Thursday, September 20, 2012

And the Moral of THAT Is. . .

Moral tone isn’t what the story comes out and says—Aesop’s fables end with morals, which are something rather different and which we will not go into here. Both fiction and non-fiction have moral tone, but how to recognise and analyse it is quite a study.

By analysing the moral tone of a book, a reader or critic comes closest to actually getting into the author’s head. This is because moral tone is what the author actually feels about his story—not necessarily what he is trying to get across to his readers, but what he actually thinks about the world and the things he makes happen in his story. So, moral tone is very personal. It is what we commonly call, in modern and post-modern times, a ‘worldview.’

No matter how well or poorly you write, you cannot keep your worldview out of your book. That is why a Christian author will always write Christian books. This sounds odd—we think perhaps that some Christian authors are hard to tell from the non-Christian ones. It is true that many of these authors write about the same things as the others. It is very true that sometimes these authors put un-Christian things in their books. That, too, is part of their worldview. Some Christians do not believe that these things are un-Christian, or some believe that it is all right to compromise in order to write a ‘good’ book. But there are always little things—little things that the hero believes are wrong, little things that the author has taken for granted—that come through the story. Sometimes they are well-hidden. Sometimes we can’t find them. But sometimes we can.

Take a common fictional example: Hero is in tight pinch. Villain (enemy soldier) is about to find out that Hero is enemy. Villain asks Hero what Hero’s name is. Hero lies.

This is a very stereo-typed example. It is never written quite as plainly as we have written it above. The author will use certain tools to make the hero get to this point, and the lie will often be in the dialogue. Generally, the author will not remind you that his hero just lied. Oftentimes, the reader will accept the lie of the hero, because he is used to this happening in books. The author will not usually tell you whether the lie was right or wrong. He leaves it to the reader, because, like most authors, he feels that this event is necessary, but he is not ready to say whether it was good or bad.

The reader is left to think worse of the hero if he chooses.

(Note: Although the nature of this article does not enable us to be entirely objective, we do not offer an opinion on this question.)

It would appear that we cannot know if the author thought the lie right, or if he thought it wrong. This is not so. We often can tell, if we look very carefully. We can assume that the author has not preached a sermon here or elsewhere about the sin of lying (authors of fiction should avoid preaching sermons). But we can analyse his own view of this lie by other elements in the story.

We might first summarise the hero. What kind of hero is he? Is he somebody who is intended to be Practically Perfect in Every Way? Is he an anti-hero who has already done quite a few objectionable things? Does the author bring any consequences upon the hero because of this lie? Does the author studiously avoid the subject of lying for the rest of the story?

By answering these questions, we can often come logically to an idea of the author’s own view of the matter.

Sometimes the author will make the hero justify his actions. Generally, the author is trying to justify his actions, too. But sometimes the hero is intended to be justifying his actions because he feels guilty. We can often identify this by whether the hero ends up being punished, or telling the truth later, or admitting in the end he was wrong.

It quite often happens that we, as readers, overlook wrong things because it seems they should happen or must happen to save the heroine, or because we grow accustomed to them. Hollywood, a genre we include in fiction, though which does not come anywhere near to literature, likes us to grow accustomed to things.

Say, for example, the hero cheats the villain in a duel. This is against all the rules of chivalry, but we accept it because the villain is stupid and the hero is smart; the villain is bad and the hero is good (or at least, was). We may even justify it with petty excuses, such as ‘It was a battle of wits, and the villain was stupid.’ But of course, good heroes are not supposed to value wits above honour—decidedly un-English.

(Note: We decline to state which Hollywood production in particular was used in the above example. )

We must watch out especially for the things we justify. It is often because we truly think them wrong—however, it is sometimes because someone else thinks they are. There are, sadly, many books—children’s, adult’s, fiction, non-fiction—that have faulty moral tone. Many children’s authors in the modern and post-modern era revolted against the preachy boredom of Elsie Dinsmore and What Katy Did and wrote books they believed were more enjoyable for children—and often were full of the author’s modernity. This is not to say that all of the books written in this time were bad. If we might be allowed to voice an opinion, we think a lot of them were very good—far better in style than Elsie Dinsmore. But there were always a few that one read and said, ‘My, that doesn’t sound right!’

I might mention Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl: not a badly written book, but based on the assumption that the fox can steal from the farmers because the farmers are trying to starve him in his hole. Mr. Dahl completely overlooks the fact that the farmers are trying to kill Fox because he stole from them first. –Only another example of basing our judgements on the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the characters. Since the farmers are a disagreeable lot, they are automatically the bad guys. Mr. Dahl does, however, come out and say part of what he thinks. He writes,

Suddenly Badger said,

‘Doesn’t this worry you just a tiny bit, Foxy?. . .All this. . . this stealing?’

‘My dear old furry frump,’ [Fox] said, ‘do you know any one in the whole world who wouldn’t swipe a few chickens if his children were starving to death?. . .You are far too respectable.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with being respectable,’ Badger said.

‘Look,’ said Mr. Fox, ‘[The farmers] are out to kill us. You realize that, I hope?’

‘I do, Foxy, I do indeed,’ said the gentle Badger.

‘But we’re not going to stoop to their level. We don’t want to kill them.’

(Note: Omissions made for sake of brevity.)

Now, we like Dahl immensely. He wrote some good books. He is an excellent author, but he has a few skewy notions on stealing from people who have more than you. He seems a little socialistic.

Then, of course, there are those books that seem to be simply wrong, for no apparent reason other than that the author thought he was right. There is The Space Trilogy by that fine Christian author, C. S. Lewis. Few Christians in the English-speaking world have not heard of C. S. Lewis. He is much noted for his non-fiction book Mere Christianity and for his fictional Chronicles of Narnia. However, we have objections to his over-use of classical Greek and Roman gods in his literature. And we do not mean that they simply alluded to those false gods. In the Chronicles, they are used as if they were centaurs or unicorns or some other type of mythical creature. His fictional works Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra seem to suggest that there were ‘little gods’ in the universe who rule over and in the planets—striking one as a sort of pantheism. These works, however, have their better attributes, and we only use them here for demonstration.

Yet, as we have said, sometimes the moral tone is not so obvious. It must be dug out of the story by rational thinking—and a concrete understanding of our own beliefs. There are little indicators here and there throughout. Sometimes it is the very physical themes (reappearing ideas, such as Nazis, gun fights, or spies, that are not necessarily symbolic or philosophically important to the story {although Nazis are always philosophically important}) that give the author’s worldview away. It is often, too, the light in which the author presents these physical themes.

(Note: The editors had to coin the phrase, ‘physical theme’ to distinguish these elements from the other Themes which we have written about previously.)

One could probably take a college course on Moral Tone, if there were one. Readers must realise that all literature is biased, and writers must realise that they cannot attempt to please everyone. Aesop himself reminds us that, if we make the attempt to please all, we will please no one.

We have said that we as analysing readers must have a concrete understanding of our own beliefs. This understanding is important because, if we do not possess it, the things we theoretically ought to disagree with make their way into our minds and affect the way we think—unconsciously, of course. There is also the danger that we will recognise the fallacy and know we disagree with it, and never quite understand why. In everything we read, we must be prepared to disagree with the author on one or two points. But we ought to know why we disagree. This is part of what makes a man.

In closing, there is but one thing we would like to mention. In any interpretation of an author’s book, the interpreter can easily stray from the author’s original meaning. Therefore, we must not be arrogant and presume that our judgements will always be right. Discernment must be used, but likewise, any author who allows himself to be published subjects himself to misunderstanding. A man must be careful of what he says. He must be more careful in what he suggests. But the greatest mistake, which can throw the best author into the gutter, is what he seems to suggest.

(In writing this article we too subject ourselves to the possibility of being misunderstood, and are willing to receive any objections our readers might have as to the things we have said here.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Glorious English Language ...And the Other English Language

The English language is notorious for its complexity. Unfortunately (quite possibly due to the fact that at one time English was spoken by nearly a quarter of the world’s population) the confusion is aggravated by the many forms of English in use around the globe. Probably you are familiar with one of the two principle forms spoken in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Even without pursuing the many divergences in vocabulary and syntax, the two styles vary greatly—in spelling, grammar, and even punctuation. Our readers may have noticed the preference evinced by the editors of this periodical for British style. This preference is not so much a slight to American style as it is simply a greater familiarity with (and appreciation for the aesthetic qualities of) British form. But whichever form you use, it is important to adhere to it consistently. Unfortunately, if your library consists of both books published in the States and books published in Great Britain, you may occasionally inculcate both styles in your writing. A good knowledge of the basic rules of both would preclude this possibility.

American style prints double quotation marks before and after quoted material. British style prints single marks. (“” versus ‘’.)
American style employs the confusing method of using the relative pronoun ‘that’ in a restrictive sense while ‘which,’ another relative pronoun, is used nonrestrictively and, unless in conjunction with a preposition, is always preceded by a comma. British style does not differentiate between ‘which’ and ‘that’.

In British style certain verbs take the irregular past tense and past participle form. For instance, verbs which in America would be spelled spoiled, learned, burned, or dreamed, in the UK are often spelt spoilt, learnt, burnt, and dreamt. Some verb forms that are often irregular in American are not irregular in British; e.g. fit (Am.)/ fitted (Br.) and lit (Am.)/ lighted (Br.).
The verb shall is rarely used in American style, save in a legal setting, while it is common in British style.

English spelling was first standardised by early dictionaries, such as Samuel Johnson’s. In 1828 Noah Webster published a dictionary in the United States with shortened, ‘American’ spellings for certain words. For instance, words ending in ‘or’ in American spelling, such as honor, vigor, or neighbor, end in ‘our’ in British spelling (colour, valour, etc.) Some American spellings simplify a word by dropping the ‘e’ at the end, as in ‘ax’ (properly spelt ‘axe’) and ‘program’ (programme). Directional words, though alternate spellings are accepted on either side of the Atlantic, generally take an ‘s’ at the end in British style (e.g. afterwards, forwards, backwards).
American spelling confuses the last two letters in words such as centre and theatre (Am. center, theater). American spelling also substitutes a ‘z’ for an ‘s’ in words such as organise (Am. organize). It occasionally shortens words (such as draught to draft and cheque to check).

British style optionally places the article ‘an’ before words beginning with the letter ‘h’ where the first syllable is unstressed, such as historical or horrific.

With its customary precipitation, the United States has ascribed the name one ‘billion’ to the number 1,000,000,000, while in the United Kingdom the same number is known as one ‘milliard’. One billion is properly one million millions, or 1,000,000,000,000.

In the United Kingdom and its commonwealth the reigning monarch’s title is always capitalised, as in ‘the Queen.’ Other members of the royal family also receive a capital letter at the beginning of their titles (e.g. ‘the Duke’). In the United States both forms are ignored.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Point of View: On How You Look at It

Of all elements of fiction, one of the most important is the author’s control over the information he gives his readers--what information he imparts, how much of it he imparts, and at what point in the story he imparts it.

The author gives his readers information from one of two basic perspectives: (1) his own, or (2) a character’s in the story. Perspective, also called point of view, greatly influences what information the reader will learn and when he will learn it. From the author’s perspective, the story as a whole is laid out like a map under his gaze. He knows everything about all of the characters and he knows exactly what is going to happen. He is looking at the imaginary world of the story from the outside. From the character’s perspective, on the other hand, the story-world looks like the real world looks to us. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen and he doesn’t know much about the other characters--what they are thinking, feeling, or plotting, or even what they are doing when he isn’t around. He may not even know everything about himself. He is looking at the story from the inside, and his view of it is much smaller and more intensified.

When an author writes a story from his own viewpoint--that of looking into the story from the outside--he is using the omniscient viewpoint. He is allowed to act as if he knows everything, and in effect he does: he knows everything about the story that he needs to know in order to tell it.

Because he knows everything, he knows what each of the characters is thinking, feeling, or doing at any time. He is ‘God-like,’ telling the story from the perspective of one who sees everything and knows everything.

He can also foreshadow what is going to happen; he can say things like, ‘little did Arthur know that his plans would be terribly altered...’
Arthur doesn’t know it, but the author does and so does the reader. If a person were to come up to you in real life and say, ‘If you had only known where the villain was at this moment, you would not have been feeling so sure of yourself,’ you would probably think him rather odd. But in a story you do not mind the author’s omniscience. It is, after all, his story and he can tell it how he likes.

A story told from a character’s viewpoint which only tells some of the facts and implies that the whole of the circumstances is not known is called a limited viewpoint. Even though the author can’t tell as much to the readers with this sort of viewpoint, it is used extensively in literature written from the late-nineteenth century onwards. The benefit of telling the story from the viewpoint of one of the actors in it makes the readers feel as if they are actually in the story as well, taking part in what is happening through the medium of a character.

The limited viewpoint is extremely personal, taking place mostly inside the head of the person whose viewpoint it is told from. The story is interpreted through the character’s eyes; his own worldview and biases influence what is being told to the reader.

Sometimes the author jumps from one character’s head to another’s, which is called shifting viewpoints. This technique belongs more in the category of the omniscient viewpoint, since in real life you can’t get inside someone else’s head (at least I never have). But it is still limited to some extent because you are only allowed to know what one character knows at a time. Shifting viewpoints gives the readers a wider view of the story, as well as giving them a deeper understanding of the characters whose viewpoints are used.

The main character usually gets a monopoly on the point of view, the readers being shown more of his inner workings than those of any of the other characters. This is because the character the readers know best tends to become the main character for them, regardless of his part in the story.

Sometimes the author puts himself in the story, although he may only be one of the side characters. In this case, he is usually no longer omniscient. Since he is inside the story as well, he only knows some of what is going on. This is not a rule--just a logical application.

When writing from either the omniscient or limited viewpoint, the author may take an objective or subjective approach. In objective writing, the author takes a ‘newspaper-reporter view,’ relating merely the apparent events and not the many interesting things that are going on inside the people concerned with those events.

An objective writer might say,
‘The crowd seemed pacified by the statesman’s apparently earnest speech.’
The readers would not know whether the crowd was actually satisfied with the statesman, or whether the statesman really was in earnest. This approach leaves much to be guessed by the readers.

Although it is fun to experiment with, the completely objective approach is not used very much because it lends an extremely impersonal feel to the story. The readers are not able to sympathise very well with any of the characters because they can only see what the characters are doing or saying--they can’t see how the characters really feel about things or what is making them do what they do. The readers can’t understand the characters completely.

The only way to overcome this problem is to do as playwrights do (who write in the objective omniscient viewpoint) and make the characters converse with the audience in asides, as in Hamlet’s famed soliloquy, ‘To be, or not to be...’ But this is not what people ordinarily do in everyday life and therefore book authors don’t like to use asides much. A sentence such as, ‘“He’ll never know I put poison in his glass,” murmured the villain,’ is not very convincing.

In science-fiction or other genres where the human, personal element is lacking, the objective approach becomes effective because it gives the story a cold, austere, almost metallic feel. The readers don’t need to know what a bunch of robots are thinking, after all; the important thing is what the automatons do.

The subjective approach focuses on the character’s internal thoughts, conflicts, inferences, etc. It is far more personal, but do not confuse being personal with necessarily being better. Some authors choose to write exclusively in the subjective, resulting in what is called ‘stream of consciousness’ voice. As the name suggests, this is a very odd, and potentially dull, genre.

Facts told from a highly-subjective viewpoint are strongly coloured by a character’s own ideas of the facts, as in the limited viewpoint. The readers only know what the character’s impressions of outside events are. The readers can’t be certain that what the character is telling them has really happened the way the character perceives it.

In most stories a combination of subjectivity and objectivity is used, and a good author will carefully balance the two so as to give the readers as much useful information as possible.

Using Perspective

The three persons are first (I, we), second (you), and third (he, she, they). The omniscient viewpoint is almost always narrated in the third person. The author is usually not in the story at all and is telling about a completely separate set of mortals, referring to them as ‘they,’ ‘he,’ ‘she,’ etc. It is, however, possible to write a story in the first or second person omniscient viewpoint in certain circumstances. (For instance, a first person omniscient narrator may have died and gone to heaven and now knows everything about what happened to him in the story.)

Limited viewpoint can also be told in either first, second, or third person, third and first person being the most common. First person tends to be the most intimate of the three voices, especially if the main character is the narrator, however, depending on how deeply the author enters into the world of his character, third person can be just as intensely personal.

Second person is rarely used, being a more recent digression from an established form. In my own opinion, I object to being told what I think or do (or have thought or have done; or would think or would do) by someone who has never met me. The second person can be used to good effect in some instances where a character in the story is being told by another what happened to him, but either first or third person is almost always a more logical choice.

There are three main tenses: past, present, and future. In most stories, save perhaps some time-travel thrillers, only one tense is employed predominately throughout. The most commonly-used tense for story-telling in the English language is the past tense, although present and future tense have also been used with varying degrees of success.

Although the fact will undoubtedly disappoint the implementalists, the tense an author uses to tell a story does not greatly influence the story. The human brain, after accustoming itself to an unfamiliar style, will automatically convert the written material into its basic sense without paying any further attention to the tense. Thus, attempting to create a new genre by telling a story in the present or future tense, or other variants such as perfect or pluperfect, is simply an interesting exercise and not a useful endeavour.

Head Hopping
If you choose to ‘head hop,’ or shift viewpoints, throughout a story, it is best to start out with one character’s (probably the main character’s) perspective and make sure it is well-established before going on to someone else’s. This gives the readers a solid base for their understanding of the rest of the story. It’s also best to limit yourself to only a few characters’ perspectives throughout the story in order not to confuse your readers.

Telling a story from only one character’s perspective gives a more personal feel to the story and allows the readers to empathise with that character more freely. However, if you intend to stay in one character’s head throughout the story, you must take into account that there may be information pertinent to the story that that character, and thus the readers, will never receive. Sometimes the character whose perspective you choose to use is not the main character. In this case you will probably have trouble keeping this character from becoming the main character, but this approach can be very useful. In the Sherlock Holmes adventures Dr. Watson narrates the story, even though he is only a minor character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did this on purpose because he wanted the readers to only be able to see through the eyes of a bystander. The readers don’t get to know how Holmes solves the mystery step by step in his head: they only get to hear the answer to the mystery when Holmes explains everything to Dr. Watson.

One of the most difficult parts of writing in the first person is stepping into the shoes of the I. ‘I,’ whoever he may be, tells the story in his own words and in his own way. If a man is writing a story from the viewpoint of a woman, or an adult from the viewpoint of a child, etc., he could potentially run into difficulties.

The item of first importance is getting inside of the brain of I. If I am a child, then the first thing I think when I see an ice cream cone is probably not going to be, ‘Aha! an isosceles triangle!’ If a female author were writing from the perspective of a man, she must take care not to make I notice that I’s wife has gotten a haircut or a new hat.

Think how you would tell about something that happened to you; then think how your character would tell it. His style may possibly be different from yours. Know your character so well that you become ‘I’. --At least for the duration of the story.

The Unreliable Voice
There are many useful things that perspective allows an author to do. Again, the most important is that of controlling what the reader gets to know about the story. One fascinating facet of this is, as mentioned earlier, that when an author tells the story solely from a character’s perspective the readers only get to know what that character knows. An author may take this idea one step further to only letting the readers know what the character tells them, thus creating a sense of unreliability in the point of view.

This unreliability could be caused by a positive desire to deceive on the part of the narrator, or could be, as is more often the case, simply the result of his naivety, unrecognised biases, or incomplete knowledge of the facts. He could be telling what he thinks is the truth, but through the way he says it the author insinuates that the narrator is mistaken.

It takes some astuteness on the part of the reader to understand what the author is really saying, but in this way authors sometimes reveal the message of the story. Henry James’s novel, What Maisie Knew, is told from the perspective of a small girl in a very grown-up world. She doesn’t understand things, but she is observant enough to notice things that are easily interpreted by the mature reader. James chose to use a child’s perspective in order to contrast the dark features of the story with the innocence of childhood.

Although point of view is often forgotten amid all the other less subtle elements of the story, it is, as illustrated above, an integral part of the story’s over-all tone and meaning.