Sunday, March 11, 2007

Side-Stroke or Crawl?

How do you decide which stroke to use when swimming through your story?

If you choose the crawl, you'll face forward as you swim, viewing the water in front of you as you forge ahead, with intermittent glimpses to the right and left, depending on how often you come up for air.

The side-stroke, on the other hand, will offer a wider, mostly one-sided perspective of the pool (or wherever you happen to be swimming), and you'll find yourself cruising through the water at a slower, more leisurely pace.

Which stroke–or point-of-view–is right for your story? How do you decide?

For a fine example of the challenges of using different points of view, you might study An Na’s emotionally evocative YA novel, Wait For Me, in which Na switches from one point-of-view to another as the story unfolds, offering readers two very different perspectives of the same story.

Indeed, Na's decision to tell this story through two alternating voices–Mina’s first-person account of events as they unfold and Suna’s third-person report–allows her to gradually reveal the deeply emotional links these two sister’s share in the face of an over-bearing mother whose thwarted dreams threaten to drown out the girls’ own dreams.

If readers aren’t entirely sure at first why the mother behaves so badly toward her daughters, it soon becomes clear. Mina, the product of a love affair gone awry years ago, is the mother’s favorite, a girl for whom the mother has sacrificed her own life so that she might succeed. Suna, the younger daughter, has a hearing impairment and must confront her mother’s disdain for her as the product of a loveless relationship with Apa, the man who, like the girls, doesn’t have the strength of will or courage to face his wife.

Two separate narratives–Mina’s in first person, Suna’s in third person–entwine the voices of each character just as their lives are entwined, each point of view showing us how it must feel to be that particular character. Mina’s first person voice reveals her visibility and vulnerability as the oldest daughter and sister. Suna’s third person voice reveals her near-invisibility as the youngest daughter, yet still allows her to express how it feels to be seen by her mother as an object of disdain rather than as a beloved daughter.

Within each of these parallel narratives Na builds the tension until it becomes clear something must change in this pressure-cooker family as the mother’s demands become more unreasonable to Mina, and as the mother increasingly ignores Suna while, simultaneously, becoming more and more angry at her (for her disability, perhaps, or for the failure that Suna symbolizes in her own life).

Readers can feel the tension rising and falling in the words that Na uses to tell each girl’s story, such as in this scene after the mother has thrown a bowl of scalding stew at Suna in a fit of anger. Na manages to craft this scene as dream-like so that Suna 's ambiguous feelings toward her mother are fully explored:
Uhmma’s face, as though appearing from a dream, steps into the room, a white washcloth in her hand. She steps quickly, quietly across the room and comes to sit on Suna’s bed. Uhmma brings her finger to her lips and then points to Mina sleeping. Suna nods. Uhmma gently places the cool wet washcloth on Suna’s burn, patting it in place with the palm of her hand. The dark puffy skin around Uhmma’s eyes makes her look tired. Old.
Before Suna can reach for her, Uhmma is gone. Across the room, quietly closing the door behind her. And when Suna blinks, she believes for a moment that it must have been a dream. A ghost. Except for the cool weight of the washcloth on her chest. Suna falls asleep holding the cloth as though it were her heart.
Such an image to end the passage! Suna falls asleep holding the cloth as though it were her heart, drawing the reader deep into her experience of longing for a mother’s love... but feeling, not a real heart, only the weight of a wet washcloth on her chest.

With the arrival of Ysrael, a young man hired by their parents to help their father in the dry cleaning shop, the lives of the girls begin to change.

Before Ysrael ‘s arrival, Mina’s heart is deeply weighed down with guilt over stealing receipts from the register drawer of her parent’s dry cleaning shop (so that one day she might have enough money to set out on her own) and from lying to her mother about what she wants in life.

But her feelings for Ysrael force Mina to confront the lies that she's told her mother--that she plans on going to Harvard; that she's studying for the SAT’s to get the best score possible; that she's asking help from Jonathan, the son of her mother’s friend, who is going to Stanford and who Mina has--through her inaction--led to believe she might feel affection for, even though she feels nothing but disdain for him and the advances that he makes toward her.

Look at this scene in which Mina finds herself confronting the truth of her emotions toward Ysrael:
His hands slipped through my hair, behind my neck, cradling me against him. I closed my eyes and let myself fall forward. This was my world. I stood up on my tiptoes and ran my hands through his hair. Touched my cheek to his cheek. Glanced my lips across his forehead. This was my world. I pressed my lips to his and tasted the sweet gentleness of his tongue. A weakness stilled my heart. He was my world.
But it requires a huge effort on Mina’s part to leave the world of her mother and sister and actually take the steps necessary to make the words “He was my world” come true.

In fact, one of the astonishing things about this novel is the masterful way that Na holds back the action until the last possible moment, keeping the reader “waiting” for Mina to act, just as Mina must “wait” for her life to emerge from the shadow of her mother’s hopes and dreams.

By holding back the action, Na manages to construct a novel around a character who is frozen with guilt... to such a degree that she cannot make a decision about how to live her own life. She is unable to act until her emotions reach a tipping point ... which comes when her love and desire for Ysrael and her growing desire for a life of truth outweigh the lies that she feels she must tell her mother.

It’s to Na’s credit...and her amazing talent as a writer... that she draws readers deeply into Mina’s world despite this lack of action. Na probes beneath the surface, using these alternating points of view between the sisters to let readers experience the emotional and psychological struggle that both sisters must undergo in order to find their own lives, their own voices.

After Ysrael arrives, Mina can no longer deceive herself. As she finds herself falling in love with him, everything about her life–the lies, the ongoing deceitfulness, the thefts–appears false, a fraud, because she cannot stand up for herself... or choose how she wants to live her life.

But it’s not easy for Mina to go off with Ysrael once he decides to head to San Francisco and music school.
“Then stay,” I begged. “Why do you have to go?”
He shook his head slowly. “I can’t. I have to do this for me. I want to learn how to really write songs and play music.”
I nodded. I wanted that for him as well. Ysrael pulled me close. I sank back against him. We stayed that way without speaking. I pressed my ear to his chest and listened to his heartbeats. The slow start, stop rhythm. Forever beginning. Forever ending. His life. My life. Heartbeat. Heart.
This discovery of her own heartbeat, through Ysrael’s pulse, brings Mina to life, giving her the courage to make the decision to do what she must to live her own life.

Torn in the end between her love for Ysrael and her love for her sister, Mina finds the courage to perform a selfless act that takes into account her sister’s life as well as her own, remaining at home with her sister until Suna, too, can emerge from the shadow of their overbearing mother. But she will stay in touch with Ysrael, too.

It’s an ending that shows the reader how tightly bound the sisters are to one another ... while also revealing the depth of Mina’s love for Ysrael... and reinforcing the poignant multiple meanings of the book’s title.

Side-stroke or crawl? Which perspective best serves your story? Take a look at An Na’s Wait for Me to better understand the challenges of crafting a story with more than one point-of-view.

For more information about An Na and her work, visit her website at:

For more information on point-of-view, take a look at these links:

Also, you might enjoy an interview that Cynthia Leitich Smith conducted recently with Barry Lyga, who discusses the challenges of writing his first novel, Fan Boy and Goth Girl, from the first-person point-of-view of a fifteen-year-old boy:


Jack said...

Bruce, I thoroughly enjoyed your discussions and reflections on An Na's new novel. They invite a lot of thought on the choice of POV to better explore the themes of a story. It seems so right for this story to have Mina, the offspring of love, and the older, perhaps stronger daughter, speak in first-person, and Suna, the younger, unloved daughter of a loveless marriage, speak in third. It likely gives the reader more breathing room while allowing the story to go deep into the emotional issues. There's a lot to think about there. I enjoyed An Na's earlier novel, and look forward to reading this one.

Bruce said...

Yes, the alternating pov's proved a successful method, I think, for deepening a reader's understanding of each character's place in (and view of) the world. As the older daughter, Mina dominates the story... and her first-person account is that of an "insider"... while Suna's third-person narrative gives the reader a sense of her "outsider" status. It was a very ambitious strategy on Na's part, I think, involving a technical challenge that not every author could pull off with the same unerring skill.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

I do think the question of point of view is primarily about discovery, as you illustrate so well. In the mystery genre (in which I write) this is an important decision because clues are fed to the reader through the point of view character(s) a bit at a time, to some extent without the reader realizing they're clues at all. Who the point of view character is becomes a controlling factor in the mystery's revelation.

Bruce said...

Your observation is essential, I think, in helping us better understand point of view and its function in drawing the reader into the story.

In Na's book, for instance, I felt drawn much more deeply into the story in Mina's first person narrative... than in Suna's third person account. The voice was equally strong in each, but the point of view gave me access to the characters in different ways.

Until your comment, though, I hadn't thought about how the pov helped me "discover" each character. A little like looking at the same story through different lenses, you know?