Leading the Witness

Almost perfectI read a book this weekend that very nearly fell at the first hurdle. My interest wavered the minute I learned, on page one, that ‘we are expecting a visit from the vicar, Mr Brown,’ as though the character addressed had forgotten the name of this regular caller; and worse, from a mother to her daughter: ‘ever since your husband David drowned five years ago…’ (I’ve changed the names to protect the guilty.)

When you, the reader, open a book, you walk into a room populated by real people who can’t see you. Nothing should be explained specifically for you, because you’re only there as an invisible, though interested, witness. You should hear voices, see faces, actions and mannerisms exactly as you would if you were physically present, and, in particular, as if you inhabit the body of the person from whose point of view the scene is being shown.

You’re the ghost in the machine, not a visitor being guided round an exhibition. ‘Look – over there is a villain. He is plotting the overthrow of the juvenile lead’s father. Look, there’s the juvenile lead; he failed his exams and had to come home, and he’s feeling so guilty and resentful that tomorrow he’ll steal some money and go on a spree.’

Facts cannot be doled out for your benefit, to explain what you cannot yet know. Of course you can’t know them – you’ve only just arrived; but if the writer has a little patience, he can fill in these gaps in your knowledge without handing them to you as a fact-sheet. In my opening examples, it is wholly unnecessary to name the vicar at all, as he plays no further part in the book. As for the dearly departed, his widow is fully aware of the how, when and where of his demise; if it is important, the reader may learn these in the course of the story, or in some comment to another person who is similarly in the dark.

The fact-sheet approach is telling, not showing, at its worst. I once read a novel set in Regency England, where the author had done his homework, and didn’t want to waste a single piece of it. He had a character visiting the hero’s London townhouse, and so keen was he to tell us what he had learned about such places, he listed every single room – to the extent of using the word ‘room’ thirty-two times in eight consecutive paragraphs. Apart from being crushingly boring, it was nearly all irrelevant; the characters were going to use three of those salons in the whole course of the story.

One of the worst faults is the line that begins, ‘What she didn’t know was…’ If she doesn’t know it at this point, neither should you. Any writer who uses this ploy is giving you a nudge and a wink, which is simply amateurish. You should not be given privileged or advance information in an authorial aside.

It’s the author’s job to make you, the reader, feel included, not peering in through the window from an emotional remove. Your awareness of yourself should vanish; you should be consumed completely by the events on the page. You should be in that room, desperate to help the character in difficulties, willing the heroine not to trust the villain, or cheering on the hero to make it to the house in time to prevent disaster. You should be involved.

There are many ways a writer can shut you out, trapping your fingers in the door on the way so that you don’t want to come back. Changing the narrative point of view is one example. Here you are, in that room, looking through the eyes of the girl handing out the drinks. She’s got a fascinating insight into who’s who, and you’re enjoying what she has to tell you; a moment later, you’re looking through the eyes of the villain plotting silently in the corner – which is all very fascinating, but how did you get there? When you are then shifted back to the servant, or into the head of the lead juvenile, you’re being shown what you have no right to see.

As the ghost in the machine, you are witness to the proceedings; you know the villain is plotting because the narrative voice – the servant girl – can look and read his expression. You know the juvenile lead is worried because she sees him biting the corners of his nails. What you cannot do is see everything from everyone’s viewpoint – any more than you could if you stood in any real room.

The author, of course, knows what every single character is thinking, and what they did yesterday and will go on to do tomorrow. These people are his creations, all there for a purpose (hopefully). It’s his job to reveal traits and deeds as matters unfold. What he can’t do, if he wants you to stick around, is hand you a list in advance. He needs to let you learn the slow way.

He needs to let you make discoveries of your own – that’s part of the joy of being a reader; and when all’s said, it’s you he’s writing for. If he treats you like an infant, you have the right to drop the book in the bin and find something else to read. Better yet, ask for your money back.

The author has to learn, too – but preferably the fast way.

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About Lorraine Swoboda

Author of Mrs Calcott's Army. I write about the creation of a novel. It's a complete mystery, but I've done it. I also write about the basic building blocks of writing - grammar, punctuation, and those niggling things that you know don't sound quite right but you can't work out why. Writing is 20% inspiration, 40% perspiration, and 40% staring at the screen wondering what I pressed to make it do that.

3 responses to “Leading the Witness”

  1. Patsy says :

    I wouldn’t have got past the first page of that book. Having the characters say things entirely for the reader’s benefit is one of my pet hates. (There are many)


  2. Liz Young says :

    Well said. I have started reading a book I picked up because it’s on the New York Times bestseller list. “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his”.

    It is already annoying me intensely with such gaffes as you mention here.


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