On Grammatical Person & the Element of Surprise

March 2, 2014

Another Earth Still

I enjoy being surprised as a reader, which makes me ponder the fête as a writer. What choices does a writer make to accomplish this act? Recently, I considered that an aspect of this ability is tied to the amount of imparted information. And the amount of information conveyed to the reader is directly correlated to the author’s choice of grammatical person1.

The image that assisted my sluggish brain to explore this concept, is a simple car crash. And specifically, with regard to perspective, the filmic elements of a crash. Below is how I broke down the crash seen through a few grammatical persons and how that perspective restricts and releases information.

Author’s perspective: Usually, I think of the author outside the discourse of person. However, in relation to withholding and releasing information, I’m using this perspective as a basis point. So, imagining the car crash, where is the author? Everywhere. Seeing what? Everything. The gaze is beyond omniscient, more than just the widest angle lens. The author’s vantage point encompasses the crash and the complex backstage area of dollies, lighting rigs, cameras, stuntmen, EMS teams, etc. The perspective is also timeless. The characters’ choices which caused the crash and the repercussion of these choices are seen within this perspective. Further, elements of a director’s commentary (the how and why the author wrote the crash) is included in this perspective. Thus, the author’s perspective is all knowledge, inside and outside the story, all at once. The author knows the how, why and what will happen in the future. If this information was included in the written description of the crash, there would be no surprise. Further, it would be less a story and more a writerly experiment in curtain drawing.

Narrator’s perspective: The narrator’s perspective is a little difficult, since there are so many types of narrators. However, for simplicity sake, let’s assume a reliable, omniscient narrator2. From where is the omniscient narrator’s gaze? From what physical location? Most likely, the visual perspective is from above, looking down at the cars on the road. The description would be of the roof of one car on a road, safely obeying the posted speed limit. Then a description of a second car, maybe speeding, maybe swerving. The reader has all the information of an impending crash. The description may also include a wider angle, the forest lining one side of the road, the cliff on the other, the seagull flying above, the mountain in the distant. In this case, the withheld information is whether the crash will happen or not. Maybe one of the driver’s is able to swerve away from the other car at the last second.

Third person perspective: For the sake of this exploration, let’s assume that the third person perspective is from a character not involved in the crash, but a bystander with an objective side view of the accident. So, what information is imparted or withheld from the description as the third person perspective watches the crash? We can imagine the perspective as a camera lens by the side of the road, shooting the location of the impending crash. From the safety of the sidelines, one car turns around a corner, then another from the other corner. One car is swerving, the other doesn’t notice the oncoming danger. There is a guardrail and beyond a cliff. The cars grow larger as they close in one another and inevitably they crash. In the third person perspective, the reader has little more information than the physical episode viewed through the eyes of the subjective third person. We are not inside the car. We are neither driver. The level of surprise from this viewpoint is the same as one would have watching a real car crash. The shock that it happens at all, in fiction or reality, is the surprise. The author may complicate the surprise in a variety of ways…switching perspective from third to first, withholding the crash victims’ identities, laying out parallel story lines. The crust of this perspective is based on the withholding the if (will the crash happen or not) and the who (identities of crash victims). However, it should be noted that, in this specific (omniscient narrative) situation, there is a level of emotional distance between the action of the crash and the effects on the story/narrative/characters.

First person perspective3: First person is the most direct and most limited perspective. The greatest amount of information may be withheld then released at a time for optimal emotional effect. The reader is confined to the physical viewpoint of a singular character. The constrained field of vision makes the moment of surprise more unpredictable! Imagine, driving a car on a road, the details of the car’s interior, the leather smell of the heated seats, the small blasts of fresh air through the cracked window, the orange needle of the speedometer, the yellow tick-tick-tick of the dotted line as I zoom down the windy country road. I’ve spent so many summers on similar roads, passing similar trees, driving next to expansive open waters. Reaching for my iPhone to change the music to something from that time. Counting Crows maybe? Do I even have that on my phone? I flick my eyes from the screen to the road and back again. The setting sun’s rays slices through my vision as I round a corner…And on until the crash. The driver doesn’t know of the other car until the final moment, so the reader doesn’t know either. The information is limited to this singular perspective. Within this most subjective perspective of narrative, the author gains the greatest ability to surprise the reader.

Some examples of withheld information and effective surprises in YA novels that I particularly enjoyed:

  1. Before going any further, I must state that these ideas are not wholly unto themselves and only lead down the rabbit hole of more questions. Elements of writing are consistently bound, the end of one element’s discussion is the start of another’s and vice versa. It is an infinite rope with no demarkations. Grammatical Person is a complex matter without a singular answer, or one that I cannot decipher. When we label something the “narrator’s perspective” doesn’t that also mean the “author’s perspective” since the narrator does not exist outside the author? And when we say, “third person perspective” doesn’t it include inclinations of the subjectivity of “first person perspective?” And so, the ground opens beneath us and down the black hole we go.In conclusion, for the sake of clarity, let’s agree that this is an over-simplification of writing facets. 
  2. It should be noted that a reliable narrator may not exist. More on this idea in future posts. I wrote a bit on character and narrative in my posts on Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Richard Yancey’s The Fifth Wave
  3. The beginning of Brit Marling’s movie Another Earth is an interesting visual example of dual first person car accident. Warning: the scene is very disturbing.