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NARRATION #1: Angles
Where does your novel's narration come from? Where is your narrator is positioned, and is that the right choice for your story? - Only one way to find out.
Posted on 20 February 2021 0 Comments
NARRATION #2: Pacing Previous DIALOGUE #3: Purpose Next

How Well Do You Know Your Narrator?

(Disclaimer: Everything I present here has been influenced by essays, articles and books I read as a student. I don’t want to claim anything as my original thought. Still, going back to find out who said what seems too much to tackle at the moment. Don’t think of this as me teaching my original wisdom. Think of it as sharing what I’ve learned. — In this post, almost everything comes straight out of Einführung in die Erzähltheorie by Martínez and Scheffel.)

If you’ve read some other blog posts of mine, you know what I think about the ominous narrator: I’m convinced that, in any book, the narrator is a character in its own right.

Thinking about it this way stops us from blindly jotting down a story without too much thought. Instead, we focus on the whole narrative situation: Who is the narrator? When is he telling the story? Whom is he telling it to? And why? — One little trick, and suddenly our stories will feel more genuine than before.

Unfortunately, we don’t talk about the narrator enough. If it’s not first-person, we simply ignore their existence. We might talk about voice or style – but rarely do we talk about the actual figure that presumably is the teller of our tale. Weird, right?

Let’s change this. Let’s talk about all the different positions our narrator might occupy.

Time of Narration

Roughly summarised, there are three points in time your narration might take place. It could be (1) after the story has already happened, (2) while the story is happening or (3) before the story happens. – I know the last one sounds a bit crazy, but we will get there. Don’t worry.

The act of telling a story after the fact is what narratologists call subsequent narration. For a long time, this was the way that novels were written – past tense. Think about Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist. All of them tell a story that has already finished.

There are good reasons to choose this type of narration. For one, it is the closest thing to natural storytelling that we have. You wouldn’t call your friend on the phone and say: “Guess what! I’m right now talking to a cute guy and he’s flirting with me.” – If you did, your next sentence would definitely me: “Nevermind, he looked confused and walked away.”

In normal situations, you’d wait until the moment has passed, and then text your best friend: “Oh my god, this cute guy just flirted with me.” — At least I’d do so if any cute guy ever attempted a flirtationship with me.

However, this method also has its disadvantages: If a story is told retroactively, we know that the narrator has survived whatever happened. Especially in first-person novels, this can be a somewhat annoying spoiler. That’s why Suzanne Collins, for example, chose to tell The Hunger Games in present tense. That’s why Katniss wasn’t as safe as we might have wanted her to be.

Simultaneous narration – telling the story as it happens – is more immediate than any other form of storytelling. We get the reactions of characters the moment they are happening. There is no way for the narrator to reevaluate their feelings or try to make their actions seem different than they actually are.

On the other hand, we might sacrifice authenticity. Why would Katniss tell someone the story of her struggles while she is going through them? It makes no sense.

There are other books that do simultaneous narration better: Stream-of-consciousness novels, for example. In them, the narrator doesn’t just tell what is happening right now. We’re rather guests in their mind and get to witness what they see, think and feel at the same time as them – without any filter.

And finally, there’s prophetic narration. Telling of things that will happen in the future. It is rare to see a book written entirely in future tense. (Apparently Aura by Carlos Fuentes does it successfully; but I have yet to read it.)

Needless to say, writing prophetically would be alienating to audiences today. And the main reason for that, I think, is the following: It wouldn’t feel real. If we’re writing in past or present tense, the story happens now or has already happened. Who is to guarantee that everything we read in a prophetic novel will actually happen? What if we’re just wasting our time? – It just doesn’t feel as satisfying.

Of course, you might use it as an element in your novel. You might, for example, have an oracle in your story that tells of future events. Readers will be more than willing to go along for a four-page ride or so, without feeling betrayed and without losing a perceived reality to hold onto.

Feel free to play with these tenses and times of narration. Dracula managed to use subsequent narration but split it up. Because we read diary entries by various characters, none of them is safe. Each entry could be the last one for one or more of them. At the same time, it feels authentic, because everything is told after it happened. – Bram Stoker managed to have his cake and eat it, too.

Level of Narration

If your story is anything but the simplest form of storytelling, narration takes place on different levels in your story, and there might be a variety of narrators that you haven’t even thought about. I’ll try to explain using a classic example: One Thousand and One Nights.

In summary: In order to avoid execution the following morning, Scheherezade tells her husband a story each night, ending it with a cliffhanger. Sometimes, in these stories, the characters again tell stories to each other and so on. It’s a simple construct in theory – but a masterwork of storytelling in praxis.

Now, as you might have already concluded, there are various narrators in play here. On the extradiegetic level – outside of the story – there is an unnamed narrator telling us of Scheherazade and her woes. Then, inside the story, we have Scheherazade herself who serves as the narrator of her tales on an intradiegetic level. If her characters tell stories, they serve as narrators inside the story inside the story or on a metadiegetic level and so on.

While this might not be very interesting to your approach to storytelling at first glance, there are still some things to consider here. Mainly: How might we use story within story to help ourselves? – Because, quite frankly, we can use it to our advantage.

Think of a crime thriller, where at the end, the detective sums up what has been going on around in the background. Here, a second-level story helps further the plot. Or think about Emma Stone in Easy A paraphrasing the content of The Scarlett Letter. Suddenly, second-level story helps to set up or solidify a theme. Or sometimes, as in the case of Alice in Wonderland, these stories might just be random and help to illustrate the world we created. – All of this is fair game. It can and should be used, whenever it might serve the overall product.

Also, for all comedy writers out there, I’d like to mention metalepsis. This is what we call the bypass of a diegetic or story level. Think of Deadpool talking to the artist drawing him, or about Abed in Community constantly talking about the in-story plot as a TV-Series. Bypassing a story level is literally tearing down barriers between realities – which can be an exhilarating thrill.

Role of the Narrator

You probably already read way too much about the differences between third-person and first-person narration. And, truth be told, there are a lot of differences between them. But too often I see people create this false dichotomy. They claim that either your story is told by the main character themself, or that it is told by a narrator outside of the story. But there are many nuances of narrators. Here are a few:

  1. The Uninvolved Narrator: They aren’t as much part of the story as much as they are telling it. Think of Oliver Twist, Crime and Punishment or Beloved.
  2. The Uninvolved Observer: They aren’t part of the plot, but they are observing it on a story level. Think of Lemony Snicket in the first books of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
  3. The Involved Observer: They are involved in the story, but not on a very deep level. Think of the old men in The Old Curiosity Shop or Lemony Snicket in the later ASoUE books.
  4. The Minor Character: They fulfil a supporting role. Think of Hastings in the Poirot mysteries, or Watson in Sherlock Holmes.
  5. One of the Major Characters: They are an important figure in the plot, next to others who may or may not get to narrate their story as well. Think of the various narrators in Dracula.
  6. The Major Character: Someone who tells their own story, where they feature as the hero. Think of Katniss in The Hunger Games.

Funnily enough, the “narratee” can occupy the exact same roles as the narrator. If you’ve ever got the time, try to find books in which the narratee is actually placed within the story. And let us know in the comments below. (Tip: Check out Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller or this blog post.)

The most important thing about these theoretical approaches to narrators, of course, is not just to be able to name what you are doing. It should give you more control over your project. The further you slide on the scale from 1 to 6, the more direct and immediate your story will become. – Whether this is a good thing, depends entirely on you.

What Can We Learn From This?

Once again, the most important points in a nutshell:

  1. Knowing your narrator means being in control of your story. Don’t get lost in theory – but always keep it on your mind.
  2. Carefully choose the time of narration: This will be a difficult balancing act between authenticity and immediacy.
  3. Feel free to play with varying story levels. Use them to further the plot, solidify the theme or add to the atmosphere.
  4. Be aware of how involved your narrator is in the plot. Depending on their position, they might see and tell things differently.
  5. Give your narratee the same thought you give to your narrator. If the entire narrative situation feels more real, you’ll have an easier time catching your reader’s attention.
  6. Your narrator is a character in its own right. Never let them become a soulless entity. Fill them with emotion.

Happy writing,

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