Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Warthogs and Lions

Years ago I went on a safari to Kenya and on the first day out witnessed three lionesses hunting a warthog. It was a thrilling ten minutes: the lionesses took up their positions, crouching low among the sparse grasses, bellies inching over the dusty earth. Then in turn they made sudden dashes towards the warthog, who wheeled and squealed, little black tail twirling frantically as he twisted away from the claws and jaws, making a run for safety - but there was always another lioness blocking his path. Oh, how I wanted his courage and agility to be rewarded with escape, but I also wanted the lionesses to get him, I wanted to see the kill.

I was on both their sides, but if I'd been writing the scene I'd have to chose a point of view: lioness or warthog. Why? Well, imagine it. As the outside observer in real life I often didn't know where to look - at the warthog in the centre, or one of the lionesses stealthily sneaking round the side to spring a surprise attack. Sometimes I was confused - how had the warthog escaped again? where had that lioness come from?

Changing point of view backwards and forwards can be like that, confusing and lacking focus. Which character is the reader rooting for? If we were following a pride of lions and knew there were starving cubs to be fed, we might be sympathetic for the warthog, but we'd know how important success was to the lionesses. If it was the story of one little warthog then, while we'd thrill to his perilous adventure, we'd long for him to get away. Switching between the two points of view would make it harder for the reader to empathise with either. Emotions would get cloudy and muddled.

Of course, some writers do manage to write dramatic scenes from both viewpoints without losing or confusing the reader. But generally that's the exception. It's a good idea when you're writing a scene to decide: warthog or lioness. Then keep the focus, keep the tension, keep the reader. And I'll tell you what happened to the warthog tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic analogy Sarah!

Ann Patey

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks Ann