Tell Me A Story


Among the many manuscripts that I read for people who’re at the start of their fiction-writing careers (and also among many contemporary novels I read as well), I think one of the most significant weaknesses that I encounter is the lack of a narrative voice. Lack of a narrator, even. Nothing excites me more in writing than being told a story, so give me a storyteller, please.

There are probably several reasons for this lack. One, I think, is that emphasis on showing rather than telling that is ardently promoted in mondo creative writing. With good reason, of course. Too much inferior writing is clunky in how it plonks information our way. If we are simply told the vicar is cruel, we’ll take that in as a piece of data, and there is a chance we won’t really absorb it that deeply, or feel it: that information is delivered as something for the mind, and it can easily go in one ear and out the other. It is, perhaps, a less engaging and maybe even a lazy form of telling us something.

We’re probably going to be drawn much more experientially into a scene that shows how the vicar who is kind to his congregation is cruel to his children. It could show us his cruelty through the things that he does (action – the beating with a knotted pillowcase, the locking in the attic) and through the things that he says (dialogue – ‘You are your mother’s son!’ ‘You’re going to burn in a lake of fire!’). I think of such writing as dramatising: action and dialogue create a dramatic scene that brings a human point to life. It’s not only delivering an item of information about the vicar, but embodying it in a way that excites our passions and feelings about him.

But showing can be overdone. A lot of (unpublished) (or self-published) writing in the thriller, fantasy and science fiction genres emphasises foreground action in such a way that it reads more like film or tv than a novel. Of course, action is important in these forms, but such writing often relies heavily on closeups of characters running around at a madcap pace or talking to each other in info dumps: it can feel like an overwrought script for Dr Who. Though cinematic qualities can be super for bringing a world to life, especially through visual detail, prose fiction has many other things available to it that screenwriting cannot use, in particular the narrator (voiceovers are often frowned upon in the screenwriting world, I am told).

An excess of foreground action can also affect the pace, as events start to blur into each other. A narrator can take charge, punctuating and controlling the momentum of an unfolding story.

Writing that shows too much still needs to tell us things (e.g., about characters’ back stories), and trapped in its mode of ceaseless showing it often breaks for those ruminations we call interior monologues. And all too often, sentences that begin something like ‘She remembered when …’ are red flags that this reader’s attention is about to drift … Couldn’t a good old-fashioned invisible narrator recount a bit of what I call narrative summary as a simple way to convey this back story, instead of these rememberings?

An example of narrative summary from one of the great short stories, Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

Yes, there’s telling there, but it’s elegantly done: those eccentric and revealing names of both people and places, the rhythm of Annie Proulx’s prose (which I dare to say amounts to poetry), the simple truths of these lives. It also comes after a couple of paragraphs of what amounts to prologue that presents some evocative and curiosity-pricking showing of Ennis in the present day (and present tense). And most of all, this narrative summary is efficient, and engaging.

And sometimes showing is simply too subtle, particularly with literary fiction. Katharine Viner summed this up finely in an article she wrote a few years back on judging the Orange Prize:

There were two particularly low points. One was when I had a run of books about nothing. These were usually by authors from the US, who have attended prestigious creative writing courses, often at the University of Iowa. They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce. At one point, I rang a friend and shouted at her, “I wish some of these bloody writers would write about Iraq!” Or anywhere with a bit of politics or meaning.

Since then, in classes I’ve referred to that excess of subtlety as the Dishwasher Syndrome. You see it in a lot of what might be called ‘workshop fiction’ – carefully chilled prose, often written by sensible graduates in English literature, that is totally free of both error and soul.

So: perhaps we could gain from a bit more subjectivity in our narrating, please? Andrew Lownie’s blog this week included a feature on what editors want, where Mark Richards, editorial director at John Murray, says:

can we bring back the third-person narrator? I read a lot of novels where there’s a lot of statement – about what’s happening or what a character’s thinking – and not a lot of texture to that statement; no sense of the novel itself having an opinion on the events it relates. Perhaps it’s the long reach of Hemingway, but whatever it is, the effect is often deadly – it’s forgoing one of the great generators of irony and comedy in novels.

He also says: ‘I really think novels should be in the third person, unless there’s a very good reason for them not to be. Too many debut novelists, it seems to me, think that the first person is easier than the third. It’s not: it’s significantly more difficult to tell a story when the narrator is within that story, and doesn’t have the advantage of omniscience.’

There are plenty of good reasons to use first-person, of course; the ingenious plotting of a novel such as Fingersmith is achieved through extremely deft use of point of view, which works its magic through first-person narration in a way where third- would not succeed as grandly. The bigger issue might be that many debut novelists are maybe too ambitious, and probably as yet lack the expertise to pull off the first-person with aplomb, though we can certainly find plenty of successful cases, once we start looking. Fingersmith was Sarah Waters’ third novel, but her first, Tipping The Velvet, has a super first line, launching its first-person narration: ‘Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?’

Think of all those great first lines spoken by narrators, first- and third-person: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ ‘Call me Ishmael.’ ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’ ‘The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived.’

And, of course, ‘Once upon a time.’ That sense of narrating is perhaps nowhere stronger than it is in fairy tales and folk stories, where storytelling maintains its roots in the oral tradition, and where that notion of a speaker talking to a listener is paramount. That direct form of speaking can be such a strong way to address a reader, too.

There’s much more that could be said about narrators. The importance of trusting the natural speaking voice as the foundation of your voice in writing (writers don’t need to find a voice; they already have one). Varying the ‘psychic distance’ (a term used by John Gardner to describe ‘the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story’, and which is discussed in an excellent blog post by Emma Darwin). Focalisation (as an alternative to thinking about point of view). The narrative stance of a piece of writing. Unreliable narrators. ‘In Search Of The Perfect POV’ describes one writer’s search for a suitable narrator. And another time I want to revisit showing vs telling, too, because good showing should not be neglected either. Good stories lie in that careful balance of showing (dramatic scene) and telling (narrative summary).

But for now it is enough to say that a narrator invites the reader in. Third-person or first-, narration grabs us, holds our attention by telling us a story. Importantly, it can give your voice – your writing – some personality. Ask yourself whether your story can gain from having a stronger narrator.

And maybe have a go at this writing experiment.

You might also want to take a look at this related post: A Book Is Not A Film.

25 thoughts on “Tell Me A Story

  1. I signed in simply that I enjoyed your sober take on the subject, Andrew. Your students are lucky people. I got nothing so insightful at UEA. Had to figure out what I know for myself – and through mixing with a variety of writers in a variety of genres.

    • Why thank you, Alan. I have so much to say on this, and in looking back over various teaching materials realise I probably have a book’s worth of material on various writing matters.

      Funny you say that about UEA. I’ve heard various people say that they had to figure a lot of things out for themselves not only at UEA but at other prestigious institutions. Good old Hull and hippie little Naropa certainly provided excellent teaching.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Andrew. The dead-hand of ‘showing not telling’ is heavy and iron-clad; I remember one creative writing student in the States reviewing my first book, which has multiple protagonists and an overall third-party voice, complaining that she didn’t know whose viewpoint the book was from. ‘The reader’s’ was the answer I wish I’d given.

  3. Yes, yes and yes. And I agree, oh yes I do. Yes!
    Had to smile at the ‘She remembered when …’ – it’s also a signal for me, that I’m about to glaze over.
    I love a bit of telling, when it’s done well.

  4. Excellent piece, Andrew (and thanks for the link!).

    I think this is EXACTLY right: “trapped in its mode of ceaseless showing it often breaks for those ruminations we call interior monologues.”

    I’m a first-person, character-narrator writer by nature, I think, but have recently been workign with a knowledgeable narrator, writing in third person, and it’s pure joy. It really does feel like the grown-up way to write a novel, though I do see that the flexibility, the no-holds-barred quality of being “allowed” to go anywhere in the storyworld and say anything you like about it is scary for a beginner. I could go on, but I won’t, only say that when I blogged about “17 Questions to Ask Your Novel”, the first one is “Where is the narrator standing, relative to the events they’re narrating?”. It’s a question that film simply can’t understand or work with (except, yes, with deeply clunky things like voiceovers), but it’s central to what we do.

    • Thank *you*! For the reposts too. Your post on psychic distance is such a good distillation.

      I think your use of the term ‘knowledgeable narrator’ is particularly useful as well.

      • You’re welcome, Andrew!

        “Knowledgeable narrator” is a term of A S Byatt’s (at least, as far as I’ve met it) and I do think it’s more useful – “omniscient” isn’t even accurate: no narrator is totally omniscient – there are always places it doesn’t go. (And “limited omnscience” gets my students in such a muddle”, because it seems like a contradiction in terms). I like “privileged narrator” even better: as the writer, you grant a narrator privileged access to certain heads, and certain information…

        • I’ve never come across limited omniscience … (Or maybe I too got in a muddle and let it slide!) Something I do like about omniscient is that it makes me think of God (if one is into that sort of thing, at least in fictional terms): that was how omniscience was explained to me when I was in school. Privileged is good, too.

          Where does A.S. Byatt use that term? Getting geeky, I found Wayne C. Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction really helpful on all of this stuff on narration. I forget all of his preferred terms, but his explanations provided such a good way to get to grips. Also Narrative Discourse by Gérard Genette.

          • I think the Byatt is in her collection of essays On Histories and Stories, talking about how that kind of narrator can creep closer in to a character than an internal, character-narrator can, because an external narrator can tell things about a character that the character themselves can’t know. I’m pretty sure it’s with reference to Possession.

            “limited omniscience” is what lots of people call “third limited” or “third limited subjective”, where you’ve got an external narrator, but one which is locked into a single character’s PoV. John Gardner says something delightfully rude in The Art of Fiction about the “pettiness and unseemly familiarity” of a narrator who’s stuck in one head. And it does seem to me that it has all the disadvantages of an internal narrator and first person, and few of the advantages.

            I actually talk about external and internal narrators, which is a term from narratology, and the only really fundamental and important difference. Everything else is a matter of your choices about psychic distance.

          • The trouble with some of these terms is that they can become jargon, and not always consistently used jargon either. In Googling various terms, I landed upon some sites that might as well have been talking about physics. But I guess narratology is the (mostly) accessible end of literary theory …

            Another term in creative writing and literary criticism (rather than theory) that I find I avoid is ‘exposition’, because it and its relation ‘expository’ just get so … woolly. I find myself talking about back story or narrative summary instead.

  5. Hooray to all that! I wholeheartedly agree that I miss the narrator having an opinion. And spare me, too, from long-winded observations of unloading dishwashers in lieu of a rattling good story.

  6. “prose fiction has many other things available to it that screenwriting cannot use, in particular the narrator”
    Oyez! I’m one of those apparently rare folk who get very little from film or television, despite frequents attempts.. Recently, more to hear a Glaswegian accent than be entertained, I watched an early episode of Taggart and felt cheated by the ‘showing’ by means of a twiddly bit of music to underline “this is a baddy”. Still learning as a writer, and this is very valuable indeed. Thanks.

  7. What a fab post, and really helpful as I’ve started a novel using third person narration, and I’m trying to work out who this narrator is and what they think of the events they’re telling us about. Thank you for the timely advice, and thanks Emma for the link.

    • Something useful to try: root through your own bookshelves and ask the same question of some of your favourite/influential books. Who is the narrator? And what’s their position? And (less frequently, but often very delightfully) how and when might such narrators intrude a little (or more) and make their presence felt? Thanks for the kind words.

  8. Super piece. It’s a big challenge to get my creative writing students telling me some FACTS about their characters. They love to describe minute physical sensations without actually telling the reader who the characters are. I’ll direct them to this post.

    • Thank you! Very kind of you to say. I think I have used that piece by Katharine Viner at some point in just about every writing workshop I’ve led. (No offence intended to Iowa graduates, of course … But that gave me a chuckle too.)

  9. A wonderful read as ever, I think I am about to rediscover the joy of the third person and this blog has given me a wonderful boost.

    • Thanks, Sophie – lovely to hear from you. I think a good narrator can really make a piece of writing, bringing all other ingredients together. I think too the invisibly yet occasionally intrusive narrator can be a lot of fun. Glad this serves to inspire! Go to your shelves now and dig out all those other inspiring narrators and remind yourself how their authors did it.

  10. An Interesting post. I certainly think writers should avoid writing to fashion. The difficulty with ideas such as ‘books should be written in third person’ is that the meaning of any text is intrinsically linked to the techniques used to craft it. Writers should be making conscious choices, not about ‘How do I like to write?’ or ‘What’s my style/voice?’ but rather, ‘What are the best tools for telling this story? What tools underpin what this book is about?’
    There is no right way to write a novel, only the best way to write a particular novel. All these things are just bundles of techniques to be chosen in the same way a carpenter or painter would choose a tool. Anyone laying down rules about their use, or saying some are intrinsically better than others, is surely therefore missing the point?

    • Thanks, Louise, and I’m no fan of rules either, and avoid them and also think they should not be confused with matters of taste. The only rule might be: Don’t Be Boring.

      I certainly don’t discourage writers from using first-person. So much writing can feel flat, and I often ask a writer what they can do to give their story an edge: often it’s a matter of playing with point of view, or varying the psychic distance (see Emma Darwin’s linked post on that). Yes, finding the best tool is another way of looking at it.

      I’m not sure the use or otherwise of a narrator is so much a fashion as a practice that’s been neglected or overlooked a bit (because of the emphasis on showing, because of the influence of the cinematic).

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