Sep 23 2017

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

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.

Sep 23 2017

Self-narration and the self-aware narrator: Part 1 of 2

Narrative self-awareness
Narrative self-awareness is a frequent issue in first-person manuscripts from clients or potential clients. For a long time, I wasn’t even sure there was a name for it – it just fell into the “I know it when I see it” category that something was off in the writing.

Then at a writers’ conference years ago, a famous author (so famous I’ve forgotten her name or I’d give her credit) mentioned the self-aware narrator as one of the biggest obstacles many beginning (and some advanced) writers face. She went on to define the self-aware narrator as (and I’m paraphrasing):

“…when the first-person character, who is, of course, the story’s narrator, is aware that she is the narrator and mindful of you, the reader. Thus, she tells her story to you, always conscious of your existence and her role of telling the story. This generally makes for a very drab novel and keeps the reader outside the character’s experience. It’s the difference between watching a great movie or having a friend who saw the movie describe it to you in excruciating detail for an hour and a half. It’s boring and awful. Stop it.”

But how do you stop doing it if you don’t know what it is, how to recognize it, or how to address it?

The first-person narrator can become self-aware when the author feels distant from the character and projects the story to the readers through the character. The writer isn’t getting inside the character and letting readers experience the story through the character’s eyes, from inside her head and inside her skin.

Narrative self-awareness may be useful in certain narrative portions of a story in some genres – where the character steps into the role of first-person narrator to ruminate on life, reminisce about the past, or consider her options. But in an active or dialogue scene with other characters, the self-aware narrator needs to disappear and let the character experience the moment first-hand.

The self-aware character “self-narrates” the story (more on this in Part II). She tells readers what happens to her as opposed to readers experiencing the scene from inside the point-of-view character. The narration comes across as the character viewing herself and the story, then relaying that information to readers. It’s a distancing way to tell a first-person story (or a close third-person story, for that matter). It feels like the narrator is speaking directly to readers. It damages the biggest strength of a first-person narrative: the close, intimate perspective.

When the narrator/character talks directly to the reader, the reader’s brain subconsciously processes it as “this is the author stepping onto the page to tell me something… it’s a novel, fiction, not a real character or real events.” The self-aware narrator knows it’s just a story and that she has a role to play, and narrates the story from that perspective. This breaks the reader’s “suspension of disbelief.”

When this happens, it usually manifests as “self-narration.” And that’s often when a reader sets a book down and never picks it up again.

See Part 2 here.