Thursday, 6 August 2009


Choosing who narrates the story (and how) is arguably the biggest decision facing a novelist. Think of classic literature and try to imagine it with a different point of view; it ain’t easy:
Holden Caulfield was a complex, disaffected young man, weary with life’s superficialities.
As the clocks struck thirteen, I made my way out into the cold April sunshine, aware Big Brother was watching me.

Might have worked, but a story will usually lend itself to a particular narrative style. So why do we need to see events through someone’s (other than the author’s) eyes? Impartial, omniscient narration, absent of a character’s nuanced sensibilities, their thoughts and feelings, makes for unbearably vapid storytelling.

Truth, we are told, is always relative, dependent more on a person’s interpretation than bare facts. As I get deeper into my research, nearer to the business of actually writing this novel, I need to decide who narrates it and how. I know whose story it predominantly is, and having spent so much time getting to know her, I’m lured by the immediacy and intensity of first-person narration (FPN), its intimacy and the empathy it will engender for her.

Trouble is, there are some scenes she cannot be present, which rather rules FPN out. Third-person narrative (TPN) offers more breadth – the ability, for example, to witness the same event from several viewpoints. It’s the degree of this authority that determines how readers respond: they may know something a character doesn’t (dramatic irony), or vice versa. And although for the most part the main protagonist is best suited to narrate, minor characters can also serve this purpose effectively, as in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

I was always told to be consistent with narration, not to unsettle the reader by suddenly veering off into another character’s mind mid-scene just because it suited my purpose. It can cause instability and weaken the narrative, resulting in a loss of unity. And yet if handled properly, the effect can be powerful. Barnes does this brilliantly in Love, etc., describing a recent sexual encounter from its participants’ standpoints, giving utterly disparate accounts - one romantic, the other sinister. William Trevor often changes narration mid-paragraph, but I wouldn’t advise this for the novice.

Unreliable narrators – whether through naivety, a lack of knowledge or even an attempt to deceive the reader – can enhance suspense/dramatic tension, but should be used sparingly and only with an obvious aesthetic plan in mind. Likewise authorial intrusion, where the storyteller suddenly addresses the reader directly by commenting on the action. If you tend to write in the FP, try TP for a change. Think of your favourite novels, try to identify their narrative style, then open them to see if you’re right. Why do they work so well written that way? Could they have been so strong narrated differently?
Viewpoint, then, is worthy of serious consideration. Changing a short story from FPN to TPN may be no great hardship, but 90,000 words…


Sandra said...

Stumbled across your blog, happily!

I just finished Rose Tremain's Sacred Country. I thought it spectacular. It's mostly written from an omniscient point of view, but there are many first-person sections. Worth a look to see how this can, in the right hands, be done well.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Sandra.

Paul Lamb said...

I've thought that the TPN must really be yet another character, at least in the writer's mind. What is the narrator's attitude toward the protagonist, for example? Does the narrator laugh or cry about the tale to be told? And who is the TPN? Specifically, who is telling the story? I've imagined that the same story -- the very same words -- would be different to the reader if it was told in Sean Connery's voice rather than the voice of Ricky Gervais. Hearing this voice as I write (and rewrite) helps me maintain consistency. I even think it can be productive to envision where the narrator is telling the tale. Around a campfire? Over coffee with friends? In a pub? In a lecture hall?

I think, ultimately, all narration is in first person. The only question is if the narrator is an active participant in the story or not.