Badly Behaved Cephalopods: Why Perspective Matters

Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences by Madelyn Lemons, is a story from Periphery 55.  It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            A question I hear a lot about perspective in storytelling is, ‘when should an author choose the first-person perspective versus a third-person perspective?’  The best answer I can give is the story Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences from Perphery 55 by Madelyn Lemons.  Lemons’ story relies heavily on character narration.  The main character Jim’s internal monologue not only sets the scene, works to characterize every character we meet in the story, but is damn funny the entire time.  Few stories we receive at Periphery are so effortlessly comedic, but more importantly, use that comedy for a very specific purpose. 

            Take a look at the opening paragraph of the story.  Notice all that it does simply using character voice.  How would this scene have been different if it was narrated in the third person?

Be an octopus research scientist you said. It would be fun, you said. No no, they can’t steal things. Absolutely not. They don’t memorize night guard patterns and steal fish from other exhibits. They don’t open their tanks, slip their grubby tentacles out, reach into your candy drawer, and steal your Almond Joy. Not them. Dumb fish, yes they are.

Everything you need to know about the entire story you get from the opening paragraph, and all of it comes directly from the character’s voice.  It is Jim’s opinions about Lenny’s actions that matter here.  Lemons could have easily told us about how Lenny has escaped in the past and Jimi is made about having to find him.  A flat description here would have worked well enough.  By seeing those events through Jim’s eyes, however, the reader understands so much more about both the events and Jim as a character.  The reader knows that the protagonist is an Octopus research scientist who is bitter about their job and sardonic to a fault.  The reader knows the antagonist is a clever octopus who’s exploits not only show how intelligent he is, building up a persona and background for the story itself, but also are able to deeply characterize Jim, and show his crass nature.  Only by seeing the world through Jim’s eyes is so much content able to be put into simple descriptions. 

            Another great example of how Lemons is able to use descriptions to deeply characterize Jim is how she describes ‘Bill’: “I’m pretty sure his name isn’t actually “Bill the orange fish man” or even “Bill” at all, but I’ve never actually talked to him”  Like Jim, the reader still knows nothing about Bill, but hears all that Jim thinks about him.  The comments about Bill’s outfit, the mocking nickname, work to push the story forward while at the same time working to characterize both men.  These comments show the reader how judgmental Jim is in a much more powerful way than if Lemons were to simply tell us. 

            Lemons never has to say that Jim is judgmental, or angry, or well versed in octopi because the reader is able to understand that simply through the work Jim’s point of view does.  The odd phrases like “ugly yellow linoleum” or “I know his pissy eyes when I see them” show how bitter Jim is about his job, surroundings, and having to find Lenny.  Comments like “Octopus vulgaris” and “he’s a cephalopod without the ability to even perceive sound the way humans do” show how much Jim knows about taxonomy and octopi without Lemons having to spend time telling the reader these things.  Through character voice, Lemons is able to be incredibly efficient with her prose, having each line pull a lot of weight and tell the reader many things.  A telling aspect of the story is that the first time Jim speaks is six pages into the story.  We don’t hear a word from his mouth and yet we know so much about him.  By the time he does speak, his actions and motivations are clear to the reader. 

            So far I have glossed over just how funny Jim’s narration is, and I don’t that that is fair when talking about all that Jim’s perspective is and does.  The line, “Oh no, bad idea don’t do it danger zone he’ll eat you Jesus Christ Lenny’s one mean little bastard when he wants to be-” can only work in its breathless terror because it comes from Jim.  Even in this joke though, Lemons is moving the story forward.  The reader, just like Jim, is watching Bill try to wrangle Lenny, and through Jim’s perspective the reader gets more information about it. 

            Why then is Lemons’ Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences an answer to the question, ‘when should an author choose the first person perspective versus a third person perspective and why?’  Because the story doesn’t function without the character voice.  Every line in this story works in several ways either to describe the surroundings, characterize Jim, talk about Jim’s job, or characterize Lenny or Travis.  A story that relies so heavily on a character’s perspective demands to be told by it.  If a story does not, it shouldn’t be.  Madelyn Lemons shows us a wonderful example of that through Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences

The Wolfhound: Why Syntax matters

            The Wolfhound by Matt Nelson, is a story from Periphery 47.  It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            Something I look for when reading through Periphery submissions isn’t just a good story.  More than a sold structure, a well paced narrative, or engaging characters, what I look for is how authors use the structure of language to communicate.  Because there is basically unlimited variance in how even a single sentence can be written, that level of detail can work incredibly hard for the story, if only the author pays attention.  To me, much of the elegance of writing is that because how one goes about creating a story is so open, each decision has the ability to become meaningful.  Decisions don’t all have to be painstakingly thought over, but authors can play tricks and layer meaning into even minute choices that are astonishing.  The Wolfhound by Matt Nelson from Periphery 47, is exemplary of that attention to detail, and just how hard syntax can work to tell a story. 

            Let’s say that you are narrating a character running a long distance.  How could sentence structure show the passing of time, and the scattered thoughts of the runner?  Take a look at how Nelson narrates Patrick’s run.  

Sixteen miles now, pound, pound. I’m fucking tired. I’m golden as shit. These are the kinds of thoughts that run through your mind when you run; crazy thoughts. The runner’s high starts deep into the run; you say the strangest things. You laugh but it’s casual. When you run the senseless things rise to the surface and take some sort of form before dissipating like the sweat from your skin evaporating into the air.

The short sentences that begin the paragraph bounce around from thought to thought.  They jar the reader with their quick change of subject, while also matching the pounding footstep-rhythm established in the first sentence.  The scattered thoughts both underscore how tired Patrick is, but also hint at the distance he has run between thoughts.  How much time passed between the start of mile sixteen, and Patrick imagining thoughts sweating from his skin?  If each sentence perfectly flowed into the next, one could easily assume that they were one right after the other: a continuous flow of thoughts.  That is not the case.  The jarring distance between thoughts easily translates to the distance Patrick has run. 

            Notice the breathless semicolons that connect thoughts that wouldn’t otherwise make a great deal of sense next to each other.  I love the simple description of runner’s high as “I’m golden as shit”.  It is nonsensical, and seemingly random, but perfectly encapsulating the fatigued thoughts of mile sixteen.  The comment feels like an inside joke Patrick has with himself, that only really becomes funny when exhaustion has overcome you.  You don’t have to run sixteen miles to understand the wild thoughts that beat through the fatigue of running.  The clipping sentences, each with different thoughts, show the reader how tired Patrick is beyond Nelson simply saying so. 

            Through syntax alone, Nelson underscores the point of both how far Patrick has run, as well as how tired he is.  Through choices the author made, not about the narrative, nor the character, he was able to convey meaning through the construction of language. 

            Another example that shows just how well Nelson makes his points through syntax is the second sentence in the story

My sister Donna had already awoken, and sat at the kitchen table, wearing her small eyeglasses and Cinderella pajamas, pretending to read the National Geographic and actually sipping at a cup of coffee.

Donna shouldn’t be drinking coffee.  She knows this, and Patrick knows this.  It is something she does with a little bit of pride and little bit of shame.  It isn’t hard to picture her hiding the coffee mug behind the pages of the National Geographic magazine.  Nelson never says any of this.  What he does say, however, comes from his construction of the sentence.  Just as Donna is hiding her habit from Patrick so too, is Nelson hiding his description of it from the reader. 

            The first clause of the sentence, an independent clause, stand alone, almost like a cursory glance from Patrick.  The longer he looks, the more he sees, starting with where Donna is sitting, what she is wearing, what she is pretending to be doing, and finally what she is actually doing.  Nelson hides what is actually happening, within the sentence itself, and by doing so, tells the reader so much more about Donna and Patrick as characters, and their relationship as siblings. 

            I was talking with a friend recently, when she off-handedly said that no one under twenty-five knows how to use a semi-colon, and that struck me as odd.  Not simply because semi-colons are rarely useful in 280 character tweets, but because they are another tool for a writer to use.  Not knowing how to use a semi-colon would be like an artist not using a specific color.  (Though Semi-colons are admittedly the color terracotta of grammatical tools).  It’s not that writer’s need to use them, but simply knowing about all of the choices that go into the writing process allows authors to make more meaningful decisions about language.  And making meaningful decisions about language is the most specific definition I have ever heard about the term ‘Literature’