Monday, September 26, 2011

POV: First Person-John Marsden

A few years ago I took an online class through the Writer Studio that was an extraordinary learning experience. The goal was to read a small piece of a story and identify the tools the narrator used to tell the story. Exercises required us to create a similar narrator who used the same tools to tell their story as the one we had read.

I'm teaching a class on point of view at the local university's continuing education program, using a similar pattern. I thought sharing here might be helpful to you, too.

So, let's start with Australian author John Marsden's book The Night is For Hunting.
Here's the blurb from GoodReads to give you a feel for the book.

Amidst a brutal war with no end in sight, Ellie and her four remaining friends discover that their hidden refuge becomes a crowded place when they decide to care for an uncooperative crew of orphans. Things only get worse when Ellie and Homer learn that mysterious visitors have discovered their sanctuary. Has the enemy found them out? Five ordinary teens brave the worst in this electrifying continuation of their battle to stay safe and sane in a war zone that was once their home.

Chapter One begins like this:

It was hot and dusty. The sun sat up there all day without moving. It saw everything and it forgave nothing. Sometimes it seemed like you were alone in the world, you and the sun, and at those times you could understand why people in the old days feared and worshipped it.
            I hated the sun. For months on end it had no mercy. It burned everything. Everything that wasn’t covered or hidden or fed with water, it burned.
            It was mid-December and we were forty milliliters down on the monthly average. The dams looked like muddy pools, and the stock hung around in the drying mud, more interested in staying cool than in eating. Three of us were working in the yards: Dad, Quentin, and me. Quentin had been late, as usual, and that got Dad snarling. 

The tools this narrator uses:
Ellie begins with a memory. She starts with a description of the landscape, then moves to the scene occurring within that landscape and creates it with intricate details that make us feel like we’re right there with her and her father and the vet as they cull the "empty" heifers, the ones not pregnant. We don’t know immediately that it is a memory, but by the time we do, we understand what this PN has lost. She has last her parents, her friends, and life in any normal sense of the word. 

Later in Chapter one:

Other people used tranquilizers or grog or drugs I suppose, to shut out awful grey realities. I didn’t have those but I wouldn’t have taken them anyway. I clung to my daydreams, and tried to use them. They weren’t enough, not by a long way, but they were something. On the really depressing days they were all I had.
            Daydreams could be dangerous though. On my school reports teachers wrote “Needs to concentrate harder.” It didn’t bother me much back then. But in this war concentration became a matter of life and death. You missed hearing a twig break, you were dead. You ignored a truck parked off the side of the road, you were caught in a trap. You blocked out your sense that something wasn’t quite right, and the next minute you were lying on the ground with a gun pressed in your neck.
            And it wasn’t just yourself who got wiped out. You could kill your friends by not concentrating. 

The tools:
The narrator uses “you” as a substitute for “I”. It’s a device that includes the reader in the story, makes the reader feel as if s/he were there beside the PN. This device also allows Ellie to distance herself from emotions or actions she does not feel are acceptable—wanting to beat the heifer with a shovel, the death of a friend that resulted from inattention. And in those moments she reveals herself, the fact that she has done/felt these things and the fact that she is not proud of them and feels guilt as a result.

The narrator's tone is poetic and conversational, but the mood behind it, the emotion the narrator wants the reader to feel is hopeless and dark.

The purpose of all this analysis is to experiment with these same tools. Try it.

Create a first person narrator who uses a conversational tone with poetic overtones. Begin with a scene that is a memory. Use "you" to include the reader and distance the narrator from a painful situation. 

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