By Susan Woodring, 2012 NCWN Fall Conference Faculty Member, Fiction
The hard part is getting started.
This is true of jogging. The stamina required to propel oneself through so many long swaths of sidewalk is tempered by finding the right rhythm. It’s true of public-speaking. Body-surfing. Travel. Getting started—taking that first sub-action that is a part of the whole—is the hard part. This seems especially true when we’re talking about doing something dangerous like sky-diving, or, when we’re talking about me at around age eight, stepping off the high dive at the swimming pool.
As a fiction writer, I find beginning a story a million times harder than jumping off a high dive. I can have an idea or a character or even a line or two of dialogue. I might have a feel for the setting or the atmosphere. Sometimes, I even know what happens; the basic design of the story is set. And yet, actually beginning the thing—finding my way inside the story—that’s the hard part.
I liken it to finding a collapsed circus tent in an empty field of grass. Yes, a weird way to describe the fiction writer’s initial conundrum, but this is the image that keeps coming to me: the story is an enormous shapeless piece of canvas laid out in the middle of nowhere. The canvas and its poles and stakes, collectively, is the tent, right? There’s no other material item necessary. Except, of course, air. The task is, then, to somehow emit air and light into the jumble of canvas and tethers and poles. It’s a huge unwieldy blob of a thing, this tent, this story, until I find my way inside it.
The key to entering, I believe, is narrative voice. Point of view. Once I find the right person, or, more aptly, persona, to tell the story, I can lift up a corner of the tent. Because now, with the correct point of view, I have the storyteller’s eyes to see and breath to fill the thing, to emit air and light and invite first me, the author, and second you, the reader, inside.
A discussion of point of view necessarily begins with pronouns. We know that I goes with first person point of view, wherein one of the story’s characters is also the narrator of the story’s events. There’s second person, which uses the pronoun you, involving the reader directly in the story. And then, there’s third person point of view, which uses the pronouns he and she. This is the most versatile of the points of view, covering a wide range of what John Gardner has called “psychic distances” from which the story is told. There’s third person close point of view, wherein the narrative voice sticks closely to one character. We are limited to that character’s observances and thoughts. The other end of the spectrum is third person point of view omniscient, where the offstage narrator sees all, hears all, knows all.
While we start with pronouns when we talk about point of view, that is only the beginning. Pronouns, in and of themselves, are not the key to entering the tent. The life those pronouns bring with them is what matters to us; the history and interpretation and manner of speaking that come with the I, the you, the she: that is what we’re after.
Point of view is the thing that gives us as fiction-writers the courage to step off the diving board. We find the story’s point of view and that, like gravity, is what plunges us, the writers searching for entrance to our own stories, in.
Susan Woodring will lead a fiction workshop, “Whose Story is It, Anyway? Using Point of View to Improve Your Fiction,” at the 2012 Fall Conference. She is the author of a novel, Goliath (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) and a short story collection, Springtime on Mars (Press 53, 2008). Her short fiction has appeared in Isotope, Passages North, turnrow, and Surreal South, among other anthologies and literary magazines. Her work has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her short fiction was shortlisted for Best American Non-Required Reading 2008 and Best American Short Stories 2010. Susan currently lives in western North Carolina with her two children and her husband. For more information about Susan and to read her blog, please visit www.susanwoodring.com.
Registration for the NCWN 2012 Fall Conference opens soon at www.ncwriters.org.