Nutshell by Ian McEwan

When my book club pals suggested we read Nutshell, the selling point was “you won’t believe the point of view.” Our club has read books that tell stories from the point of view of a dog, a dead girl, a drunk, and a madman, so sure, I was game to read this book. The other selling point was the author was Ian McEwan. I have a deep readers’ passion for his elegant, breathtakingly beautiful story Atonement. We were all in for the ride.

I suspect the point of view for Nutshell was decided on a dare from other writers, over drinks. Something along the line of, “Bet ya can’t find a new point of view no one has ever done before.”

And McEwan, being the talented award-winning author he is, probably said, “Hold my beer.”

He tells a story of marital discord from the point of view of a fetus. Yes, a fetus.

McEwan has done far more with this story than readers might expect simply because he is a masterful storyteller. There are a few cheats, places in the story in which the main character knows things he could not. And this fetus has McEwan’s vocabulary. I had to look up the meaning of lambent (glowing), cludgie (bathroom), and exequy (funeral rites). Thanks for that.

As a book lover, I had to suspend my disbelief with both hands, high overhead, page by page to the bitter end.

This is my least favorite McEwan book. The literary critics will no doubt hail it as brilliant, groundbreaking, mind-expanding prose. Which will inevitably lead to imitators, heaven protect us. Just as Anne Rice revived interest in vampire stories, should we expect more stories told from in utero? Or will the millennial authors go one step further with stories told from the perspective of inanimate objects, possibly a murder weapon or a pen? Please, no more explorations of life from a womb. Let’s all agree it’s been done and move on.

I admire McEwan’s talent so much I will read his next book, and try to forget about this one for reminding me with every page that the writer was at work.

Point of View Filters and Sensory Description

As a career journalist, I had point of view thrashed out of me by professors, editors, and colleagues. “Unless you’re a columnist,” they’d say, “keep your point of view to yourself. Just report who, what, where, when, why, and how. Stick to the facts. Quote notable people from various sides of the issue and let the reader decide.” Right. Be objective, be ethically impartial. I silenced my point of view.

As an aspiring author, I had to rediscover the power of point of view and how to wield it in a story. Great stories embed the reader into the skin of the characters, to feel their pain, their joy, their fears, so readers can vicariously experience the story. Journalists Laura Lippman, Joan Didion, Hank Phillipi Ryan, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens became successfully published authors, so it can be done.

To regain the ability to present a point of view, I started small—publishing essays. For a few years I wrote a column in my metropolitan Mensa group’s publication. Mostly humor, but a few touched on serious topics. Writing essays helped me find my voice and explore a point of view long suppressed.

Open book shooting out sparksDuring this training period, I read classics and best-selling modern fiction analytically. Oh, the power of point of view! Energized, inspired, and eager, I hammered out draft after draft of my Great American Novel, 96,000 words in later form. Next came the giant step of sharing this precious thing with outsiders, critique partners, my spouse, a few close reader pals.

They liked it, but…they couldn’t pinpoint what it lacked. They praised the dialogue, they loved the loveable characters and despised the antagonist, the setting was fine, and the pacing was fine. But. Shrugs.

Then Author John Foxjohn, a critique partner and former Army Ranger, said that I should show not tell. He said I needed to strip away the point of view filters. Wait. The what? Huh? He explained that I was telling things from the author’s viewpoint instead of showing them from the character’s view.

Point of view filters are signaled by sensory words, such as: thought, felt, saw, sensed, smelled, tasted, and heard.

For example, instead of writing from the author’s point of view: He thought Is that my little girl going on a date?

Write from the character’s point of view: Is that my little girl going on a date?

Strip away the point of view filter “thought” and simply write what the character is thinking. Instead of He wondered why she said that write Why did she say that?

Let’s do an example for the sense of touch. He felt tingling pain shoot up his arm. Tingling pain shot up his arm. See the difference? Which one seems natural and organic from deep inside the character? Which version seems to keep the reader at arm’s length from the experience?

And now an example from the sense of sight, the most overused sense in fiction. He could see three feral cats charging at him. Three feral cats charged at him. Think of this as the writer’s form of method acting. Get inside the character when writing. Write from the inside out. Stop labeling the sensations and describe them with such precise details that the reader understands without the label.

Use the details that evoke the sensation instead of naming the sensation. Instead of writing He sensed someone had been in his house while he was gone, show the reader the moved chair, the book opened on the table that was closed when he left. For example: He sensed he was not expected for dinner. That’s telling. How did he sense it? What specifically triggered that suspicion? Let the reader figure it out from a description of action or details. The hostess rushed to the table with a plate, glass, napkin, and silverware while other guests shifted their chairs.

Smell is the most powerful memory trigger and a sadly underused sense in fiction. Which is more evocative of memory? He smelled freshly baked brownies. Chocolate wafted from the kitchen beckoning him.

And lastly, the sensation of hearing. When tempted to write He heard the sound of gunfire and felt glass rain down, try Popopopop. Jake ducked under a table as glass shards rained inside the diner. Compare the following sentences. Phil heard church bells clang five times. The church bell clanged five times, reverberating off brick and pavement.

Developing the habit of showing instead of telling takes practice. Watch for the labels, those sensory point of view filter words: thought, felt, saw, sensed, smelled, tasted, and heard. Hunt them down and eliminate them. Your readers will thank you for it, because they will enjoy a closer you-are-there experience in your stories.

This single change to remove point of view filters raised my fiction writing to the next level. The last great change was narrowing the story from seven points of view to three. Thank you, dear blunt critique partners for insisting that more isn’t better. Better to dive deeper into a few points of view than dance on the surface with many.

The next level will be learning how to describe the sensations of an emotion instead of labeling the emotion—well, now that’s world-class writing. I’m off to study Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions and research how the masters do this. Yeah, okay. I’m also off to read marvelously written novels. Let’s call it research.