WHAT’S SHE PLOTTING?
This example illustrates how vantage point can be shifted from one scene to the next and the effect of altering the sequence of scenes. As you read it see if you can identify each scene.
Teresa stepped gingerly onto the steps, damp with the morning dew. A light dusting of fine hail covered the ground. The blue, plastic wrapped New York Times rested just feet away. She took one step off the stoop, reached with her arm and lost her footing. She gathered herself, too embarrassed to hurt, and looked around to see if anyone had seen her.
Back upstairs, she walked into the bathroom to rub vaseline on her scraped elbow and arm. “I slipped and fell on my back trying to bring in your paper.”
Tom slid open the mirrored shower door and peered through the cloud of steam. “Did you say something?”
“I went out to get your newspaper and slipped and fell on my back.”
“What shoes were you wearing?”
“That’s the worst traction you can have,” he said and went back to his shower.
“It was very undignified. My legs flew out. I flashed everyone driving on Odana Road. My robe pulled up behind me. I scraped my back. I’ve got grains of ice on my underwear. My hip hurts. I was trying to bring in your paper.”
Two weeks earlier after a heavier snow, she had gone out to bring in the morning papers. The Wisconsin State Journal sat in its usual spot inside the screen door. She looked from the door and through the windows but the New York Times was nowhere on the front yard. If it’s there it’s buried under six inches of snow. He can’t expect me to go out in this to get it, she thought and went back upstairs with only her paper. It was Saturday morning and she allowed herself the luxury of reading the paper under the covers and maybe dozing back to sleep.
“It’s not out there,” Tom said, disappointed after going out in the morning snow. He wore his boots with no socks, his bare legs exposed below the striped, terry robe. It finally arrived, but only after Tom had driven to the nearby grocery store to buy the Times off the rack.
“Teresa, I’m going out to do errands. I’ll be gone several hours.” He was curt, his face inexpressive.
“What’s eating him, the papers?” she thought as she heard the back door shut firmly, a restrained slam.
Hours later he returned, still not saying much. He placed two full grocery bags on the kitchen table. Quietly, he peeled and sliced apples, strawberries and bananas placing them on the trays, spacing them evenly, meticulously.
“You’re drying strawberries:”
“Do you disapprove?”
“No. I bought the food dehydrator for your birthday, remember?”
“That’s only because I told you I wanted it. You never would have gotten it on your own.”
“I can see drying fruit when it’s in season and there’s too much to eat fresh, but in February….”
“Well, it’s my new toy and I want to see how it works.”
Teresa dropped that conversation and looked at the full grocery bags.
“You don’t get it, do you?” Tom charged, moving the argument to a different level. “Who do you think takes the other more for granted, you or me?”
Teresa sighed impatiently. “I suppose you think I do.”
“That’s what this is about. It’s not about the newspapers.”
“Tom, the paper wasn’t there. I couldn’t have brought it in for you even if I had gone out in the snow.”
“It doesn’t matter. You didn’t even try. I always bring in your paper when I get up first, which is every week day. I turn up the heat in the morning so that when you get out of bed the house is warm. I make muffins for you for breakfast. You haven’t even apologized.”
“No reason to. The paper wasn’t there.”
Tom walked over to the grocery bags on the table. “Did you see what I bought to send the girls in their care packages?”
Teresa looked closely through the bags and saw two sets of treats: jelly bellies, cheese balls, peanuts, microwave popcorn, almonds….
“You went out without me to get care package treats for my daughter? I thought we said yesterday we were going together.”
“I got treats for our daughters.”
Now she was angry, hurt. How dare he go out and buy treats to send my daughter based on what his daughter likes, she thought. And he excluded me.
Not wanting to be left out entirely, Teresa quietly packaged the snacks and took them to the post office for shipping. After her return the silence continued.
“I’ll apologize to you if you apologize to me.” Tom stated. “Then maybe we can start the day over.” By then Teresa’s mind was plotting. She did not answer. Tom’s face tightened.
Later that evening, surrounded by friends, they accepted toasts and good wishes with raised champagne glasses, “Salud!”
“What is the first fight you’ve had since you’ve been married? To this day I remember the first argument Ellen and I had.”
It was Tom’s brother, Steve, talking. Was that a rhetorical question? Silence followed. All eyes focused on Tom, then on Teresa. They expected an answer.
Teresa looked quickly at Tom. “Oh, it was about his not picking up after himself.”
“But she’ll never make the mistake of not bringing in my newspaper again,” Tom added.
Naturally, they demanded more details. Soon Tom was in the middle of that morning’s newspaper fiasco.
“During the week, I always bring in both papers. The yellow rag of a newspaper she gets is always placed inside the door. My New York Times that I pay $90 a quarter for barely makes it within the property line. This morning, Teresa got up first and brought in her paper but didn’t bring in mine.”
“You forgot to tell them that your newspaper wasn’t even there.”
“That’s irrelevant. I didn’t see your footprints on the snow.” turning to Sally, Tom finished: “So, what do you say, is she guilty?”
“Hm,” Sally paused giving herself time to think of something diplomatic. “I think you should cancel your subscription to the New York Times.” The entire room laughed. So did Tom. Steve added,”Tom, you need to give a generous tip to your delivery boy so that he’ll land the paper closer to the door.”
Tom stepped out of the shower as Teresa was still dressing the scrapes on her arm. “Are you OK?”
“Did you bring in my paper?”
“Of course, after all that effort, I wasn’t about to come back empty-handed.”
Reading this you might feel you don’t know if you’d put up with Tom for long. Teresa falls down getting his newspaper and all he can say is, “What shoes were you wearing?” It is through his reaction that we immediately get an impression of him. It doesn’t take much. Just a few insensitive words and we conclude he’s stubborn and self-centered. What about her? She seems reasonable, yet why would she tolerate this?
Notice how the writer brings in opposing characteristics for each person. He can laugh at himself at the party. She, on the other hand, really doesn’t want to bring in his newspaper. She admits she would rather just take hers and snuggle up in bed. She’s technically innocent of his accusation since the paper isn’t there, but in her heart she may be guilty.
It sounds like this is a second marriage for both and the honeymoon is over. At first the newspapers seem to be a trivial subject to fight over. But, the newspapers are symbols. Hers is more folksy, closer to home; his New York Times is arrogant, cold, distant…like he is.
The characters handle the conflict in different ways. He brings it to a climax at the party, trying to gain allies by making his case in public like a trial lawyer (much as we would in Box D with the sister and friend in our example of the two lawyers). How does she handle it? There’s an ominous statement after Tom says “I’ll apologize to you if you apologize to me. Then maybe we can start the day over.” The line is: “By then Teresa’s mind was plotting.” What’s she plotting?
We want to be carried away by the story, but to understand how this writing process works, it’s worth going back into this piece and identifying the different scenes. The story starts with her falling down on her steps. How is the scene conveyed to us: through the characters thoughts, words, or actions? Through her actions, right?
Next scene, we’re up in the bathroom with her and Tom. This scene is conveyed through their talk–their dialogue. The third scene is two weeks earlier, Teresa is looking out at the snow. For the first time we have Teresa’s thoughts. We find out she doesn’t want to get the paper–the very thing Tom will later accuse her of. Tom’s going to the store to buy a Times is not a fully developed scene. It is a narrative summary—often a necessary transition to get the reader from one scene to the next. The same is true about her going to the post office. The scene following this is their conversation about the food dehydrator and the care package snacks in the kitchen. Do we get anything new here? This is mostly dialogue, but it is through this conversation that we learn Tom’s thoughts. There’s a logical sequence from action to dialogue, from her thoughts to his thoughts, then to their friends at the party–apparently a gathering to celebrate the marriage after the fact. In the last scene, we’re back in the bathroom. Back to the man and woman as in our the example of the lawyers.
Teresa’s last line is loaded with irony. “Of course, after all that effort, I wasn’t about to come back empty handed.” She doesn’t mean the effort of falling down, she also means the argument of the last two weeks.
But what is she plotting? What do writer’s plot? What they write. Notice that the name of the author at the end of the story is the same first name as the character in the story, even though she is using third person. Tom brings the dispute to a group of their friends for judgment; through her writing Teresa takes her case to us, a much larger audience. Because these are real people she has to be fair in her presentation–show strengths and weaknesses of each. On the other hand, she has the option of how to present the material. She does what each of us would, and tries to be truthful, yet predispose the reader in her favor. I identified six scenes. In a book or a movie the audience usually associates with a character we meet early–we’re eager to identify with someone who will show us how to react to events of the plot. The first half of this story contains Teresa’s actions, her words (and Tom’s too, but that’s detrimental), and her thoughts. It’s only by scene four that we get Tom’s side, why he thinks this quarrel over newspapers has deeper significance. By then we are closely identifying with Teresa and see his words through her perspective.
The scenes are not in chronological order. This favors her. For example, he says, “What shoes were you wearing?” and thirty seconds later, “Are you OK?” The reader doesn’t get that, “Are you OK?” thirty seconds later. We get it after going back and forth in time for two weeks.
Is this manipulation of the scenes to evoke the support of the reader a conscious process? I doubt it. Teresa has a problem. Given what she recounts it doesn’t seem she is having much luck working it out in real life. She turns to writing to make some sense of it, and the re-creation of the events and empathy of an audience help her to put things back in balance.
This is the same woman who wrote about buying a dress for her daughter to attend the funeral of her ex-husband. She is determined not to “come back empty-handed.” And the odd thing is, often the reality is forgotten and the written word, though it is slanted, takes its place. As friends, relatives, her husband, her children, others she doesn’t know…read Newspaper Wars, the story as it’s presented will become reality, not the factual events.
The guideline for shifting perspective within a point of view is that it must be consistent within a scene. When Charles Dickens wrote it was perfectly acceptable to have the first chapter be in the 3rd person, the second in the 1st person, even, on rare occasion, to use the 2nd person. Audiences accepted this as the way novels were written. Modern audiences don’t allow this. Yet in Newspaper Wars we see changes within the 3rd person point of view from scene to scene. You can think of these like “distant,” “medium,” and “close-up” camera shots. The audience in a movie theater is always the same distance from the screen, but the different camera shots create the illusion that the audience is closer or more distant from the subject. With these shifts from scene to scene you are pulling in your reader (having the reader see events as a particular character does) or keeping the reader at more of an objective, God-like distance. When movies first began, they were filmed plays–the camera was stationary on a tripod. Modern movies audiences expect movement. Even though less may be happening, it is more interesting to view it from a vantage point that does change.
Years ago I went through a divorce. It was strange to date after twenty years. One person I happened to meet on a blind date was Teresa. A couple years later she showed up for one of the classes I was teaching. Neither of us recognized the other until that first class. It was awkward, but she decided to stay. Later she turned in this story. I tell this (with her permission) not to embarrass her—I admire her both as a person and as a writer—but to show that just as through her writing I had a chance to see what life with her might have been like, so your readers have a chance to see what the world might be like through the different perspectives you provide. And that’s intriguing. It’s like traveling to some exotic location and imagining what it’s like to live there day-by-day, instead of just being a visitor. And when you drive home from the airport after the plane ride back, you also get a clearer perspective on the life you do live.