The Point of Telling

A while back, I saw Junot Diaz speak at a writing conference, and one of the things he talked about was what he called “the point of telling.” He started his explanation by discussing his experience reading unpublished fiction and realizing that although the pieces in question had a lot going for them, something was just — off. This something, he said, is frequently hard to identify, but frequently the problem lies in the point of telling.

The point of telling is a little bit like point of view or the perspective from which an author tells the story. The difference is that point of telling has less to do with who is telling the story (e.g., a first-person narrator or a “close third-person” narrator) than where the narrator stands in relation to the story.

Diaz discussed the point of telling in relation to time. For a story to do its job effectively, the narrator needs to be at a fairly consistent distance from the events in question throughout the narrative. For example, if the narrator begins telling a story five years after the events described therein, the whole story needs to be told from a distance of five years.

Needless to say, the narrator doesn’t have to say, “All of this happened five years ago.” The point of telling is a lot more subtle than that.

Imagine you’re in a car accident. Not a bad one — just a minor fender-bender — but enough of an accident to leave you somewhat jarred. In the moment, you’ll be feeling a lot of emotions and your senses will be highly attuned to everything. The experience will be immediate and raw, highly visceral.

After a few days, however, you’ll get some perspective. You’ll be able to think about the accident in a somewhat more abstract way. It won’t be a matter of What’s happening right here, right now? Instead, the information will be filtered through all of the parts of your brain that try to make sense of the world. How did the accident happen? you’ll start to ask yourself. And your brain, being the amazing aggregator of information that it is, will reconstruct events to the best of its ability.

As more time passes, your attitude toward the accident will change. What once seemed so traumatic and pressing (How will I get to work now? Is the other driver insured? What the hell was he thinking? Were there any witnesses? Should we call the police? Where will I take my car to get it fixed? And all of the other myriad questions running through your mind…) starts to fade into the background of your life and become a minor blip on the radar.

Or it might actually start to look funny. As one of my writer friends always reminds me, comedy equals tragedy plus time. Most likely, the opposite might be true as well: comedy plus time might actually turn to tragedy. The important thing, though, is to try to remain at a more or less uniform distance from the events you’re describing. Doing so will allow your readers to settle comfortably into your story without constantly wondering how close (or far) they are from the action at hand.

Marc Schuster is the author of The Grievers (Permanent Press 2012).

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