Earlier this year I finished reading Terry Brooks’ “The Sword of Shannara” and through my reading something bugged me. The story was derivative, a clone of Lord of the Rings if you put the two stories and their characters up against a wall and squint.
But the clonage didn’t bother me so much.
Let me break this down…. “The Sword of Shannara” has all the trappings of the fantasy cliche. A farm boy thrust into adventure, forced to live up to a great destiny or the lands will fall to darkness. There’s a quest for a magical item. An evil overload that needs defeating. A wise wizard. Sound familiar? Yet these tried and–some would say–worn cliches don’t rub me the wrong way.
What bugs me is the point of view for the reader constantly switched in the middle of the narrative. From sentence to sentence. Paragraph to paragraph. If there were five characters in a scene chances were I’d read from the perceptive of three or four. This was a high speed tennis match. Think Forest Gump playing table tennis against the Chinese champion. Watching the ball fly back and forth is dizzying. You’re never sure who’s in control at any given moment.
Going forward I won’t bore anyone with a lesson in third, second, and first specific. That’s not the point here.
It’s not unusual for a reader to follow a story through the eyes of several characters. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series has dozens of characters with point of view chapters. But how that works in the Ice and Fire books and most narratives today is each narration switches between chapters. There is a clear break and the reader understands the eyeballs have been swapped out.
So, you might be asking… Is this a rant? What’s my point besides complaining about a book that I clearly enjoyed well enough to keep reading and finish but had issues with nonetheless?
Like I said. I liked “The Sword of Shannara”. I finished reading the book. Whether I’ll eventually read more of the series remains undecided. My main reason for reading “Shannara” is that like Lord of the Rings and Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Brooks’ work defined fantasy for a generations of fantasists. There’s a reason why these books/series are held up as pillars to the current fantasy works being written today. Understanding why they’re pillars is the reason I finished reading “Shannara”. There’s something to learn.
The way Brooks treats the narrative perceptive in his book got me thinking about my own writing, about my preferences in story telling.
“Shannara” doesn’t just switch character perspectives randomly in a scene. In addition to the eyeball switching there is also an omnipresent quality to the storytelling. Even when a character is perceiving the actions in a scene, I as a reader sensed an all-seeing presence interpreting each character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. When reading I got the sense that the future was known and it was being kept from the reader. For that reason, there was a lack of suspense at times.
My own preference is that a story be handled like a found footage movie. There is one camera and that camera is showing the audience the story through the eyes of the character holding the camera. The action is experienced as the character experiences what’s happening, secrets are learned when the character learns the details of the secret.
Sure, when you have multiple point of views from several characters there may be some information the audience learns from one character that another character has yet to learn or experience. There is a lack of suspense when switching to the ignorant character on one level but on another level a different kind of suspense comes from the audience knowing a secret that that character is unaware of. Oh shit! What’s s/he going to do when such and such is found out?? So the reader turns the page because we’re anticipating the reaction. Think of a surprise birthday party. The guests know of the surprise but not the honorable birthday person. Yet the guests are excited for the reveal, to witness the birthday person’s shock, elation, joy of the curtain being pulled back.
Compartmentalizing the narrative by character view point also allows for a more cinematic experience. Again, think of a camera. Where is the lens focused? Who is pointing the camera? And there is the crux of my point: Who is pointing the camera?
Each character is going to focus the camera on different action, or point the camera away in particular unsettling moments. This reveals much about the character’s mind, the emotions, the characters history. Where is a character? In the thick of the action? Far in the back where s/he is safe from peril? Does this character flinch away from violence? Or does the person run to the action? Where is the view lingering?
Watch “Rashomon”. It’s a classic Kurosawa film about the robbery of a traveling samurai and his wife. Death follows. The question in the film becomes who is at fault for the death. Well, the answer is never determined. The story is told from three perspectives, each with its own accounting of the same events. At the end the viewer is left to wonder what really happened. Point is, each witness’ story is self-serving and contradictory.
“Rashomon” is an example of why multiple perspectives with clear delineation between each account is important for storytelling as a whole, to telling a layered and deep narrative.