Exercise 8, Part 1: Changing Voices

Did I say last week “haven’t we had enough POV exercises?” – because I didn’t mean it. After going through Chapter 8, I’ve realized that Ursula Le Guin cares deeply about POV. Chapter 8 is basically an extension of Chapter 7 but deals exclusively with the idea of how to change POV characters safely and effectively within a story. My impression from Chapter 8 is that Le Guin is bearish on changing POV characters and takes a skeptical view on doing so. I felt slightly chastened reading this, since it is almost my favorite thing to do when writing fiction. Certainly in real life, you only get your own point of view, thus some of the fun of fiction is getting to experience the story from multiple narrators and POVs.

Le Guin says we can keep using the story from Exercise 7 – but I decided to come up with a new one – based on another true story. I was stuck in traffic one day when I realized the car in the lane next to me had a very unusual passenger sitting in the front seat…

Exercise 8: Changing Voices

Part One: Quick Shifts in Limited Third: A short narrative, 300-600 words. You can use one of the sketches from Exercise 7 or make up a new scene of the same kind: several people involved in the same activity or event.

Tell the story using several different viewpoint characters (narrators) in limited third person, changing from one to another as the narrative proceeds.

Mark the changes with line breaks, with the narrator’s name in parentheses at the head of that section, or with any device you like.”

Steering the Craft, Page 89.

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When Phillip felt the shudder and heard the sudden high-pitched whine that pierced through even the music on the radio, his stomach dropped. Breaking down with Gina in the car was his worst nightmare.  Traffic was at a near standstill; fortunately he was in the right lane already so pulling over was easy. Smoke wafted off of the hood of his car into the overheated highway air.  Phillip looked at Gina as she reclined stiffly in the passenger seat, the evening light casting warm highlights on her unblinking plastic eyes. The longer they sat on the side of the road with other drivers staring at them, the higher the chance she would be recognized for who and what she was. If someone called the highway patrol or a tow truck, then there would really be questions – and if not questions, then smirks and derision. He needed to call for help, but it couldn’t be just anyone.

            Gina was entirely mum on the whole situation; being in a broke down car on the shoulder of a highway held no special stigma for her. She possessed no strong opinion on any of the places humans had taken her in her long life. Although she would be the first to admit that being strapped in the front seat of a passenger car beat being slung onto a pile in a box truck or delivery van. Sometimes the man in the driver’s seat would chortle and hoot as he accelerated past other cars, patting her arm and saying, “Gotta love these high occupancy lanes, Gina.” Whatever those were. It didn’t matter, she watched and let it all go by; the blue sky, the heavy grey overpasses, the red break lights. At night and while he was at work, he leaned her seat back and thoughtfully covered her up with a blanket.  Acceptance and equanimity is the natural state of all manikins: Gina never knew how long a particular job or stay in a store might last, so she never got too attached.

            Estelle inched down the highway, straining her neck to catch sight of Phillip’s car on the shoulder. She wanted to be sure to have adequate time to safely pull over behind him, although traffic was going so slowly, she admitted to herself that it wouldn’t be a problem. Mostly, she wanted to have as much time as possible to assess the situation: how weird would it be?  He’d been so circumspect on the phone. He’d called just as she got to her car in the company parking lot; his voice was trembling and uncertain. She teased him when he told her he’d broken down by the side of the road and couldn’t think of anyone else to call: “oh, you break down by the side of the road and call the only butch lesbian you know? What – do you think all of us take auto shop in high school to get into the club or something?” He’d sputtered and apologized so she let him off the hook. “No, it’s fine. Yeah, I know how to jump a car and change a tire, doing nothing for the stereotype as you can see.” But then he told her it wasn’t that – it was that he had Gina in the car with him. “Who’s Gina? Your girlfriend?” She’d asked and his reply had puzzled her for the last 30 minutes of rush hour traffic.

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