Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Are the rules of POV changing?

The rules about point-of-view are handed down from old writers to new ones much in the way parents teach their children to play catch or ride a bike. To sum:

First person, or “I” – the narrator is the main character and knows only what she sees or has been told.
Second person, or “you” – usually only seen in “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.
Third person, or “she” – The narrator knows all, but limits point of view to a few main characters to keep things from getting confusing. Almost always, these characters and their points of view are introduced in the beginning quarter of the book, so the reader knows whose story it is.

These rules are pretty much sacrosanct, and to violate them means incurring the wrath of anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course.

This past week, however, I read two traditionally published books that ignored the rules. The first, Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders, is a mystery starring Agatha Christie’s most famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. But Poirot is not the narrator – the book is told in first person from the point of view of Detective Catchpool, a hapless detective from Scotland Yard who pretty much needs Poirot to tell him how to tie his shoes. This is odd because Catchpool must have ESP, as he describes many scenes in which he is not present. Poirot will be having a detailed conversation with a witness, and several paragraphs or pages later, Catchpool will join him at the coffee shop or mention he’s someplace else entirely. Monogram has received mixed reviews, but a lot of fanfare since it’s an authorized Poirot tale told by a famous mystery writer using Christie’s style. Nevertheless, Christie was well versed with the rules of POV, which she exploited to great effect with her debut mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

My library finally coughed up a copy of Jojo Moyes’ After You, the sequel to her blockbuster Me Before You. Moyes is a very talented writer who has used first person, third person, and multiple narrative threads in her earlier novels, but this book is the first time I have seen her break a rule. After You is Louisa’s first person account, and in most of the book she’s preoccupied with a teenage girl named Lily. In the last third of the novel, Lily goes missing, and Moyes jettisons her narrative structure of first person, past tense to spend several pages in Lily’s third person, present tense world. Once this plot twist is resolved, Moyes returns to Louisa’s first person point of view.

It’s been said that a writer has to know the rules in order to break the rules, but I found these rule-breakings jarring. In both cases, they pulled me completely out of the story and left me mumbling about “whose story is it anyway.”

But perhaps I’m being an old stick-in-the-mud. Are writers, editors and publishers becoming more lenient about the rules around point of view? Should I expect to read more examples like the two above? Or did I just happen to catch two exceptions to rules that are still alive, well and kicking?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Best Twist Ever!

Thanks to Deb for coming up with another great idea for a blog hop! These hops are more than just an entertaining way to recognize our favorite stories. As writers, dissecting twists, endings, beginnings, etc., helps us come up with ideas to make our own projects stand out.

Before I get to my choice, I want to talk about what makes a twist work. They are completely surprising, yet supported by everything that has come before. They make readers/viewers feel like they should have seen it coming. They can be summed up in one simple sentence. When they happen in the middle of a book or TV series, they take the show into a completely different direction, but one that works with what’s happened before.

Most good twists center around the protagonist’s identity. (In fact, there’s a whole movie about that very question that Kerrie so aptly described yesterday. The protagonist doesn’t know something important about him/herself, and the twist is the discovery. This includes such biggies as Luke finding out he’s really Darth Vader’s son, Harry learning he’s a wizard (although it happens so early in the series, is this really a twist?), Malcolm Crowe discovering he’s dead, and the entire cast of St. Elsewhere living in some kid’s head.

The Empire Strikes Back was the first time I was exposed to this twist, but is it the best? I would say not, because the clues were just not there. George Lucas could have thrown a few tidbits during Star Wars and the first three quarters of Empire. I have a feeling he didn’t because he didn’t know himself that Darth was Luke’s father. And then he just went nuts, with Leia and Luke being twins and all the head-scratching stuff that happened in the prequels. Thank goodness J.J. Abrams is in charge of the new movie.

The Sixth Sense contains the most well-known twist, and it’s one of the most well-done. All the clues are there that Malcolm is dead – the most obvious one being the desk he works on in his drafty, creepy old basement, surrounded by mementoes on the floor. I have to admit I didn’t get this one – I had heard there was a big twist, and I was convinced that somehow Cole and the crazy guy who killed Malcolm would have some kind of genetic connection. So I was concentrating on that, and missing the obvious fact that the kid who could see dead people was the only person addressing Malcolm directly.

I’ve gotten much better since then. Shutter Island? Called it.

My entry for this blog hop is the much discussed, much debated 2000 Christopher Nolan film, Memento. To jog your memory, Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who developed short-term amnesia in an attack that left his wife dead. The police say they caught the guy who did it, but Leonard believes he had an accomplice (the police do not), so he’s going after that guy himself in order to kill him. Leonard writes clues in his body since he can’t remember anything for longer than 15 minutes. As such, the film itself runs backwards, with the next scene happening chronologically before the scene it follows. It was confusing, and I saw several people walk out of the theatre in the movie’s first half hour.

Because of this format, just about every scene contains a twist, and also enough clues that hint at the movie’s resolution. The two most shocking twists came at the end. One, Leonard’s wife did not die in the attack that left Leonard brain-damaged. Rather, Leonard himself killed her by accidentally giving his diabetic wife insulin twice. It was a test, because she didn’t think he really had amnesia. Leonard passed the test and his wife died as a result. The second huge twist is that Leonard had already killed one man he blamed for her death. After that death, he deliberately hid those clues from himself so he could start a new game of find the killer.

With the viewer being completely in Leonard’s point of view, both these twists were stunning (although the diabetes clue had been dropped near the beginning). Yet they follow the rule of identity being the linchpin of the twist.

AMBI Pictures recently announced that it will be remaking the film, so perhaps a new version might be a little clearer. (There’s also a DVD available that runs the action in chronological order.)

Please tune in tomorrow, when Deb finishes it up for us!