit like point of view or the perspective from which an author tells the story. The difference is that point of telling has less to do with who is telling the story (e.g., a first-person narrator or a “close third-person” narrator) than where the narrator stands in relation to the story.

Diaz discussed the point of telling in relation to time. For a story to do its job effectively, the narrator needs to be at a fairly consistent distance from the events in question throughout the narrative. For example, if the narrator begins telling a story five years after the events described therein, the whole story needs to be told from a distance of five years.

Needless to say, the narrator doesn’t have to say, “All of this happened five years ago.” The point of telling is a lot more subtle than that.

Imagine you’re in a car accident. Not a bad one — just a minor fender-bender — but enough of an accident to leave you somewhat jarred. In the moment, you’ll be feeling a lot of emotions and your senses will be highly attuned to everything. The experience will be immediate and raw, highly visceral.

After a few days, however, you’ll get some perspective. You’ll be able to think about the accident in a somewhat more abstract way. It won’t be a matter of What’s happening right here, right now? Instead, the information will be filtered through all of the parts of your brain that try to make sense of the world. How did the accident happen? you’ll start to ask yourself. And your brain, being the amazing aggregator of information that it is, will reconstruct events to the best of its ability.

As more time passes, your attitude toward the accident will change. What once seemed so traumatic and pressing (How will I get to work now? Is the other driver insured? What the hell was he thinking? Were there any witnesses? Should we call the police? Where will I take my car to get it fixed? And all of the other myriad questions running through your mind…) starts to fade into the background of your life and become a minor blip on the radar.

Or it might actually start to look funny. As my friend Tom Powers always reminds me, comedy equals tragedy plus time. Most likely, the opposite might be true as well: comedy plus time might actually turn to tragedy. The important thing, though, is to try to remain at a more or less uniform distance from the events you’re describing. Doing so will allow your readers to settle comfortably into your story without constantly wondering how close (or far) they are from the action at hand.

Advice from Junot Diaz

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to see Junot Diaz speak at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Towards the end of his discussion, he offered some advice for writers that I personally found very helpful. Here are a few things he had to say:

  • Leave room for your reader. Don’t spell everything out for your reader. Give your reader the opportunity to interpret the events that you describe. Allow for multiple interpretations. Ambiguity is good.
  • Characters are best understood in relation to each other. Diaz used the “character” of Wilson in Castaway as an example of this concept. Wilson, who is a a volleyball, gives the hero of that film (played by Tom Hanks) someone to talk to. It’s through the hero’s interaction with Wilson that we learn the most about the hero.
  • The world should resist your characters. Don’t place your characters in an idealized world. Instead, allow your characters to live in a world where the daily tribulations that complicate all of our lives rear their ugly heads and complicate your characters’ lives.
  • Don’t worry about publishing. Worry about writing. If you want to be an artist, work on your art.
  • Live your life. People who’ve spent their lives learning how to write might end up having little if anything to write about. People who have lived — who have gone and done things and met people and made mistakes and experienced the world — have something to write about. Diaz also suggested that if you want to be a writer, you should get your heart broken on three continents.
  • Read. Diaz remarked that writers are the only artists he knows who don’t do the thing they want their audience to do. Musicians listen to music. Painters admire the work of other painters. But half the time he goes out to see writers at readings, they say they’re “too busy writing” to do any reading. Diaz made a point of saying that this attitude is insane.

Great advice from a great author! If you have the chance, definitely attend one of his readings.

Adventures in Writer’s Block: The Birth of Captain Panther

I was a few chapters into what would eventually become my first published novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. I had my characters. I had my setting. I had a narrative voice that I was really starting to enjoy. I even had conflict and tension and all the stuff that’s supposed to go into a novel. And then it happened… I hit the wall. I had no idea where to go with the story that I was just beginning to fall in love with.

Boy, was I pissed, but I refused to give up. I sat in front of my computer screen and stared at what I’d written. My protagonist, a beleaguered mother of two named Audrey, was getting in way over her head with what she at first thought to be a casual drug habit. She had an inkling that she might have a problem. But she needed someone to help her see it. She needed someone to serve as a bulwark against the influence of the friends who encouraged her drug use. At the very least, she needed some kind of impetus to get her to start thinking about clawing her way out of the ever-deepening hole she’d dug herself into.

But what would that impetus be?

At the time I was writing my first draft of the novel, I could see a nursery school from my office window. More to the point, because it was summer and my windows were open, I could hear a nursery school from my office window. Usually, it was just the sound of kids playing, but on this particular day, I could hear a drumbeat and someone shouting into a microphone: Come on out, Tigerman!

The shouting went on for a good thirty seconds until Tigerman came out and proceeded to rap about a number of subjects, saying no to drugs and bullying being chief among them. It went on for a long time, and all the while I kept thinking, Would you please shut the hell up? Can’t you see I’m trying to write a novel here?

I was, after all, kind of cranky, as I’d been stricken with writer’s block all morning.

But then it hit me. This guy was rapping about saying no to drugs. It was exactly what my character needed to hear. Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. Maybe what my novel needed was a real live superhero.

And so I started thinking about the kind of person who might make a living dressing up like a superhero and telling kids to keep away from drugs. And since Tigerman was obviously able to draw a crowd, I figured a feline superhero was the way to go. After a bit of brainstorming, I came up with Captain Panther, who turns out, I think, to be the unlikely moral anchor of the novel.

Needless to say, I did all of the grunt work of creating Captain Panther. That is, I invented a back story for him. I gave him a job in the real world. I wrote songs for him. I gave him insecurities and doubts and all of the other foibles that plague the rest of us. And I also gave him a good heart, so that he could be there to nudge Audrey in the right direction. But none of it would have been possible if I’d slammed my window shut and stayed holed up in my little bubble of literary paralysis.

If there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this, it’s probably that writers need to live in the world. The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction certainly held true in this particular instance. And by being open to that strangeness — by being willing to incorporate some of the wonder of the real world into a piece of fiction that I’d been struggling with — I was able to open my novel up to a whole world of possibilities.

So the next time you’re stuck, try stepping away from your manuscript for a moment and taking a look at the real world for a while. You never know what it might be trying to tell you.