Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

In my critiques, I often advise writers to pay closer attention to how they use point-of-view (POV). Until I saw Pan's Labyrinth a second time a few weekends ago, it didn't occur to me to use a movie to explain a writing concept.

If you're writing in third person, the narrator zooms in and out to pace the story. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, calls this concept psychic distance, or basically how close your narrator is to your POV character's innermost experience of the world. A common mistake is to hold the same psychic distance for too long, creating either a story that moves too slowly (the plot drags) or too quickly (we might as well be reading a plot summary).

This film, were it a novel, would be written in third-person. Since Ofelia is the main character, the closest psychic distance is reserved for her, but we get other POVs later in the film that give the story its depth and richness. In the crucial first 20 minutes, however, we move through three stages of psychic distance in Ofelia's POV. A full walk-through is beyond the scope of this little blog entry, but briefly:

1. When Ofelia finds the stone in the road that releases the fairy, the viewer is alone with her. We know very little about her other than that she reads fairy tales (her mother just scolded her for it), and this moment gives both her and us a sense of wonder. The psychic distance is very close.

2. Once Ofelia arrives at the old mill/military outpost, we meet two new characters--the captain and Mercedes--and as the viewer, we're in the midst of a lot of activity. We're observing the interaction between the captain and Ofelia's mother. There's dialogue between Ofelia and the new characters. The psychic distance is moderate.

3. There's a hinge point right after Ofelia discovers the labyrinth--Mercedes guides her away from it, but the camera stays with the labyrinth; specifically, the fairy appears at the top of the threshold and watches Ofelia and Mercedes walk away. We've broken from Ofelia's POV, and the subsequent scenes are free move to other characters' POVs. The psychic distance zooms completely out for this transition.

Thanks to the slowly increasing psychic distance, we can easily adjust to the changing POVs that come after these opening scenes: Something to consider as you're switching between POVs in your novel.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


Work is slow at Threepenny -- the typical summer slump. In July, I finished a critique, two manuscript editing projects, and several sample edits. I put in some good, hard work on a ghostwriting project. I saved my personal website from peril (thanks to the sellout), and raced well in two big triathlons. I also tried to save the Earth; or at least I put more miles on my bike than on my '93 Saturn.

Portland summers are sweet, and there's nothing like closing the laptop at 5 p.m. sharp and pedaling to the top of Mt. Tabor Park, sitting in the grass with friends, watching the bicycle races, and waiting for the sun to set behind the city. A slow month on the P&L doesn't mean hard times.

More on gotchas

I posted last week about the dozen or so London publishers that rejected "Pride and Prejudice." The buzz on my editors guild board has finally produced a few optimistic notes, mainly this one on the Making Light blog, a group blog written by editors and writers who have been working in book publishing for decades.