Summer School-How To Write Your Peace Corps Book, Lesson # 5

“Every story has a storyteller.”
– John Coyne

For this lesson I will discusses:

  • Point of view
  • Scenes
  • Chapters

Point of View

William Faulkner called “point of view” the source of a story. Point of view is a term that refers to the relationships between the storyteller, the story, and the reader. We can tell our stories from different points of view:download3

– First-person
– Third-person

(On occasion you may find stories, usually short stories that are told from the second-person, “you,” which is unusual and extremely difficult to pull off as a narrative.)

A story being told in the third-person point of view can be done in two ways:

1. The Omniscient Storyteller goes everywhere, knows everything, can read the minds of the characters, and comments when he or she wants.

2. The opposite of the Omniscient Storyteller is the Direct Observer. The Direct Observer has no memory of the past, no understanding of the present. He is, for example, like a fly on the wall, recording the scene. This point of view is best for a story that is all action and dialogue. Read Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” for a good example of a story told by a direct observer.

Even though you are telling YOUR Peace Corps story, it is not necessary that you tell it from the first-person. The natural inclination for many of us is to tell our story using the third-person, that way we stay out of the narrative, and tell the reader what is happening from the viewpoint of an outsider. It is an effective device.

Your Peace Corps story is a very personal story, so you may be tempted to tell it from the first-person point-of-view, but it is harder to tell. When it works, however, it really works. As the I of the story, the reader walks with you. As you move, the reader moves. As you discover, the reader discovers.

There are two possible first-persons approaches.

1. The person telling the story, the is the main character. Think of Catcher in the Rye.

2. Or the person telling the story, the “I,” is an observer of the main character. Think of The Great Gatsby.

Now to make this a little more complex there is another device:

3. Suppressed first-person

The following passage by Debra Denker illustrates the third approach. She’s writing about the war in Afghanistan for a “National Geographic” article published in 1985, when Russia invaded the country.debra-retouched

“The sun is nearly on the edge of the sharp, snow-covered peaks and ridges that mark the far limits of the valley where Mustafa stops and points to a cluster of nondescript mud buildings on a hilltop about a kilometer away. The fort at Al Khel appears deserted, but inside are Afghan government soldiers and some Soviet officers. Mustafa tells me to stay behind the wall, out of direct line of sight and fire.”

What do we have here? You are in Afghanistan, crouched behind that wall. A first-person narrative took you there, but the first-person technique arrived in a subtle way. You reached the end of the paragraph before you learned that the paragraph was written from a first-person viewpoint. Your only cue was the little word me, tucked into the last sentence.

What if it had been written another way? What if it began?

“I saw that the sun was nearly on the edge of . . ..” A sense of surprise, a sense of mystery would have been lost.

By suppressing her appearance in the narrative, Debra Denker, makes the focus of her writing the scene itself. Then having established the scene, she unobtrusively introduces herself.

You don’t have to write your book this way, but think of the usefulness of this technique of suppressed first-person viewpoint to tell your first-person story.

Look, for example, at the long opening sentence of Sarah Erdman’s book. She sets a scene, and then introduces herself. It’s a nice way to bring the reader into the story, and then nail it down with the “I” of the narrator. Remember this: the opening of your book is like the raising of a curtain on a play.

Scenes

When setting a scene, anyone who writes – or who has taken any writing classes – should knows that one must “show, not tell.” Nonfiction writers often think, however, that this technique is wrong for them – that it is borrowing from novelists. Wrong. Don’t think that you are “making up a scene” (but that is okay, too), think of setting a scene as just another part of the narrative.

What is important in any scene is the selection of facts. You can have an encyclopedic level of facts, but what is needed is an emotional connection with the facts to make the scene work. What is important is not a list of details, but the right detail. You might want to look, for example, once again at the way Sarah compares the two places of delivery in her opening. She nails down the African scene with: “not a cushion in sight, not a sheet, not a bar of soap, not a bucket of water” and in the American hospital: “blankets, pink or blue, the menu of painkillers, doctors in white coats, etc.”

Here’s another example of ‘setting the scene’. It is from Leonard Levitt’s (Tanzania 1963-65) memoir An African Season, one of the very first Peace Corps memoirs. This is his opening paragraph which begins with going to his ‘site’ and sweeps up the reader in the strangeness of the situation and also suggests (in Levitt’s prose) the initial tenseness (and fear) of the PCV who must be thinking: what the hell did I get myself into?best-levitt

They took us in the Land Rover, Mike and me, with Kim Buck driving. We had planned to leave that morning, as it was a good four hours’ drive, although it was only about sixty miles from Mbeya. But it had taken us the whole morning, just to buy our supplies-tins of paraffin oil, as there was no electricity, they had said, packets of tinned meat and vegetables and fruit and bread, as they weren’t exactly sure what the food situation would be like down there, things for the house like chairs and paint and brushes and nails, a hammer, rope, string, soap, a basin, a bucket-all things I would never have thought to buy but that Mike said were necessary. And then trying to fit it all into the Land Rover, with Kim Buck muttering we were going to be late as hell, giving orders which neither of us could understand, to place this inside the door here, no, not there, and that underneath this and this on top of that…

Chapters

A chapter can be comprised of one or several scenes. But a chapter must be designed as a piece of writing that stands alone; yet it must fit into a larger piece of writing, a book. As you try different approaches in the organizing and writing of a chapter, you are simultaneously solving similar problems in all the other chapters.

Follow these simple suggestions.

  • Each chapter should contain information not found elsewhere in the book.
  • Each chapter should have a beginning, middle, and end. The reader needs to be able to follow the events of the chapter.
  • Each chapter needs to connect with the next chapter, so that in the linking of chapters, one has a complete book.

One of the major problems everyone has is linking chapters. You can do this in an artificial way. (Remember what I said about creating a structure for my book The Piercing by placing the novel within the season of Lent with each chapter being one of the 40 days?) You can do that as well. For example you can break your book down into periods of your time in the Peace Corps, or seasons of the year. Leonard Levitt (Tanzania 1963-65) did this in his book. He set memoir in the first year and first summer of his tour. If you follow time periods, keep in mind that you don’t have to tell everything that occurred in each time period. Instead select the events/scenes that have an impact on your story just as Levitt did.

Final Thoughts on these Topics

Don’t schedule your writing by chapters. When you finish what you believe is one chapter, keep on writing, start the next chapter so that when you next come back to your writing, you are already launched into the next section or chapter.

Decide how you want to break your book into sections, chapters, or events. Then as you write, jot notes and keep them in paper folders, with each folder representing a section, chapter, or event. In that way you will organize your book and be ready for later rewriting.

Think in terms of a “page-turner” by writing so that when a reader finishes a chapter, she or he wants to see what happens next. This is hard to do, but writers do it every day. It is for this reason that I favor the approach of a beginning, middle, and end.

Finally, remember:

  • What you write in a chapter should relate to the chapter title.
  • Don’t say the same thing more than once.
  • Stay on the chapter theme.
  • Don’t fill the chapter with excess language.

Fifth Assignment

1. Write one new scene – length: 500 to 750 words.

Write this scene twice, each from a different point of view:

A. The first-person.

B. The third-person.

Place a word court at the end of end each version.

C. Then write a third short piece. What is missing from one point-of-view, or what is gained from another point-of-view?

4 Comments

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  • John, This is fantastic! Thank you so much for your instructional writing, which is a lesson in and of itself. The examples you provide are illuminating.

  • You have so many facets as a person, friend, artist, teacher and on and up the lines you crisscross. What lives your journeys take you.

  • John,

    I’ll need to work on this as I think I need to use the 3d person perspective to avoid the proliferation of “I”… I’ll try using this in my rewrite. Cheers,

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