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.


Sep 2 2011

A surprising announcement!

And now, I’m going to tell you something very interesting and dramatic. It will be sudden and surprising. Ready? Okay, it’s coming up next: 

That opening paragraph is an announcement of what I, the writer, am about to tell you. Of course, it better be interesting and surprising or you, the reader, are going to be disappointed, or think that I’m being a bit overly dramatic.

Wouldn’t it be better if I just told you something, and you found it interesting and surprising?

It works that way in fiction too. Do you announce to your readers when a big scene or moment is coming?

Here are some actual examples from manuscripts I’ve edited (I’ve made some changes in the sentences so no one should recognize your work, if I borrowed from you).

And then, just when I least expected it, something exciting happened.

What happened next made her scream in terror.

Things got even worse after that.

So here’s what he decided to do.

The rest of the night went like this.

Later that day, something very strange happened.

For the rest of the trip, we had one stroke of bad luck after another.

Wrongly assuming it was my wife, I opened the door.

It was a calm day with bright sunshine and blue skies, not the kind of day they expected something horrible to happen later that afternoon.

Today things were good between us, but tomorrow, they would go terribly wrong.

I’ve heard these called announcement sentences or thesis statements. They can be useful—if you’re writing a thesis or an essay or a news story. They probably don’t belong in your fiction, at least not to announce to readers that something important is coming up.

An announcement tells readers in advance, ‘Hey, I know this section has been boring, but keep reading, something dramatic is about to happen.’

Why not just let something dramatic happen? Why ruin the surprise and the enjoyment for readers?

Especially in first-person stories, these announcements distort the narrative perspective. It puts the character into the future and looking back on events, telling the whole story in flashback mode. If the narrator knows something dramatic is about to happen, the narrator isn’t experiencing the story first-hand as it happens, and neither are readers.

There are also announcement words that can easily be eliminated most of the time:

Suddenly …

Now …

Began …

Started to …

Next …

These are only a few of the more common examples. Obviously there are times when you need those words. But when one of these words announces the next moment, see if you can drop the word or rewrite the sentence to avoid it. Don’t tell readers ‘Suddenly , this happens …’. Just let it happen, written in a way that shows it was ‘sudden.’

ORIGINAL: My husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying our peaceful Saturday breakfast when we couldn’t believe what happened next. Suddenly, a man neither of us knew opened the door and started to walk in. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now I noticed he wore no clothes. Next, I asked if he wanted cream or sugar in his coffee.

REVISE: My husband and I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying our Saturday breakfast, sipping coffee and munching on croissants and strawberries. I turned to refill our cups when the door flew open and a strange man walked in. Stark raving naked. “Cream or sugar?” I asked him.

In short, don’t tell readers you’re about to surprise them. It defeats the purpose.


Apr 16 2011

Point-of-view (POV), Part 3 of 3

In Part I and II, we looked at the persons involved in a novel and the voice used in the writing. For a quick recap: 

- Persons

  • Author
  • Narrator
  • Character (or characters)

 - Voices

  • First person
  • Third person limited
  • Third person omniscient

Now we can finally get back to the original questions on POV.

As noted at the very beginning of this series, POV is defined as “through whose eyes and ears the reader witnesses the scene.” The author writes the story, the narrator tells the story, and the character experiences the story. Through which character does the reader experience any given scene? That’s the POV character. Might be in first- or third-person voice, and might be filtered through a separate narrator or witnessed directly through a first-person narrator-character. Might have one single POV for the entire book, or there might be 42 POVs.

In first-person voice, the character and the narrator are the same person (most of the time – more on this in a minute). Usually this is the main character, but not always. Some obvious examples of when a secondary character is the first-person narrator include the Sherlock Holmes stories in which Holmes is the main character but Watson is the narrator, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which is narrated in first person by the secondary character, Nick Carraway. This creates a first-person voice but with a bit of the third-person distance. The narrator can provide a wider perspective that the main character could not.

In third-person voice, the character and the narrator are two separate persons, and the narrator isn’t a character in the story but a disembodied voice or eye – like a movie camera – showing the actions and events.

So when can a first-person story be told by a narrator who is not a character?

Bit of a trick question, but it’s quite common. When a story starts with something like ‘Back when I was a young boy growing up on the Mississippi River,’ the author has established a split narrator/character in first person. The main character is the young boy in the story; the narrator is the grown man looking back on his childhood.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example. In the second paragraph:

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.

This immediately establishes the character and the narrator as the same person at two different ages. The narrator is Scout, the grown woman, looking back on her childhood and the events that occurred to Scout, the young girl.

A more recent example is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, with the opening lines:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

There are two versions of the same girl – the living and eventually murdered child who is the main character, and her ghost who narrates the story.

This technique provides a nice advantage to writers (and readers). It maintains the close, intimate perspective of first-person narrative, while the narrator can also provide a wider perspective that usually requires third person. The difficulties in this technique are to create a character-narrator with a similar enough yet distinct voice to be the same person at different ages, and to always clue the reader in as to whose POV the story is in at any given point, the narrator or the character. This requires some subtlety in the writing.

Standard techniques in POV

The persons, the voices, and the POVs provide almost limitless options for how to tell a story. But for those writers who like rules to provide some guidelines for their writing, as well as for writers who like to know what the rules are in order to break them intelligently, there are some standard techniques which have proved over time to be the best ways to tell most stories. There are so many exceptions that this topic always creates discussion and debate, and has been known to spark heated arguments among writers. Seems all writers and editors have deeply held beliefs on this topic, each will tell you exactly how it should be done, and they will all contradict each other. Most readers, on the other hand, will only be able to tell you that they liked a book or that it bored or confused them.

I don’t believe in hard, fast rules when it comes to something as creative as writing fiction, but here’s my list of the most common, standard POV techniques generally accepted in mainstream, genre and commercial fiction today:

In third person:

- Keep the total number of POV characters in a book to no more than two or three.

- Maintain a focus on a single main character.

- Keep each scene to a single POV.

- If you can keep each chapter to a single POV, great. If you need to switch to a new scene in a new POV but within the same chapter, use a clear scene break by centering on the page three asterisks or cross-hatches (* * * or # # #) to signal readers that the scene has ended and a completely new scene is beginning.

- Don’t “head-hop,” where a scene bounces back and forth between characters’ POVs every few paragraphs, or even within a single paragraph or sentence.

- When you switch POV to a different character, ensure readers are instantly clued in as to whose POV they are in. No one wants to read three or four paragraphs, or a page or two, before realizing it’s in the POV of a different character than initially assumed.

- If you’re going to use more than one character’s POV, make sure you establish this early in the book by bringing in the different POVs within the first few scenes. You don’t want to read five or ten or twenty chapters all in one POV, then suddenly have it switch to a different POV character.

In first person:

- Stick with the first person and the single character for the entire novel.

- If you’re going to ignore that technique and use multiple first-person narrators, make sure readers instantly know who is narrating the scene, and give each first-person narrator a unique and distinctive voice. If you’re using more than one first-person narrator, then two is a good maximum. Or 42 if your last name is Palahniuk.

- If you’re using the split narrator/character – the older narrator looking back on his life – be sure readers know which POV they are in at any given moment: the character or the narrator. The narrator will have advantage of hindsight and knows the full story, while the character has a perspective limited by where he is in the story.

If mixing first and third:

- Have a plan and know what you’re doing.

- Think about it again.

- Have trusted beta readers who will tell you if it’s working or not.

For every standard technique, there will be some bestseller or classic piece of literature that ignores that technique. That’s fine, of course, but for new or debut writers it’s very difficult to break out of those general standards and do it well. That sometimes takes a level of artistic genius that very few writers can pull off, or at least a level of experience in writing to learn how to do it deftly.

But if you understand the persons, the voices, and the points-of-view available to you, how they interact with each other, and the pros and cons of each, you can confidently find the best way to write your story. 

If you’re still not sure, try writing some of the scenes in both first and third person, and see if one strikes you as the better choice for your story.


Apr 9 2011

Point-of-view (POV), Part 2 of 3

As discussed in Part I, your primary choices for voice are first person, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient. Voice affects your POV choices, but the two are not interchangeable terms.

The different voices impact readers in different ways, especially regarding how closely they are drawn into the character. Generally speaking (with lots of exceptions), it goes like this:

- First person: Closest perspective

- Third person limited: Next closest perspective with a wide range from close to distant

- Third person omniscient: Most distant perspective

The second primary effect your choice will have on the story is how wide or narrow of a perspective is provided. Think of it as a camera lens. A close-up shot is more intimate with the subject, but shows less of the surroundings. A wide angle shot is further from the subject, but shows more of the surroundings. The closer in the reader is to a character, the more limited the perspective.

- First person: Most limited perspective

- Third person limited: Somewhat limited perspective, but wider than first person

- Third person omniscient: Unlimited perspective

This is where the writer has to make some choices in how to tell the story in order to achieve the desired effect. What’s most important? A close but limited perspective, or a more distant but wider perspective?

Advantages and disadvantages

To choose which voice to tell the story from, it’s good to know some of the advantages and disadvantages of being in close versus distant, and limited versus unlimited.

- First person: Very intimate, draws the reader in as close as possible to the character. The reader gets to know the character, hears the inner thoughts and feels what the character feels. The reader also sees and hears and smells the story through the character’s senses. Requires a strong, sympathetic lead character to whom readers can relate, and a character with a strong, unique and engaging voice. Because the scene is viewed strictly through the narrator-character’s eyes and ears, another difficulty is how to present information and events that are outside the character’s point-of-view.

- Third person limited: While somewhat less intimate than first person, it can still be very close to the main character. The narrator can drop in and report on the character’s inner thoughts and emotions, and the reader can witness the story through the character’s eyes and ears. But the writer can also switch to different POV characters to present scenes or narrative information the main character doesn’t see or know, and can also drop in on the thoughts and feelings of additional characters in different scenes. One of the difficulties is to maintain a tight focus on the main character so readers can relate rather than bouncing around too frequently to too many different characters. It can also be difficult to maintain continuity, ensuring information presented outside the main character’s POV doesn’t accidentally slip into the character’s knowledge. For most writers, and readers, this is the most natural style, and it’s the most common in modern novels.

- Third person omniscient: This usually creates more distance between the reader and the main character, but can provide an unlimited amount of information. Third person omniscient was in much wider use in 19th century literature than today. In third person omniscient, the writer can present a scene from multiple POVs and report information or events happening outside the POV characters. The difficulties here, besides creating more distance between reader and the main character, is the potential for the constant barrage of changing and overlapping POVs to become irritating or confusing to the reader. Often called ‘head-hopping,’ if a reader becomes confused as to whose POV she is in, it’s easy to become frustrated with the novel and put it aside, never to pick it up again.

Your choice of which voice to tell the story will depend on what you want to accomplish, the perspectives you want to include in your story, your writing style, and the standards of the genre in which you write.

But can you mix some of these voices? For example, can a novel be narrated in first person by the main character, with additional scenes written in third person in order to present events or information to the reader where the MC isn’t present? Or, can a novel be told by two or more characters, each narrating in first person?

The short answer is always ‘yes.’ A story can be told anyway you want to tell it. The follow-up question is ‘does it work?’ The short answer to that is ‘sometimes.’

Switching voices within a novel can be, and has been, done. It’s been done well and, more often, it’s been done horribly. Most of the horrible ones you’ve never read because they’ve never been published. Unless you’re writing literary or experimental, I recommend against mixing voices. If you do want to mix voices, plan for it in advance. Know when to use each voice and why you’re using it at that particular moment, and make sure the story and the writing overall maintain a cohesive quality. Mixing voices can read like pieces of separate novels that have become accidentally stuck together. Or like a novel in which the author couldn’t make up his mind how to write it.

One exception is a story with two main characters – often a romance or erotica piece. You may want to present your love story from the perspective of both characters, but want to maintain the close perspective of first person. In this case, writing in alternating first person voices can work. The key is to ensure you have two intriguing, interesting, and compelling characters, each with a unique, distinctive, and engaging voice. That’s hard enough to pull off with a single main character. If a reader gets lost or is easily confused as to which character is narrating a scene because the voices aren’t distinctive enough from each other, you’ll create an irritated reader who may put the book down and not recommend it to friends. If one character is compelling and the other irritating or boring, then you’ve only got half a book that’s worth reading. Introduce both voices early in the book – don’t write ten chapters in one character’s voice then suddenly switch to a new first person narrator. Alternate them on a regular basis. This doesn’t have to be every other chapter back and forth, but frequently enough so readers get both characters and both perspectives.

One of my favorite and rather extreme examples of a novel with multiple first person voices is Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant, with 42 (yes, 42) first-person voices. It’s as if the book was written by a journalist who interviewed and collected information from everyone who knew the main character, Rant Casey. Each scene is told from the first person voice of a different character. Gradually the character and the story unfold. This is the exception that proves the ‘rule’ (no, I don’t believe in rules), so if you’re as gifted a writer as Chuck, feel free to give multiple first person voices a try. It’s experimental, so when it works, it’s genius. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, however, it’s just going to sound, well, experimental, self-indulgent, or just plain old amateurish.

Now we’ve touched on how different voices can impact a story, and a few of the pros and cons of each voice.

Next up: How does voice affect POV?


Apr 2 2011

Point-of-view (POV), Part 1 of 3

I’ve received a variety of questions related to point-of-view (POV), so rather than answer each one individually, I’ve decided to compile a basic overview of the topic in three parts. A few of the questions include:

Should I select a POV and stick with it throughout an entire novel? Or can POV change from one chapter to the next?

I constantly see examples of successful authors changing POV, sometimes frequently and within chapters. Is there a definitive rule or a set of general guidelines on changing POV? 

How does one handle a situation where information needs to be conveyed that the first-person narrator can’t possibly know?

Which POV is best?

What is head-hopping and why is it a bad thing?

Ah, the oh-so-complex and ever-controversial point-of-view (POV) discussion. Books have been written on this subject, so there’s no way I can fully cover the topic in a blog, not that I know everything there is to know about POV anyway. I’ll break this up into smaller chunks, but I’ll still barely scratch the surface.

POV is one of the critical decisions a writer makes with a story, usually before writing a single word.

I have to state for the record that, as a rule, I don’t like ‘rules.’ I believe there are general guidelines, accepted standards and writing techniques that are common in writing. They are common because they’ve proved over time to make for better, clearer writing, keep readers interested and entertained, and readers are familiar and comfortable with these techniques.

But writing is part craft, part art. Art is often about stretching boundaries, redefining standards, breaking ‘rules’ or writing new ones. The answer to your POV question is “it depends.” It depends on the story, the genre, the writer’s style, and how deftly a talented writer can pull it off.

Let’s start with a definition and the basic building blocks that work up to POV: Persons, voices, and perspective.

POV is, in the simplest form, whose eyes we are seeing the story through at any given point.

Before we even get into the POV options, let’s look at the ‘persons’ involved in a story.

- The author

- The narrator

- The main character (or other characters)

These are obviously not the same. They can and do overlap at times, but they are not interchangeable. Understanding how these persons relate and interact is key to POV.

The author vs. the narrator

The author is you, the writer. The person at the keyboard or with paper and pen. When a reader sits down with a book, she knows someone wrote it. There’s a name on the cover. The reader opens up a novel and it starts out:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. – Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

The reader knows this isn’t J.D. Salinger, the author, speaking. It’s the narrator of the story. Yes, Salinger wrote those words, but the reader immediately separates the author from the narrator. In this case, the narrator is also the main character.

The narrator vs. the character

For a completely different example:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

Here again, we have a narrator speaking, separate and apart from the author, but the narrator is speaking about the main character (the old man) rather than the main character speaking for himself. So there are immediately three ‘persons’ involved in this story: the author who wrote the words, the narrator who is speaking, and the old man.

Any story can be told from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. Salinger could have chosen one (or several) of Holden Caulfield’s schoolmates or teachers or parents to tell the story. Hemingway could have had the old man tell the story himself. I doubt either story would be as good that way. These writers chose the right voices to tell their stories, and they made those choices for a specific reason.

Voice

In addition to the three ‘persons’ involved in a story (author, narrator, character), the writer also has to choose the voice to tell the story. This is not to be confused with the writer’s voice, which is more related to writing style, or a character’s voice, which is how a character sounds through dialog, dialect, and inner thoughts.

There are four basic voices to tell the story:

- First person

- Second person

- Third person limited

- Third person omniscient

Often you’ll hear these voices referred to as POV, but I like to differentiate the terms. They are related and overlap, but voice and POV aren’t always interchangeable.

A quick overview of each voice:

First person means the character is telling the story.

I walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind me picked up the pace.

Second person (rarely used, and I don’t recommend it, but I’ll include it here anyway) is when the writer tries to make the reader become the character.

You walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind you picked up the pace.

In third person limited, the narrator is outside the character, watching the action, but can also report on what the character sees, hears, feels, and thinks, and can maintain a fairly tight focus on the POV character.

She walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind her picked up the pace.

In third person omniscient, the narrator is outside the story, watching all the action, all the characters, and can drop in and out of the viewpoint of any character.

She walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind her picked up the pace. The man desperately wanted to catch up to her only to return the purse she’d left at the restaurant, but he didn’t want to scare her. The policeman across the street watched them both, waiting for the right moment to intervene.

A final note on second person (You walked down the street). It is rare, more frequent in short stories than in novels. Readers tend to find it irritating and unrealistic, harder to suspend their disbelief. This is especially true if the character of the story is the opposite gender from the reader, or a very different person in terms of age, ethnicity, background, etc. You read: You are a woman, thirty years old, recently divorced from a much older man, and think to yourself, “No, I’m a middle-aged happily married male.” It’s hard for readers to relate to a character in this fashion. In a short story, it can work. To get through an entire novel in this voice is difficult, and it’s seldom used so readers aren’t accustomed to it (and probably don’t want to be). Second person is often perceived as a bit of a gimmick, and readers tend to resent gimmickry in writing.

So that’s a quick overview of the persons and voices available to the writer.

Next up, Part 2: How do each of these persons and voices affect the writer, the point-of-view, and the reader?