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 A lot of (unpublished) (or self-published) writing in the thriller, fantasy and science fiction genres emphasises foreground action in such a way that it reads more like film or tv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.