Exercise 8, part 2: Thin Ice

This is the last POV exercise in Steering the Craft – this time, I swear! In the previous two chapters, Ursula Le Guin cautions repeatedly against changing POV – either doing so too often, or without warning, or without a solid plan. The Chapter 8 exercises seem to be a case of her teaching you to recognize such ill-advised POV changes by making you do them on purpose. In part 1 of this exercise, she instructed us to change POV several times in a short piece, but to indicate somehow you were doing it. I chose to use line breaks and I think it worked out okay. In part 2, she has you change POV frequently and without warning.

“Part Two: Thin Ice

In 300-1000 words, tell the same story or a new story of the same kind, deliberately shifting POV from character to character several times without any obvious signal to the reader that you’re doing so.

You can of course do Part Two merely by removing the “signals” from Part One, but you won’t learn much by doing so. “Thin Ice” calls for a different narrative technique…”

Steering the Craft, Page 90

>>Phillip’s heart thumped hard the moment he felt the shudder from the engine and the odor of burnt rubber wafted from the vents. He glanced at Gina in the front seat, and found her unperturbed: stiff as a board and hovering an inch from the seat, matching its slightly reclined angle. He considered that it would be nice to have a true confidante in this moment of crisis, to know that she was as nervous as he was about the situation. But Gina didn’t feel anything. Her vista of hot car roofs and overheated pale blue sky didn’t change as she felt the car pull right and the road surface change to rough shoulder gravel. Gina’s policy, as far as she could articulate it, was: don’t get attached. She never knew when a job would end and she would be flung, once more, into the back of a box truck and bumped to a new city to model clothes in a new store. Granted, this current job was unusual for a manikin: all she had to do was sit in the seat and drive around with this guy.

The traffic inched along past them as Phillip’s car steamed from the hood. In general it wasn’t too weird to see someone broke down by the side of the road. But the rush hour congestion left the other drivers a lot of time to gawk.  One driver watched Phillip talking into his phone, pacing nervously amongst the bramble of the shoulder. The driver glanced at the female passenger of the overheating car, still strapped into her seat. The driver realized the passenger hadn’t moved at all.  Maybe she was asleep? But the passenger looked most uncomfortable, staring straight ahead with the seat belt taut across her shoulder like it was across a box or a lamp or something.  Traffic scooted up a dozen yards.  Phillip hung up the phone and watched another driver slowly roll past, eyeing Gina.  God, he thought, Estelle can’t get here a moment too soon. His plan was to transfer Gina to Estelle’s car and then call for a tow truck. He knew he’d been awkward with Estelle on the phone, but he couldn’t just come out and say it. Estelle, for her part, had a solid half an hour of gridlock to consider all the possible meanings of Phillip’s cryptic description of Gina. Estelle mouthed the words several times as she merged glacially onto the freeway, “my inanimate person friend.” She’d been flattered when Phillip called her for help, and when he said his car was broken down on the side of the freeway, she assumed he wanted a jump or needed some coolant. Nope. He wanted her to come pick up Gina. “Who’s Gina?” She asked. Phillip had hemmed and hawed, his noises of distress merging with the din of the traffic all around him.>>

Doing rapid POV changes like this was painful and I’m not sure I did it “well.” I pictured the characters passing off the POV to each other.

Le Guin finishes the chapter out by providing a famous example of this type of POV shifting: a passage from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. In the hands of a writer as skilled as Woolf, the shifts work, but I still found them jarring and uncomfortable.

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