In a manuscript workshop I recently conducted, a participant submitted a story in which the antagonist chose the dark side after being forced by his government captors to watch his daughter’s burning at the stake. The scene had lots of sweating, lots of writhing, fingernails clawing dirt, and underneath it all, the frantic drumbeat of a heart. The father’s, not the daughter’s. The scene was written from the father’s point of view.
So? What’s wrong with that? Of course that’s what would happen. That’s how any father would feel.
Except its effect is to make an observer of the reader. The reader wants to be present as participant. The reader reads to have emotional adventures for which he will never have to pay the price.
Here’s Chekhov speaking to the subject:
When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold. … The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.
– Anton Chekhov to Lydia Avilova, March 19, 1892 & April 29, 1892
Be objective, Chekhov says. Your point-of-view character is your subject, not the object. The object is what he’s watching. The object is his daughter. Describe the burning. Describe it coldly, Chekhov says. Does that mean put out the fire? Not at all. The fire’s burning hot. It’s licking at her hem. She’s pulled her feet up on the stake, to keep them from the flames. Tell me how the fire smells. What fabric is her gown? Do you know the smell of burning wood, burning rope, and burning wool? How thick is the smoke? Who is in the audience. How does a burning woman sound? She’s in terror but not keening yet. Does she speak? Does he? He’s seen that look in her eyes before, when she was frightened as a child, the night her mother died. What does he remember of that night? Does he think about the days to come? How it will feel to be without her in the world? Who does he hate on her account? At this point I feel his muscles flex. You might let him chafe at his restraints. But keep in mind: For a scene this dramatic, you want to keep it cold. Let the reader see it, feel it for himself, with concrete sensory detail.
Here’s an example, extracted from Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions. In this scene France has been occupied by the Germans in World War II. Now, the Americans have arrived and the Frenchmen is grateful to welcome an American officer (Pavone) and the driver of his jeep (Michael), both of whom share a plural point-of-view.
“When the first American planes flew over, even though they dropped bombs on us, I stood up on my roof and waved. And now you are here, in person. I also understand,” he said delicately, “why you took so long in coming.”
“Thank you,” said Pavone again.
“A war is not a matter of minutes, no matter what some people say. And each war takes longer than the one before it. It is the simple arithmetic of history.” The Frenchman nodded vigorously in emphasis. “I do not deny it was not pleasant waiting. You have no idea what the Germans are like, to live under day after day.” The Frenchman whipped out an old, tattered leather wallet and flipped it open. “All during the occupation, from the first day, I carried this.” He showed the wallet to Pavone and Michael bent forward to look at it. There was a waded piece of tricolor bunting from a penny flag under the yellow celluloid cover in the wallet. “If they had found it on me,” the Frenchman said, regarding the sleazy muslin, “they would have killed me. But I carried it, four years.”
He sighed, and put the wallet away.
“I have just come back from the front,” he announced. “Someone told me, on the bridge across the river, in the middle, between the British and the Germans, there is an old woman lying. Go and see if it is your wife. I went and looked.” He paused and stared up at the damaged church steeple. “It was my wife.”
He stood in silence, stroking the jeep. Neither Pavone nor Michael said anything. “Forty years,” the Frenchman said. “We were married forty years. We had our ups and downs. We lived on the other side of the river. I suppose she forgot a parrot or a hen and decided she must go look for it and the Germans machine-gunned her. Machine gun for a sixty-year-old woman. They are inconceivable the Germans. She is lying there, with her dress up over her legs and her head down. The Canadians wouldn’t let me go out to get her. I will have to wait until the battle is over, they told me. She has on her good dress.” He began to cry. The tears ran into his moustache, and he swallowed them wetly. “Forty years. I saw her a half hour ago.” He took out his wallet again, crying. “Even so,” he said fiercely, “even so . . .” He opened the wallet and kissed the tricolor bunting under its cellulous cover, kissed it passionately, insanely. “Even so.”
He shook his head and put the wallet away. He patted the jeep once more. He moved off down the street vaguely, past the torn iron of the shopfronts and the carelessly piled stones, moved off without saluting or saying good-bye.
Michael looked after him, feeling his face rigid and aching.
Pavone sighed and started the jeep. They drove slowly toward the outskirts of town.
Not until the end of the Frenchman’s tale–a heart-rending story of one horror of war–do we get any reaction from them. Michael feels the muscles of his face. Pavone sighs and starts the jeep. Both are understated responses. They leave the feeling to the reader.
Time out for me to rave at Shaw’s details: Note that the Frenchman strokes the jeep–a perfect gesture. And when finally he cries? (He’s the object in this story. He gets to do what he does.) Note the detail that breaks him up–that she was wearing her good dress–strikes me as exactly the moment he would break open. Because isn’t it the irrelevant, but touching detail that opens the steely surface to the cataclysm beneath? The moment of the deceased loved ones handwriting surfacing on a recipe card or of seeing that his watch has stopped?
Shaw wrote it cold. Chekhov’s head is nodding.