Writing Craft: Conveying Narrative/POV
For a great many of developing writers we often begin writing a story intuitively. We have a character, an idea, a vision, and a goal. And we begin. We don’t necessarily have the knowledge to name the component parts that make up a story. We don’t necessarily understand what, exactly, it is we are doing. We can do a great deal of writing without knowing the names of the elements of fiction. However, developing an understanding and a vocabulary for the actual mechanics of a story can strengthen your capacity to further your craft.
I would suggest that you finish your first draft before thinking about the technical elements of your story. If, however, you have a writing process that is systems-driven and revels in design, by all means start out with the analysis to blueprint your tale.
When we think of story we often think about the all-important characters and the conflicts they encounter; the causal connections. But in order to move these elements forward there is the means of conveyance. How is the story conveyed?
A narrator conveys the story.
The narrator can be:
1) In the first person: the “I” tells the tale from within the story, and can be the main character or a secondary character. This is the most common modality of the first person narrator.
The “I” narrator can also be located outside of the story but “tells” the tale to the reader as an omniscient narrator and can come very close to being the writer’s voice (but does not have to). This is infrequently seen.
2) In the third person, limited omniscient. Often from a vantage point that has access to the main character’s thoughts and emotions but not the thoughts and emotions of the other characters although these can be surmised via the main character within the habitat of the story.
3) In the third person, omniscient. The narrator has access to everyone’s thoughts and emotions and reveals them as desired.
4) The rarely used second person. A slippery person– very interesting. (I recommend experimenting with it.)
Most stories are conveyed in the first and third person. Both narrators can have varying degrees of proximity to the characters. This is a matter of intimacy: how close do you want your reader to get?
If the narrator is outside the story (i.e. the third person narrator), how close is the narrator to the emotional centre? Is this third person rendering the telling as if “neutral”– cool and uninvolved, an “observational” tone? Or is the narrator positioned right inside the main character’s head, seeing out through her eyes, relaying all thoughts and emotions?
“Several emotions flickered across her face. She swallowed hard. She slid her hands along the outside seam of her skirt.”
“Something wobbled inside her throat. She clenched her teeth, sealed her lips to stop the fragile thing from being born. When she swallowed it was all broken glass and twisted metal. Her moist palms throbbed with the pound of her heart. She slid her hands down the cloth of her skirt to wipe the wet away. Oh god, she thought. My thighs feel disgusting.”
Once you’ve decided upon the distance between the narrator and the character/rendering this distance needs to be maintained consistently throughout the tale. Any sudden shifts will be noticed instinctively, if not consciously, by the reader.
Another question you need to consider is the role the narrator is meant to play in the conveyance of the story.
Is the narrator meant to be, mostly, a transparent filter through which story is conveyed? Or, is the narrator meant to be an active component of the story experience– i.e. you’re meant to notice the narrator’s presence and it’s as if the narrator is almost an character (though not a player) in their own right? A lovely example of this can be found in Carmen Dog, by Carol Emshwiller. This is also a novel that tells, tells, tells from beginning to end and in the most successful of ways. Yes, stories can be told instead of primarily shown, for all that I ask my mentees to show more ;)! Or is the narrator somewhere in -between these two extremes?
Finally, whose story is the narrator telling? Is the narrator telling their own story? Is the narrator telling someone else’s story? Is the narrator telling someone else’s story but in doing so, is actually sharing a story about himself? I.e. The Great Gatsby.
The first person narrator is also capable of differing degrees of proximity. A first person narrator can be emotionally remote in his telling insomuch that the narrator never tells the reader what he really feels, i.e. Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Although those feelings can be conveyed in different ways such as compulsive thoughts, denial, saying one thing and doing another, etc. This becomes a psychological study of character.). A first person narrator can also share every emotion she feels, the experience of the story felt viscerally by the reader as if inhabiting the space just as the character does, i.e. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.
Narrative POV both limits field of vision (how much of the story is shared), and how close the reader gets to the emotional centre. It functions a little like blinders on a race horse, as well as the tether.
Understanding these aspects of narrative POV can enable you to write a stronger story. Having the capacity to selectively alter elements of narrative POV can have a huge effect on the editing process.