The Contract Beyond The Conventions

Your reader will try to guess what your premise is right from the beginning, and if you're holding up your end of the contract you will be trying to prove it. As Macauley and Lanning in Technique in Fiction put it, "the all-important thing about the first stage of any fiction is that the author makes certain promises there. A successful novel will bear out those promises. The author should be in full command of his conception, not drifting hopefully toward it."

The reader will see, as an example, that the novel is a story about love and something else right from the beginning. In other words, in fulfilling your part of the contract, you'll let your reader in on what the subject of the novel is—at least part of it. It's okay to allow the rest of premise to show itself a little later. While reading, the reader says, "Okay, this is a love story. Now, how will the character's love be tested?" When the reader sees it will be tested with patriotism, the reader has the second part of the premise. Then if the protagonist's lover's family is also an obstacle, the reader will sense this is a story of love overcoming all obstacles, or failing to overcome all obstacles. In either case, the contract has been made: The author is proving a premise and the reader senses it.

Having settled on the major type of story, the next part of the contract has to do with how the story is written. Even though this book is not a novel, I have a contract with my readers. I've promised to give the reader a lot of good information about writing a damn good novel. I've promised to convey this information in a direct, concise, clear manner using a little humor.

There are other provisions of the contract involving the formal aspects of the novel.

Say you've written the first half of your novel in first person, the way Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes stories, using a secondary character like Dr. Watson as your narrator. But halfway through your book you may want the reader to know what is going on with the antagonist, Dr. Moriarty. You feel if the reader doesn't know what he's up to, the suspense is dead, and there's no way Sherlock can later figure it out because it's too complicated even for his magnificent brain.

So what do you do? You could use the journal or diary device, which would not break the contract you've made with the reader— but it may not be in Dr. Moriarty's character to keep a diary or a journal, especially since it would certainly incriminate him if it were ever found.

So you decide to go to a third-person narrator for this one section. But this would be most jarring to the reader and would definitely be a violation of the author/reader contract. The reader would feel betrayed.

One way to handle the problem is by changing the formal aspects of the novel. Novels may be split up into chapters, long or short. The chapters themselves may be broken up into sections, each with its own number or subheading. Or the chapters may be grouped into sections or "books" or whatever. Sometimes sections aren't called anything, but simply labeled with roman numerals.

If, say, your scheme is to switch between a first-person narrator and a third-person narrator late in the book, simply call that section "Book II" and make your switch, and your reader will take it in stride. It's a convention in novel writing that when you start a new section you may change the contract.

Another way to handle the same problem would be to have a short section early in the book from Dr. Moriarty's viewpoint in third person, which would establish that feature of the contract. Then when the switch was made again late in the story, it would not be jarring to the reader.

Stephen King divides Carrie into two formal sections, Part One and Part Two. Part One he calls "Blood Sport," and Part Two he calls "Prom Night," though he does not change the contract in the second part. He opens "Blood Sport" with a newspaper article describing how a shower of stones fell on Carrie's house out of the sky, then introduces a third-person omniscient narrator, who tells us the meaning of the rain of stones. We quickly come to see that the third-person narration will be mostly in Carrie's viewpoint, but that the author has reserved the right to go into other viewpoints as he wishes. The third-person narration is interrupted with sections from other books written after the incident. These book sections are set off from the narration.

From The Shadow Exploded: Documented Facts and Specific Conclusions Derived from the Case of Car-ietta White, by David R. Congress (Tulane University Press: 1981) p. 34:

It can hardly be disputed that failure to note specific instances of telekinesis during the White girl's earlier years must be attributed to the conclusion offered by White and Sterns in their paper Telekinesis: A Wild Talent Revisited—that the ability to move objects ...

The other books quoted are Ogilvie's Dictionary of Psychic Phenomena and My Name is Susan Snell, along with parts of supposed articles from magazines such as Esquire and Science Yearbook.

Right from the beginning, the author has shown the reader what kind of book it is and how it will be told and he sticks to it right to the very end.

Gone with the Wind is written in sixty-two chapters, divided into five parts, all written in third-person omniscient viewpoint— mostly, but not exclusively, from Scarlett's viewpoint. But it's clear right from the beginning that this is Scarlett's story, told in lush, melodramatic prose at a fast pace. The contract is made and stuck to throughout the book.

If in the middle of it, say, there was a psychic incident, the contract would be broken. This is not that kind of book. Or if there were a long meditation on the meaning of life or if suddenly the narrative switched on page 482 to Rhett Butler fighting a battle at sea, or if the situation became suddenly Kafkaesque, absurdist, or comical, the contract would be broken. What Margaret Mitchell promises, Margaret Mitchell delivers.

Kafka is Kafkaesque throughout. In The Trial, he is Kafka-esque right from the start, which is the contract Kafka makes with the reader. Strange things are happening right away: There's a strange man in K.'s bedroom right on the first page. And the very fact that the protagonist has no name, but is merely called K., is strange in itself. The Trial is written in a third-person, limited omniscient viewpoint. The narrator is limited in the sense that the narrator knows what is going on with K., but not what is going on with the law behind the scenes. That would spoil the impact, of course, because the very point of the story is that what goes on with the law is unknowable. It is written in a brusque, no-nonsense style befitting the strangeness of the story. Kafka keeps his contract with the reader till the very end. Formally, the book is divided into chapters with a separate title for each, as if a different aspect of K.'s life is being examined in each one.

Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage uses objective viewpoint or distant third person, except when in the viewpoint of the protagonist. Then he uses close third person. Fyodor Dostoev-sky in Crime and Punishment uses omniscient third person and a "telling" along with "showing" style throughout, which is appropriate to the moral lesson he is teaching. In all of the works that have been used as models in this book, the tone, style, viewpoint, and narrative attitude are preserved beginning to end.

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