Literature Spotlight: A First-Person Ensemble

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel told in epistolary form – meaning the story is told entirely through documents, in this case journal entries and newspaper clippings. Epistolary is a very effective technique for writing certain types of stories, and one that I feel is generally under-appreciated. In Dracula the epistolary form is used brilliantly to enhance the sense of mystery and suspense in the novel, and to add to the overall chilling effect of the story.

One of the ways in which epistolary form enhances the suspense is through the use of first person narration – from multiple sources. In a traditional first-person narration the reader follows a single protagonist, knowing only what they know and seeing only what they see. This can be a welcome insight into a character’s psyche, but can also be restrictive to the author since they cannot add outside information to the story. In epistolary form many characters can contribute first-person narratives to the novel at once, allowing the reader to get inside the heads of many people simultaneously and lending the novel a sense of a truly ensemble story.

In Dracula we are told the story primarily through journal entries from three of the main characters, each of whom have their own opinions and relationship to the central mystery of the novel. When all three characters are in the same place or participating in the same plan, the author’s choice of which journal to show us reveals subtle layers within the story itself. Near the midpoint of the novel, Mina Harker begins to fall victim to the same strange wasting effects that she had noticed in Lucy earlier on. While the Lucy chapters are narrated almost exclusively by Mina, now that the affliction has struck Mina the reader suddenly stops hearing from her and the narration switches to Dr. Seward. In this way Stoker manages to never quite tell us what’s really happening from the perspective of someone who is directly experiencing it. Like the characters themselves, we as readers can only see the effects of the mysterious ailment and theorize about its source.

When the characters are in separate locations or participating in separate activities, the choice of when and how to switch narrators is carefully designed to throw the reader off-guard. The novel begins with a sizable chunk told from the perspective of Jonathan Harker, as he travels to Castle Dracula and meets its namesake Count. Just when the reader has been lulled into thinking that the whole story will be told from this perspective, Jonathan decides to attempt a daring escape from the castle. He ends his journal entry with the phrase “Goodbye all. Mina!” (P.86) – and then the narrative abruptly switches to a happy-go-lucky letter sent by Mina to her best friend about her plans to come visit. We do not hear from Johnathan again for quite some time. The reader to begins to worry – how did his escape attempt go? Did he get captured – or worse? We are shown that Mina suspects nothing, and that the letters which Dracula forced Jonathan to write ahead of time and future-date are arriving on schedule, which just makes us worry more. Telling the story through multiple first-person accounts allows the reader to begin to piece the puzzle together ahead of the characters, increasing the sense of anticipation, or even dread, at what will happen when the characters finally figure it out.

Telling the story through diary entries also creates a unique and intriguing sense of time. Rather than a typical past-tense narrative, each diary entry begins in past tense as the character recounts the events of the previous day or so, and ends by bringing the narrative up to the present, often discussing their feelings or worries in present tense before ending the entry. The next entry jumps forward another day and again recounts the previous day up to the current moment, then stops. This jerky back-and-forward style of narration, oddly enough, places the reader firmly in the present by reminding them that the character who is narrating does not know any more about what will happen tomorrow than the reader does. In a standard narrative form, the reader can generally assume that the narrator already knows how the story ends, and is simply retelling it. By telling the story through diary entries, Stoker heightens the sense of dread and anticipation by reminding the reader constantly that the characters know no more than the reader – and sometimes much less. This technique is particularly effective for horror stories or mysteries – of which Dracula is both – because it maintains the suspense and uncertainty right through to the end.

Ellen’s Choice: From Page to Screen

This past weekend I went to see the long-awaited movie adaptation of John Green’s bestselling novel “The Fault in Our Stars.” I’m a big fan of alternate-medium depictions of various art forms (movies based on books, theater, or games, books that expand upon a movie or TV show, etc.) and I love to think about the ways in which a story is adapted for a new medium. Movies, TV, books, and live theater all have their own distinct methods of storytelling, and it’s an enlightening exercise to think about how the source material has to change to fit the new style. The Fault in Our Stars movie is one of the most faithful, and I think successful, adaptations I’ve seen in a long time. I’d like to take a moment to discuss a few of the ways in which I felt they most successfully navigated the transition from book to movie. I’ll refrain from spoilers in case any readers have not read the book or seen the movie yet.

Visual Effects

The Fault in Our Stars, in book form, contains a lot of virtual and text-based communication. Emails and texts play a major role in progressing the plot, reflecting the realism of modern-day communication. Going into the movie I had anticipated that this would be changed, possibly converting the texts to phone calls or some other form of spoken conversation. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the movie-makers had a better idea up their sleeves. During texting conversations the actors simply looked at their phones and reacted realistically, while little cartoon text bubbles popped up near their heads. The art style was cartoony and line-drawn, using minimal effect work to convey the content remarkably well. Similarly, email conversations were depicted with a hazy overlay of the email itself projected on top of the film, to let you in on what the characters were reading as they read it. Occasionally the longer emails were also voiced over by the reading character, as though they were reading it in their head. Throughout the movie these effects never felt forced or out-of-place, and I felt they accurately portrayed what it is like to have a silent conversation about something truly exciting.


Narration in a book is a very different communication method than in a movie. I went into the movie expecting a lot of voice-over narration from Hazel, both based on her narration in the trailer and based on the difficulty I foresaw in trying to maintain John Green’s distinctive voice in a visual medium. And while there is some narration from Hazel in the movie, it’s used surprisingly sparingly, and always in appropriate spots. The movie begins with Hazel’s voice-over narrating about how there are different ways to tell sad stories, and how she didn’t want to sugar-coat it because “that’s not the truth.” I began to notice that Hazel’s narration would take over whenever she got to a point in the story that was difficult for her to relive; specifically because what happened next was painful or didn’t fit into that “sugar-coated” mold. It was the truth, and so she had to tell it, but she couldn’t bear to actually relive it with dialogue and sound effects, so we get her narration over the visuals of the event, usually with musical accompaniment or blurred and muffled sounds.

Visual Storytelling – Direction

I was also struck by the subtlety of a lot of the visual storytelling and direction in the movie. Without spoilers, here are a couple of examples. Early in the story, mutual friend Isaac is slighted and gets really, really angry. Augustus tells him he needs to break something, and offers up his wall of basketball trophies. What follows, in the book, is a relatively serious conversation between Hazel and Augustus peppered with the occasional moment of Isaac breaking something thrown in. The whole sequence is very funny in the book, and I was eager to see how it would play out in the movie. I was not disappointed – the sequence is made even funnier in the movie via a classic case of upstaging. The director chose to shoot this sequence with Hazel and Augustus in the foreground, in focus, and Isaac blurry in the background, yelling and smashing things and just generally drawing focus away from the actual plot progression – in the funniest way possible. The visual nature of the movie medium allowed both occurrences to happen simultaneously, which just enhanced the comedy of the moment.

A second, more serious example, occurs later in the movie. As the story progresses, Hazel’s character arc is one of acceptance; learning that she doesn’t have to be afraid of getting close to others, and that even though she knows her days are numbered, she should still go out and live them. The movie depicts this beautifully, and so subtly that I almost didn’t notice it. Hazel carries her oxygen tank in a little rolling backpack, which she habitually drags behind her everywhere she goes. Beginning at a very important point in the story, however (no spoilers!), we start to see Hazel carrying her oxygen tank more often as a backpack, literally shouldering her burden rather than dragging it behind her. Carrying her tank on her back leaves her hands free and allows her more mobility, signifying her newfound resolve to deal with her situation practically and live her life fully. This beautiful bit of symbolism is a great example of how well the movie portrays the thoughts and philosophies of the book through its own particular medium.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I highly recommend it. But read the book first!

Mathematical Journeys: My Imaginary Friend

There’s no such thing as the square root of a negative number. Right?

Since squaring a number is defined as multiplying it by itself, and multiplying a negative times a negative gives a positive, all squares should be positive. Right?

So any number you want to take the square root of should be positive to begin with. Right?

So what if it’s not?

What do you do if you’re chugging through a problem and suddenly find yourself confronted with

x = √(-9)

It seems like to finish this problem we’ll need to take the square root of a negative number – but we can’t, so what do we do? Drop the sign and hope nobody notices? Mark it as ‘undefined’ like dividing by zero? Give up? Cry?

Well, actually, we don’t have to do any of that, because we’ve got an imaginary friend to help us.

Meet i.

i is a mathematical constant, whose sole definition is that i^2 = -1. Or, in other words, i = √(-1). i is an imaginary number – people used to think taking the square root of a negative number was impossible, so they called such results imaginary. i is known as the “imaginary unit” or the “unit” imaginary number, and he functions very similarly to the number 1 in the realm of real numbers.

Because he’s imaginary, i can be a bit difficult to wrap your head around. Just remember that he’s a constant, like 3 or 12 or even π. Unlike other special constants like pi or e, though, we have no real way to articulate his value. We can say that pi is roughly equivalent to 3.14…, and that e is roughly 2.718…, but what is i? i is just i. i is the square root of negative one, and that’s the only way we can really describe it, since he’s not a real number. We just have to accept that “the square root of negative one” would theoretically have a concrete value, and assign it a special symbol like we did with the other special constants.

So let’s put our imaginary friend i to work on our earlier problem of

x = √(-9)

i functions much as 1 does for real numbers, so we can rewrite that equation as

x = √(9 * -1)

Which we can split up into

x = √(9) * √(-1)

And now we know how to deal with that second term – we just use our imaginary friend! √(-1) = i, so

x = 3 * i

Which we can rewrite as simply x = 3i.

Imaginary numbers all include the symbol i, since they’re all essentially multiples of the imaginary unit. So when math hands you an impossibility, just grab your imaginary friend and jump into the realm of the unreal!

New Subjects Added!

Just a quick update: I’ve completed several more certification tests through WyzAnt and added new subjects to my list. New subjects include Pre-Calculus, ACT prep (Math, English, and Reading) and GRE prep (Math, Reading, and Essay Assistance). If you or someone you know is in need of tutoring in any of these subjects, look no further!