Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Getting to perception

Some writers who want to practice deep POV might get too deep, narrating perception (what the character feels, senses, sees, hears) but not the action (reaching and touching, turning head, opening eyes, cocking her head to listen) that leads to the perception. But the reader needs both-- needs to know what action led to the perception.
Here's an example of perception without action:

The door slammed shut behind her. The rain cooled her burning face.

See how passive that is. The character is experiencing (door slamming shut, rain cooling, face burning). But she's not acting. Imagine inserting an action in there that shows her interacting in some way with this surrounding. Like:
The door slammed shut behind her. She turned and opened it and slammed it herself, just to show him. Then she straightened her shoulders and strode down the steps, the rain cooling her burning face.

I often over-narrate, setting up the rain thing earlier in the passage, because I figure you notice right away that it's raining. But maybe she's so mad she doesn't notice right away (in which case-- I told you, I over-narrate-- I'd probably have something like, "Only then did she notice the rain cooling her burning face"). Not saying anyone else should do that. Just that I do.

Now you might say there are some perceptions that don't require an action. For example, you might say that feeling heat or cold just happens, that you don't have to move in order to experience. Or seeing a flash of light or hearing a sudden shout. But:
1) Some perception requires or benefits from an preceding action to anchor the perception in the surroundings or the character's movement through the scene.
2) Action is more volitional than perception, and so can often better express what this person wants or is willing to do.
3) Keeping the character moving will mean a more active narrative, and will also make for a more active character. This isn't just someone who "feels," but someone who does.
4) An action before the perception can help focus the reader's attention on the character. Even perceptions like a flash of light could be emphasized as startling or unexpected or expected or dangerous by showing the character's action. (Go with the logic here-- the action might have to come after the perception sometimes. What comes first logically?)
5) An action first can be a physical transition between one place or stance and another. That way the narration is flowing, not jumping.
6) An action can also set up a surprise or change, force this to be more than a perception but also something that forces more action.

It was rain, wasn't it? She stopped on the first step and raised her hand to her face, and it came away sticky. She stared at her fingers, red in the pale glow of the porchlight.



John H said...

Nice review. I think i both do and don't do what you say there. I definitely have actions, but maybe not enough to smooth my narration. A few things for me to think about.

I think my problem is I have too much action and not enough perception. I rely on physical actions to show how someone is feeling and there is only so many ways you can show someone is shocked or suprised or scared or whatever before you start repeating yourself, so i need to put some more perception into my writing.

Anonymous said...

I just spent half a morning struggling with this. I began with:

As they went back to the cottage, Kyriel stopped so quickly that Alyssa cannoned into his shoulder.

"What's the matter?" Alyssa asked in alarm. "Did you forget something?"

Which is godawful, and ended up with:

In evening sunshine, Kyriel and Alyssa walked across the gravel toward the back door. Kyriel stopped so suddenly that Alyssa cannoned into his shoulder.
“What’s the matter?” Alyssa asked when she’d straightened up. “Did you forget something?”

Which, to me, is still awkward as hell and doesn't show the 'surprise' moment of his stopping abruptly.

Gah, this is *hard*.


Edittorrent said...

Sue, it matters which POV you're in, don't you think? If you're in Alyssa's POV, she won't notice that she stops until she runs into him?
Or maybe he stops and she can't stop herself in time?

Put yourself in her body, and see what the sequence is.


Anonymous said...

Ah, right, so I am 'telling' it rather than letting folk experience it through her. Mm, let me see.


green_knight said...

Alicia, thanks for this. It's exceedingly useful. I am grappling with in-the-moment narration right now, and this is another part to the puzzle - it's not enough that we have concrete details we can observe happening (the door slams, the rain falls) but having the character _act_ makes all the difference.

Edittorrent said...

You're right, GK, it's "in-the-moment"ness. It's interesting because sometimes, as makolyi's example shows, it's not always precisely rational which comes first-- the event? the action? the perception? I think that "in the moment" can help with that. What happens in what sequence in that moment?