Where’ve I Heard That Before?
Toward the conclusion of Costa Gavras’ 1969 political thriller ‘Z’, an array of high-ranking military figures being interrogated by the investigating magistrate describe the attacker during a political assassination as “lithe and fierce, like a tiger.”
From the low-life thugs who carried out the killing to the highest ranking officer who condoned it, they all utter the same phrase. The magistrate takes it that all of them were in on it and all of them have been coached.
I’m reminded of Gavras’ bit of satire whenever I hear another phrase that writers and editors have become fond of using: It took me right out of the story.
It’s a phrase that spurs the suspicious chief magistrate in me to ask, did it really take you out of the story, or did you think it should have taken you out of the story?
ITMROOTS is most commonly applied to lapses in POV. Beginning writers are schooled in keeping their stories, or at least individual chapters in a single point of view. To fail that is to commit the cardinal writing sin of head-hopping. This is sound advice, as sound as grounding oneself in the basics of grammar and maintaining a single tense.
But I worry that sound craft is being turned into dogma, because dogma, after all, hinders not only craft, but art.
I was born right smack in the middle of the twentieth century. I enjoyed books, of course, but the dominating art forms of my day were movies and television. Perhaps for this reason, supposed POV faults don’t bother me all that much. Because the camera, for the most part, when it pulls back from a scene, it appears all POVs are covered. True third-person omniscient. Great directors – Hitchcock comes to mind – then could slice into a scene and pare the POV down to one single character. Hitch, however, usually kept it in our POV, the audience.
It bothers me when someone cites head-hopping that I just don’t see. How am I missing this?
ITMROOTS is also applied to other perceived faux pas in writing, and in all honesty I also have been taken right out of a story by any number of things, such as anachronisms in historical settings, a shift in tense, an action by a character inconsistent with what has gone before without explanation. That was a big problem I had with Gone Baby, Gone.
Then there’s just bad or mundane writing. A late and much missed friend of mine used to say of some writers, he or she writes perfectly, but with a tin ear. Hey, you know it when you read it.
I suspect ITMROOTS originated in a creative writing course. It sounded okay and spread through the writerly community. Like all once-glib phrases, with time it has become set in concrete. Editors use it frequently, and it always makes me cringe, because I wonder if the dogma is perhaps quelling a new style or innovation.
New fiction is emerging that employs different, or perhaps no punctuation. Right now I’m enjoying Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, a western saga told in the manner of a rambling monologue without quote marks and what I can only describe as improvised punctuation.
I can also think back to Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga, in which white space was deftly used to convey great interludes of silence, or just the sounds of a vessel plying the seas at night.
Still, I worry that the dogma is hindering creativity and experimentation. Particularly when an editor says something or other assuredly takes the reader right out of the story. Really? Because I’ve never heard a pure reader use that phrase, nor seen any study that proved readers are ever taken right out of a story by anything other than bad or dull writing. My experience has been that readers don’t get into a story in the first place and so never get to the point where they get taken right out of it.
We who have been schooled in writing perhaps need to sit back and ask this: Does it work? And if the answer is yes, decide for ourselves why.