Tag Archives: Scott Blackwood

How to Write from Multiple Points of View

9 Jun
Scott Blackwood's novel See How Small "compassionately examines the fragile psyches of the individuals left behind in the haunting wake of murder," according to a New York Times review.

Scott Blackwood’s novel See How Small “compassionately examines the fragile psyches of the individuals left behind in the haunting wake of murder,” according to a New York Times review.

Anyone writing a novel with multiple points of view probably finds it easy to identify the characters to follow—you simply follow the plot lines and see who’s involved. The tricky part is figuring out how to signal the POV shifts. In his beautiful novel Plainsong, Kent Haruf made the shift at the beginning of each chapter and titled the chapters with a character’s name. The voice or tone of the chapters was basically the same, despite following different characters. This is one way to handle different POVs, but it’s not the only way.

You may want your POV sections to sound different, but it can difficult to create a different voice for each character—let’s face it, it’s hard enough to create one distinctive voice, let alone three or four. Therefore, we need to play with more than voice if we’re going to create distinctive sounding POVs.

No recent novel does as much with POV (or includes as many different perspectives) as Scott Blackwood’s novel See How Small. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

See How Small follows a lot of different characters, and each POV sounds and feels slightly different. However, Blackwood doesn’t accomplish this by trying to mimic the character’s natural voice. Instead, he plays with different storytelling styles. For instance, the novel begins with a chapter that mixes third-person and first-person plural POVs (they and we), but what’s more important is how it focuses on some details and not others. (To understand the scene, you need to know that the novel is about the brutal killing of three girls):

Another remembered the pride she’d felt the day before, riding a horse no one in her family could ride, a horse that had thrown her older sister. He knows your true heart, her father had said. The horse’s shoulders were lathered with sweat. He had a salty, earthy smell she’d thought of as love.

The men with guns did things to us.

The chapter also contains this sentence: “It grew hot, dark, and wet like first things.”

Notice how the details are shape and focused when it comes to the characters’ memories, but the writing becomes fuzzy and impressionistic (even purposefully vague) when describing violence.

The next chapter uses a more traditional third person POV, from the perspective of a girl’s mother. Even though the writing probably feels more familiar, it does play with style:

Then, for some reason, most likely because Kate Ulrich is embellishing, revising even as she imagines it, the parking lot goes dark. Days are shorter now, Kate thinks.

The narration doesn’t rely on strict chronology but is impressionistic, like the first chapter but with a different sensibility since the character is different.

The third chapter follows Jack Dewey and lists his thoughts before a pivotal moment. The chapter is structured as a literal list, with each item focused narrowly on a particular detail:

1. Of his nylon search rope, which is five-sixteenths of an inch in diameter and two hundred feet long and attached to a snap hook on his belt.

The list advances his thoughts on the rope, which gives the chapter a much more narrow focus than the others.

The fourth chapter follows a man, Hollis, who notices something important but is distracted by something else. He’s so engrossed in that thing (a boy prying loose a shell that was glued to Hollis’ car) that he’s not even aware of himself: “Around him, at the other tables, heads swivel. He suspects he’s yelled an obscenity, maybe even a threat.”

Finally, the fifth chapter follows one of the perpetrators of the crime, 17-year-old Michael. As such, he’s inherently unlikable, yet he’s described sympathetically:

“He’d asked if Michael was working on his GED and Michael lied. The older man, whose hair was thinning, laughed ruefully and said, Sure, that’s you. Overachiever.

The contradiction in how we expect to feel about a character versus how he’s describes creates tension and mystery.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s writing from multiple points of view using See How Small by Scott Blackwood as a model:

  1. Write from an impressionistic POV. It’s a cliché that any public moment or interaction will be seen and remembered differently by the different people who are present. But it may be more useful to think about what characters want or don’t want to notice—or what a character can’t help but see or not see, remember or not remember. In other words, much of what people notice is affected by their emotional states, both vague (in a good mood) and specific (mad at someone for a particular reason). Consider what emotional state your character has during the scene and how that state will affect what he or she notices or remembers.
  2. Write from a pointillist POV. Our tendency is to rely on a usual kind of camera view, taking in an entire scene at once. Try zooming the camera in. Focus on a small, particular part of a scene or on a particular thing that a character notices or thinks about. Put blinders on the narration so that it can only see one thing. What is that thing?
  3. Write from a distracted POV. In Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” the splash of Icarus into the sea is only a small part of the painting. Many of the characters, like the farmer in the foreground, are looking elsewhere. You can do this with your characters (and their POV) as well. If you’ve created a significant event or interaction, the reader will expect to see it. So, defy that expectation and give your character something else to think about. If the significant event or interaction is important enough, it will butt its head into the scene eventually. Until then, what can distract the character? This is a good way to create suspense in the reader and also to develop a character.
  4. Write a sympathetic POV about an unlikable character. Again, this is about defying the reader’s expectations. If a character plays an unlikable or negative role in the novel, how can you show us the character in a sympathetic light? You might think about how the character would defend him or herself. What are some mitigating factors behind the character’s decisions? What would a character witness for your character say in a trial? Try building a chapter around those details. The opposite of this, of course, is to write an unsympathetic POV about a likable character.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Kevin Grauke

20 Jun
Kevin Grauke's new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been called X.

Kevin Grauke’s new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been compared to the stories of John Cheever, Anton Chekhov, Andre Debus, Richard Ford, William Trevor, and Richard Yates.

Texas occupies a iconic place in American literature. The state has given us Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and—to some extent—the later works of Cormac McCarthy. Its politicians tend to channel the persona of John Wayne. And yet a truer depiction of modern Texas culture might be the band Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs. A writer whose work reflects this changing nature of Texas is Kevin Grauke, whose new collection of stories, Shadows of Men, recently won the Steven Turner Award for Best First Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

Kevin Grauke is a native Texan who now lives with his wife and two children in the Historic Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is Associate Professor of English at La Salle University, where he teaches creative writing and American literature.

In this interview, Grauke discusses what it means to write about Texas and how to write a fight scene. (For an exercise based on the fight scene in his story “Bullies,” click here.)

Michael Noll

At the end of Part Four of “Bullies,” two men get in a fight. You describe their fight in close detail, moving back and forth between physical action and one of the fighters’ thoughts. Many writers find such passages difficult to pull off without sounding like a choreographer: hit here, kick there, etc. But this story doesn’t have that problem at all. I’m curious how you approached this scene.

Kevin Grauke

I think brevity is the key; the scene is only about half a page long, and most of it concerns Dennis’s thoughts, rather than a cataloguing of punches and feints and such. Keeping such a scene as short as possible is important for a couple of reasons: for one thing, “action” sequences such as this tend to start dragging very quickly, to my mind, and for another, most fights that actually take place are nothing like the ones we see in the movies. They don’t involve a lengthy exchange of haymakers; instead, they’re usually quick and clumsy, and I wanted to convey that this fight was definitely of the quick and clumsy variety.

Michael Noll

The fight also occupies an interesting position in the story. It’s the climax, releasing the tension that has built up, and yet the scene that follows has little to do with the circumstances of the fight. As a result, the emotional consequences are felt far away from the scene of the action. Was this intentional–did you plan it early in the drafting process–or was it a happy accident?

Kevin Grauke

I think I knew that the story would play out in this way once I realized that Dennis was going to bully the father of Karl’s bully. Like Dennis, I think we tend to want intensely dramatic moments, in both what we read and in our own lives, to “mean” more than they often do, so I tend to want to problematize the significance of such moments just as soon as they happen in my stories. For instance, Dennis hopes that this action will boost his ex-wife’s opinion of him, and this (probably misguided) hope of his becomes what’s most important, not the fight itself.

Michael Noll

The story appears in a journal, FiveChapters, that has an unusual format. Every story is published serially, over the course of five days. Did you write “Bullies” with a five-part shape in mind? Or did you adapt the structure for FiveChapters?

Kevin Grauke

I didn’t write it with that shape in mind, nor did I adapt it for that structure, as a matter of fact. I have Five Chapter’s great editor, David Daley, to thank for finding the best places to break the story into five “chapters.”

Michael Noll

Many of the stories in Shadows of Men are set in Texas, but it’s a Texas that is suburban rather than dusty and western in nature. This view of Texas seems to becoming increasingly common. The writer Scott Blackwood writes about a similar landscape, and even the band Arcade Fire named its last album (inspired by The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston) The Suburbs. Yet most Texas literature classes taught in Texas focus on cowboys and oilmen. Do you think the literature of the suburb will ever be embraced by the Texas literary establishment?

Kevin Grauke

Kevin Grauke's collection Shadows of Men won the XX prize from the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters. You can read a review of the book here at the Dallas Morning News.

Kevin Grauke’s collection Shadows of Men was published by Queen’s Ferry Press, an independent publisher in Plano, Texas.  According to a Dallas Morning News review, “Grauke details the fecklessness of the American 21st-century urban male with humor and insight.”

Well, if the Texas literary establishment is the Texas Institute of Letters, I would say that it already has to a certain degree, since Scott’s outstanding novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, won TIL’s Jesse Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction in 2009, and my collection, Shadows of Men, won the Steven Turner Award for Best First Work of Fiction this year. Whether we like it or not, large portions of Texas are just as urbanized and suburbanized as the rest of the country, so more and more Texas writers will undoubtedly write about such homogenized landscapes. However, cowboys and oilmen live on as myths, and these myths will continue to exert a certain degree of influence in Texas, even if it’s a Texas of malls and subdivisions.

June 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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