The full title of this section is Monologues, and the Pathological First Person. If you’re like me you’d be hard pressed to cite an example of a fictional monologue, let alone one you found compelling as literature or art. This section explains why.
Stories told in the monologue form would seem to be exceptions to our “rule” that the point-of-view character is the character moved by action or will become so. The monologist, after all, is presumed to be the same after he ends his harangue as he was before he began it.
For Hills the relevant literary question is not whether something can be done, but whether it can be done well. His standard is, in the end, qualitative, not dogmatic. If breaking a rule increases the power of your fiction then by all means break it. As Hills notes, however, the inherent problem with monologues is that they decrease power by promoting uncertainty:
Who is it exactly that is talking? And then, is the reader being addressed directly? Or is a captive “visitor” there, in the barber chair or whatever, just somehow listening?
Hills piles on, but you get the point. It’s the point I made in an earlier post in this series, when I said, “Point of view is inherent in storytelling.” If you don’t provide a point of view, or you keep the point of view a secret, your readers, consciously or subconsciously, are going to provide an answer themselves.
Hills spends three full pages talking about the advantages and disadvantages of monologues in fiction, and the latter far outweigh the former. Almost in exasperation he then writes:
Why writers, especially beginning writers, are continually attracted to this form is hard to see. Why would a writer want to tell a story from a point of view totally alien to him, from the point of view of a character whose every utterance must be designed secretly to convey the very opposite of what he’s trying to say?
Hills provides solid answers to his own questions, but I’d like to suggest a related motivation that Hills alludes to but does not spell out. Earlier, in a series of chapters on plot, Hills talked about the various ways in which an author can generate suspense. The premise of those sections was the idea that curiosity about an uncertain outcome is weaker in force than tension about an anticipated outcome.
I’ve also talked before about how some writers tend to focus first on plot in their writing, while others tend to start with some aspect of character and write from that. While it would be speculative to talk about any specific author’s motivation for writing in the monologue point of view, it seems obvious that doing so provides a means by which suspense and interest can be generated from character itself.
In the chapter titled Mystery and Curiosity Hills wrote:
The trouble with mystery as a structure is that the writer enters into competition with the reader instead of partnership.
In this chapter Hills writes:
This is not only difficult to do — it puts the narrator and the reader in opposition to one another — but it scarcely seems worth doing, at least not just for its own sake.
We all grow up listening to stories. When we’re young many of those stories hinge on mysteries that lead to surprise endings. Later, as we tire of the tricks used to motivate such mysteries, and as we grow more mature, we tend to appreciate the complexities and subtleties of literature more.
I think a similar evolution holds for many writers as they evolve from novice to master. The effect of withheld information that leads to a big reveal at the climax of a story is impossible to overlook and easy to replicate. Where plot-first writers engineer twists and machinations of events in pursuit of such effects, character-first writers see the same opportunity for easy exploitation in monologues. Beginning writers in both cases are particularly likely to sense the benefits of such choices while remaining blind to the negative effects.
It’s true that you can use uncertainty about point of view to rig a wow ending or a twist of the reader’s expectations. It’s not at all clear from the historical record that doing so is ever really a good idea.
Next up: Irony and Point of View.
— Mark Barrett