Tag Archives: the flâneur

Drabbles: experimenting with POV and prose #amwriting

I love writing ‘drabbles,’ extremely short fiction because they offer the opportunity to write in a wide variety of genres and styles. Drabbles present the chance to experiment with point of view and prose. Often, these 100 – 200-word experiments become 1,000-word flash fictions, which are sometimes saleable.

In my files (to be worked on at a later date) is the rough draft of a short story that began as a brief exercise in writing from the point of view of the flâneur–the person of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. They are the interested observer, a person who seeks much, knows a little, and is a (frequently unreliable) witness to the events of a story.

Click here for Scott Driscoll‘s great blogpost on the flâneur. In short, he tells us that: “With a flâneur narrating, you can remove the noticing consciousness from your point of view character to accomplish other purposes.”  

The flâneur is a character frequently found in literature from the 19th century. The story is filtered through his eyes and perceptions–it distances the reader from the immediacy of the scene, so be forewarned: genre-nazis and armchair editors who want the material delivered in 60 second sound bites of action won’t love it.

My flâneur is Martin Daniels, a wealthy, retired jeweler. He spends his time roaming his city’s streets, sitting in sidewalk cafés observing his fellow citizens, and making social and aesthetic observations. He regularly finds himself crossing paths with one man, in particular, Jenner: a self-made man who came up through the mines.

Jenner is battering against the prevailing social barriers which stand in the way of his achieving a political office that he covets, using whatever means at his disposal. He is uncouth, a barely civilized rough-neck with a bad reputation, but something about him draws Martin’s attention, and so he finds himself both observing Jenner and listening to the whispered gossip that surrounds the man.

One day, as Jenner is passing Martin’s table, his hat blows off, and Martin catches it, returning it to him. Jenner then introduces himself and admits that he has been watching Martin for some time. He has a task for Martin, one that intrigues him enough to bring him out of retirement. Thus begins an odd relationship.

When this twist happened, my flâneur ceased to be merely an observer and became my protagonist, yet he is reporting the events from the distance of his memory, so he is still the observer.

Literary fantasy, one of my favorite genres to read, is a great venue for the flâneur. It examines the meaning of life or looks at real issues, and I tend to write from that aspect. In my favorite works, the fantastic, otherworld setting is the frame that holds the picture. It offers a means to pose a series of questions that explore the darker places in the human condition.

Sometimes the quest the hero faces is, in fact, an allegory for something else, and the flâneur shows you this without beating you over the head with it. I read good literary fantasy—it tends to be written by men and women who write well and literately. Not only are the words and sentences pregnant with meaning and layers of allegory, but they are also often poetic and beautifully constructed.

I like to experiment with prose as well as style and genre, and writing drabbles offers that opportunity.

The character of the interested observer is not limited to a person walking the streets and making political or social commentaries on what is seen. Nor is the gender of the observer limited to that of a man. Any person can be the observer and serve in this role. The flâneur is great fodder for a drabble, so give it a try.

The modern flâneur is found in the office, the coffee shop, shopping at the mall or grocery store, waiting in line at the movies, even looking through the curtains of their front windows. These are venues they habitually visit and don’t go out of their way for, and are where they are likely to regularly see the person who piques their curiosity.

Writers are, by nature, observers of the human condition. When two friends sit in a Starbucks and play ‘the coffee shop game,’ the game where they see patrons and invent stories about who they are and what they do, they become the flâneur for a brief moment. Write those paragraphs and see what emerges.

Writing drabbles offers me the chance to write two or three paragraphs in a literary style, experiment with both point of view and prose, and allows me to play with words. I can imitate the style of my favorite authors and see what it is about their work that attracts me.

Any time you have a great little idea, pause for the moment and write a drabble about it. Save it in a file labelled ‘Drabbles.’ You never know when you may have the seeds of a great story in those two brief paragraphs.


Quotes and Attributions

Flaneur, try it and set yourself free by Scott Driscoll, © Oct 24, 2013,  https://scottdriscollblogs.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/flaneur-try-it-and-set-yourself-free/

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#amwriting: point of view

Xpogo_RioA young author recently asked me, “What is head-hopping and why has my writing group accused me of doing it?” Headhopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene, and happens most frequently when using a Third-Person Omniscient narrative, in which the thoughts of every character are open to the reader.

It’s difficult to know whose opinions are most important when all your characters are speaking in your head as you are writing. They clamor and speak over the top of each other, making a din like my family at any holiday dinner. But you must force them to take turns speaking, and make a real break between the scenes where the speaker changes, or each rapid shift of perspective will throw the reader out of the story. But what is Point of View other than the thoughts of one or two characters?

Point of view is a common literary term which some authors are a little unclear on. Remember, books, stories and literature in general, are a window through which readers look at the world. The way they see through that window, is though the eyes of the narrator: the point of view.

Writers direct their readers’ attention to the details, opinions, or emotions they want to emphasize by manipulating the point of view of the story, writing the narrative in one of three different ways: first-person, second-person, or third-person.

First-person point of view is fairly common, and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings. Remember, it is told from the view and knowledge of the narrator, and not of other characters. You ,as the author, must remember that no one has complete knowledge of anything. Thus, your protagonist cannot be all-seeing and all-knowing. The reader will find out the information as the protagonist does, which can be engrossing.

So I know I am right not to settle, but it doesn’t make me feel better as my friends pair off and I stay home on Friday night with a bottle of wine and make myself an extravagant meal and tell myself, This is perfect, as if I’m the one dating me. ~~ Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Second-person point of view, in which the author uses “you” and “your,” is rarely found in a novel or short story. It is, however, commonly used in guide books, self-help books, do-it-yourself manuals, interactive fiction, role-playing games, gamebooks such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series, musical lyrics, advertisements.

For an author attempting to use it in fiction, it’s tricky to get right, so it doesn’t come off like a walkthrough for an RPG and for this reason, authors rarely speak directly to the reader in this way. However, it can work well, if the author is smart and really understands what they are writing. Successful use of Second Person POV can be found in: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984)

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”

Third-person point of view provides the greatest flexibility to the author and thus is the most commonly used narrative mode in literature. In the third-person narrative mode, each and every character is referred to by the narrator as “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they.” Third-person point of view is that of an outsider looking at the action, an invisible third person describing the events.

  1. The writer may choose third-person omniscient, in which the thoughts of every character are open to the reader, or third-person limited, in which the reader enters only one character’s mind, either throughout the entire work or in a specific section.
  2. Third-person limited differs from first-person because while we see the thoughts and opinions of a single character, the author’s voice, not the character’s voice, is what you hear in the descriptive passages.
  3. The Flâneur (idler, lounger, loiterer.) This is traditionally a form of third person POV, but I like to think of it almost as a fourth POV. Many of you have heard of it as third-person objective or third-person dramatic.

James Wood, author and literary critic, discusses this in the New Yorker (Books section Feb 28, 2011) in his review of Teju Cole’s Open City. Wood writes: …we also need a flâneur to see interesting things in the city, and to notice them well, and (Teju) Cole’s narrator has an acute, and sympathetic, eye. Sometimes he is witty and paradoxical, in a way that recalls Roland Barthes. Watching a park full of children: “The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.”

The flâneur is a voice that observes and comments but without actually becoming a character, a witness to the events. There is a downside to using the flâneur as your vehicle to convey your narrative:

  • He is not reliable—he has his own personality, offering subtle judgments and unconscious opinions on the behavior of the characters. Therefore, just as in a first-person narrative, the reader cannot be sure he is telling the unbiased truth.
  • The narrator  tells the story without describing any of the character’s thoughts, opinions, or feelings; so the reader can only guess at character motivations, and must assume the objective observer truly is objective and has told the truth in that regard.
  • It separates the reader from the intimacy of the action and slows the pace down.

Authors know what every character they are writing is thinking, and sometimes feel compelled to write from every character’s viewpoint. First we’re in Joe’s head, and then we are in Mary’s–rather like watching a tennis match. It’s critical that we don’t jump from head to head within a scene, as that will knock the reader out of the narrative and we don’t want that.

Joe’s experience can be explored and Mary’s can too, but make a solid break, or begin new chapter before you switch to Mary’s viewpoint. If a different character has something to say that is important to the narrative, I give them a separate chapter, even if it is a short one. That way my readers are not too confused about who is making the observations.

Remember, we avoid head-hopping and mental whiplash by not changing characters and point of view mid-scene.

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