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Ed
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« on: March 26, 2008, 04:15:52 PM »

Reproduced by kind permission of Nick Mamatas, with the addition of his caveat: "Remember this is just the view of one editor."

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There are a few things being conflated here, I think:

First-person stories, told in the past tense, that end with or after the narrator's death.

First-person stories, told in the past tense, that end with the narrator about to die.

As above, but in present tense.

Movies, which are NOT in the first-person but are frequently confused as being so because of voice-over. Actual first-person films (i.e., the camera is the eye of the narrator) are very rare, though many films have first person moments.

Stories being told versus stories being written.

I reject lots of first-person stories for various reasons, the most prominent of which is a failure to understand past tense and narrator motivation. Why would someone tell me a story that is a surprise (e.g., four pages about going to the grocery and then encountering a deadly dragon in the ice cream aisle) -- how do you tell people stories about your day? Wouldn't you, generally speaking, begin, "Oh man, I was almost eaten by a dragon today!" and then explain what happened (with some exceptions for narrators being explicitly unreliable about a story they're involved with) and not start with "Oh man, I went to the grocery store today and I got lettuce and saw the latest issue of People magazine and had a long wait at the deli and then a dragon popped out of nowhere and almost ate me?" Generally, having a character die in the past tense is the same sort of error. However, having one about to die is not, as lives flash before one's eyes and whatnot.

Of course, most narrators are actually not sitting down and WRITING their stories, they are TELLING their stories, perhaps to an imaginary audience, so issues of being chained to a wall or whatnot aren't really relevant, unless writing is explicitly mentioned in the story. This is also why life-flashing-befor-eyes tend to work.

In the present tense, it's all fine. You can even end mid-sente

Movies are a different animal entirely. Pointing to a movie and saying, "Well, they do it!" really misses the point of the reading experience and how to use a first-person narrator. Movies almost always use multiple POVs, visually and aurally. The eye of the camera is reportage and is generally not itself unreliable; people would throw things at the screen if a flashback, for example, or a scene that is actually a false scene that did not occur but is only an internal image from one of the characters, was never revealed as such. (This is why VOs often accompany flashbacks, and hypothetical scenes are often shot very differently than mimetic scenes in films, to be just that signal.)

The Lovecraft/Poe/ canard is just that. It's generally understood, also, that first-person narrators are unreliable. Hell, just in this thread we've had several people tell stories about what they said, what some other person said, what was actually meant, and how the Internet belongs to America with the authority of God but without actually having any access to the inside of the other fellow's experience. First-person narrators do that all the time.

PS: Perhaps the only thing sillier than a first-person past-tense narrator dying is trying to shoehorn in a correction with a tape recorder or whatnot.
 
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« Reply #1 on: March 26, 2008, 05:31:39 PM »

I know it sort of misses the point of what he says, about things being more acceptable in film etc. but they had a dead narrator in Desperate Housewives, and I don't see why a writer can't subvert what's expected in fiction and have a dead narrator, if it's done well and with wit and humour as it is in DH.

Also, artistic licence allows a first person narrator to string out a story until they get to the exciting part. Not just artistic licence, but the way some people really are. It takes my hubby ages to get to the point of a story he's telling. He'll start with 'You'll never guess what happened today...' and really will tell me everything that happened up to the really important thing that happened.

I accept it's only this editor's opinion, but this sort of thing makes me want to go and write a story with a dead narrator, just because someone told me I can't. rolleyes
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« Reply #2 on: March 26, 2008, 05:54:45 PM »

Ed, I saw this on the thread you directed us to before. I have to say that as a reader, I feel cheated when a past tense first-person narrative ends with the narrator's death. I mentioned that once to someone who told me about a book she'd just read told in first-person past tense that begins to the effect of "if you are reading this, it is because I am dead." Turns out the girl was writing a journal as the days went by and events unfolded, and I think she is suicidal throughout the book (though I could be remembering the synopsis wrong). Anyway, there aren't many things that will yank me out of a narrative faster than that feeling of a lack of internal consistency or consistency with outside "realities"; it's not that I expect everything to work in fiction the way it works in the world I live in, but unless there are clues in the story that such an ending will "make sense," it just ends up feeling like a cheap trick. Even small indications are better than none at all. That's why I asked you before about whether it was ok to have an MC/protagonist die by the end of the story: it makes sense to me that characters do and should die, but I wasn't sure about leading the reader along with the story mostly/solely in one character's PoV only to have that character die at some point. I know it takes away a key element of suspense to assume that the protagonist must of course survive the events of the story. Maybe this is a key difference between an MC and a protagonist? I dunno ...

~bint
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Ed
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« Reply #3 on: March 26, 2008, 06:37:00 PM »

I think it's great to have this insight into the mind of the editor of one of the best paying specfic markets there is - Clarkesworld pays 10c a word and are a well respected outlet. Thing is, I think editors of his ilk are all going to have much the same outlook on the issue, whereas an amateur editor at one of the more lovie zines will accept whatever takes their fancy, no matter how ridiculous some people might think the story is.

Personally, I agree with what he says about the way an everyday person should tell a story. My gran used to tell very long detail packed stories and finally make some kind of point, if she didn't lose the thread of what she was talking about. She could be pretty boring to listen to, TBH.

Quote
It takes my hubby ages to get to the point of a story he's telling. He'll start with 'You'll never guess what happened today...' and really will tell me everything that happened up to the really important thing that happened.

The question is - would his stories be better if he gave you a clue about what he's talking about, to hook you, before he begins to tell you the story proper? I'm guessing by the language you use that you find it mildly annoying that he tells you the important thing last - that he takes ages to get to the point.

Bint - I tend not to like stories where the MC dies at the end, too, but for the sole reason it's usually the easy way out for the author - to have the MC live and confront the problem would often be more challenging and thus engaging.
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #4 on: March 27, 2008, 05:10:18 AM »

Quote
that you find it mildly annoying that he tells you the important thing last - that he takes ages to get to the point.

 grin rolleyes

On the other hand, how quick would Great Expectations have been if Pip had just said 'I met this convict called Magwitch and years later he turned out to be my mysterious benefactor'? Or Jane Eyre if she'd merely said 'I went to work as a governess, fell in love with Mr Rochester who had a secret wife in the attic, but it all came out alright in the end and now we're married'? Both novels depend upon witholding important information and misleading the reader until the last few chapters.

I do agree that it has to be done properly, and that hints have to be given, and sometimes starting by giving the outcome can be a good technique, especially if you can then twist the outcome into being different to what you'd led the reader to expect. For example (and I know this is a bit of a cliche but it's the only thing I could think of off the top of my head) starting with the MC standing over a body with a gun in his/her hand, then leading up to that point when it turns out something else happened and they're not the killer.

I understand what the editor means and I can only imagine the clumsy efforts they get in their inboxes. I'm probably guilty of a few of them.  rolleyes
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« Reply #5 on: March 27, 2008, 07:28:40 AM »

Interesting thread, but it all comes back to the same thing - in my opinion - which is personal preference.

Regarding the first person narrator who turns out to be dead, or who dies at the end of the story. I'm not a fan. When this happens I feel cheated. But, strangely, I'm quite happy to have a first person narrator who's alive at the end of the tale, but facing his own imminent and solitary death. In the original Shocklines thread this scenario was also frowned upon by some. In my view, a first person narrator telling his story to the emptiness of a cell or having his words torn away on the wind is every bit as valid as having him whisper it to a cellmate or write it down in a journal. Having no one there to hear it doesn't bother me, the words are out there in the ether.

As regards getting straight to the point, I'm absolutely with Sally. Is not the whole point of stories to entertain by spinning a yarn? Sure, you have to set some hooks, capture the reader's attention, hold them, tease them, and eventually get to the big revelation in such a way that the reader (or watcher, or listener) doesn't feel cheated. If they do feel cheated - whether it's because personal preferences would lead them to prefer a style that jumps straight to the point and then reveals how that point came to be, or because they prefer a more mysterious telling of a tale, or whether the particular story in question simply isn't gripping - then they're unlikely to buy another book / watch another movie / attend another telling by that fellow.

I simply don't believe you can equate fiction with reality as far as the telling of a tale is concerned. How long would it take to read any first person naovel aloud? Would anyone really tell a story that way if they were recounting it to, say, their grand children? Sure, it's nice to adopt a traditional voice and say something like, "Let me tell you what happened to me when I was in Kentucky that time..." or "This is how it was..." and start a tale in the manner of an old-timey campfire story teller, but in the written form there's a need to back away from such telling almost immediately and start to entertain in the manner of a writer. Why else do we have so much debate over show and tell? 

As ever, of course, what one person likes, another doesn't...

Kind regards,
Derek
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« Reply #6 on: March 27, 2008, 09:32:22 AM »

Yes, I agree with many, if not all of your points, Del. It does come down to personal preference. And as someone has just reminded me, The Lovely Bones has a dead narrator, and no one questions why this dead person is telling the tale of her family coming to terms with her violent death because it's so well written.

A lot of stream of consciousness writing takes part as the internal dialogue within someone's head, their exact thoughts as they have them. For example, James Joyce's Ulysses.

I do understand, as I said, that these things can be done very badly, but it's like every writing 'rule'. Just because someone wrote something awful doesn't mean that no one else can ever try the same technique(s) and succeed at it.
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Ed
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« Reply #7 on: March 27, 2008, 04:19:23 PM »

Clarkesworld don't publish novels - he's talking about short stories. Thing is, too, he's talking about narrator motivation in the context of a truly shocking event, such as a life threatening situation, or possibly even the death of the narrator, possibly their immanent death. A big surprise. Sorry, but I just don't believe anybody who narrowly escaped death, or is currently facing death, would begin their account with trivia. Picture yourself ringing your other half while you're still breathless from the action of it all. The conversation is not going to go like this:

T/O.5 - "Hello?"
You - "It was a dark and rainy day. The supermarket was packed with bargain hunting grannies, because of the 2 for 1 offer on Sanatogen Tesco was running..."
T/O.5 - Hello? Sally, is that you?"
You - "There were fluffy blue heads all over the place and the smell of stale piss and rich tea biscuits hung thick in the aisles..."

It just ain't going to happen, is it? What you're going to do is start with:

"You'll never guess what just happened to me!"
Or:
"God, I'm still shaking like a leaf - an inch either way and I'd be dead right now..."
Or:
"I'm never shopping in Tescos again - not ever!"

The modern style of writing seems to require more realism than say the 'dear diary' style of Victorian times.
« Last Edit: March 27, 2008, 04:22:35 PM by Ed » Logged

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« Reply #8 on: March 27, 2008, 05:00:06 PM »

Ed. I don't disagree with that's how it works in real life. But I don't want my fiction to read like real life. I want my fiction dramatized by an expert hand, finely honed to take me on a wonder-filled journey, crafted to build suspense and leave me tingling.

Of course that means I don't want fiction that leads me inanely around the aisles of a supermarket listing produce. What I do want is a story that hooks me and delights me and sends shivers down my spine. If the story does this by starting with the main event, then that's fine. I have nothing against it, provided that the author has the ability to live up to such an opening. I certainly don't want 99% of my reading to be denouement. On the other hand, I refuse to disregard or rule out reading a story where the author has skilfully avoided giving away the main event in the first paragraph and builds towards it, using lesser hooks.

To take the supermarket example a step further, when King starts The Mist - a first person, (admittedly long) short story, set in a supermarket where, spookily, there are dragons flying down the aisles (in fact, it could be the very example that Nick Mamatas was referring to) - we start off with the narrator describing the breaking of a heatwave, the coming of a storm, his house... this is the man who's later going to be facing prehistoric creatures capable of tearing him apart. Now, were he to be phoning home about these events I'm sure he'd tell the story a lot differently. But, hell, it works for me just as it is, however unrealistic.

It's all back to those personal preferences, again. But, most importantly from a writing perspective, it also highlights more hidden pitfalls of the first person narrator.

Cheers,
Derek
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« Reply #9 on: March 27, 2008, 05:29:47 PM »

I like realism in a first person narrative - I like to have the feel of somebody talking to me and telling me a story. And, surely, if that's not what you're after, then why not use another type of narrator?

When the subject of novels arose, I thought of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' by Harper Lee, which is written in first person.

To Kill a Mockingbird begins, "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.  I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that.  He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out."

This is sometimes refered to as 'a perfect novel'. Personally, I thought it was a wonderful book - gave me those shivers down my spine that you talk about, Del. If you look at this opening, it tells you some of what the book is about - summarises the action in such a way that you know there is action to follow, but it's a broad enough stroke to leave you with nothing but the first clue. The meaning only reveals itelf right at the end of the book. Yet this, to me, feels real - it's the way the woman would tell the story, looking back at her childhood.

Anyway, as good as King is, I think Harper Lee is in a whole different league, here.

Undoubtedly, personal preference has a bearing on the argument, but I can certainly see what Nick Mamatas is getting at.
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« Reply #10 on: March 27, 2008, 05:41:41 PM »

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger begins, "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don''t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them."

The fact of the matter is that next to bugger all happens in the whole damn book, but this certainly feels/sounds like a kid speaking to me.  smiley
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« Reply #11 on: March 27, 2008, 06:28:00 PM »

Interesting... I think we must be in agreement because both those books - I would suggest - support the argument that the first person narrator doesn't have to cut straight to the chase, but can skilfully build to the main event using subtle hints of darkness or drama to come, hooks within the beautiful prose or suggestion within the words. All of which is exactly what I was talking about.

As it happens, if someone said to me "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don''t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them." I'd be going "Whoah, Hold up, dude. If I really want to know about what?"

So in the case of Catcher I think I'd probably be pleased to know we're going to see some dragons in the supermarket.

Derek
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« Reply #12 on: March 27, 2008, 07:52:38 PM »

True, Catcher was sorely in need of dragons, IMO.

As I said above, NM talks about short stories where the narrator is in mortal danger, so comparing novel openings like this to what he's talking about is slightly different. Nevertheless, I don't think he's saying you should cut to the chase every time - I think he's saying don't start in an unrealistic way. If you're building up to a big surprise then you have to foreshadow it, especially in a first person narrative. Even if you only say, "Boy, I had a big surprise today." to begin with, that's going to be more realistic in 1st person than rambling on about a load of ordinary crap and then springing a surprise on page 5, which leaves the reader wondering where the hell that came from. That would work well in comedy, though.

Quote
e.g., four pages about going to the grocery and then encountering a deadly dragon in the ice cream aisle
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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