Friday, July 25, 2008

But what does it mean? (Point of View)

Yesterday evening I was talking about objects, but there was a hidden dimension there that I'd like to talk about a bit more, and that is significance. It's not just the presence of an object that counts, but what that object means. For example:

object: a bottle of bubbles on a large desk beside a computer

Immediately we can guess some things. Bubbles are a toy but the description does not place the bottle in a "natural toy environment." This could imply that the owner intended to place the bubbles out of reach of children in the house, or possibly just that the owner likes bubbles and is given to transports of fun in between emails.

I don't think anyone will be surprised by the idea that bubbles might mean children in the house, or that bubbles on a large desk might mean someone placed them out of reach. But let's take this one step further.

The description of an object can also tell us things about the person observing it - even when that person is not directly mentioned in the description. Compare these examples:

1. The bottle of bubbles sat on the desk, safe from reaching fingers.
(someone thinks the placement is "safe" - probably Mom?)
2. There was our bottle of bubbles, hidden in the grownups' clutter on the desk.
(someone small owns the bubbles and has been looking for them?)
3. The incriminating bottle of bubbles now sat out of reach on the principal's desk.
(someone, not the principal, thinks the bubbles will get them in trouble?)
4. Damned if the bottle of bubbles wasn't right there on the desk!
(someone is frustrated after seeking bubbles for some time and not noticing them?)

It's not just the object that is important. The voice of the character who observes the object chooses tell you extra things about it and its location, thus opening a window on how he or she views the world - and how he or she feels about discovering the bubbles. The tiniest addition to a description, such as the word "incriminating" in sentence 3, can make a huge difference to a reader's understanding of a story situation.

You might say that the choice to include that word provides information in two directions: both inward, toward the object, and outward, toward the observer. And because of the presence of the reader and author adds even more possible layers. All this stuff relates to my favorite area of linguistics, pragmatics. In this regard I'd like to share H.P. Grice's Cooperative Principle (from Logic and Conversation, 1975):

"Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged."

Which is the long way of saying,

"Say the appropriate thing at the appropriate time in the appropriate way."

Okay, fine, but there's more to it than just that - because along with the cooperative principle comes the idea that people will always assume you're obeying it. So if you mention something, that has meaning. If you leave out something expected, that also has meaning.

I'm going to come back to this at some point, because I feel like I've barely scratched the surface tonight. For those who want more right away, I wrote a lot about this in an article which appeared in IROSF in August 2006. It was called "Point of View: Reading beyond the I's" and if you want to go into detail you can check it out in their archives. IROSF requires registration, but to my knowledge it is still free (and easy).

I'm away for the weekend, so I'll be back again Sunday evening or Monday (depending on how frazzled I am). So TTYL from TTYU!


  1. Great start, Juliette -- this is going to be a terrific blog. Fascinating and dense, though readably so.

    The post on dialect was particularly interesting to me in the context of my own just-finished book on our year in Greece. In the writing, I was faced with portraying and keeping distinct:

    1 - My speaking in poor Greek
    2 - Greeks speaking in poor English
    3 - English representation of dialogue where Greeks are speaking Greek
    4 - Conversations in mixed language

    This posed quite a challenge; in the end, rhythm and syntax -- as you and others suggest -- is the key. Trying to phonetically spell out dialect or accent, other than in slight touches, is IMO the kiss of death... it so easily degenerates into either incomprehensibilty or farce.

    Also great to see so many people I know here already ;-) Keep it up.


  2. Fun blog. Can't wait to read more.

  3. Thanks, Dario, glad you could take a look. And welcome to Berlin writer girl - feel free to stop by again!