Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Technical Topics -- POV and Simplicity of Language

I was thinking the other day about elaboration of prose and simplicity of prose. Thinking about it in terms of what I'm doing in my own manuscript.

Overall, I'm aiming for straightforward, spare, stripped-down prose. The goal of general narrative is to be invisible to the reader. The story goes along just talking. Just building a picture. This ordinary narrative -- for me -- shouldn't be something that's going to make the reader stop and look at the writing, either to remark on its cleverness nor, I hope, to wince at how awkward it is.

It's not easy to write short and simple. Mark Twain , famously, is said to have written to a friend, "If I had more time this would be a shorter letter."

And then we got POV.

When we're in Point of View, we should sound like the character. When we do that, the reader is maybe going to notice the taste and tenor of the language itself.

To take two extreme cases:

My simplest, youngest folks should have a great directness to their experience. A concrete observation of the world. Dead simple language.

An example of the prose I'm thinking about would be this dialect passage from Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath'. Here, the POV character demands the simplest of expression.

And then the raids -- the swoop of armed deputies on the squatters' camps. Get out. Department of Health orders. This camp is a menace to health.

Where we gonna go?

That's none of our business. We got orders to get you out of here. In half an hour we set fire to the camp.

They's typhoid down the line. You want ta spread it all over?

We got orders to get you out of here. Now get! In half an hour we burn the camp.

In half an hour the smoke of paper houses, of weed-thatched huts¸ rising to the sky, and the people in their cars, rolling over the highways, looking for another Hooverville.

For other characters, we try for more mannered speech. Elaborate and complicated speech. For an extreme example, look at Bramah's 'Golden Hours'.

"Your insight is clear and unbiased," said the gracious Sovereign. "But however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of almost equal importance?"

I love this clever complexity, this joyous sport with the language. I want to put something like this in the mouth of the characters.

It is immensely hard to write plainly. To catch the immediacy of an experience unfiltered by complex thought. It's also blindingly hard to write the speech of a complicated, eloquent character where every word comes to us already weighed in a discerning mind.

Hardest of all to slip from one voice to another as we change POVs. Just enough to make a poor innocent writer want to take up knitting or something.

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