I’ve been scratching my head recently over a rather bizarre error I keep making when writing and I thought I’d ramble on about it. The error goes like this: although I don’t go in for excessive descriptions of the scenery, I do like to keep track of where objects and people are when my characters move around. I don’t draw maps or layouts of the scene, but the places exist in my mind and as I often re-use locations, I have a clear image of them.
Hence, at least on first draft, I’ll report that my hero leaves the law office and turns left to go to the saloon. He goes in and the bar is on the right. When he leans on the bar a truculent fellow standing to his left will pick an argument with him and so the hero swings round and thumps him with his right fist. The fellow has an accomplice who will come at him from the hero’s left hand side forcing him to slap his face with the back of his left hand. Then he’ll down his drink, step over the groaning bodies, and leave the saloon whereupon he’ll turn left to go to the bank.
All this exists clearly in my mind because the saloon is to the left of the law office and the bar is on the right hand side of the saloon. And when I picture the bar room brawl I can see where these guys are and so I can report on how the hero deals with them.
The scene will then go through several redrafts until I’ve got it into a state I like, and then I’ll move on to the proofreading stage of trying to make sure all the words say what I thought they said. It’s then that I hit a problem.
Although I know the saloon is to the left of the law office, it’ll suddenly occur to me that it’s actually on the right. Worse, the bar in the saloon is not on the right, it’s on the left hand side of the saloon. And when I envisaged that bad guy standing to the left of the hero, I was actually envisaging him being to the right. And so it goes on. That heap of boulders that was to the left of the entrance to the canyon where everyone holes up is really to the right, and the creek that’s to the right is really to the left.
The first dozen or so times I spotted myself making this error I just shrugged. Then I made a special effort to avoid doing it, but I still kept making the same error. I wondered if it was just one of those ‘I’m getting old and so I can’t remember why I went into the kitchen’ type of issues, or that maybe it was a left brain, right brain thing. Anyhow, the conclusion I’ve reached is this is an issue of me not quite doing what I think I’m doing when I’m writing.
My aim is to see the world through the viewpoint character’s eyes and report on what he sees and hears and smells, except maybe I’m not doing that. What I’m actually doing is seeing events unfold through the eyes of an omnipresent narrator who is standing back from the scene, so even when I’m looking through a character’s eyes, it’s like I’m looking in a mirror. So to me the saloon is to the left of the law office, but to the viewpoint character it’s to the right, and so on.
I’m not sure whether this theory will help me resolve the problem, but to be on the safe side I don’t reckon I’ll ever risk writing a story where the hero is called Lefty!