These Dreams Go On When I Close My Eyes

A while back I had to talk an author out of using dreams as a method of solving his story-worthy problem—in this case, a murder. The protagonist saw it all, including whodunit—in a dream. But the trouble with this is it’s just too coincidental. I mean, I’ve never solved any murders in my sleep, and I’m betting you haven’t either. Murders are solved—facts are gathered—with good old-fashioned shoe leather.

Which is not to say it can’t happen. Every time—truly: every single time—I have ever said “I don’t believe this plot point” to an author, the reply has been “But it happened to me.” No joke. But I’m still not convinced of the efficacy of dreams as a plot device. Use them, perhaps, to show character’s state of mind rather than to advance the plot.

The author liked it because his dreamer could see things omnisciently. But there is no omniscient narrator in readers’ lives. In the real world, one still has the burden of proof. (I mean, that’s what we see on CSI, right?) So we need to keep it simple so that things ring true. We want the plot to have an appearance, at least, of reality.

And that includes refraining from resolving plot problems with unusual viewpoints—like seeing everything in a dream. Think about our rule of thumb for coincidences: a coincidence is OK to get a protagonist into trouble, but it’s not OK to get him out of one. Don’t use an unusual viewpoint to get out of trouble with the plot.

But can you use one to set things up, to draw us in? Oh, I definitely think so!

Take Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery series. These are lovely first-person mysteries set in rural England in the 1950s and written from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl. This means what Flavia sees isn’t always interpreted correctly, but she still manages to solve mysteries—and make us believe it. Who would have thought to pick that place and time for a series of books, especially when the protagonist is twelve? And yet they are pitch-freaking-perfect. Not a detail out of place. They’re a good read, too, of course, but for a student of the writing craft, they are a treat.

See? The unusual viewpoint gets us into the story, but it doesn’t solve any plot problems. When you find yourself stuck and tempted to take an easy (but unbelievable) way out, think again.

I’ve found it always helps to see what other authors are doing about a particular writing issue. So here are some great novels that feature interesting or unusual POVs:

–Watership Down (Richard Adams) • anthropomorphized rabbits
–The Mezzanine (Nicholson Baker) • a man’s thoughts
–A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) • a sociopathic teenager
–Room (Emma Donoghue) • a five-year-old held captive in a small room
–Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn) • epistolary with a lipogrammatic twist
–The Floatplane Notebooks (Clyde Edgerton) • various narrators, including a wisteria vine
–As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) • one POV character is a corpse
–The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner) • among others, a mentally disabled man
–Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) • two unreliable narrators
–Ellen Foster (Kaye Gibbons) • a ten-year-old, uneducated girl
–The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon) • an autistic teenager
–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey) • a psychiatric patient
–The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova) • a human, a vampire
–Atonement (Ian McEwan) • the character who creates the inciting incident
–War Horse (Michael Morpurgo) • horse
–An Instance of the Fingerpost (Iain Pears) • four unreliable narrators
–The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold) • a murdered girl
–Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple) • part epistolary, part eighth-grader
–The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein) • a dog
–Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Tom Stoppard) • 2 minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet
–Filth (Irvine Welsh) • a tapeworm inside a man’s intestines
–Blitzcat (Robert Westall) • a cat (not anthropomorphized)
–Charlotte’s Web (E. B. White) • a pig and a spider
–The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski) • dogs
–The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) • Death

Enjoy!

Tweet: Don’t use an unusual viewpoint to get out of trouble with the plot.
Tweet: Refrain from resolving plot problems with unusual viewpoints—like seeing everything in a dream.
Tweet: Every time I say “I don’t believe this” the author replies “But it happened to me.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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2 Comments

  1. Michelle Uke says:

    Lippogramatic????

    • Jamie says:

      Merriam-Webster says:
      Lipogrammatic : being a lipogram : having the character of a lipogram
      Lipogram : a writing composed of words not having a certain letter (as the Odyssey of Tryphiodorus which had no alpha in the first book, no beta in the second, and so on)

      :)

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  1. By The Bonus Round (2014 Edition) on 5 February, 2015 at 8:23 am

    […] Alibi (Sue Grafton) Albion’s Seed (David Hackett Fischer) An Exaltation of Larks (James Lipton) An Instance of the Fingerpost (Iain Pears) Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstory) Are We Nearly There Yet? (Ben Hatch) Art of Fielding, The […]