Perspective frames what a reader sees

Authors use perspective to build mystery

I don’t specifically blog about photography, but I was thinking this week about perspective and how it utterly influences the stories we tell.

Whether or not your story features a detective, most fiction – and even some nonfiction – writing is driven by mystery. Readers are motivated to continue reading by the desire to know what happens next and how the pieces of the tale fit together. They want to see what is hidden from their view, the secrets the writer has kept until the moment of revelation.

The perspective from which the author tells the story is significantly responsible for determining what information is revealed and what information is concealed. A narrator’s biased viewpoint, an era with particular cultural mores, a setting with a limited worldview – these all are potential contributors to the perspective we are given as readers. We can’t change the author’s perspective; we can only interpret what we “see” through that lens.

Sometimes the view is clear. Other times, the mystery remains intact until the reader receives enough information to broaden the perspective and see the context for the details.

Photography is remarkable in the way it illustrates the mystery of perspective while often giving us enough information to solve that mystery. Unlike in literature, that epiphany can happen in an instant.

These two images portray mystery through the use of perspective:

perspective frames what a reader sees 1

I took this photo looking upward at the ceiling of Parasol Down at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas. The varying heights and the geometric elements add to the mystery of this image. For me, it also conjures an imagined memory, an invented scene that could have been found in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

perspective frames what a reader sees 2

This photo was taken at a ski and snow tubing park. Because the scale of the subject isn’t immediately identifiable, and the textures in each element are distinct and compartmentalized, the perspective of the image delays comprehension of the objects. Yet, within a few moment’s time, it’s possible, without further information, to deduce the scene.

The Daily Post discussed the use of perspective in photos this week.

I think the parallels to writing are constructive.

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Telegraphing the punch

Not quite a poem #2

“I know we can make this work. We’ve been through so much together. Don’t go. It won’t happen again.”

But it’s a one-way conversation, speeding down a narrow alley kicking up gutter trash and rancid rain residue in awkward arcs. Echoes are emptier than silence. She recognizes the prelude to a broken promise and lets it vanish into the void. Three years is long enough to know the difference between a glance and a glare, or freedom and force.

“Are you listening to me?”

She imagines living in a place without patterns. She’s going paint each wall a different color. Not quite a poem telegraphing the punchShe might just keep walking west forever so she never has to see another sunset. It’s a journey her father would have admired. Late nights, after playing chess and building forts out of old blankets, he’d recite invented fables and bury the morals inside for her to find. She remembers them all and hears one now. One rotting fruit will turn the branch brown. She thought it meant one thing when she was younger. Now she thinks another.

“I love you,” the man in front of her says, but she sees it coming and has just enough time to duck.

Other stories of twisted love

Hansel and Gretel: The Aftermath

A satirical remix

So, this is a little off the beaten path. This brief fiction story was written in response to a writing challenge to retell a classic fairy tale while applying a random storytelling subgenre. These approaches ranged from Space Opera to Lovecraftian. Having already selected Hansel and Gretel as my fairy tale to retell, I randomly selected subgenre No. 6 – Satire. And away we go…

1813 A.D.

The Dishonorable Wormlegs Von Uberstench
Chairman and CEO

International Association of Witches, Warlocks and Hags
196th Assembly

Dear Delegates:

Those of you dwelling or lurking in or around the Forbidden Woods are likely already acquainted with the recent unpleasantness. It seems people here are capable of discussing little else. The taverns are swollen with common dolts, huddled around their steins of fetid drink, eager to add their embellishments to a now familiar tale. For many of you whose huts, caves, bridges and towers lie in more distant regions, however, allow me to relay news that you may receive with astonishment. May it serve as a cautionary tale to those of you prone to inviting strangers into your home, regardless of your degree of malicious intent.

One of our most venerable delegates, the esteemed Ingrid Solstice Slugtruffel (a former Secretary of the Executive Council, I’d be remiss to ignore), met an untimely demise last week at the hands of two childish delinquents. Under what circumstances, you might wonder, is the death of a withered, 137-year-old she-beast untimely? Without hesitation, I answer you that when the loss of an elder is wrought by treachery and perpetrated through the foul exuberance of youth, it is an outrage most unnatural and undeserved.

The criminals of whom I speak were guests of Ms. Slugtruffel. Oh, the betrayal she must have felt in her final moments. What an unkind response to her cordiality! Think to yourself, how many children have been seduced by the gumdrop-encrusted sidewalk leading to your own gingerbread house? How often did you take the proper precautions? Did you reinforce your cage or dungeon? Did you adequately maim or cripple your prey? Did you keep a backup mallet or cleaver close at hand? Did you diagram an escape route in case your plans went awry?

I thought not. And, unfortunately, neither did dear Ingrid.

Instead of feasting for days on her best catch in years, she was unceremoniously incinerated, courtesy of her main course. Despicable! And, yet, preventable.

It is incumbent upon each of you to determine the individual protections that will serve you best, but I assure you that our days of innocently plucking unsuspecting simpletons from the woods are fast depleting. Word is spreading about our tendencies and techniques, about our practices and our predispositions. Thanks to these little blond miscreants, our way of life has become exponentially difficult overnight. Our licorice shingles won’t look nearly as sweet. Our candy cane lampposts and sugar-paned windows won’t be nearly as attractive to young passersby the further this story is circulated.

We must remain unified in these difficult times. This unfortunate event is not an impetus to abandon our heritage but rather an opportunity for evolution. We have become complacent. We wrongly assume a cunning greater than that of school children, but clearly today’s youth seek to match our depravity and guile.

We, however, can overcome their vitality if we pledge ourselves to lifelong learning. This office believes wholeheartedly in continuing education, and I challenge each of you to identify an area of improvement on which to focus in the coming weeks. Perhaps you’d like to sharpen your hexing skills. Others may want to consider a course in negotiation and manipulation. There are a host of new poisons and potions available in the market today, if you’ll take the time to investigate and experiment. Some tae kwon do lessons might not hurt, either.

Just keep your wits about you. A new age is upon us, and we can either meet it head on, lock horns and prevail, or we can surrender to exile and/or extinction.

I, for one, have no plans to retreat or retire. In fact, at this moment from my dining room window, I see a hobo outside admiring my merlot tree. Upon completion of this letter, I intend to investigate his well-being. I’m sure he’s tired from his journey and would appreciate a little hospitality.

If you have any questions, please get in touch with your district representative. I’ve supplied each of them with a crisis management kit, which will be made available to you upon request. Your local peer support groups will also serve as a useful resource. I suggest you become acquainted with their weekly meeting schedule. I realize that many of us are reclusive by nature, but now is the time to reach out. We all have much to learn from one another.

Remember, the I.A.W.W.H. is at your service. You are a member of the oldest, most prestigious congregation of its kind, and we have endured worse. Hold your heads high. Strive for excellence in your work and in your lives.

And for the love of all that is evil, don’t lean into your own oven. It’s just good sense.

Yours in degeneracy,
W. V. Uberstench, Esq.

cc:  J.Q. Pentagram, A. Snarlposse, R.S.  Dethmeet, J. Grimm, W. Grimm

Flash Fiction Challenge: Fairy Tales, Remixed: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/01/24/flash-fiction-challenge-fairy-tales-remixed/

A sampling of other fairy tale remixes by writers participating in the challenge:

Anticipating the thaw

Short fiction

By Jeremy Podolski

Eli snapped the frozen stalactite from its moorings on the gutter overhead and raised it in a fencer’s salute, eyes fixed on Sasha.

“Olé!” he offered before attacking the space in front of her with a flourish, like a maniacal poet inking stanzas in the cold, empty air.

Sasha’s shrug was hardly visible through the winter parka and layers of knit sweaters keeping her warm, but she added a deliberate eye roll for good measure.

“Don’t you mean ‘en garde?’” she snarked.

“Touché,” Eli replied with raised eyebrow. He held the tip of the icicle against the dull light of the ebbing sun, as if examining his blade for imperfections, then abruptly bit off the tip and chomped it noisily.

“You are so weird,” Sasha said, turning her back so he wouldn’t see the snowball she was shaping between her purple, fur-trimmed mittens. “What time’s the truck coming?”

“Four. But with the weather, they’ll probably be late.” He quieted then, drumming the shortened ice spear against his leg.

“You know, my iPod better not be in one of those boxes. You said you were gonna bring it over yesterday, but I never saw you.” She heaved the snowball at his chest then, and it exploded in a nebula of powder and ice. The glimmering dust settled on Eli’s dark hair and lashes, salt and pepper lending comic contrast to his young face.

“Well, you’re not getting it back now,” said Eli, straight-lipped, looking professorial. “Besides, I want something to remember you by.”

“You need that to remember me?” Sasha said, feigning injury, surprised to find she actually felt a bit injured.

“No, I’d just rather have your iPod than your ferret or your Vampire Weekend T-shirt.” He glanced around, as if looking for a place to sit, but the narrow strip of yard between their two houses was smothered in undulating, wet snow. He was glad he was still holding the icicle. It gave him something to do with his hands.

“What’s winter going to be like there?” she asked after a long silence.

“I don’t know. Not like here,” Eli said. “I heard it rains.”

“Eli!” An echoing interruption, the husky voice of his father. “Come help me with this sofa!”

“Sorry,” Eli said quietly. “I’ll drop off your iPod before we leave.”

He tossed the icicle toward her, and she clapped her mittens together, clumsily catching the tapered end while the wider base broke under its own weight and disappeared into the drift near her feet. She waited for him to lob an insult, the perfect opportunity to mock her and run, but Eli had already vanished around the corner of his garage, his boots now clomping on the bare concrete.

Rain instead of snow. She’d hate that, she thought. The cleanliness of the white soothed her, hid the desolation left in the wake of autumn. Snow spread like a glaze of perfection over the dead, blemished landscape. Its only drawback was its transience.

An icicle’s existence was even more fleeting – born only in the right conditions – a modest thaw, a precarious edge, a sustaining freeze. She plunged her hand into the snowbank, suddenly anxious to locate the rest of the sunken icicle. It should have been easy; the impression in the snow created by its falling was obvious. All she had to do was grab it. But as she tried to dig, the snow just compressed, becoming like ice itself, camouflaging the object to sight and touch.

The faster and more frantically she searched, the more impossible the task seemed, as if she were trying to differentiate one gallon of water in the ocean from another. Her perspiration chilled her as it mingled with the falling temperature. Sweat and melted snow soaked her mittens until she ripped them off and cast them to the ground. With her bare hands, she reached into the hole she had burrowed to find its walls as smooth and hard as glass. She scratched at them with her fingernails but only came away with thin curls of ice that bit at her numbing skin with frosty malice.

Kneeling now, Sasha looked to the gutter overhanging the side of her home. At least thirty icicles clung to the roofline, virtually identical, none more distinct than the next, but the one she wanted was trapped out of reach. For the moment, it was preserved in its frozen vault. By tomorrow, it would be a casualty of the thaw.

Don’t let familiarity prevent appreciation of A Christmas Carol’s superb storytelling

Redeemable villains can compel a story line

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

– Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843

When art is so ingrained in our collective conscious that its removal would throw into question our basic understanding of the world around us, it is easy to overlook what made it ubiquitous in the first place. We take its brilliance for granted or fail to see the ingenuity in what we now consider commonplace.

Having just seen the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s spectacular 2013 rendition of A Christmas Carol this weekend, I was reminded how embedded this 170-year-old story is in the fabric of our holiday traditions. The adaptations on film are countless, with casts featuring men, Muppets and Mickey Mouse alike. The concise novella is so perfectly suited for stage that it can be found in playhouses throughout the country each December. 

What made it so? Certainly, it struck a chord with citizens of Victoria-era Britain who lamented how industry and greed had sullied the revelry and the spirit of Christmas in its time. Its longevity has root in how timelessly translatable the tale remains. Basic lessons of human decency, thankfulness and charity are appropriate for any era. Despite these qualities, the small book might easily have been discarded with the shredded gift wrap as a preachy primer on the Golden Rule.

In my mind, the storytelling convention that sets A Christmas Carol apart is Dickens’ portrayal of a redeemable villain. And Scrooge is not just any villain; he is the story’s main character. Dickens transforms a completely unsympathetic wretch into a hero, and he does so in fewer pages than constitute the chapters of some books.

In literature today, we tend to evaluate our heroes by how villainous they are and our villains by how heroic they are. We long for flaws. Gray areas make characters real. But the idea of a villain turned hero was much less common in Dickens’ time, and he doesn’t employ smoke and mirrors. Scrooge isn’t a good guy masquerading as a villain. He is unforgiving and cruel. Dickens’ words say it best: “But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

Yet, it is through this hyperbolic lens that we relate to Scrooge, not in full, but in hints and whispers of our own imperfection. Dickens forces us to see ourselves in Scrooge. It’s not that Scrooge is particularly likable, even as we see his sad history unfold before us. But we come to empathize because we see elements of ourselves; ghosts of our ambition and pride, and, as the story personifies, Ignorance and Want.

Our relationship with the main character’s plight is the signature element that makes this story so compelling. We need Scrooge to be saved so that we may consider ourselves worthy of salvation. For Ebenezer, it’s a 180-degree shift. For the rest of us, with fewer proclivities toward malevolence and parsimony, change doesn’t seem quite so daunting by comparison. That is why Dickens’ Carol continues and will continue to be a integral part of our holiday celebrations and storytelling traditions.

For if the villainous Scrooge may earn reclamation, surely it is within our grasp.

Scrooge and Marley's ghost (John Leech, 1843)

Scrooge and Marley’s ghost
(John Leech, 1843)

Who else has been blogging about A Christmas Carol recently?

* And if you live anywhere near southeast Wisconsin, go see the Milwaukee Rep’s version of A Christmas Carol at the Pabst Theatre. This is a group that truly knows how to keep Christmas well.

Flash fiction – Between blinks

The Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge: Snapshots

By Jeremy Podolski

Between blinks, I fall into her eyes, deep like cenotes, dark beneath a surface that sparkles like a gemstone. Turquoise or, perhaps, emerald – they are changelings that adapt to my movement and how directly, or indirectly, I stare.

I don’t have time to speak, only to fall, so I rush toward the water, wondering if it will swallow me or spit me out. I consider the prospect of drowning without dying and whether aqua has a scent.

I dive, like a kingfisher, ready to pierce the glass and enter that water womb so I may be born again as hers.

But she blinks before splashdown.

I have nowhere to land. I spiral in space and marvel while there at what can change in a heartbeat.

I only just saw them. Now, they are gone.

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/weekly-writing-challenge-snapshots/