While preparing last month’s post with examples from Cutting for Stone, I was once again awed by author Abraham Verghese’s ability to help readers suspend disbelief. I mean seriously, the story’s opening 131 pages are devoted to the main character, Marion, sharing the circumstances of his own birth in amazing detail. Can you recall yours…at all?
As the novel continues, Marion serves as both a first-person protagonist and the narrator of events to which he was not privy. He even relates intimate moments between his parents from before his birth, even though his mother died in childbirth and his father took off, making it impossible for either of them to fill in these blanks.
You know darn well that if it were your manuscript, your critique group would have written “POV breach” written all over it. So how did Verghese pull off this narration—not only believably, but so successfully that his debut novel remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years?
Much of the craft here touches on “lampshading,” which refers to a variety of techniques that allow the author to preempt the reader’s anticipated accusations of implausibility.
1. Support believability with indisputable detail. From the first sentence of the prologue, Verghese is intentional in the way he delivers his narrator’s implausible perspective.
After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother’s womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954. We took our first breaths at an elevation of eight thousand feet in the thin air of Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia.
Who will argue with his knowledge of his mother’s womb, among so many other verifiable facts?
2. Share the narrator’s mission. Doing so substantiates the narrator’s presence as the necessary way to tell this story. At the end of Verghese’s prologue, Marion does so with these inspiring words:
What I owe Shiva most is this: to tell the story. It is one my mother, Sister Mary Praise, did not reveal and my fearless father, Thomas Stone, ran from, and which I had to piece together. Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me. Yes, I have infinite faith in the craft of surgery, but no surgeon can heal the kind of wound that divides two brothers. Where silk and steel fail, story must succeed. To begin at the beginning…
3. Admit that some of the tale is born of imagination. After a factual paragraph about Sister Mary Praise’s arrival from India—in her POV, a good seven years prior to Marion’s birth!—Verghese qualifies Marion’s narration by suggesting that some of his story is imagined:
In my mind’s eye I can see the novitiates lining the quay, chattering and trembling with excitement and emotion, their white habits flapping in the breeze, the seagulls hopping around their sandaled feet.
4. Reveal research. To support the reader’s suspension of disbelief, our narrator tells us how he traveled to Madras, where archived papers gave him a sense of his mother’s life in the convent.
5. Raise questions that inspired these imaginings. Here, our narrator is admitting he doesn’t know the whole tale:
Was she fearful? Did she have second thoughts?
6. Ease fully into each POV character through sensory detail. On the ship taking her to Ethiopia, Sister Mary Praise meets the surgeon who will become Marion’s father; later, she seeks his help with some shipmates suffering with fever. After she enters his cabin at the sound of his faint voice, the details given convince us of the POV shift:
When he tried to look at her, his eyeballs rolled like marbles on a tilting plate. He turned and retched over a fire-bucket, missed it, which didn’t matter, as the bucket was full to the brim.
As she gave him a bed bath, she was self-conscious, for she’d never ministered to a white man, or to a doctor for that matter. His skin displayed a wave of goose bumps at the touch of her cloth. But the skin was free of the rash she’d seen on the four passengers and the one cabin boy who had come down with fever.
Note, again, those specifics. Even while our narrator has withdrawn behind the curtain of story, he is still wooing our trust.
7. Insert perspective conservatively. A POV character who must comment on absolutely everything is an annoyance. He stands between you and the unfolding story action, waving and screaming, impeding your chance to observe and add up the story in your own mind. Verghese, wisely, has his narrator step forward only infrequently, and for good reason: to remind us that in his dual role as protagonist, Marion has the highest stakes in this story.
So at times when Marion’s involvement isn’t front and center, we’ll see moments of pulling back, such as this from p. 117:
The legend of our birth is this: identical twins born of a nun who died in childbirth, father unknown, possibly yet inconceivably Thomas Stone. The legend grew, ripened with age, and, in the retelling, new details came to light. But looking back after fifty years, I see that there are still particulars missing.
Try these techniques to give your protagonist access to events that will expand the narrative while keeping the focus on his relationship to them—even if, for the time being, his first-person voice has receded from view—without triggering the slightest blip in your reader’s suspension of disbelief.
How sensitive are you to POV breaches—have you ever wanted to set a book or manuscript down for these reasons? Would any of these techniques help your reader suspend disbelief for the story you want to tell? Have you used others not mentioned here?
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