Thursday, September 29, 2011

Choose Your Point of View

Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs is the last novel the students are reading this semester, yet the first to feature third person narration and multiple characters’ point of view.  The novel shares its narration between six narrators: Clarice Starling, Hannibal Lecter, Jack Crawford, Jame Gumb, Dr. Chilton, and Catherine Martin.

In class, the students discussed the advantages and disadvantages of multiple narrators and first and third person point of view.  They also talked about how The Silence of the Lambs would read if it were all in Clarice’s point of view, and what purpose the book’s subplots served.

“If you didn’t know what Jame Gumb was doing the whole time, it would take so much tension out of the book,” said Aaron Wittwer, referring to the novel’s serial killer.  In the book, Harris shows the readers Gumb’s abduction of Catherine Martin and uses his thoughts about when to kill her to create a “ticking clock” in the book.

However, revealing the serial killer’s identity early on created a new challenge for Harris: if the killer has already been revealed to the audience, other methods must be used to heighten the tension.  Harris created that tension with Catherine’s abduction, among other scenes such as the FBI closing in on the wrong location while Clarice unknowingly enters the murderer’s home.

The students suggested that the varieties of characters and subplots kept the story interesting.

“[The Crawford subplot] enabled Clarice to be involved more heavily,” said Spencer McNelly.  Jack Crawford’s dying wife, Bella, keeps him away from his work in the novel, allowing the trainee Clarice to have more exposure to the case.

“I thought this book would be really boring if it were just in the first person,” Chris Smith said.  “With all these different characters it would keep the plot moving.”

The students also wrote about the narration in their weekly quiz, answering the question: “What if the book was written in the first person rather than the third?  What if this first person point of view NEVER veered into other points of view?

“Because the book is from the perspective of multiple characters first person could have confused the reader.  Personally I like first person novels because I feel like I’m more in the story, but in this scenario, you would have to be and relate to too many people.  I think it has all the possibility in the world to become a jumbled mess that way. The usual downside of third person, however, is that you have this unknown, omniscient narrator who knows too much without reason.  The narration becomes an invisible character which usually bothers me.  I think Harris did a good job avoiding that here by only releasing information as the characters know it.  It feels like you’re in the story with them rather than watching them from a distance while they try to learn what you already know (which is boring).” – Mo Smith

“If the book had been written in first person it would have limited Harris’s ability to build tension and suspense.  By allowing for multiple characters to exist in this third person narrative, Harris is able to build drama by switching between the various characters during highly intense moments.  When something is discovered by one character, the chapter will often end on a cliffhanger and switch to another character.  This also helps to emphasize the ticking clock element as we are able to see Buffalo Bill’s progress while the FBI and Starling rush to uncover his identity and location.  This enhances the effect of all obstacles that Starling encounters.  In first person we would get a more personal, internalized view of Starling’s psyche, and it might become more of a singular character study than the fast-paced thriller it is.
The Silence of the Lambs group from left to right, Spencer McNelly, Clay Carter, Aaron Wittwer, Casey Alexander, and Chris Smith.

The discussion then turned to the students’ own writings.

“How do you know what point of view to use when you’re writing a novel?” Cathy Day asked.

The class’s answered varied, with students taking into account pacing, plot, and how close to the characters they wanted the reader to be, among other concerns.

Christine Gyselinck discussed how she had begun writing from one character’s viewpoint before switching to another’s.  “I’d rather have someone’s personality involved in it, so I changed [the point of view] to another character,” she said.

There is no “best” point of view across the board.  The type of viewpoint (and the number of characters who hold a viewpoint) depends on the sort of story that the author has in mind. A first person point of view works well when the writer wants to have readers experience the world through a character’s eyes and learn new information with that character.  A third person view allows for more versatility and information to be added to the story.  But there’s no right or wrong, as the students agreed.  There is only what works for the story you’re imagining, so take the time to experiment and see what works best for you.

- Lauren Burch

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