Wednesday, June 30, 2010

WRITING TIP | Same Story, Different Eyes

How many times have we gotten into a disagreement with others, only to find our differences rested not in the circumstances, but in how each of us perceived those circumstances? We each have a distinct personality, a unique background, a separate string of life events that brought us to today. These factors affect how we view events and respond to them.

And our characters are no different.

In high school, I got to read Beowulf. Over the years, several authors have offered their own takes on the Beowulf story. One day, my teacher handed us a photocopy of a short story that retold a portion of Beowulf—through the eyes of Grendel, the villain. Immediately the concept fascinated me.

Because many years have passed, I don’t remember the title, author or details of Grendel’s story. Needless to say, though, Grendel’s perception of the events stood in stark contrast to how Beowulf perceived them.

Which brings us to the pieces we write—novels, songs, commercials, whatever. Our main character is Matthew, a 20-year-old college student. He grew up listening to Snoop Dogg. His parents divorced when he was eight; his mother remarried when he was twelve, and the second husband has two kids of his own. A few months ago, Matthew received news that sent his stomach into somersaults: A classmate died in a car accident while driving under the influence of alcohol.

Matthew is stunned. He’s never even experienced the loss of a grandparent, much less someone his own age. For the first time in his life, Matthew senses his own mortality. When he gets behind the wheel of his car, the notion that one accident can end someone’s life haunts him. As he proceeds through an intersection, he notices the car on his left approaches too fast. Matthew sucks a deep breath—but grows relieved when the driver comes to a full stop. Matthew searches for hope.

But suppose the main character is Matthew’s mom, Gayle. How would her perception of the same incident differ from Matthew’s? A former hippie, she grew up listening to Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. Two of Gayle’s friends overdosed on LSD in the late 1960s. She lost all her grandparents, as well as her dad, to death by natural causes. She struggled through a divorce. When she hears of a young person’s death, it hits her like a punch to the gut. "Don’t kids today realize how fragile life is?" she wonders. Although tragic, however, she has experienced her own share of tragedy and has learned to press—or limp—through it. Once a week, Matthew calls to say hello. Often, their conversations turn to Matthew’s friend; Gayle helps Matthew sort through his emotions. She explains that his friend would want Matthew to keep the memory alive, yet move forward with his own life.

Same story, different perspectives.

As Marcel Proust, a French novelist, once said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."

Hope this helps. Never give up!


  1. That was probably Grendel, by John Gardner. Gardner was a great teacher & writer. He wrote things like The Art of Fiction and On Moral Fiction, in addition to many novels.

  2. Thank you! Yes, I think that's the one.