Charlie's Diary

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Thu, 20 Apr 2006

Conjugate characters, not verbs

(Taps microphone. Blows off dust. "Is this thing switched on?")

Take a story, any story: a sequence of events in time. It's possible to tell this story in a myriad of different ways, depending on where you stand in relation to it.

Imagine you're a camera, capturing a sequence of events in time. You can capture the events from outside, standing off-stage as it were: an external narrative, "he/she/it does ..." [whatever]. We call this a third person narrative. Or — in a work of written fiction, or machinima, or other suitable media — you can strap yourself to the forehead of one of the actors and make it an internal narrative: "I do ..." [whatever]. We call this a first-person narrative. And you can either capture the sequence as it happens, in the present tense — or, in a suitable medium (like prose) you can recount it after it's all over, the curtain fallen and the deeds completed, weaving in and out of the imaginary present of the story as the requirements of narrative take you through the past tense.

These are the basic modes of storytelling, but they don't tell the whole story: we have options that are seldom used. The basic verb conjugations apply: "I am", "You are", "He/She/It is" — but whereas we routinely put the first person and third person viewpoints behind our camera, we rarely use the second person ("you do ..."), for a reason I'll get around to shortly. And we have other tenses than present and past. But these underused camera angles are hard to bring into focus. How do you tell a story in the future tense? I'm going to go into the kitchen and make a cup of tea while I think about the rest of this paragraph, then I'm going to come back into my study, sit down at the word processor, and explain by example. (Ba-ding!) Future tense works for declarations of intent, but it makes it impossible to hide — if all is known ahead of time, then how do you inject suspense into a story?

The second person is also hard to use, and rarely applied even to short stories, although there are some notable exceptions. For example, Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInery's first novel, is narrated in the second person. But even though it works surprisingly well, I can't help feeling that McInery is cheating — it's an interior monologue, the narrator talking to himself and keeping up a running flow of stream-of-consciousness, and as such it's actually a first person narration reflected off the mirror of his narcissim: you could re-write it in the first person with no loss of information.

One of the reasons the second person is so rarely applied to fiction is that it's directly intrusive into the reader's head. Instead of staying decently outside the narrative and peering at the actors, the second person directs — you become part of the story, bouncing around uncomfortably inside it. And the biggest reason this is uncomfortable is ... characterisation.

Writing is the nearest thing to telepathy we have discovered (to steal a leaf from Stephen King's On Writing). It's a technique we use for serializing a stream of consciousness, freezing it for posterity, and injecting it into other human heads whereupon, by some process we don't fully understand, it is unpacked and hopefully creates a structural cognate of the original author's conscious experience in the reader's mind. Alas, it's also a piss-poor substitute for real telepathy (whatever that would feel like): you never read the same story the same way twice, and no two readers ever read it quite the same way. The structural cognate that a book gives rise to in the reader's mind is intimately dependent on the state of that mind, and human minds evolve over time.

The big advantage that writing (and especially written fiction, my preferred art form) has over other media for conveying experience is that the writer can try to incorporate bits of other, imaginary minds in their serialized stream of consciousness. Writing isn't just a camera, or even a technicolor camera with Dolby surround-sound recording: it's a camera with flickering, blurry, black-and-white, routinely-malfunctioning telepathy bolted on the side. (The telepathy recording module works best when operated by an expert, with tender loving care.) And when we revisit the issue of first-person v. third-person, past v. present narrative with this in mind, we can add another mode: how we kibbitz on the actor's thoughts.

First person is relatively easy and unintrusive. The story is told by one actor, with a camera strapped to their head, and imaginary electrodes in their brain: they can keep up a running commentary, injecting their own opinions into the narrative, and the worst that's likely to happen is that they'll irritate the reader by being overly chatty.

Third person telepathy is a bit harder to arrange. We have literary conventions for this &emdash; he pauses to think about his next sentence carefully, while across the drawing room his wife wonders why he has stopped talking. That's an omniscient telepathy cam weaving among the actors like an attention-deficient mosquito, landing to suck a moment's thought here then buzzing across the room to slurp a transient meme there. In general omniscience is frowned on, at least among amateurs, because the writer really has to know what they're doing in order to differentiate the different thought-streams they're injecting into the reader's mind. So the usual compromise for third-person narratives is to stick to one viewpoint (one stream of a character's interior insight) per written scene, with clear cut-points — or to eschew the trick completely because, let's face it, cinema and TV work fine without telepathy, and some folks feel that telepathy is to some extent a crutch that allows stories to hobble along despite poor external characterisation.

So what about the second person?

You've been wondering when I'd get to the point for a minute or so by now, and you're not alone. (Obviously I couldn't figure out how to set this punch-line up without weaving all over the map in a drunkard's walk, but you're still reading because there's got to be a pay-off somewhere.) The second person is more irritating as an external viewpoint than the other camera angles we employ, because it constrains the reader to a set position within the action. And when the author switchs on the god-module telepathy box on the side of the camera, the itch becomes intolerable because the author is going to inject their thoughts straight into your brain through a syringe the size of the Channel Tunnel. And it's going to hurt because they're telling you to think this or think that and you don't really want to experience the raw trauma of someone else's drama from the inside.

(It gets even worse when we go multi-viewpoint in the second person. Second person plural is not a common fictional mode because to pull it off you've got to get your reader to do the world's fastest costume change between scenes — and it's not just the external costume, but the internal props of ideas and attitudes and serialized consciousness that has to change. To go multi-viewpoint in the second person mandates a delicacy of characterisation that simply isn't needed in multi-viewpoint third (or even multi-viewpoint first). And as for multi-viewpoint second person future ...?)

But I digress, as usual. Second person is our normal mode for communicating experiences. You're reading this essay right now and quite possibly scratching your head — there! Break out of the text for a moment and look back at that last sentence. Second person narrative is uncomfortable because it has the power to coerce our behaviour and direct our vision. If the first-person telepathy module is a bunch of electrodes in the brain of one actor, feeding us their stream of consciousness, and the third-person telepathy module is a brain-sucking mosquito bouncing around the actors, the second-person telepathy module is an alien mind control parasite that gloms onto you, sticks its electrodes into your brain, and tells you what to think. It's got amazing potential for fine-grained insight into the guts of a story — after all, the second person is the most immersive viewpoint — but it's a very hard tool to use without tickling the reader into noticing it. Alien mind control parasites tend to be one of those things that make most humans go "eek!" and run away very fast, and the same is true of this story-telling mode.

So I'm probably not going to surprise you if I tell you that I'm currently experimenting with using this format at novel length. I might end up having to go back and re-write in a more conventional voice, but right now I have a sneaking feeling that when properly deployed, the omniscient second-person-plural is a really strong story-telling tool. You will get right inside the action and understand what the protagonists are thinking and doing — at least, that's the theory. Most importantly, for a work of near-future science fiction (a story set in a recognizably close future, perhaps ten years hence), by injecting the character's attitudes to their surroundings directly into your head I'm hoping to get away from the traditional science fictional snare of obsessing over the trappings of technology, the surfaces and sheen of the new. In other words, I'm fumbling after a new way of writing SF. Let me hasten to explain:

Obviously, you know what it feels like to read a blog. But cast your mind back in time ten years &mdash, no, make that fifteen — to a time before you encountered the net and before blogs had been invented. Try to imagine yourself as an aspiring SF writer who's read about this internet thingy, and about some experimental hypertext tools (from Xanadu and Hypercard to Hyper-G by way of Gopherspace and WAIS, with a side-order of this funny compromise thing some guy with a double-barreled name is tinkering with at CERN). As this aspiring SF writer, you've decided to write a novel set in 2006, a novel in which this internet thingy your tech-head friends keep gassing about in the pub is everywhere. And you start trying to work out just what that might mean. You've heard about email, and that intuitively makes sense. You've possibly heard of AOL or CompuServe or CIX and, if you move in academic circles, of USENET, and the idea of a bunch of people talking on a multi-user bulletin board isn't that strange. And there'll be some kind of easy-to-use hypertext system that lets ordinary folks add data to it.

But what are the ordinary folks going to add to this hypothetical global hypertext thing? What are they going to talk about? How are they going to use it and what's it going to feel like?

Asking these questions, your traditional, instinctive, bad-SF approach is to explain everything in nauseating detail: "Johnny sat down at the HyperTerminal and typed in his password. The computer verified his identity and let him in, throwing up a picture of the InterWeb. Johnny thought for a moment: where do I want to go today? The answer was obvious. Like all other communications media, the InterWeb had only really taken off once it was adopted by the porn industry as a replacement for Betamax tapes; now, finding anything useful in it was like walking down a strip mall full of flashing red neon signs and questionable window displays. But Johnny wanted to research his dissertation topic. So he typed in the address locator of Google, a popular information clearinghouse that scanned the rest of the InterWeb daily and indexed it, allowing keyword searches." (And so on.)

A more sophisticated approach that increasingly became the norm in more literary SF over the past couple of decades is to show. "Johnny picked up his laptop and logged on. Windows opened on its desktop, pop-up ads flashing garish offers of hardcore porn at him. Annoyed, he brought up a browser and headed to a search site to continue researching his dissertation." This mode is a whole lot less clunky, but it's got a crippling handicap: the author has to make the leap from technical description ("typing his password into the HyperTerminal's keyboard") to action ("he logged in") in a manner that is comprehensible to the reader. Because, let's face it, if you've never seen a computer the second version of this story is a whole lot less accessible than the first. Early SF was seen by its authors and their self-ghettoized readers as a didactic, educational medium exposing them to new ideas about technology and the way we might live. You could show the first version to a 1930s reader and they'd be able to follow the plot: the second remix is incomprehesible, because the referents for the action simply aren't there ("laptop", "logged on", "browser", "search site").

Is there a better way to do it? Let's crank up that magical telepathy box again. I'd like you to imagine that you can download into the reader's head the experience of "logging in" and "opening a browser". That might put the references into a form that the reader can grasp, as long as it's external to the narrative. It's one of the ways that hypertext (a notoriously poor medium for fiction) nevertheless manages to work, with discursive links embedded in the text to provide illuminating metainformation. (As in the paragraph above that set out the parameters of this thought experiment about re-inventing the web.) The second person is the discursive medium par excellence — hard on the characterization though it is, it's a great way to shoe-horn information and thoughts into the reader's head. "You pick up your laptop and shift it around your lap until you're comfortable with its weight and the hot spot under the processor isn't burning your knee, then you type in your password. Instantly, a bunch of flashing ads pop up all over the screen, anoying you until you click on them to kill them. While you're waiting for the search form to load you wonder if maybe you shouldn't take your cousin's advice and install a program to block the nuisance ads, pyramid schemes, and other junk that gets in the way of your research."

The second person's big strength is that it lets you show by doing, and it renders infodumps — those big, intrusive gobbets of metainformation that are so useful to the jobbing science fiction writer who's trying to portray an unfamiliar world — transparent. (It's big weakness is that if it isn't done carefully, it feels like an itchy straitjacket to the reader, but you already know that, don't you?) It's not so much about metafiction as about metainformation for the fiction at the centre of the narrative process. If you fine-tune your use of the interior monologue you can illuminate your character's experience of their universe, lending the "showing, not telling" narrative some experiential references and weight so that it feels familiar, even if it's full of novel placeholders. And you can banish the old didactic mode for good, consigning it to the howling wilderness of pulpish prose where it belongs. (After all, we're trying to commit literature here. Right?) You have the technology to tell this story the way it needs to be told. All you have to find now is the courage to use it.

(That's my theory and I'm sticking to it — at least, until I'm far enough into "Halting State" to see if it survives its collision with reality.)

[Discuss Writing (3)]

posted at: 14:30 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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