CHAPTER 4: Narration
Who will spin this splendid illusion of reality, this thing called a novel? The narrator is the one who tells the story. Narration is the most complex element of fiction since it defines the relationship between the reader and the story. The most important decision the novelsmith makes regards the type of narration best suited to his novel. Narration is everything, literally every word on the page.
The structure of a novel, as described in Chapter 1, is like the framework of a great building. The entire story rests on the framework, but it is never seen. What is “seen” is the narration. This is where the actual story gets told and equates to the outward appearance of the building: the texture of the walls, the carpet, the lighting and furnishings. Everything within, that with which the reader comes into contact, occurs in the narration. Just as the reader depends on a character to reveal the human impact of the story, the reader also depends entirely on seeing the story through the narrative eye.
The narrator not only tells the story, he does it with style. Style is everything in narration. If a place exists where craft and art are inseparable, it’s in narration. Narrative style may give the novel integrity and perhaps add a little pizzazz, or conversely make it a nondescript jumble of boring words unworthy of the light of day. Style is primarily a matter of voice, how the narrator “speaks” to the reader; and voice, for the author, is a matter of being spoken to from within. The author taps into the narrative voice within himself, sometimes to the extent that it seems to the author that he is channeling someone external to himself. A narrator must be a little touched by “madness.” Intelligence and ingenuity shine here like nowhere else. The novelist is somewhat of a poet, and the weaving of ideas with images and metaphor is what makes the ingredients a soup and the reader a willing consumer. The narrator must sweeten the reader’s palate.
To accomplish the illusion, someone must tell the story. In times past, the illusionist was frequently the author. But authors have, through the years, gradually divorced themselves from their own work by bringing someone else in to tell the story. This is particularly so in the American novel. Statements like the following rarely if ever show up any more:
This is what I undertake to do for you, reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you…20
Note the way the author pulls the reader into his confidence, and even shows him the act of putting the words on the page. In this way, the author forms a bond with the reader that persists throughout the work.
The modern author will step back from the narration to a point where another character is born: the narrator. This new character will then tell the entire story and is, in fact, the author’s surrogate. The degree to which the narrator becomes a personage in the story varies widely. Some stories are told in first person, and in this technique, the narrator will actually be one of the characters, frequently the main character. In other novels, the identity of the narrator will be so nebulous that it seems to be the author but is, in fact, an entity separate from and not the author. This style of narration, however, wasn’t invented yesterday. Moby Dick, published in 1851, starts with the words, “Call me Ishmael,” and the reader realizes immediately that Melville himself has stepped into the background and is letting someone else tell the story of the great white whale.
Yet, some remnants of the author as narrator still remain. For example, consider Richard Bach’s Illusions. The character telling the story is named Richard, and the author intends the reader to assume that this “Richard” is the author. But the story contains appearing-and-disappearing vampires and episodes of walking on water, so that the reader realizes a good deal of artistic license is at work. Many readers love this stuff because it gives an intense sense of reality while opening up a mystical world full of new possibilities. Robert James Waller in The Bridges of Madison County handled this type of narrative sleight-of-hand so skillfully, that millions of readers naïvely assumed that a principal character, a photographer, had actually written an article for National Geographic. The magazine received many calls from readers enquiring about the non-existent article. This is a marvelous example of the author conning the reader into suspending disbelief, a subject that will be covered extensively later in this chapter.
The narrator can be practically anyone or any thing: woman or man, a child, someone long dead, or perhaps even an animal. Ursula K. LeGuin tells her short story, The Wife’s Story, through the eyes of a she-wolf. What is crucial is that the author realize that he must craft a narrator. This may seem obvious, but a beginning novelist will frequently underestimate its importance. Rarely will the novice dedicate anywhere near as much time to inventing the narrator as he will to inventing a character. Not only is the “identity” of the narrator important, but the narrator’s methods of storytelling are, in some genres, highly developed and rigidly controlled. The narration will be the first thing noticed by the potential agent or publisher and is the place to show that you know your craft.
The author’s job is to create a narrator to match the story. The relationship between author, narrator and story is pictorially represented in Figure 7:
Notice that the author creates the narrator through craft and that the narrator resides in the fictional world. Again, the narrator is the author’s surrogate, and the author does not tell the story. The author should keep this in mind throughout the planning of the novel because the limitations placed on the narrator, depending on the narrative technique, determine much of the novel’s structure. That’s why, even though the beginning novelsmith may have a great story, he may still fail to produce a publishable novel. Alternatively, many weak stories have been published and sold well simply because of an appealing narrative voice.
You might well ask: What then is the situation of the author relative to his own work? And the answer is that the author is the craftsman and practices his trade as a novelsmith. But the author is also the first reader of the work, and as a craftsman, the author tries to read the work-in-progress as a reader, so that he might gain some perspective on it. As the author writes the novel, continuing to accumulate paragraph after paragraph, a transformation gradually takes place. At first, the inspiration for the novel is contained exclusively in the author’s own head, but as time goes by, as he gets the story on paper, the author gradually becomes more and more a reader of his own story. This transformation process is illustrated in Figure 8:
This transformation from craftsman to reader must take place for the author to eventually consider the novel finished, and is, therefore, critical relative to the later stages of editing. As the novel becomes more and more complete, the author allows himself to get more involved in the story and reads with more and more suspension of disbelief, thus gradually becoming just another reader of his own work. This is also a complex process to be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 12.
CREATING THE NARRATOR
To craft the narration correctly, we must study the nature of the relationship between the narrator, who will create the fictional dream, and the reader. This relationship is illustrated in Figure 9:
Note that the narrator exists in the fictional world and the reader in the real world. Only words fill the gap. The narrator always stands between the story and the reader; consequently, any deviation by the author from his chosen narrative stance shocks the reader. The author must understand the complexity of narration, so he can provide the reader with a consistent, coherent narrative.
POINT OF VIEW
Point of view (POV) is the answer to the question of vantage point: Who stands where to watch the action? In movie making, this is determined by the director: Where to place the camera? Determining POV is the most important decision the author will make concerning novel structure, and it must be decided early to avoid disaster. The narrator views and tells the entire story, and deciding the narrative POV will affect how the reader responds to the novel emotionally and morally. The place to go to determine what POV to use is, of course, the Premise. The way the author wants the reader to view the Premise will determine POV.
To determine POV, the question most often asked is: Whose story is it? Generally, this will be the protagonist, as identified in the Premise, but it doesn’t have to be. In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (a story of a bootlegger who tries to steal a man’s wife right from under his nose) the story is narrated by a peripheral, rather bland character named Nick, a cousin of the wife. Fitzgerald’s choice of narrator has produced a rather interesting literary discussion concerning whose story he is really telling: Gatsby’s or Nick’s? In most cases, though the story will belong to the protagonist, leaving the author to decide whether to let the character himself tell the story or provide a third-person narrator.
In Flaubert’s third-person narration, Madam Bovary, with Emma Bovary as the POV character, we feel her frustration, sexual passion, her guilt, and shame. We empathize with her, because we experience the trail of events as she does and experience her desire, her passion. But our sympathies would be considerably different if the story were told from her husband’s POV. Narrative closeness generally creates empathy because we can “see” a character’s motives and feel what he feels. If Flaubert had told the story from the husband’s POV, we’d feel his jealousy and anger. Since we see the story from Emma’s POV, we empathize with her, even though, from an objective perspective, she’s a louse.
Restricting the POV to that of a single character also provides more intensity and immediacy. This may not be obvious, and the reasons for it are rather obscure, but it’s probably because the reader becomes centered within a character and learns to interpret the world through him. Remember, the reader is piggybacked on the POV character. This is the way we experience the real world, seeing everything from our own perspective. The reader’s transference of experience to another character, who exists in a world where the reader does not, is natural. A change in POV destroys this affinity, which, when left alone, deepens as the reader gets further into the story.
Inconsistency with POV appears amateurish. Although multiple POVs can be used to good effect, breaks in POV generally should not occur. Beginning writers seem to take their queue from movies in which POV is less tightly controlled and shifts occur frequently. One thing is certain: learning to use POV correctly is as important for novel writing as is writing a good sentence.
Henry James perfected the restricted third-person POV and felt that omniscience was an irresponsible way of writing fiction. But the omniscient POV has its place, and some will argue that it is the best approach. J. R. R. Tolkien used omniscience for his sprawling and many charactered, enormously successful, fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings. The only advice I can give is to understand POV, its impact on the reader, and how a break in it disorients the reader. To misunderstand its use spells catastrophe. Writers who don’t understand POV write sloppy novels.
One obvious situation where an omniscient narrator can be used to good effect is in a story about an event, such as in Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. In this novel, the narrator jumps all over the globe, first to Siberia, then California, then Washington DC. Different characters populate the setting at each location. Clancy gets away with it because his novel is about a military conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. It’s about that event, and the people only play a supporting role. Actually, the novel’s main characters are the two countries. The novel suffers somewhat because Clancy never really settles on a human character with whom the reader can identify, and the emotional intensity of the story never quite rings true. Still, the novel was a bestseller, and he achieved a marvelous portrayal of international tension with the continual continent-jumping.
In first-person narration, a character (I went…) tells the story. To stay true to the POV, the narrator then has no access to another character’s thoughts unless told them directly and, therefore, can only provide what the POV character would know. One of the most famous first-person novels of all time is Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville opens the novel this way:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.21
We are in the hands of Ishmael for the entire novel without a break in POV. In other first-person novels, we might be in the hands of one character for a chapter or two and then be passed off to another character for a look at the story from a different POV.
Dostoevsky originally wrote the first chapters of Crime and Punishment using first-person narration (once as a confessional, the other as a diary), then realized that this POV was a mistake, cast all he had done overboard, and rewrote it in third person.22 In this psychological novel, the protagonist (a murderer) might not have been sympathetic enough for the reader to feel comfortable residing in his head. The substitution of an “outside,” third-person narrator with access to the character’s thoughts provided the necessary esthetic distance for the reader’s comfort. Dostoevsky agonized over this POV decision for some time. His process is instructive and has been documented in Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky. The beginning novelsmith, and the experienced one for that matter, would do well to read Frank’s description of Dostoevsky’s decision-making process.
Another interesting novel is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams. This first-person narrative about a young woman contains isolated, short, two-to-three page chapters written in third person from her father’s POV. Her father suffers from Alzheimer’s, and these short chapters are the most powerful in the novel.
In second-person narration (You went…) either: (a) the narrator tells the story to another character, or (b) the narrator speaks to the reader as if the reader is a character in the story. Here’s the opening in one of the all-time best selling “second-person” novels:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are in a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.23
The novel was made into a movie, but much of the story’s charm came from the second-person narration and was lost in translation to the big screen. The movie, which starred Michael J. Fox, was not much of a success at the box office.
Third-person narration (She went…) takes on many forms. The narrator is somewhat divorced from the story and may even be totally omniscient. The omniscient narrator is able to see the story from anyone’s perspective and to “hear” the thoughts of all the characters. The unrestricted omniscient narrator is little used in the modern American novel, except in poorly-written pop fiction. The modern novel tends to limit the narration to the perspective of one person and to only have access to that person’s thoughts. This POV is called “limited omniscient.” With this perspective, the narrator can tell about anything the POV character can see, hear or know about, but can describe events that occur “across town,” so to speak, only if told by another character.
One of the strongest narrative voices in all literature comes from the autobiography of a seven-year-old girl. It starts out like this:
Today the folks are gone away from the house we do live in. They are gone a little way away, to the ranch house where the grandpa does live. I sit on our step, and I do print. I like it, this house we do live in, being at the edge of the near woods. So many little people do live in the near woods. I do have conversations with them. I found a near woods first day I did go explores. That was the next day after we were come here.24
Though this isn’t an artifice of some author’s grand purpose (Opal was really seven years old when she wrote this), it does demonstrate the distinctiveness provided by voice and its attraction for the reader.
Homer started The Odyssey this way:
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.25
Homer’s narrative has a lofted, singing quality, one that comes from the fact that he wrote from an oral tradition in which the stories, as epic poetry, were actually sung.
Narrative voice is the way the story “sounds.” It sets tone, tension, time period, and much more. When captured properly, the narrative voice ringing true is enough for the novelsmith to do his work, even if he knows little else about craft. It can solve many writing problems because everything comes through it. All the author has to do is listen to the Muse. In this way, the author’s intuition about storytelling is enough to pull him through.
The author should strive to remove himself from his own novel by laundering his motivations through the characters. Author intentions superimposed on the story result in contrived plots. Allow your characters to force the action instead of allowing your intentions, as author, to filter through. View your own intentions as drug money that must be laundered through your characters.
You, as the author, are not a part of the fictional world and must remain outside it. The third-person narrator, though a part of the fictional world, is still not a part of the story and must stay out of it also. The first-person narrator is a part of the story and his motivations may play a part in it.
Jump into the story. Avoid flashbacks. You lose the reader’s interest when the narrator drifts from the storyline. A flashback works best when the reader has been prepared for a previous event to the point where the information is really important to him. If you have a character with epilepsy, instead of telling the history of the illness, tell of its origin when the first seizure occurs, or when the character first worries about an impending attack. Don’t tell the story of the illness in the beginning simply because you know the reader will need the information later.
In Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, a young postulant enters a convent where, twenty years before, her older sister also became a nun. During the first meeting between the two at the convent, the narrator provides the following information about Mariette’s sister, Mother Céline the prioress:
Mother Céline seems a glamorous actress playing a nun, or one of the grand ladies of inheritance that Mariette has seen in paintings of English society. Without her black veil and gray habit, the prioress would seem a genteel and handsome mother of less than forty, blond and lithe and Continental, but tense and initiating, too, with green eyes that seem to strike what they see. She was Annette Baptiste and a junior at Vassar when Mariette was born, Sister Céline and a novice when their mother died, the prioress of Our Lady of Sorrows since Mariette was twelve. She arranges and grooms her papers on the green felt of the desktop and then she briskly sits opposite Mariette and puts her hands on her knees as she asks, “Are you happy?”26
Tucked away in the third sentence of this paragraph is a summary of the relationship between the two sisters, and even the added fact that their mother is dead, all within the sister’s short, one-sentence biography. This method provides the backstory without interruption to the narrative flow, and provides the reader with the necessary information when it’s needed. The reader is probably unconscious of the author’s sleight of hand. A few sentences like this sprinkled throughout a novel can add to the reader’s enjoyment rather than distract the reader from the flow of the story.
The big accomplishment of this technique is to free up the author to start the novel at the time when the central conflict is locked as opposed to providing all the background material in a prior chapter. The reader will be pulled into the story by the conflict and propelled along to its resolution.
TENSE: PAST, PRESENT OR FUTURE?
The main stream of the storyline is generally told in a single tense although deviations from a central tense may occur temporarily to provide a more distinctive flashback narrative or during some other such narrative discontinuity. In Dennis McFarland’s The Music Room, the main storyline is written in past tense with flashbacks, ironically, in present tense, an approach that works beautifully.
In present-tense narration, the action happens as the narrator speaks (She goes…). Sometimes an author will even employ present perfect tense (She is going…). Present tense has a quality of discovery about it and can give the story more of a sense of immediacy. But its shortcoming is that the narrator doesn’t know what is to happen next and can have little if any perspective on events. The narrator can’t give that philosophic quality which comes from looking back on a story. Consider this passage from a present-tense novel:
I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it’s this hot and muggy at eight-thirty, I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in the afternoon.
In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas. This highway is an old concrete two-laner that hasn’t had much traffic since a four-laner went in parallel to it several years ago. When we pass a marsh the air suddenly becomes cooler. Then, when we are past, it suddenly warms up again.27
Note how well the present-tense narrative combines with the sensory information (“warm and humid,” “pungent odors”) to heighten the sense of immediacy, place the reader firmly in the setting, and make him emotionally responsive to the action.
In past-tense narration, the action has taken place sometime in the past (She went…). The narrator has an overview of the complete story and can construct a narrative with the perspective of a historian. It can have a quality of continual foreshadowing. Consider this famous opening:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.28
The novel was set seventy-five years in the past. This gave Dickens’ narrator the perspective to evaluate and characterize the time period in his opening paragraph, something no one alive at the time in which the novel was set could have done.
Sense of story comes from narrative technique. “Story” is the inevitable forward momentum of events, originating in conflict and driven by cause and effect to a resolution. Anticipation is the reader’s sense of inevitable forward motion caused by the developing conflict. Story, therefore, has its birth in Premise. Once the conflict is locked, the characters will develop expectations and a sense of purpose. Their wishes and decisions will constantly propel them into the future. In addition, they will be swept up in the current of life around them. The world should also not be static, but dynamic, the events reinforcing the main theme, the Premise, of the work. In Titanic, the characters are greatly affected by the sinking of the great ship. The event, over which they have no control, forces them to make Premise-related decisions that affect their lives.
Of Homer’s two epic poems, The Odyssey tends to be more episodic (except toward the end when Odysseus arrives home and confronts Penelope’s suitors) and The Iliad more plot-driven. Odysseus’ encounters with the Cyclopes and the goddess Circe occur because he washes up on their shores, and not because of some plot requirement to see those characters. These loosely connected episodes are not tightly plotted events. However, each episode is internally plotted because each involves a conflict. The overarching element in The Odyssey is Odysseus’ conflict with the god Poseidon and his desire to return home. In The Iliad, Homer opens the story with a conflict between Agamemnon, commander of the Greek army, and Achilles, the Greek’s most powerful warrior. This personal conflict then plays out against the war with Troy. And even the Trojan War plays out against the cosmic conflict between two factions within the Olympian gods.
Suspense is closely related to story. The author creates suspense in the beginning when he locks the conflict. The reader will be in a constant state of suspense until the conflict is resolved toward the end. This suspense is created primarily through action, and although it is important for the storyline, a deeper form of suspense must be present if the reader is to become fully involved.
In serious fiction, the highest form of suspense involves the “anguish of choice,” and the anguish will not come just from worrying over the outcome, but from worrying about the moral implications of the outcome. Through these moral implications, the suspense is directly connected to the Premise, perhaps indelibly etched in Premise. The reader is then brought directly into the story as he worries over the choice himself, whether he would have the courage to make that choice, and how it might eventually affect his life if he did. The suspense builds throughout the novel to the second plot point (3/4 of the way through the novel) at which the protagonist makes the decision and the rest of it plays out to the conclusion.
Although some may think it is a silly little book about a bird, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagullillustrates the anguish of choice perfectly. The search for perfection in flight leads the little seagull on a spiritual quest that costs him respect within his community and leads him to being cast out of his group. But it also results in a spiritual rebirth. Here, character and Premise are perfectly in tune.
In Titanic, as the ship sinks, Rose has to make the ultimate choice of whether to leave aboard the escape boat and remain tied to her fiancée or stay behind with Jack. We feel her anguish as she steps aboard the boat with her mother and the very bondage her mother represents, only at the last moment to jump back aboard the sinking Titanic to be with Jack, making her choice for freedom even at the possible cost of her own life. As she agonizes, we sense the moral implications of her leaving Jack behind. Somehow it just doesn’t seem right, and when she jumps back aboard the sinking Titanic, the audience screams with delight. The universe is back in sync.
Dialogue, conversation between characters, can’t be written the way people speak in real life. The author can’t take dictation from real life conversations and paste it on his characters’ conversations. Dialogue must be portrayed, sketched, depicted, “characterized.” It has to go through the conversion process from the actual into the fictional world, just the same as do all other elements of the novel. Everything is magnified.
But the biggest problem an author has with dialogue is that all of it is coming from the author’s own mental processes. All actual conversations occur between two or more people, which means that they come from at least two completely different mental processes. Consider the following dialogue:
“What did you do today?”
“I went to the bank.”
“What did you do there?”
“Deposited three-hundred dollars.”
“How much do we have now?”
Notice how linear both sides of the conversation are. Each bit of dialogue follows the question-answer, question-answer format. It’s simply a process of information gathering. This is a sure sign that one person invented both sides of the conversation. People don’t speak that way, particularly people who are in conflict. Consider this revised bit of dialogue:
“What did you do today?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I’m just curious.”
“I went to the bank.”
“But I went yesterday. How much did you withdraw?”
“I didn’t. I deposited.”
“How much and where did you get it?”
“I put it in my personal account, and it’s none of your business.”
“Yeah, well you owe me big time, buster, and if you have the money, I want to be paid.”
You can see from this example that the two characters have totally separate agendas and are in conflict. Eventually, the same information may come out, but in the meantime, the two characters may be coming close to blows.
Keep in mind that characters speak to express themselves emotionally. Dialogue should capture that emotion, and the author should realize that each character is in a different emotional and intellectual state. A good exercise is to analyze the dialogue in novels you admire. Pay particular attention to the way they sidestep each other’s questions or possibly change the topic of the conversation completely.
The reader is interested in what happened, not what the author, and rarely what the narrator, thinks about it. The narrator might get away with a narrative comment if his opinion affects the storyline. Describing a beautiful sunset is not a narrative comment, but stating that the sunset is beautiful is. The difference is that the reader is given the opportunity to see the sunset by way of the description and can form his own opinion of it as described, but being told it is beautiful prohibits the reader from forming an opinion. Thus, the narrator should generally get his point across with narrative technique rather than narrative statement.
THE STORY TOLD TO SOMEONE OTHER THAN THE READER
Sometimes the story is told to another person, possibly as a series of letters, or to no one, as in a diary. Take Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for instance:
I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.
Last spring after little Lucious came I heard them fussing. He was pulling on her arm. She say It too soon, Fonso, I ain’t well. Finally he leave her alone. A week go by, he pulling on her arm again. She say Now, I ain’t gonna. Can’t you see I’m already half dead, an all of these children.29
This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is written entirely as letters to God. This shows the desperation of the character, but also leaves the reader with a sense of eavesdropping on a confessional. The narrator gains credibility addressing God and baring her soul.
The number of different forms of narration is very large, and the author can undoubtedly find a technique that no one has tried. For example, you could construct a story pieced together from emails taken from a murdered person’s recovered hard drive. What is absolutely necessary, however, is that the technique match the story. Walker’s narrator was in a desperate situation, and her letters to God were an appropriate choice.
To select the best narration, you must know your story before starting to write. Don’t start until you know what you are doing.
(a) Develop the POV you wish to use in your novel, and provide a description of the POV character(s) and the narrative stance planned for the novel. (b) Select the tense and provide a justification for it. (c) Describe how the narrator and the nature of the story dictate that choice. (d) Provide two double-spaced pages written in the narrative voice.