Sep 23 2017

Self-narration and the self-aware narrator: Part 2 of 2

Self-narration
I make a distinction between the self-aware narrator and self-narration. The two go hand-in-hand, but aren’t exactly the same thing. The self-aware narrator is the character who steps out of her role to tell the readers a story. Self-narration is the writer’s choice of prose that creates the self-aware narrator.

A shorter version: the self-aware narrator is your character; self-narration is the words you choose that make her self-aware.

Here’s a made-up example of self-narration:

I walked in the front door, removed my hat and gloves, kicked my high heels off and put on my slippers, then I walked into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. I pulled the coffee beans out of the cabinet, put them in the grinder and grabbed a filter. I poured the water in the pot and hit the start button, then sat down to rub my sore feet and waited for the pot to brew. My feet had been trapped in those high heels all day at the office. I sighed as I remembered the foot massages David used to give me, and I missed them. I always enjoy it so much more when someone else rubs my feet.

There are several signs of self-narration in this bit.

First, there is step-by-step narration. We know how coffee is made; the writer doesn’t need to explain it. In first-person voice, it sounds like the character has stepped out of the story to detail a process she probably isn’t even thinking about. In real life, we don’t self-narrate our lives like this to ourselves, so it doesn’t feel natural to read a first-person character doing it.

By the time we get to the second half of the paragraph, the voice is clearly established: the character is telling us about her sore feet and that she remembers David’s foot massages. We aren’t inside her head – she is telling us what she is thinking.

Here’s one possible revision of that paragraph:

The warmth of my apartment embraced me. With the coffee brewing, I sat down to rub my feet, imprisoned in high heels all day. If only David were here with one of his foot massages.

A whole lot fewer words (35 instead of 122), and we get that she kicked off her heels (and we assume her hat and gloves) and made a pot of coffee. Then we get something from inside her perspective – her feet ache. Then we get something even more internal – she misses David’s foot rubs (and probably misses David, or at least companionship). This came through an internal thought rather than narration.

Put us in her head and let us feel the mood and hear her thoughts in real time.

All the unimportant actions slow the pace to a crawl. Despite all those words, nothing happens. In the revised version, something happens: we connect just a tiny bit more to her missing David.

This is only one paragraph, but if you can connect to a reader a tiny bit more in every paragraph throughout a novel, those tiny bits will add up to something magnificent.

Another problem with the first version of this paragraph, another telltale sign of self-narration: the I-bomb.

The word “I” appears eight times in the first paragraph. I did this, I did that, I went over here, I thought about something. The revised paragraph contains only one “I.”

I-bombs create self-narration. Or they’re a symptom of self-narration. Hard to say which came first, the Self or the I. We don’t think in “I” sentences about ourselves. We only say “I” when talking to someone. If the narrative is filled with I sentences, the narrator must be talking to someone – to me, the reader.

A third telltale sign is the self-narration of emotion, often through external or physical signs. “I sighed, I frowned, I furrowed my brow and pursed my lips…” These are useless signals of emotion, and it’s not likely your character even notices when she sighs or frowns. She can’t see herself to describe her facial expressions unless she steps out of character and self-narrates from a camera-eye view.

Instead, show the emotion through dialogue, actions, and real-time internal thoughts. When your character cries, you want your readers to cry.

The key to overcoming a self-aware narrator and self-narration is two-fold:

  1. The ‘art’ side: Instead of having your character tell her story to readers, get inside your character’s skin and write from her internal perspective so readers experience it through her eyes and mind as it happens.
  2. The ‘craft’ side: create sentences that greatly reduce the reliance on “I” statements, eliminate step-by-step narration of unimportant details, and replace external narration of emotion with internal emotion.

For more on making readers feel the emotion, see:

Internal vs External Emotion

Writing in 3-D, Part III: Despair

For Part 1 of this article, click here.


Feb 23 2011

Chapter endings

Someone who read and critiqued my manuscript recently commented that several of the chapter endings were ‘flat.’ What does the term ‘flat chapter ending’ mean, and how do I fix it?Lorraine, NSW, Australia 

Chapters (and scenes within chapters) should end on a note that makes the reader want to turn the page to find out what happens next. Often called a ‘thrust,’ it’s something that pushes the reader into the next chapter to find out what happens next, unable to put the book down.

If a chapter ends on a flat note, it’s a good place to put the book down, turn off the light, and go to sleep. And maybe not pick it up again if there wasn’t anything to drive the reader forward.

A flat chapter ending can be a scene that fizzles out. Maybe it’s a scene that never is fully resolved, doesn’t drive the story forward, or doesn’t seem to have a point. Every scene must have a purpose, and that purpose is to push the story forward and raise the interest in some way.

One common situation that causes flat chapter endings is a story that is a collection of scenes from the character’s life, but without a driving, common thread, a story, a plot. Think of reading a journal where the writer details each day as it happens, but there’s no overarching theme or plot – just ‘here’s what happened today.’ Even if each individual journal entry might be well written or interesting on its own, they don’t make for a story that engages the reader.

Here are a few ways to end a chapter on a thrust.

- A cliffhanger: a tense, suspenseful moment that leaves the reader hanging. This doesn’t have to mean an action/thriller/mystery story. An emotional story, a romance, a coming-of-age story – all can end a chapter on a suspenseful moment.

- A revelation/surprise: something unexpected happens right at the end of the chapter. This can even be an internal realization by the character of something surprising. The tension or thrust is created by the unexpectedness of the new information, and the reader is left wondering how the character will deal with this new situation.

- A new obstacle, challenge, or raising of the stakes: just when things were looking up, or looking bad enough, a new development increases the conflict and makes it more difficult for the main character to achieve her goals.

- A new and interesting character appears on stage, one whom the readers know will create new tension (love interest, antagonist, or whatever the case might be) even if no actual tension is explicitly raised.

- An emotional high (whether for the character, the reader, or both).

- An emotional low.

Having a strong thrust at the end of a chapter can be especially important if it’s one of low tension such as back story or a calm moment in an otherwise tense story. But if this low tension chapter ends low, it deflates the tension of the overall story to that point. A low tension chapter is a good scene to intersperse throughout higher tension scenes to give the reader a breather and to provide flow and pace to the story. If this low-tension chapter ends with something unexpected, it helps drive readers into the next chapter (where ideally the tension and stakes are raised yet again).

There’s also the chapter ending that does double duty. It may seem on the surface like a low, quiet ending, but if the reader knows there’s something ominous looming on the horizon that perhaps the character isn’t even aware of, it still creates that compelling forward motion in the story (and the page-turning).

Your first readers – agents and publishing company editors – are looking for a book they can’t put down. If they find a chapter that doesn’t raise the stakes, increase the tension, or pique their curiosity to keep turning the page, that dull, flat chapter ending makes for the perfect spot to stop reading and send a form rejection letter. That’s because many readers will also be putting the book aside at that point.

And that’s not something a writer wants.

For some specific examples of thrilling chapter endings any writer can adapt and use in his or her own work, I refer you to the literary geniuses at McSweeney’s.


Jan 27 2011

Internal vs. external emotion

I know I overdo the smiles and sighing etc. Could you give me an example of showing internal workings rather than expressing something external such as a sigh or blush?Samantha, Australia

There are lots of ways that writers slip into ‘telling’ (external) rather than ‘showing’ (internal), especially when it comes to emotion. There are the obvious phrases such as: Bob was sad.

The writer is stating the fact, telling the reader what emotion Bob is feeling. Usually it is more effective to show Bob’s emotions rather than stating the fact.

Sometimes when a writer wants to show emotion, she will use an external sign of an internal response. Some examples of these external signs include smiles, frowns, sighs, shrugs, blushes, looks (such as stares and glares), and my all-time least favorite, the furrowed brow. I’m not even sure what a furrowed brow looks like or what it means, but I seldom see a manuscript that doesn’t deploy at least two furrowed brows. If I’m editing your work, you can bet I will strike through that phrase or suggest you find a different way to say it. I’ll probably furrow my brow as I hit the delete key.

Bob sighed, furrowed his brow, and began to cry.

This is now describing Bob’s facial expressions, body language, gestures and other external physical responses to illustrate Bob’s sadness. It’s better than saying ‘Bob was sad,’ at least most of the time.

Often this happens when the writer is trying to show rather than tell, but it’s only a halfway step. The writer is ‘telling’ the reader what facial expressions the character is giving, and those facial expressions then ‘show’ the emotion. It’s still a step removed from the readers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, just like there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘telling’ the reader some things. It’s all in when and how something is told or shown that makes the reader engage with the story and character. Sometimes “Bob was sad” is exactly the right sentence. Sometimes “Bob frowned” may be exactly the right sentence. Showing will generally take more words, and maybe it’s not important enough to spend any more than three words on the fact that Bob was sad.

But if Bob’s sadness is an emotional moment in which readers need to empathize with Bob, it’s worth a few more words. Describing facial expressions, sounds or body language alone doesn’t bring the reader into the character’s emotions. Adding physical actions and responses can help show the emotion.

Bob’s hand shook as he stared at the photo of his old friend, and he began to cry.

Better, but it’s still missing something – it’s flat. It describes the physical actions and response. This sentence is part showing and part telling. The writer tells the reader that Bob’s hand shook, that he stared at the photo, and that he started crying, all of which creates a ‘showing’ scene. The reader is seeing the scene, better than “Bob was sad,” but the reader isn’t feeling it first-hand. The reader is seeing the scene from the external, not the internal. 

The photo trembled as Bob remembered his old friend, and the image blurred behind his tears.

Not saying this is Pulitzer Prize stuff, but this last version shows the reader that Bob is sad. It paints a scene in the reader’s mind, and the reader can feel Bob’s reaction – his internal response. The external has almost been completely eliminated. This last version doesn’t tell me if Bob is frowning or sighing. It doesn’t even directly tell me that he is looking at the photo or that his hand is shaking or that he started crying. Those are external actions. Yes, all of those actions are there, but they aren’t ‘told’ or stated as a fact for readers. This version explores the internal response. It puts the reader inside Bob as he holds the photo in his trembling hand, he remembers, and the photo blurs.

If writing in first person, remember the narrator can’t see her own face to describe her smiles, frowns, and furrowed brows. A first-person narrator, like all of us in real life, wouldn’t usually notice when she sighs. You probably don’t stop to think, “I’m smiling now.” But in first person, or in a tight third, the character’s thoughts, feelings, and internal monologue can be used to show emotions much more effectively than describing facial expressions.

Below are a few examples from Samantha’s manuscript draft with the original wording and suggested edits. All suggested edits are merely examples of one way the sentence might be revised. There are many different ways of saying something, and it’s always up to the writer to come up with the best way that fits the writer’s style, voice and story.

ORIGINAL: I shot her daggers and refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.

 REVISE: I refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.

Sometimes the external signs of an emotion can be eliminated completely, as the existing internal thoughts, actions and dialog show the emotion. I deleted the ‘shot her daggers’ phrase (a reference to the character giving a sharp glare). It’s not needed. The rest of this paragraph carries the full weight of the character’s irritation.

ORIGINAL: The security guard looked me up and down. ‘You his mother or something?’

I glanced down at my suit, then back up at the guy. ‘Oh, sod off!’

REVISE: The security guard eyed my business suit. ‘You his mother or something?’

‘Oh, sod off!’

I moved the reference to what she is wearing to the guard’s actions rather than have the character glance down at her clothes. She already knows what she’s wearing. Her words convey her reaction without her reviewing her own attire.

ORIGINAL: I blushed the same way I did every time David quasi flirted with me, then realised how inappropriate it was to be reacting this way with a dead guy just metres away.

REVISE: Every time David quasi-flirted like this, it awakened the giggly, embarrassed 12-year-old who still lived inside me, completely inappropriate with a dead guy metres away.

Eliminates the blush but shows from an internal perspective what she was feeling, perhaps in a way that readers can relate to. It also eliminates the filter that tells readers the character ‘realises’ something rather than just letting the realisation come through naturally.

ORIGINAL: I felt my forehead crease with surprise that the cop appeared to know me, and took a closer look at him. I may have come across him in my work, but nothing stood out.

REVISE: How did this cop know me? I gave him a closer look. Maybe we’d crossed paths before, but nothing stood out.

This revise replaces ‘I felt my forehead crease with surprise’ with the internal thought, ‘How did he know me?’ That shows her surprise from the inside rather than telling readers she was surprised and the character describing the feeling on her face.

ORIGINAL: I sighed, slipped off my heels and trudged into the lounge room.

REVISE: I slipped off my heels and trudged into the lounge room.

A simple elimination of the sigh. Slipping off her heels and ‘trudging’ (a great verb in this sentence) captures her mood. People sigh for a variety of reasons – sad, happy, satisfied, perplexed, fatigued, confused, resigned, etc. Stating that a character sighs doesn’t really say anything without some additional information to show the emotion. And once the additional info is there and the emotion is shown, the sigh becomes unnecessary.

ORIGINAL: I flashed him what I hoped was a beguiling smile.

REVISE: None. This is a very specific action that the character does consciously for a reason. It is her conscious action of flashing a particular type of smile that is the important point of the sentence. There are always exceptions, like this one, where a smile, sigh, or a blush is the important action rather than only serving as an external sign of an internal emotion.

There is nothing wrong with having a character frown or smile or sigh on occasion. The questions to ask yourself each time are: What is the best way to engage the reader in this moment of the story? Am I relying too heavily on external signs of emotion?

Many thanks to Samantha for allowing me to use these examples.