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: [Read more…]