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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ordering Chaos

Among a fiction writer’s greatest challenges: how to evoke chaos while still making sense. The phrase “making sense” here is key, since ultimately the question boils down to whose sense is being rendered.

If the chaos confronting the reader is genuine chaos as experienced by the point-of-view character or characters—as opposed to an inadvertent, accidental, and hence inauthentic chaos arising from the author’s lack of command over his or her materials—then that chaos is welcomed, or anyway not entirely pointless.

In the given passage, one evening on his way home John Zambelli is rudely met by police officers who are, let us say, disinclined to ask questions first. In its particulars the scene is convincingly and vividly rendered. We are treated to the “rough hands” and “gruff voice” of Sergeant Molinski as he frisks his quarry, who lies prostrate across the paving stones of his front walkway. As the Sergeant works him over, a second officer, a woman named Dobbs, jabs her nightstick into John’s rib cage. Satisfied that Zambelli is unarmed and having duly blinded him with a flashlight, the officers learn his identity.

All of this is presented clearly enough for me to furnish this summary. Yet in the passage as written there are small points of confusion. In the opening sentence, we are told “John’s hands searched for comfort in the familiar stones beneath him.” From this we reasonably conclude that he is either on all fours or lying flat on the stone path onto which he has presumably been shoved hard. Did John have a chance to see his assailants before they tackled him? Unclear. But a moment later, where the gruff voice says, “He’s clean,” we are told—from John’s point of view—that the voice comes from “behind him” and that it “belong[s] to the cop holding the nightstick.” It’s logical, then, to conclude that John has not only glimpsed his attackers, but is able to positively identify them as police officers. In fact he's already done so, since in the first paragraph he describes the object being jammed into him as a nightstick as opposed to an unidentified blunt object.

Two paragraphs later, after John has “rotated his body slowly” to confront the officer’s flashlight beam, Molinski “ease[s] onto the landing and click[s] off the flashlight”, allowing John his first real glimpse of the cop, whose “service cap . . . barely reached John’s shoulders.” For this to be so the Sergeant would have to be very short indeed, considering that John still lies or sits on the ground.

These are small issues in a scene that, for the most part, is neatly written. The disorientation that has John Zambelli experiencing the “familiar stones” of his front walkway as alien objects now that they touch his hands rather than his feet is nicely observed. But however well established, John’s viewpoint isn’t followed through consistently such that we see, feel, hear, and touch as John does; so that his confusion makes complete sense, so that we know, for instance, that he is standing and not sitting or lying when he compares his height with that of his attacker. It’s a very small issue, but small issues like it add up and give way to larger problems: namely a lack of sufficient immersion on the author’s part in her viewpoint characters' perspectives, and the attendant overall murkiness resulting thereof.

The difference between ordered and disordered chaos is one most readers may not notice, but they’ll still feel it. Since fiction’s goal is to convey experience, even a very slight mishandling of POV will result in an obscuring or dilution of the fictional experience. An orchestra needs a conductor. What’s being orchestrated in a work of fiction is the reader’s senses through those of her fictional character or characters. When POV is mishandled, the instruments keep playing their parts, but the symphony is discordant. If that analogy won’t do here’s another. Reading fiction in which the viewpoint isn’t perfectly handled is like kissing a beautiful person with bad breath. You still get the kiss, but it’s not the kiss that might have been.


  1. Hello, and thank you for your comments. Wow, that was fast!

    The opening passage, as originally written (and re-written, and re-written...!, included additional details such as the police strobes shining into the windows of the house, the cops yanking open the door before kicking John's legs apart and shoving him against the wall, with his body bent at the hips and his hands sprawled overhead. I was repeatedly told (by writing teachers and agents) to eliminate one detail after the next as unnecessary, to start in media res, that John's positioning and the identity of his 'assailants' was obvious enough from the context, etc.

    No problem adding it back in, of course..I'm thinking, maybe adding a tiny detail like John seeing the strobes first before being shoved against the wall might be enough to do the trick. What do you think?

  2. How many details you provide, and from what starting point, aren't as important as making sure that the perceptions are consistently John's. If he knows they're cops, you might provide us with those perceptions that make this clear to him. Also, it's not at all clear that they found him IN the house, or that they knocked his door down, or that he had reason to know the cops would be coming for him. All of this is, however, known to him, and at least some of this knowledge might sift through to the reader through John's stream-of-conscience as he lies prostrate on the front walk. Again, it's not about overloading your readers with details, or even about giving them "more." It's about selecting and orchestrating those details that will best convey your characters experience while providing enough context so readers aren't more confused than they need to be.

  3. Thank you- makes sense.

    I've changed the opening paragraph so it begins as follows (if you have the chance and are so inclined, I'd love to know whether I'm on the right track):

    John winced as his feet were kicked apart, throwing him even more off-balance. When the police car pulled into his driveway a few minutes earlier, he’d figured maybe they were gonna talk to him about Mrs. Hackett from down the road. She’d looked terrible when he drove her to the hospital that morning. But to yank him outside and shove him against his own house like a criminal? Made no sense. Something bad must have happened to Mrs. Hackett, that was all he could think of. Cops must be questioning all the neighbors.

    His hands searched for comfort in the familiar stones beneath them........

  4. You misunderstand me, I think. I'm not suggesting that you need to EXPLAIN Robert's situation, as you do here, in your latest take, rather baldly. You simply need to invest yourself more thoroughly in his experience from his point of view. What you've just written wrenches us out of the moment. It's a flashback within a scene that has barely started.

    "When the cops broke open his door, when they kicked his feet apart, when they pulled him outdoors and shoved him against the shingles and threw him to the sidewalk, John wondered if maybe there had been some mistake, if they had picked the wrong house, or if perhaps Mrs. Hackett, his senile neighbor, had reported a burglar, or were they overreacting to six unpaid parking tickets? As his chin dug into one of the four field stones he had installed for a sidewalk only a few months before, a blunt instrument jabbed his ribs, and a pair of gruff hands kneaded his legs. If this is a massage, John thought, it's not very relaxing.

    "He's clean," the masseuse-cop announced, his voice as meaty and gruff as his hands. The blunt object withdrew and John turned his face into the flashlight beam. "Show us some I.D."...

    This keeps us in the moment with John.