The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: White Room

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

White room syndrome happens when a writer fails to give sufficient information about the setting. For the reader, this can be disorienting if not completely boring. Perhaps there are times when the writer desires this effect, but it isn’t the norm. Setting is the writer’s friend, and it should be exploited at every opportunity. A good writer employs the most interesting aspects of location to strengthen the drama. A great writer paints the entire landscape with a single sentence.

In theory, a story spans a particular time period. Booksellers like to classify stories as historical, contemporary, and futuristic. This is nothing more than past, present, and future respectively, and each changes the parameters of setting. Let’s take a closer look at each category.

The Past

The past is recorded in the annals of history. The writer connects with this information through personal experience, experts, and documentation. While expert sources are good, our own memory of the past is unreliable and must be verified. We often don’t remember things exactly as they were, even once familiar details. We also romanticize the past. Hanging clothes on the line, piece by piece, on a warm spring afternoon sounds sweet, but it was never as nice as shoving them in the dryer.

Another aspect of the past involves historical events. Consider history in two ways: as a backdrop or as an immediate surrounding. In the opening to The World According to Garp, World War II is a backdrop. It fills the air with tension, although the specifics of war never enter the picture. In the film, Pearl Harbor the surprise attack takes over the story and frankly crowds the personal stories. If a story gets close to a major historical event, it will dominate the narrative.

The Present

A story in current times includes the tangible past and future. The writer is not redesigning the world but employing it for dramatic effect. Regardless, intriguing locations exist in present times: a peek inside surgery, life on an oil drilling platform, or the machinations of a textile factory in China. Most people haven’t viewed these locations up close, but each writer has witnessed unique settings and might make use of them.

The Future

Fifty years ago, we were projected to be commuting to the space wheel in the sky, with a four-day workweek and loads of playtime for interesting new social games. It appears that the experts guessed wrong. By all accounts, the coming years will be dirtier, noisier, and more crowded, if not busier. This is what made the movie Blade Runner so special, besides the twisted ending. The future is open to interpretation, but whatever world is designed for a story, it must be a logical extension of its own history. In Dune, the author included a lexicon inn the back pages, and, to his many readers, it’s a road map for a real world.

Where is the story location?

Story scenes occur in one or more locations. These are physical locations on the planet or in the imaginary world of the writer, although placement is not the only consideration of setting location. A story focus varies from a wide to a tight view. One writer may traverse the global landscape in pursuit of a story, while another remains in the same room for the duration. In either case, writers seek the extraordinary details, and much like character details, even the most mundane parts can achieve intrigue and brilliance.

What is life like in the story?

This is a broad question, involving many aspects of life at a particular location and moment in time. A writer considers food, clothing, transportation, education, occupation, religion, and language, and the list of possibilities is much larger. Any social behavior or lifestyle element may be useful to the story. The Pennsylvania Amish live differently than people fifty miles away in downtown Philadelphia. While each is somewhat aware of the other, individuals remain bound to the customs and circumstances of geography and culture.

Tips for Applying Setting:

  • Using setting details is a lot like using character details. Apply them in proportion to their importance to and impact on the story. Every word that appears in the text garners attention. If the writer embellishes a particular aspect, the reader will assume it’s important.
  • Seek interesting details, over the common or mundane. In a present day setting, everyone has a good idea how a steaming coffee mug looks, smells, and feels. On the other hand, the same cup of coffee assumes a new dimension in another time period. In 1776, coffee might take thirty minutes to prepare, while in 2220, coffee might enter your hydration tube at the mere thought of it.
  • Employ characters to interpret the setting in their thoughts and words, rather than straightforward narrative passages. The story will perform double duty, fleshing out the characters and surroundings at the same time.
  • If the story must include pure descriptions in the narrative, try embedding inside passages of dialogue. The landscape will be built without the reader hearing your construction noises in the background.
  • When incorporating setting into a scene, try to include all of the senses. Most of us absorb life with our eyes, followed by our ears and nose, but remember to include touch and taste. These senses become more poignant in a well-crafted story.
  • Setting can facilitate entrances and exits to scenes. The natural machinations of a particular place can provide opportunities to nail down the point and exit the scene.
  • Certain settings can amplify the tension—a bad storm, a lousy neighborhood, a creaking floor.

The list of possible devices and uses is endless. Setting helps, but it’s not a cure-all. However, if the setting isn’t sufficient, the reader will be lost in white room syndrome without a sense of time and place.

Previously in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

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Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout

by Lauren Redniss
It Books

book review by Christopher Klim

“We lived in preoccupation as complete as that of a dream.”

Before STEM Programs, before Title 9, before the Suffragettes, Marie “Madame” Curie blazed a path for science and women that marks history. Pioneering research in radioactivity—a word coined by her—Curie discovered two elements (Polonium, named for her beloved Poland, and Radium). In doing so, she established a new science and became the first female professor at the Sorbonne. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the only person to win it twice for science. For a scientist, filling in even one square on the periodic table is a big deal, and she discovered two. Her research sprawls through chemistry, physics, and medicine to this day, including its long-lasting cultural implications. She ultimately sacrificed her life, dying from radiation exposure prior to a true understanding of the risk. Effectively she pioneered this research as well.

Curie is a progenitor of the Nuclear Age, and the book branches out tangentially in subject matter, never leaving the realm of radiation and its effect upon society. In addition to Curie and her beloved co-scientist Pierre, alternate voices speak throughout the narrative, such as friend and colleague Albert Einstein or the man who dug nuclear bomb test site tunnels in Nevada. Some of these witnesses to radiation knew Curie; others only benefited or saw their life redirected by her discoveries. Together they quilt a complete picture, not only of Curie’s life and work, but of the way we live now.

Few books form a lasting record. Insightful, gorgeous, a luxury of thought and sight, Redniss’ book delivers one such gift. It tantalizes both the scientist and the layman with gorgeous illustrations, accessible science, and personal reflections of the great scientist. It steps back to take a wider view, examining the course of history through radiation, and it’s bound together with an artist’s touch. It’s the kind of book that makes you think who should be awarded it as a gift.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wandering Plots

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Perhaps the worst killers of books, albeit fiction or nonfiction, are narratives that lead nowhere fast or, even, those that meander over long periods of time. It’s a primary violation of the contract with the reader: a book that says nothing or accomplishes little. For a period leading up to the 1990s, the bookstore shelves were brimming with beautiful prose seeming to serve either the author or a higher sense of literature. They gained prizes and put us to sleep faster than a late night PBS documentary. They helped to kick the industry in the gut and, in the end, to transform mainstream publishing into what it is today, for better or worse.

While beautiful prose can be stunning in tight space—for example that which is found in better poetry—a book requires readers to stay focused for the long haul in a world with an increasingly shorter attention span. Sooner or later, the much-maligned concept of plotting will enter the writer’s thoughts, and if every book is a journey, plotting is having clues about the trip.

A story journey begins when a character asks: What do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Strong characters take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. In a strong plot, the story questions are presented as early as possible. Readers align with the desire of the main character and prepare for the trials and tribulations of satisfying it. When it is obscured by fuzzy plot direction or too much background information, the story is regarded as going nowhere or wandering. Those are apt descriptions.

What is drama? To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, drama is life without the boring bits. He understood drama. Did you ever see a boring Hitchcock movie? He sketched storyboards—sequential depictions of characters in action. He left nothing to chance, maintaining an eye on the dramatic core of each scene. Some accuse Hitchcock of being calculating and manipulative. Yes indeed, and we thank him for it.

So in the spirit of Hitchcock, who by the way was a guidepost for a young Steven Spielberg, let’s employ the Scene and Sequel technique. It’s a method that can be applied to any book to make its plot stronger.

The Scene

A scene is the basic unit of a story. It is one step in the journey. It can expand over multiple chapters, or more than one scene can exist within a chapter, but a scene is easily removed from the entire story line and analyzed for its merits. When analyzing a scene, look for its dramatic core.

What is the objective? The main character in the scene is trying to accomplish something. This is a sub-goal of the character’s greater story desire. Answering this question gives the scene focus, not to mention an agenda.

What is the problem? A known complication hinders the objective. This may be a personal flaw or problem developed in the story line, but the character cannot reach his objective, unless the character acts upon the problem.

Where is the conflict? A person or thing threatens resolution of the objective. While solving the problem, the character encounters dramatic opposition from another source, thereby threatening a positive outcome.

What is the outcome? At the climax of the scene, the character’s objective is answered in some fashion. The answer progresses the story line and changes the character’s mental, emotional, or physical state.

The Sequel

A sequel appears after a scene. It is an opportunity for the character to digest the previous action. There are three major aspects of a sequel.

Cognition: what does the character think about the previous scene? This is the character’s perception of the recent events.

Emotion: how does the character feel about the previous events? This is the emotional response.

Decision: what will the character do next? The character brings sense and reasoning together to make a decision.

The scene and sequel method is a tool. When a writer approaches a scene, he or she considers who is in the scene, what they are trying to accomplish, where the scene takes place, where it fits on the story line, where lies the dramatic core, and how everything will end up. The scene sketching method above assists the understanding process. Employ it when stuck in a scene that lacks drama. Its pointed questions will expose a scene’s particular weaknesses. Refocusing a scene/sequel or eliminating it entirely—don’t be afraid to cut when necessary—will strengthen the overall plot. It might just save a plot from dying.

Next in The Book Killers series: White Room

Previously in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

Last Stories

by William Trevor
Viking

book review by Christopher Klim

“He slept and waited still, but he knew in dreams that only angels were is solace.”

William Trevor posthumously delivers his final collection of stories in the aptly titled, Last Stories. Widely considered a master of the short form, Trevor does not disappoint in this assembly of late and mostly unseen work. We’ll dispense quickly with the accolades, which include prizes short and tall and at least ten New York Times bestsellers, some of which occurred in a time when the public has nearly ceased reading literary works and especially short stories. It suffices to say that more than one writer, during Trevor’s eighty-eight years, today works in the short form because of this author, and this trend will no doubt continue.

Trevor inhabits his characters, running the nuance of their thoughts without the navel-gazing of too many modern writers. These are not always likable people. We are appalled by their humanity, we blush at their foolishness, and we sometimes desire to close the book on them, but we have to know. These are not archetypes. There are no heroes, and we won’t be bowled over with pyrotechnics or punched by absurdity, but the characters will resonate and linger. Trevor appeared to love people for all their warts and wants. This and his entire body of work proves it.

During his narratives, the author throttles with expert control. Whether it be the express train or, as seen more often, the local crawl, all of this is taking us somewhere, most often to Trevor’s patented final twist. Unless you’re familiar with his work, it’s difficult to explain exactly how he does it. We should anticipate a final shift during the read, but it takes us by surprise. When his insights are laid bare, he exists without another word. This economy is part of his craft. We’re left with the feeling that we’ve been given the privilege of entering a Trevor live character sketch and suddenly a story pops up around it.

So that’s the crash course in William Trevor.

In honor of Mr. Trevor and in keeping with the spirit of his work, we’re going to keep this review short, and without knowing whether Trevor was a tea toddler or not, we raise a glass of fine whiskey to a glorious life in letters. We hope you pick up this latest work or one of his other exquisite collections. You couldn’t pass a summer’s day in better fashion.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Dead Dialogue

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

There are many ways to deliver dead dialogue upon arrival. Flabby, unfocused, and unnatural conversation between characters will kill a book in the best places. Certain readers gloss over narratives, but bear down on the stretches of dialogue. It’s like bugging a nearby conversation, hoping to hear special information uncovered, but poor dialogue disappoints every time, and shakes believability in the characters. Let’s take a look at ways to strengthen dialogue.

Let Them Speak for Themselves

Forced or unnatural conversations betray both the character and writer. When a writer stuffs words and information into the mouths of those in the scene, he creates a bad drama on stage for the purposes of transporting the story. Before the characters can even talk, the writer must understand who they are. When well-drawn characters enter a scene, they begin speaking for themselves. Their cadence and word choice will be a product of their histories and what they desire. They’ll reveal secrets in the subtext. As Robert Stone once said, “All dialogue is a conversation with the soul.”

Keep It Real, But…

While strong characters have a unique manner of speech, too much of it offers speed bumps in the exchange. It forces the reader to constantly interpret to discover the inner meaning of their words. Consider sprinkling dialect and inflection indicators throughout the conversation, instead of marking every instance. Readers will begin hearing the unique voice, without the authorial stage direction. The same goes for dialogue modifiers—those fantastic adverbs that describe their tone. Well-written dialogue wrought through great characters and circumstance will imply the tone without having to describe it.

Tighten Up

In real life, not all conversation has a purpose. We sit over drinks or on the phone and pass the time, revealing nuggets of life along the way. Perhaps, all we gather is a sense of how the other person is feeling at the moment. In a written work, idle conversation is death for the narrative flow, when it should form some of the most interesting stretches.  Great authors effectively enter conversation during its key moments and exit when nothing important is said or when the central message has been delivered. Even within those moments, they trim out the fat, employing color only for impact and to illuminate circumstance and character.

Hear the Voices

Now, we’re dropping back before the first bit of dialogue is written, before the first character exists. Prior to drawing great characters and letting them speak, writers must become a student of voice—both specifically and in general. Everyone speaks differently and at different moments. They reveal the truth on different levels. Eavesdrop on people talking. Be quiet and listen. Learn to hear not only how people speak, but the subtext that emerges within the conversation. For example, liars or those hiding information will say much in the unsaid. Fearful or grieving people will skirt that which affects them most.

To a skilled writer, dialogue arrives fluidly. She knows how and what the characters must say. Others have an inexplicable natural talent for delivering stunning conversation on the page. Many biographers select key moments to insert a phrase or passage that brings the figure to life. This occurs also in fiction, although generally on a wider palette where exact quotations are not required. In all narrative forms, dialogue is one of the writer’s greatest tools, which cannot be overexploited, but can be poorly employed.

Next in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Previously in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View

 

 

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America

by Beth Macy
Little Brown

book review by Christopher Klim

“In a region where few businesses dare to set up shop because it’s hard to find workers who can pass a drug test, young parents can die of a heroin overdose one day, leaving their untended baby to succumb to dehydration and starvation three days later.”

Lately, it appears that it’s women doing real journalism in America. Whether it’s Sharyl Attkisson fighting for truth in reporting or Sarah Carter exposing corruption in the US Justice Department, they dig for facts to reveal the salient story. Now it’s Beth Macy’s turn. Hardly her first dive into a story, Macy plumbs the depths of the country’s very sad and particularly dangerous opioid epidemic. It’s a compelling and necessary read. And, by the way, all three women deserve a Pulitzer Prize nomination at the very least.

Macy’s Dopesick begins within the offices of a powerful corporation—Purdue Pharma—which suppressed the addiction rates of their super new painkiller OxyContin and hyper-marketed it throughout the medical community. Their plan was shrewd; their aspirations ruthless and profits large. Addiction came easy. Suddenly cutting off a patient’s prescription was no longer a solution. Logic isn’t a part of an addict’s brain; it’s been reconfigured by the drug. Sooner than later, people spilled onto the streets for a fix, and chaos ensued.

At the turn of the century, in places like the rural and economically collapsed communities of Appalachia, where Macy devotes most of her story, illegal opioid use blossomed, out of view from the rest of the country. However, sophisticated drug dealers in the cities had witnessed spikes in demand before, and the country folk wandering into town for large supplies of heroin was a rainmaker clue. Aided by the interstate highway system, profiteers organized networks of user-dealers to supply the burgeoning black market. The problem quickly transformed into a hydra. Police couldn’t keep up with the addicts committing crimes to feed their need. Families lost loved ones, barely recognizing the problem until it was too late. Hospitals were ill-prepared for this new wave of disease. The courts were outdated in their approach, as well. People from all walks of life suddenly began dropping dead.

Many factors go into the making of a widespread addiction: poverty, desperation, ignorance, greed, and plain bad luck. This modern opium war knows no boundaries. Your next door neighbor, for example, gets an injury, takes painkillers at the advice of a physician, and within weeks—sometimes days—he’s addicted. This is not your casual drug user who gets in over his head story, although there are plenty of those people in this group, too.

Where will this end? Right now, almost 60% of the population knows someone touched by this epidemic, and it’s the leading causes of death among people under the age of fifty. Do we want this to get any worse? And who will stop it? Can we stop it? You may think you’re safe, but wait until next year or even next month. This reviewer lives in an upper middle class east coast community, and he’s heard the stories of opioid addiction from his children and the people he knows. The next historical heroin addiction event is no longer knocking at the door. That was a decade ago, as Macy aptly documents. It’s potentially inside our homes now.

Heavily footnoted and deeply researched, Macy plots the course of disaster for the United States, and we haven’t seen the worst of it yet. On one side, pain management is a legitimate medical course of action, but that’s only part of the issue. Heroin addicts become dope fiends who will do just about anything to feed their habit and avoid the overwhelming “dopesick” feeling of withdrawal. They are good people sucked into a tornado, some by accident, some through ignorance. Spending every dollar, losing every accomplishment, and destroying every relationship appears just a matter of course, and then things get worse. The only hard stop to their fall seems for many to be death. Otherwise, the recovery process is long and fraught with pitfalls and relapses, and the best cures involve alternate prescription opioid intervention.

Spending every dollar, losing every accomplishment, and destroying every relationship appears just a matter of course, and then things get worse. The only hard stop to their fall seems for many to be death. Otherwise, the recovery process is long and fraught with pitfalls and relapses, and the best cures involve alternate prescription opioid intervention.

Considering the fine research and execution within this book—it took Macy five years to write it—one can only conclude that journalism isn’t so much tarnished by fake news, as it is by reporters who refuse to do real work. And there are so many lazy, deceptive reporters afoot. Beth Macy of course is not among their ranks. Her work is vital to the future of an addicted country. She takes you inside with authenticity and compassion—the two very best skills of a modern journalist. She doesn’t have to embellish or thrust her opinions upon us. The facts are bad enough.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Much regarding point of view (POV) is the artist’s decision. A good choice can add salient new insight to a familiar subject, as seen for example in Picasso’s cubism or Patti Smith’s Instagram account. In both, they don’t necessarily discuss themselves, but over the course of time, we learn about the artist and more importantly their subject matter. In literature, the POV is the person or thing guiding the narrative, and the subject is the consequence of their focus.

POV comes in a variety of shades and colors. Simply put, the story narrative will appear in either first person (I, we), second person (you), or third person (he, she, they). Everything else is a hybrid of these three basic modes. POV might vary within a given work, but each POV requires the reader to suspend disbelief differently in order to engage with the narrative. First person asks the reader to get inside the skin of the narrator, second person asks the reader to be the narrator, and third person provides distance from the narrator.

Second person is the trickiest, requiring the reader to relate to the narrator at least in a general sense. In contrast, most readers could wear the skin of a serial killer in first person, since the reader understands that he/she is secretly slipping inside the abhorrent mind of the narrator, but a second person narrative asks the reader to be the serial killer, which is hopefully a no-go area for most readers. Finally, third person can be described—and perhaps over-described by literature and writing teachers—as providing a variety of distances from the subject, ranging from a nearby viewer, who reveals what he/she sees, hears, or induces, to an omnipresent seer, who can relate everything from the minds of the players to that which has happened off-screen and any point on the timeline.

In all POVs, the narrator is further moderated by reliability. As with real people, the narrator is effected by his/her own past and thought patterns, and therefore interprets events through this lens. The narrator might also be self-deluded for a variety of reasons (i.e. fear, conceit, mental illness, etc.). When intervieweing people at a crime scene, investigators will hear vastly different accounts of the same event. A narrator who runs askew of the facts is referred to as an “unreliable narrator.” Everything from the events, and especially the reasons for them, cannot be trusted from an unreliable narrator, and the reader may only learn this over time. Lolita‘s self-deluded child predator, Humbert Humbert, is a prime example of the unreliable narrator. Nabokov, helped by the fact that Lolita is no angel, manages dark irony through Humbolt’s ultimately pathetic voice.

Regardless of your choice of POV, two factors emerge to support the work: authenticity and saliency.

Authenticity is not necessarily reliability. Authentic narrators involve accuracy in the character’s portrayal. An obsessed narrator, as Lolita‘s Humbert, or a mentally ill narrator, as in Everything Burns’s pyromaniac Oscar Van Hise, form gripping reads. Neither of these narrators are reliable, but they are true to their deluded selves and draw razor sharp accuracy of events. Both characters form the archetype of a villain, which can be useful narration for the story. Therefore, their characters are authentic, holding the reader in place and heightening the drama. Deriving authenticity in the narrator is not only essential, but it requires deep understanding of the character. An unreliable narrator can be a wonderful way to commute the story, but an inauthentic character portrayal will ground the story to a halt.

On the other hand, saliency in the POV character involves that which stands head and shoulders above all else. This speaks directly to the choice of POV character. The modern world presents a great deal of navel gazing characters, and therefore the popular voice in literature today is predominantly a deep first person narrative, whether it be reliable or not. Here we follow the slipstream of consciousness—that ebb and flow of self-awareness—but is first person the best choice for the story? Sometimes it’s more effective to take a step away within a third person narration, allowing a wider view of events while avoiding unnecessary and uninteresting intimate details. In first person, the author tends to have to account for every moment in time, often moving forward by only breaking from the scene. Meanwhile, third person allows for the easy passage of time, skipping around the timeline, events, and details as needed.

Which choice of POV character is the best? This selection is not always clear. Changing the POV provides a different level of experience, maturity, and perspective. What is the story trying to accomplish? What is the story’s theme, tone, or genre? How much does the narrator need to know or get involved? Each of these questions must be answered before the narrator takes control. A story crashes when a POV character suddenly narrates out of character. She may know things she couldn’t. He may appear at a moment where he shouldn’t. He or she may do or feel as they would not. Forced POV is as obvious as an awkward metaphor.

There are many ways to select a weak POV. Most recently, there’s been a preponderance of a child’s POV dominating adult novels. While this might work for the short form, often a better choice exists with an adult POV character. Even if events surrounding a child are dramatic, a child’s ability to interpret events is limited. Remember, readers must not only be compelled to engage the narrative, but the reader needs to be convinced to stay with it.

Study those who have gone before. The choice of Lolita as the predominant character in Lolita would have stifled the narrative and eliminated the irony. The story would have been different, pathetic even. Never revealing Oscar Van Hise’s motivations for arson would have reduced both the depth and urgency of Everything Burn‘s drama. Van Hise’s reclusive, secretive nature would have been impossible to capture, and he’d be a two-dimensional antagonist, found so popularly in television crime dramas. In each, the POV character was vital to what the author was trying to accomplish beyond the events of the story alone. The reader is left feeling and thinking in a particular way. The POV characters took them to those heights, or lows, in an authentic and natural way.

In the end, art is a dialogue between the artist and viewer. Otherwise the work derives little lasting meaning. In all art dialogues, the secrets of the artist are laid bare, but we are not typically focused on them. To paraphrase seminal playwright Arthur Miller: Our best work occurs where we are most naked. As the viewer of the work, we delve into the core of the narrative as dictated by the POV and subconsciously digest the author’s insights and bits of the author as well. In the best of art, wrought through a transporting POV, we leave with new insights of our own.

Next in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

Previously in The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings