The introduction to this series is here.
The idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for several days.
Post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at daniel wallace at gmail).
(Thanks to everyone who shared this series on Reddit, Twitter and FB.)
Day Seven: Three Levels of Narration
“I want you always to remember me. Will you remember that I existed, and that I stood next to you here like this?”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
I have a long-standing theory that most aspiring writers don’t narrate enough. Such writers, myself included, tend, at times, to present the physical and sensory data of a scene, or a character’s perceptions, assuming that this information alone will convey everything the reader needs.
We write out a huge amount about what the setting looks like, and the way the trees sway, and the sunlight, and the angry shopkeeper’s hands, how the skin is cracked and spotted with old age, and the taste of a ten-year old stick of chewing gum… But we (sometimes) (too often) say very little about what it all means.
Great writers, we unconsciously think, let the reader piece it all together. Great writers simply lay out the scene and leave its significance enigmatic and unstated, and that’s why they are so admired.
(This is not actually true, however.)
Often, we aspiring writers start off a story narrating away like a Victorian, explaining all sorts of things about the protagonist and her story. We sense that the reader needs to know roughly what is going on. But by the end, at the crucial finale (the point where the reader really wants to absorb the story on every level, to feel it as though it is real) we have ended up presenting only the facts, like Raymond Carver’s quieter friend.
The trouble is: this approach is usually much less intriguing and mysterious (for the reader) than it seems (to the writer). Rather than offering powerful hints of profound depths, it just leaves the reader feeling on the outside of the story, unclear why the writer is keeping her at arm’s length.
We, as readers, want to get closer: we want to see everything, grasp in fictional form the complete contents of the writer’s minds. But, for some reason, we are being excluded.
Imagine there are three possible levels of narration in a standard work of fiction.
- Sights, movements, sounds, settings, actions — the basic physical world of the story and what the character witnesses. “The cornershop was dusty and dry.”
- Reactions, insights, feelings, ruminations — what those actions, settings, and experiences mean to the character. How the primary character or characters is (are) responding to the events of the story. “I hated it.”
- Foreshadows, omens, warnings, key decisions, accurate advice, mental frameworks and philosophies — what those actions, settings, reactions, and feelings mean to the story. This is the most abstract level, of course, but seems essential: it is the level of language that, on a meta-level, tells the reader what sort of story this is. “Once upon a time…” “He would never see his father again.” “You don’t even know what your real problem is!” “I would never come back here again, I decided.”
(If you are a good, careful writer like me, you probably think level three is too un-literary, or not serious enough, but this is not the case. Haruki Murakami’s fiction, for instance, is full of this level of narration: his characters often spell out, very effectively, the premises of the stories they are in, and the key challenges they face. It makes for great fiction.)
Of course, level one will likely always be the majority. In most successful stories, most of the narration will be level one. A lesser amount will be level two, and a lesser amount again will be level three.
But in a lot of unsuccessful fiction, there is very, very little of level two, and next to none of level three.
Such minimalist fiction certainly can work. But on balance, in general, it is best to vary things up.
Here is a quick challenge for you. I am going to provide the base level of narration of a scene, via a couple of snapshots. You are going to add, after each of my entries, two sentences of level two narration, and one of level three.
How does that sound? If it doesn’t make sense, say so and I will add more commentary.
Here goes. A young character is walking alone in a small cornershop or general store, and the owner of the place gets angry. What does it all mean?
The store was dry and dusty. The shelves never seemed to have anything, only old snacks no one would ever want to taste. Sunlight came in hard and amber through the tinted windows, and I thought I could feel the dust settling on my shoulders, my hair.
[insert your extra levels of narration here — three extra sentences!]
“Hey!” said Greg, Mr. Burgh, the shop owner, slapping his palm on the counter, making me jump. His mouth was tense, serious, and his eyes were dark. “You can’t be back there. Not alone. I told your parents you weren’t allowed, not no more. So don’t make me call them.”
[insert your extra levels of narration here, too — three more sentences!]
Have a go! Let’s see if my theory about narration works.