How Deixis Affects Narration
Sat Aug 26 2017
The Burj Khalifa from three different reference points
Nerdy linguists are probably getting really excited about this article's title. Normal people are probably wondering what the hell I'm talking about. Let me explain by way of example:
Jackie rode the elevator up to the eleventh floor. The elevator dinged softly, the doors sliding open with a hiss. Here she was, at her new job. She took a deep breath and stepped out into the muted murmur of the tech support division's cube farm.
HR papers in hand, she explored tentatively, looking for her cubicle. The place was a maze, and barring the short hallway to the restrooms and the break area, everything looked identical. Now was her chance to find out what was here before settling in. Heads popped up like prairie dogs, checking out the new girl.
The example is written in third-person, past tense. And within that framework, it misuses the words "here" and "now." Did you find those uses--"here she was" and "now was her chance"--to be slightly awkward? If so, you're responding to an issue with deixis.
What is deixis?
Deixis is how we know what a certain class of referential words and expressions actually means when we encounter them. Examples include words like "I", "you", "now", "today", "here", "there", "next Tuesday", and many others.
"Deixis" is the linguistic concept stating that such words and expressions only have a concrete meaning relative to what is called a "deictic center": the time, place, and person who uttered those words.
For example, if I tell you "the sun is shining now," you will understand that "now" means "the specific time at which I am writing that sentence." If I tell you "We had a rainy spring, but the weather is finally nice here," you will understand "here" as a reference to the geographic location where I'm sitting while I write this. And within the context of this paragraph you will understand my uses of "I" as referring to me, Jason Black, because this is my blog and you're reading it on my website.
My own "now", my own "here", and the fact of myself as a person, constitute my deictic center for anything I tell you that uses those kinds of referential words. You have some mental model for what my deictic center is (and I of yours), and from that you fill in the intended meanings of all such referential expressions.
So, what about narration?
All language implicitly comes from some speaker or writer, even the language in your book. Sure, readers know it's fiction, but they're still reading language and thus they need sense of what the deictic center is.
For a third-person narrative, the source is the anonymous narrator: an imaginary, disembodied placeholder figure who stands in for some actual person telling us the story.
So ask yourself: what is the narrator's deictic center?
As a disembodied figure who doesn't really exist in the reader's world, yet doesn't actually exist in the story's world either, the narrator has no physical center from which to narrate.
Likewise, the narrator has no temporal center. The book existed before the reader got their hands on it, so "now" can't be the reader's "now." Yet, readers have no clear idea of when the imaginary narrator is supposed to have set down those words, so "now" can't really be the narrator's "now" either.
And similarly, being a purely imaginary figure, the narrator has no person center.
What is the narrator's deictic center? In normal third-person narration, the narrator doesn't have one.
And if there's no deictic center, then those referential expressions lose their meaning. That's why the "here" and the "now" in the above example probably felt slightly wrong to you. The use of "here" and "now" seem to float, unmoored, because they are not tied to any deictic center.
Any programmers in the audience will be saying to themselves, "Oh. This is a null pointer problem," and if that metaphor helps, by all means use it.
What to do about it
Unlike this lengthy explanation, the fix is almost absurdly simple: just use phrasing that already has a concrete meaning, or else that is clearly related to the character's deictic center.
Jackie rode the elevator up to the eleventh floor. The elevator dinged softly, the doors sliding open with a hiss. Here I am, Jackie thought. My new job. She took a deep breath and stepped out into the muted murmur of the tech support division's cube farm.
HR papers in hand, she explored tentatively, looking for her cubicle. The place was a maze, and barring the short hallway to the restrooms and the break area, everything looked identical. This was her chance to find out what was here before settling in. Heads popped up like prairie dogs, checking out the new girl.
By altering the "here" to be part of Jackie's inner monologue, readers automatically shift the deictic center to Jackie. Since she's producing the words "Here I am," the word "here" resolves properly to "the eleventh floor."
Similarly, by changing "now was her chance" to "this was her chance," we switch to a word that doesn't rely on deixis for its meaning. "This" refers to "the subject under discussion," which is an element of the story itself and thus clearly indicates the situation the scene is describing.
Deictic problems don't arise in first-person narration (or at least, I can't recall ever seeing one), because the character is the narrator and their deictic center is obvious within the confines of the story.
But when using an anonymous third-person narrator, limit yourself to phrasings that don't depend on the narrator's undefined time, place, and person.
Really? You wrote a whole article about this?
Look, I get it. Readers are smart. They figure it out. When you read the original example, I'm entirely sure you were able to understand what the passage meant despite its deictic flaws. So why am I making such a big deal about it?
Partly because I'm a linguistics nerd and I think deixis is a pretty fascinating linguistic phenomenon.
But mostly because, even though readers can understand what you meant if you abuse deixis, it still creates roughness in your writing. It's something for readers to trip over. Or that might pull them momentarily out of the story while they mentally re-center the narrative to somewhere sensible.
I make a big deal about it because we all owe our readers the cleanest, smoothest writing we can deliver.