The keeper put back the screwdriver in his pocket and stared at Meursault, who realized then that he shouldn't have said, "No," and he felt rather embarrassed. After eyeing Meursault for some moments, the keeper asked:
"Why not?" But he didn't sound reproachful, Meursault thought, he sounded as if he simply wanted to know.
"Well, really I couldn't say," Meursault answered.
The keeper began twiddling his white mustache, then, without looking at Meursault, said gently:
Okay, what "intimacy" is lost? Sorry, but there isn't any intimacy lost. Not an iota. Not a crumb. The third-person version evokes the feeling of awkwardness and sadness just as well as the first-person version.
Let's take a look at another example. We'll start with the supposed less intimate way, with a third-person narrator as Stephen King wrote it in Carrie:
He slid across the seat and kissed her, his hands moving heavily on her, from waist to breasts. His breath was redolent of tobacco; there was the smell of Brylcreem and sweat. She broke it at last and stared down at herself, gasping for breath. The sweater was blotted with road grease and dirt now. Twenty-seven-fifty in Jordan Marsh and it was beyond anything but the garbage can. She was intensely, almost painfully excited.
Okay, now for the translation, which, according to the first-person-is-more-intimate theory, should be more intimate:
He slid across the seat and kissed me, his hands moving heavily on me, from waist to breasts. He smelled of tobacco, Brylcreem, and sweat. I broke it at last and stared down at myself, gasping for breath. The sweater was blotted with road grease and dirt now. Twenty-seven-fifty in Jordan Marsh and it was beyond anything but the garbage can. I was intensely, almost painfully excited.
Not too difficult to make the switch. Redolent had to go: It wouldn't have been in her vocabulary. Nevertheless, all the same fictional values are being communicated to the reader in either version. There is no gain in intimacy when it is switched to first person.
That's fine, you say, but if the first-person narrator is more colorful, you couldn't switch—you'd lose the color. Okay, let's take a look at some colorful first-person narrative:
My name is Dale Crowe Junior. I told Kathy Baker, my probation officer, I didn't see where I had done anything wrong. I had gone to the go-go bar to meet a buddy and had one beer, that's all, while I was waiting, minding my own business, and this go-go whore came up to my table and started giving me a private dance that I never asked for.
"They move your knees apart to get in close," I said, "so they can put it right in your face. This one's named Earlene. I told her I wasn't interested. She kept right on doing it, so I got up and left. The go-go whore starts yelling I owe her five bucks and this bouncer comes running over. I give him a shove, was all, go outside, and there's a green-and-white parked by the front door waiting. The bouncer, he tries to get tough then, showing off, so I give him one, popped him good thinking the deputies would see he's the one started it. Shit, they cuff me, throw me in the squad car, won't even hear my side of it. Next thing, they punch me up on this little computer they have? The one deputy goes, 'Oh, well look it here, he's on probation. Hit a police officer.' Well, then they're just waiting for me to give 'em a hard time. And you don't think I wasn't set up?"
Seems as if it would be impossible to do that in a third-person narrative without losing its color, doesn't it? But the above is a translation;
that's not the way it was published. The original version is in third person. It's the opening of Elmore Leonard's Maximum Bob. Here's the way Elmore Leonard wrote it:
Dale Crowe Junior told Kathy Baker, his probation officer, he didn't see where he had done anything wrong. He had gone to the go-go bar to meet a buddy of his, had one beer, that's all, while he was waiting, minding his own business and this go-go whore came up to his table and started giving him a private dance he never asked for.
"They move your knees apart and get in close," Dale Crowe said, "so they can put it right in your face. This one's name was Earlene. I told her I wasn't interested, she kept right on doing it, so I got up and left. The go-go whore starts yelling I owe her five bucks and this bouncer come running over. I give him a shove was all, go outside and there's this green-and-white parked by the front door waiting. The bouncer, he tries to get tough then, showing off, so I give him one, popped him good thinking the deputies would see he's the one started it. Shit, they cuff me, throw me in the squad car, won't even hear my side of it. Next thing, they punch me up on this little computer they have? The deputy goes, 'Oh, well look it here. He's on probation. Hit a police officer.' Well, then, they're just waiting for me to give 'em a hard time. And you don't think I wasn't set up?"
Notice that the author used a long quote to get the reader solidly into Crow's speech pattern, but so what? It's a legitimate device. It's just one more way to transmit the intimate fictional values using third person. The trick is, of course, to get the color through the viewpoint of the characters. But even that is not a hard-and-fast rule. In Ken Kesey's Sailor Song (1992), as an example, the third-person narrator has no trouble with colorful language:
Billy the Squid was a disagreeable and pompous little prick, but he made a good president. He had the capacity to pour a lot of creative energy into a project, then back it up with chemicals.
Okay, then, the pseudo-rule that first person is more intimate and colorful than third is just a lot of bunk. The truth is, the same fictional values, intimacy, atmosphere, color, anything, can be done equally well in either voice.
Au contraire, you say. It is a well-known fact, you argue, that in a first-person narrative you can't depict scenes in which the firstperson narrator is not present. It's an iron-clad rule that first person is much more limited than third. More bunk.
Beginning writers are always told that you shouldn't choose a first-person narrator because first-person narrators can't show us what is happening out of the character's purview, which is not true. You can show scenes that are out of the character's purview. Here's an example of a scene written in third-person omniscient narrative, as Stephen King wrote it:
The house was completely silent.
She was gone.
Margaret White walked slowly from her bedroom into the living room. First had come the flow of blood and the filthy fantasies the Devil sent with it. Then this hellish Power the Devil had given to her. It came at the time of the blood and the time of hair on the body, of course. Oh, she knew the Devil's Power. Her own grandmother had it. She had been able to light the fireplace without ever stirring from her rocker by the window ...
The pseudo-rule says that if this book were written in first person (in Carrie's voice) it would be impossible to go into Margaret White's head as is done in the above third-person narrative sample. Let's see if it's true. All it takes is a little sleight of hand. Let's say the novel was narrated in Carrie's first-person voice and she's just left for the prom, where her mother didn't want her to go:
After I was gone, the house was no doubt completely silent.
I know Mother would linger in her bedroom thinking only one thought: She is gone. At night. Gone.
She'd walk slowly from her bedroom into the living room, thinking first had come the flow of blood and the filthy fantasies the Devil had sent me, her daughter. Then this hellish power the Devil had given me. She'd think it had come at the time of the blood, the time of hair on the body, of course. She'd think she knew well the Devil's power. Her own grandmother had had it, and she'd remember seeing her light the fire in the fireplace without ever stirring from her rocker by the window ...
All of the same fictional values, the atmosphere, the intimacy, the characterization, have been communicated to the reader. You see, no matter what viewpoint of voice you choose, you have no limits and are not giving up one damn thing. Except, of course, if the firstperson narrator you've chosen is not capable of good observation and insights, or colorful language. Or dies before the end of the story.
The point to all this, of course, is that with whatever viewpoint and voice you choose, you should exploit the possibilities of the viewpoint and voice you have chosen rather than feel constrained by its limitations. Some writers have a better natural feel for one voice over another, and there are genre considerations as well. Tough-guy detective novels are often in first person in a tough-guy voice, while romances are almost always in third person using flowery, melodramatic language.
THE WRITER PUMPING IRON: DEVELOPING YOUR VOICE
Having a strong voice is as important to you as a writer as knowing your craft. A strong voice will impress an agent and an editor.
Trying to develop a strong narrative voice, or even the need for one, is usually beyond a beginning writer's abilities. It's difficult for a beginning writer to even hear the voice.
The reason for this is simple. Most beginning writers have suffered from being exposed to the typical American education. They were taught how to write as academics. Once their minds have been put into that straitjacket, they seem unable to free themselves except by the most strenuous effort.
When you would write an essay in fourth grade, or fifth, or seventh, or twelfth, or even in college, the emphasis was always on the grammar, the formal structure, and if any attention was paid at all to the content it was always in the context of whether you had adequately addressed the topic assigned by the teacher.
No one ever said you should have a strong idea. Or that you should use a strong, colorful voice. Your personality was assiduously expunged from the material. If you wrote gee whiz in the middle of a term paper, it was struck out with a red pen for being "colloquial" and words such as interface were called "jargon." If you expressed a little honest outrage at the stupidness of the assignment to, say, compare and contrast the symbolism of the whale in Moby Dick to the A in The Scarlet Letter you would be flunked.
You were rewarded if you "backed up " what you said with copious quotes. And you were rewarded with high grades if you shared the teacher's point of view and wrote in the most banal, toneless, dead, dull, and lifeless academic style. In other words, each and every essay in the class was judged on how well it matched up to the ideal paper, which was well organized, grammatical, and dead.
I'm ashamed to admit it, but I briefly taught this kind of writing in college and I was told by my supervisor that what was being said didn't matter, particularly. And there was to be no vulgarization, which meant a lot of damn good vocabulary couldn't be used. Now what the hell good is writing anything if what is being said doesn't matter? Or if the personality of the writer is choked off? This attitude on the part of the educational establishment is the reason dull writing abounds and good writing is as rare as an orchid in the Alps.
Since most of us were in deadly fear of taking home a bad report card, we did our damnedest to please our teachers. Most of us started stamping out me-too papers and if we had any misgivings we swallowed them. Usually we asserted our individuality in our papers only in our attempts to do them quickly, so we could brag to our friends that "I gave them what they want, but it only took me three hours to do twenty pages."
But now that you're writing fiction, you must let the lion within you out and let it roar.
To do that, make a close study of authors with a strong narrative voice and see how they achieve it. Copy some of them word for word, then write imitations of them. If you do this daily, you will soon be able to write in half a dozen voices.
Then practice writing the same passages in the different voices. Here, as an example, is a section of a novel written in what you might call a standard spy-novel style with a neutral voice:
Biggs arrived at his tiny cubicle in Section Four early that morning and started going through the reports that had come in the night bag from Cairo. Pretty much the same old thing. Requests for more money for Ace Two, who was negotiating with a clerk at the Soviet Consulate for some rocketry technology. A request for a month's leave for the staff cryptologist. Repair requisitions for eavesdropping equipment damaged by the Soviet double agent in the Egyptian defense ministry.
He stamped most of the requests approved and sent them on to his supervisor for final processing. Then he started working on a memo to the station chief in Alexandria about the leaks to the media about the movements of the carrier force off the coast of Syria. His phone rang. It was Hilson's secretary saying he was wanted right away in the deputy director's office for an emergency meeting. He had no idea what the old man wanted, but he felt a tight ball of fear forming in his stomach.
Now let's try the same thing with a different cast to it. Spy thrillers are often written with a cynical tone, which gives the narrative voice an added dimension:
Biggs arrived at his tiny cubicle in Section Four early that morning and started going through the reports that had come in the night bag from Cairo. The usual fiddle-faddle, Biggs thought. Requests for more money for Ace Two, who was negotiating with the greedy clerk at the Soviet Consulate for rocket technology. A staff cryptologist wanting a month's leave in Majorca, where he'd probably be selling the rocket technology back to the Soviets. Repair requests for the eavesdropping equip ment damaged by the Soviet double agent in the Egyptian defense ministry. Such a troublesome lot, those Egyptians, thought Biggs. Change sides as often as they change their socks.
He stamped most of the requests approved and sent them on to his brain-dead supervisor to be rubber stamped. Then he started working on a memo to the station chief in Alexandria concerning those irritating leaks to the media about the movements of the carrier force off the coast of Syria. His phone rang. It was Hilson's cold-voiced secretary saying he was wanted right away in the deputy director's office for an emergency meeting. He had no idea what the old man wanted, but he felt a tight ball of fear forming in his stomach.
The same thing could be written in first person:
I got to my rat hole of a cubicle in Section Four early that morning and started going through the reports that had come in the night bag from Cairo. Same old crap. Ace Two wanted more money to buy the loyalty of that greedy little bastard at the Soviet Consulate, a clerk who had dreams of becoming a Rockefeller by selling his country's rocket secrets. Then there was a request for a month's leave for a staff cryptologist who wanted to go to Majorca, probably to sell his country out to the Bulgarians. And once again there was a repair requisition for the eavesdropping equipment damaged by the Soviet double agent in the Egyptian defense ministry. That guy, soon as I caught him, was going to get ground up and mixed with mud at the bottom of the Nile.
Okay, so I stamped most of the requests approved and sent them on to my supervisor, who would approve them without looking. Then I started working on a memo to the station chief in Alexandria about the goddamn leaks to the media of the movements of our carrier force off the coast of Syria. The phone rang. It was Hil-son's secretary: she said I was wanted in the deputy director's office for an emergency meeting. Her voice was frosty. I had no idea what the old man wanted, but for some reason I had this tight little ball of fear forming in my gut.
Working over the same pieces of material like this, using different narrative voices, will help you strengthen your voices and develop new and fresh ones.
It is the narrator, then, who informs the reader, makes the antecedent action (what's happened to the characters before the story began) vivid, gives us the background on the characters, and points the way to the deeper meanings in the story. The attitudes and viewpoints of the narrator are important for establishing the author/reader contract, which will be discussed at length, next, in Chapter Seven.
THE AUTHOR/READER CONTRACT OR DON'T PROMISE A PRIMROSE AND DELIVER A PICKLE
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