For the time being, I am focusing my writing on my own (nonfiction) experiences as I learn to apply the rules of fiction writing. My next few posts will be a combination of my memories of my Peace Corps experience in Kazakhstan and what I am learning about writing narrative nonfiction. I will be guided by Story Craft by Jack Hart and the Grand Rapids writers group I joined this summer.
Today I am sharing a short piece on Narration I wrote for an online conference sponsored by members of ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers). I used ideas from a textbook for a class I taught and ideas I found through internet research. It will be interesting (for me, at least) to see if today’s perceptions will change with tomorrow’s wisdom. Stay with me, please, on this journey.
Narration in fiction is the way the chosen narrator tells the story to the reader whenever characters are not telling their own stories (through dialogue).
I. A Strong Narrative Voice
The narrative voice is critical to any work of fiction, and it is probably one of the most overlooked areas of focus for new writers. Vague narrators, uncertain tense, and an unclear voice are all the result of poor narration. A great writer will have total control over his/her narrative, the voice that guides the reader through the story. As Noah Lukeman, the author of The First Five Pages, says: “Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate facade, in which one tiny break of inconsistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant note in the midst of a harmonious musical performance. The easiest way to ensure you have a clear narrative voice is to write in the first person. This makes your narrator an obvious character, and thereby ensures that, as a writer, you will be thinking about that development.
However, first person isn’t appropriate for all fiction, and it has its limitations, since it ties the work to a single perspective. For third person narratives, the key point is to ensure that the narrator is actually defined as clearly as any other character, regardless of how visible or invisible you want that narrator to be. Any straying from the main narrative voice or mistake in consistency can be a disaster, unless your control and experience are extensive and vast.
* A good narrative voice is generally consistent, and doesn’t switch from first (“I”), to second (“you”) to third (“he or she”) person, unless the author is doing it quite deliberately, and it takes great skill to pull off switching narration. In most cases, switching person will destroy a story.
More subtle, but equally important is the need to keep the narrative viewpoint consistent. It can be hard work to develop a single viewpoint, and using multiple viewpoints can be complex, with the need for careful, well-crafted breaks between viewpoints and a really clear, plot-oriented reason for doing so. The reader must have a good sense of the narrative voice, including why that voice sees things the way it does, and whose perspective it is taking.
Some tricks to help develop the narrative voice include the following:
- Read authors with exceptional narrative control. Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes are among the very best authors for narrative control. Their novels tend to be fuelled by great narrators and characterization, and reading work like theirs will help develop the writer’s ear for what works in narration.
- Try re-writing a piece of your own work from a different viewpoint, and noting the effect. You may actually improve the piece, but if not, you will at least begin to understand the impact.
- Try creating a profile of your narrator. Write out his/her “back story.” Put together a number of paragraphs on his/her life, motivations, and fears.
- Take a paragraph from any great writer’s work. Try a classic like Dickens, Eliot, or Joyce, or some other well respected novelist, and take note of the narrative voice. Now write out a paragraph on the narrator. Describe his/her motivations, past, and the hints that the writing conveys on the narrator’s involvement in the overall story.
II. Narration Examples
Gerald Grow, PhD, Division of Journalism, Florida A&M University
Retrieved on 9-22-2011 from http://newsroom101.com/longleaf/ggrow/modes.html
Around 2 a.m. something woke Charles Hanson up. He lay in the dark listening. Something felt wrong. Outside, crickets sang, tree-frogs chirruped. Across the distant forest floated two muffled hoots from a barred owl. It was too quiet. At home in New Jersey, the nights are filled with the busy, comforting sounds of traffic. You always have the comforting knowledge that other people are all around you. And light: At home he can read in bed by the glow of the streetlight. It was too quiet. And much too dark. Even starlight failed to penetrate the 80-foot canopy of trees the camper was parked beneath. It was the darkest dark he had ever seen. He felt for the flashlight beside his bunk. It was gone. He found where his pants were hanging and, as he felt the pockets for a box of matches, something rustled in the leaves right outside the window, inches from his face. He heard his wife, Wanda, hold her breath; she was awake, too. Then, whatever, was outside in the darkness also breathed, and the huge silence of the night seemed to come inside the camper, stifling them. It was then he decided to pack up and move to a motel.
Comments on narration in example #1:
- Normally chronological (though sometimes uses flashbacks)
- A sequential presentation of the events that add up to a story.
- A narrative differs from a mere listing of events. Narration usually contains characters, a setting, a conflict, and a resolution. Time and place and person are normally established. In this paragraph, the “story” components are: a protagonist (Hanson), a setting (the park), a goal (to camp), an obstacle (nature), a climax (his panic), and a resolution (leaving).
- Specific details always help a story, but so does interpretive language. You don’t just lay the words on the page; you point them in the direction of a story.
- This narrative serves as the opening anecdote that illustrates the topic of the story
Example #2 – Unique Narration
From The French Lieutenant’s Woman
By John Fowles, 1969
Retrieved on 9-22-2011 from http://www.novelguide.com/a/discover/nfs_0000_0021_0/nfs_0000_0021_0_00014.html#Style
One morning, in 1966, at his home on the outskirts of Lyme Regis, John Fowles awoke with a vision of an enigmatic, solitary woman, standing on the Cobb, staring off into the distant sea, a woman who clearly belonged to the past. In an article for Harper’s Magazine, he writes, “The woman obstinately refused to stare out of the window of an airport lounge; it had to be this ancient quay.” The image of the woman haunted him. He notes that she had “no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian.” In his vision, she always had her back turned, which to him, represented “a reproach on the Victorian Age. An outcast.” He claims, “I didn’t know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her. Or with her stance. I didn’t know which.” This mysterious woman would become the inspiration for Fowles’s third novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Boston, Toronto, 1969), an international popular and critical success and the most highly acclaimed work from this prolific author.
The story traces the relationship between a woman, caught between the Victorian and modern ages, and a man drawn to her independent spirit. Charles Smithson, a young English gentleman, becomes fascinated with Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, who is known as “Tragedy,” or in a more pejorative sense as “the French lieutenant’s woman.” Rumors suggest that she gazes continually at the sea, waiting for the sailor who seduced her to return. Charles eventually risks his own social ostracism when he breaks off his engagement to a perfectly respectable young woman to pursue Sarah. Readers are never given a definite conclusion to the story as they are left to choose among three possible endings.
Fowles’s innovative narrative technique, which allows readers to become an active part in the creation of his novel, provides the framework for a fascinating story of passion, the constraints of class, and the struggle for freedom.
Comments on the Narrative Style of The French Lieutenant’s Woman
The novel’s narrative is postmodern in that it focuses on the self-conscious act of the author telling a story. Fowles discards the traditional, omniscient, Victorian narrator who knows everything about the characters and shares this information with the readers. The narrator in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, who identifies himself as the author, breaks into the story continuously, providing background information, but also confounding readers’ expectations about narrative continuity and clarity. He often moves back and forth in time. For example, he interrupts his description of Lyme Regis by mentioning Jane Austen’s use of the Cobb in her novel Persuasion, which was written approximately fifty years before The French Lieutenant’s Woman‘s setting date, and by mentioning a twentieth-century Henry Moore sculpture.
He also refuses to give us a clear portrait of Sarah, who remains enigmatic throughout the novel. This more modern narrative sensibility suggests that no one can ever know anyone completely, that some mystery always remains, and that knowledge of others is based on individual perceptions, not universal truths.
As he continually breaks into the narrative, identifying himself in the role of storyteller, the narrator interrupts the reader’s suspension of disbelief by continually calling attention to the fictional nature of the tale. This interruption is heightened by the three endings he provides.