Thursday, May 8, 2014

Learning from the masters: Listen to the voices of Harper Lee's Scout

Time links past with present
Harper Lee had quite a task creating the narrative voice of  Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Sure Scout was a six-year-old girl who ages about two years in the course of the book; what's the challenge?  Seems easy enough -- in that short span of years there is not much change.  But Scout is also the narrative voice of an adult, and how does one impart the perspective of a reflective southern woman?  How does it remain evident that young Scout and the reflective adult spring from the same root?

  The following week the knot-hole yielded a tarnished medal.  Jeb showed it to Atticus, who said it was a spelling medal, that before we were born the Maycomb County schools had spelling contests and awarded medals to the winners.  Atticus said someone must have lost it, and had we asked around?  Jem camel-kicked me when I tried to say where we had found it.  Jem asked Atticus if he remembered anybody who ever won one, and Atticus said no.
   Our biggest prize appeared four days later.  It was a pocket watch which wouldn't run, on a chain with an aluminum knife.
   "You reckon it's white gold, Jem?"

We have a narrator, the adult Scout (Jean Louise) and the character who supplied remembered dialogue, young Scout.  The two voices are distinctly different ,yet they maintain a connection with the story.  The narrator introduces the event just to where we can imagine the moment, and the young Scout takes over, supplying the in-the-moment reactions and character interactions.

It looks easy when you expose the strings underneath, but it is not easy.

Six-year-old Scout had a pretty good vocabulary, but she also uses country dialect "reckon" and frequently her sentences will be missing the subject and have an abruptness to them as though she is in a hurry to express herself before Jem can shut her down or steal her thunder.  "You reckon it's white gold, Jem?"  The older narrator Jean Louise takes her time, drawing out the moment.  "The following week the knot-hole yielded a tarnished medal."  There is an easy, relaxed feel to her sentences, an ownership and a patience the younger Scout had not mastered, but near the end of the book, the reader can see she is beginning to learn that such patience exists and has value and place.

The flow between the two is seamless because the adult narrator's viewpoint drops off when Scout speaks and picks up after, as though they were twins finishing each one's sentences, although those sentences are separated by a distance of thirty years or more. 

That is one of the beauties of reading To Kill a Mockingbird:  enjoying the flow and the grace of the connection between the two Scouts.  We see the meaning behind events when Jean Louise speaks and the confusion, fear, surprise and revelation those same events bring out in Scout.  There is no ledge, no separation felt, yet the reader steps back and forth between them.

#narrative voice

Friday, May 2, 2014

Learning from the Masters: Orson Scott Card and character perception

building character from within
The variety of ways one can convey a character's viewpoint are many and challenging.  Dialogue, other character's  viewpoint, narrator, info dump and internal thought as a type of dialogue and first person speaker and then imbedded thinking stuck right inside the  narration. I find such character reveals, when done well, a form of magic. The reader makes the shift from impersonal narrator to internal character thought and impressions as easy as changing lanes in light traffic. It is a process I continually work at, a type of writing that lies at the level of mastery I wish to attain. 
Orson Scott Card does this as easy as breathing, nearly all fine writers do.  In Ender's Shadow, Card gives the reader insight into Bean's fears, process of decision making and guilt.  As a writer, I sit back both impressed and fully involved with the story and character.  I love Bean because I understand him so well.  And you don't have to like Card's work to appreciate the skill. 

And as Bean stood there, looking down into the water, he realized: I either have to tell what happened, right now, this minute, to everybody, or I have to decide never to tell anybody, because if Achilles gets any hint that I saw what I saw tonight, he'll kill me and not give it a second thought.  Achilles would simply say: Ulysses strikes again.  Then he can pretend to be avenging two deaths, not one, when he kills Ulysses. 

No, all Bean could do was keep silence. Pretend that he hadn't seen Poke's body floating in the river, her upturned face clearly recognizable in the moonlight. 

She was stupid. Stupid not to see through Achilles plans, stupid to trust him in any way, stupid not to listen to me.  As stupid as I was to walk away instead of calling out a warning, maybe saving her life by giving her a witness that Achilles could not hope to catch and therefore could not silence. 

Card opens this moment of reflection by Bean with a narrative description followed by a simple word realized. The reader is immediately hearing Bean's thoughts. They throughout the rest of the paragraph. A paragraph break brings the narrator back. And a second paragraph break brings Bean in full throttle, deep in his guilt and misery realizing he could have stopped Poke's death, given her a chance at survival. We also hear his anger at her trusting Achilles and not following Bean's advice to kill him in the first place. 

It moves swiftly and smoothly from narrator to character sadness to narrator to full on guilt and rationalization. 

When taken apart, it almost looks clunky, not so amazing after all. But that is how all standout things are. Automotive repair is simple when you know how the carburetor works, but it is astonishing that a little metal shape turned in a slot can cause an engine to rumble and a heap of organized steel to rush forward.