Essays – Narration of Literary Stories
William H. Coles
To learn the skill of narrating a story in fiction, authors, teachers, and students must know what words mean and not confuse terms or use them interchangeably. Note, in particular, the difference in meanings of narrative the noun and narrative the adjective, narrator and character, and literary fiction and memoir.
- Narrate v: to give an account of something in detail.
- Narrator n: somebody who tells a story or gives an account of something.
- Character n: one of the people portrayed in a story.
- Narration n: the act of telling a story or giving an account of something.
- Narrative (1) n: an account of a sequence of events in the order in which they happened.
- Narrative (2) n: a discussion or speech about the policies, opinions, or proposals of a political party. The senator's narrative . . .
- Narrative adj: having aim or purpose of telling a story, or involving the art of story telling.
- Author n: the creator or originator of something.
- Fiction — stories that describe imaginary people and events.
- Literary fiction — serious, character-based fiction as opposed to genre or popular fiction, which are plot based.
- Story — an account of a series of events.
- Memoir — an account of events written from personal knowledge.
- Autobiography — an account of someone’s life written by that person.
- Biography — an account of someone’s life written by another person.
- Creative nonfiction — literary or narrative journalism, using literary skills in writing nonfiction.
In scene vs. narrative telling
Authors must clarify their own thinking about how to provide story information: 1) story advanced by telling a sequence of events, 2) in scene reader involvement by showing character action, 3) descriptive narrative, 4) dialogue, 5) images and setting. Show-don’t-tell has been the imperative in literary fiction for centuries, but increasingly fewer authors respond. The result is fewer good stories created as an art form.
Point of view
Character points of view are used by a narrator to tell a story. First person and third person are most commonly used. (Second person is trendy but rarely provides lasting reader satisfaction necessary for great storytelling.) The narrator has a point of view that may be used for improving time management of story progression or for information that is not within the reasonable range of the character’s senses, memory (life experiences), education, or intelligence. Point of view has many definitions. Most commonly writers think of point of view as 1) a position in space, time, or development from which something is considered. But point of view can also be 2) a manner of evaluating something, or 3) a reasoned opinion about something. In essence, a character point of view is not simply a position for considering physical action in a story. It is character-revealing way for the narrator to present story information to the reader. And there are complexities of point of view that, if not appreciated or if mismanaged, will cause the reader to unnecessarily question the character’s reliability—and credibility. (It is not helpful to think of a point of view in story telling as a camera, as is often taught. Evaluating story action and opinions are also involved, things a camera does not do. This broad, all-definitions, approach to point of view is especially useful when considering use of narrator and character points of view together. )
Example: point of view.
I despised Amy. She was beautiful, I’ll give her that, but she thought the world revolved around her–that God made other people to admire her. Never once did she think of me, or anyone, as a human with feelings.
The structure of this paragraph is common, and acceptable to many readers. Yet it has a complexity of point of view that require a reader to suspend disbelief in the character’s capabilities. In essence, telling what Amy thought and wanted is not within reasonable boundaries of the 1st person point of view. Yet it is necessary information, which is best thought of as narrator information since a narrator knows all about the story world and has the reader-acceptable gift of knowing what all characters think. Information provided through a character—first or third person–that is not reasonable makes that character unreliable, either intentionally or unintentionally. A character does not know the truth of Amy’s thoughts, and also shows arrogance in telling the reader these impossibilities. These may not be aspects of the character the author always wants to imply. However, it is perfectly reasonable, and often necessary, to use a first person character as the more story story-wise narrator. But it must not be accidental, and it must be consistent for the story being written.
In general, it is useful to resist thinking that unraveling complexities of point of view is unnecessary . . . the if-it works-and-I wrote-it, it-must-be-good approach to creating fictional stories. Authors must be aware of the subtle and complex layers of point of view so that they can use point of view effectively. It is inescapable. Well-reasoned opinions about point of view are essential for all authors who want to be in control of the story telling process and what they provide for a reader.
Voice and point of view, although related, must not be equated. Voice is everything a character does and says that helps identify the character. Point of view is the microscopic (close) or telescopic (distant) way a character delivers story information. And while characters deliver story information in their own voice, a narrator is telling the story—even in first person.
Principles of narration.
Great stories are told by a narrator, not a character.Narration of a story and point of view are separate, and the narrator uses a point of view to deliver the story. (When done seamlessly, the reader becomes engrossed and does not register how the narrator is delivering story information, either directly or through a character. A narrator is present both in first person or third person points of view, although the narrator may be more submerged in 1st person point of view.) A narrator is created by an author but should be thought of as a distinct intellect who is telling the story.
Thinking of oral story tradition when writing
In academic discussions and workshops, terms are frequently used without common understanding as to their meaning. It is a practice that has resulted in entire careers riddled with confusions about the basics of storytelling—and the unique problems in the written story. It is often helpful, in discussions of point of view and narrators, to think to an oral storytelling tradition. The storyteller is always telling the story. And the teller is often not the author of the story and is in control of narrative passages, action, dialog, and internal reflection.
At times, the storyteller relies on suspension of disbelief—that the storyteller could know the information presented—to increase tension and infuse drama. And listeners can have transcendence as if they were within the character’s living self. Imagine Ornesto, a storyteller, telling Henry James’s story, “Turn of the Screw,” in 2007 to a high school literature class. James published “Turn of the Screw,” in 1898. Ornesto, to be effective in his dramatization will make the presentation as familiar to his contemporary (2007) audience as possible. Ornesto, telling a story already open to decades of interpretations, will tell it in his way, in 2007. He might dip into Flora or Mile’s minds choosing most relevant facts for his purpose, or characterize Mrs. Grose with room left for the 2007 listeners to fill in their own details. Ornesto will make Peter Quint as evil as he can, choosing his words (mostly if not all from James) for best effect.
Ornesto is the narrator—knowing all about the story world and choosing story facts from a limited story-world perspective. (James is considered the creator of the story world with knowledge outside the story world.) Note that as narrator, Ornesto will make the best choices about story information for his audience. It is this separation advantage of author from narrator from character(s)that fiction writers often ignore. Now Ornesto, to keep his story moving, will narrate, and may well use different points of view, other than what author Henry James would, to be effective. Here is a useful rule: although the fiction author writes the story, the author should not tell the story. The narrator tells the story (that is created by the author) and moves within the limits of the story world. And the narrator uses the narrator’s voice for certain story information, and uses character point of view—or points of view—to deliver other story content. This prevents stray author ideas into the story. There are two difficult concepts to digest: 1) by clear conceptualization of author-narrator-character delivered information, authors add ease to reader understanding, and 2) when contemporary writers choose a single character’s point of view exclusively as if it were a selective filter, they often limit the potential of the story.
Narrators contribute to the story presentation and direct decisions about character contribution. To call a narrator’s contribution an intrusion to be excised from the story creates a diversion to excuse the author’s inability to write effective prose. But good judgment is necessary. If narrator information does not fit into the continuous fictional dream of the story provided for the reader at that moment, it is an intrusion and should not be included. Authors must use narrative techniques while remaining true to quality story telling.
Any thought, opinion, emotion of the author in a story should be removed as detrimental to creating a story as an art form. Most common are political ideas or needs to comment on real world social change. (The story may deal with these issues, but through action enlightenment, not narrative emotional descriptions.) Author intrusion often borders on essay and propaganda and is not compatible with great stories. (This does not mean that themes and meaning important to the author are not a integral part of great stories. They are, but they are expressed through careful story structure and skillful, craft-savvy presentation.) It is important that the authorial morality be understood and be consistent. All good literary stories are constructed on a moral framework that is easily perceived by the reader. Moral fiction is the cardiovascular system of a literary fictional story, and is provided by the author as a matrix in which the characters and narrator act.
1st person point of view is the same as the narrator
When the narrator collapses into the first person character, although it seems logical and acceptable, it sets up often-unaddressed questions–but perceived questions–in the reader’s mind as to who is telling the story, credibility of the narrator, and whether the suspension of disbelief should be continued. Many contemporary stories don't differentiate information sources and if the information delivered is credible from the source. For example, in first-person in-scene construction of a story passage, to be accurate, the first person can only tell and comment on what is happening in the story within the range of five senses at the the moment in story time. Along the same line, if the first person comments on the past, it has to be within the intellectual capabilities, memory for story events, and when speculating, within the characters capabilities and established sensitivities. But narrators are different. Every narrator tells about something that has happened, that is from a period where time has progressed, knowledge has increased, history expanded, understanding explored. For a reader to accept information outside the logical thoughts and perceptions of the first person character, the reader must believe the first person character is older and looking back on the story–that is wiser and acting as a narrator–or accept a narrator's contribution to the a story as created by the author to help the reader understand the story. This takes considerable author skill, which most authors don't consider using a sliding scale of reliability for credible information delivery with little concern for logic. Probably few readers care about details. But many readers stop reading when they think the writing is bad, and bad fiction can come from the lack of clarity in story telling that confusion over first person/narrator relationships can cause.
Close (or tight) vs. distant character points of view
The sense of the reader of how close the character is to the story action is created by syntax, word choice, and ideation. This is true in all choices for story including presentation, dialog, narration, description, internal reflection, even exposition. As a character seems more distant from the action, they function more and more as a narrator. The author who recognizes character and narrator information in close and distant terms is able to present more consistent voicings, more in-depth character reliability, easier grasped imagery, and will be in better control of the writing process. In essence, use of narrator information (that is information not filtered through a character point of view) provides flexibility to provide essential story information that is outside the character senses and knowledge and/or intellectual capabilities. This is useful technique in all but the rare story.
Narrator point of view
The narrator point of view is not a silo in a field of character-point-of-view silos. Narrators tell stories, and it is not useful to consider a narrator point of view as similar too—or equivalent—to a character’s point of view. Narrators float above the story in a hot air balloon with useful overviews that characters cannot achieve.
Omniscient narrator. (Omniscient: knowing everything.)
Narrators know only about their story worlds. They know more than is told in the story by a character but they do not know all that the author knows and they should not tell what the author knows and believes outside the story world. It is an important distinction for an author who wants to tell stories clearly, logically, and effectively.
This implies the author knows all truths. Impossible. Authors know only what they perceive of their world and think in their insular minds, and it is never omniscient. Omniscience is reserved for deities. To apply "omniscient" knowledge to a story becomes distracting and ineffective for story.
Story world is restricted, selective, purposeful, intense, directed and never random. It is where the characters act and it is what the narrator delivers to the reader. In good fiction, its boundaries are sacrosanct and should not be violated.
In general, narrators tell stories and may or may not change. Usually characters change from revelations or changes in the way they think about something brought about by story action. Narrators tell a story and do not always change significantly. But there are many exceptions. Many stories have very effective narrators blessed with revelations and reversal in thinking that may be or may not be similar to a character. Note too that when the author is considered to be equal to the narrator, a narrator enlightenment is awkward if not often impossible. Strong ironic meaning is also often lost when there is loss of character and narrator distinction. As a useful rule, how characters and sometimes narrators change in a story needs to be under the author’s control and thoroughly considered before and during writing, and in revision.
Time line and point of view
A character’s point of view changes with the advancement of the story time (as does every human). (Three elements of point of view, all of which are a part of our understanding of point of view: position in space or time, a mental attitude or opinion, a manner of evaluating.)
Multiple 3rd person points of view equals omniscient point of view
Points of view in a story are not spices in a stew that give a blended effect. Points of view are pears, figs, cashews, marshmallows, all in a bowl that are consumed separately with sometimes memorable and always distinct individual effects that contribute to the whole experience of eating. Omniscient point of view is not a term equal to multiple points of view, but is often implied as equal in discussions of the craft of writing.