So you have your idea for the story. You have some notion about the sort of conflicts you want to reveal along the way, but there’s a lot more work to do before you get started. And the first thing is to decide who the story belongs to.
I don’t mean who is your protagonist, although that’s important too. But who is telling this tale. Your narrator and your protagonist don’t have to be one and the same, after all. Deciding who is telling the story is a hugely important decision. It helps to set the tone, determines what plot elements should be revealed and when, and serves as the eyes through which we see all the characters.
The Edward Hopper painting above almost begs to be made into a story. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that Raymond Carver has already done it. But what would you make of these characters? Who would be the protagonist if you were telling their tale? Would you tell it from the point of view of the girl in the red dress or one of the men? How would the story change if you did? What if you chose an omniscient third person narrator? What impact would that have?
THE PERSON WHO TELLS THE STORY OWNS THE STORY.
They say history is written by the victors. That’s true. And the reason why it’s true is because the person or people who recount the events of history – or tell a fictional tale – get to control how you, the reader, perceive the events.
When you start planning your story you have several options. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. Let’s look at them:
THE FIRST PERSON NARRATOR
Now, I’m sure you’re too savvy to assume the ‘I’ of the story is you, the writer. Rather, the ‘I’ in this case has a personality because he or she is a character in the story being told. Let’s just start with the basic first-person narrative before we look at some of the various permutations:
Examples: The unnamed woman who tells the story of Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier; Nick Carraway, who tells the story of The Great Gastby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Scout, the child-narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) Harper Lee.
Advantages: It can be easier to maintain the illusion that the reader is engaging with a piece of fiction. The ‘I’ suggests the author is relating a real event to the reader. This approach also helps the reader connect with the character in a way that third person narration doesn’t allow. This can be particularly important if your main character is morally bankrupt or otherwise difficult to understand.
Disadvantages: The author is limited by what that first person narrator knows. Scout can’t tell us what Atticus Finch is thinking. She can only tell us what he says and what he does. Now, personally, I don’t see that as a real disadvantage; I think it makes Atticus a giant. We are, after all, seeing him from the perspective of a small girl, his daughter, looking up at him. We trust Atticus because Scout does too.
However, it can cause problems for an author if they really want to show what another character is thinking or doing, even if their POV character has no way of knowing. The only way around this is if the other character tells the narrator. That can work but it gets clunky if you do it too much.
There can be too much navel-gazing with this approach. There’s a tendency to tell rather than show. “I was angry…” etc. And this can also lead to a large number of sentences beginning with “I”.
If the “I” in question isn’t an interesting or compelling individual their prose might be too flat for a reader to stay with them.
Moral of the story: Use “I” with care and have good reasons for making this choice.
VARIATIONS OF THE FIRST PERSON NARRATOR
Not all first person narrators are created equal, of course. There are several to choose from, here is a small sampling:
The reliable narrator
The reliable narrator is relating a story in which he or she has been a participant or a witness. They want to tell you the truth but they may not have all the facts as the story unfolds. Even when they’re telling the tale in the past tense they usually present the events as they occurred, with occasional forays into flashback. (We’ll take a brief look at tenses later.) Most first person narratives have reliable narrators.
There used to be a trend of stories that began with some variant of ‘if I’d only known…’ of which Mary Roberts Rinehart was the acknowledged queen. These were thrillers and generally took the form of “If I’d only known the house was haunted / there was a killer on the loose / that handsome men are not to be trusted…” Etc. etc. The reader then goes on with this knowledge in mind as the heroine – it’s always a heroine – finds herself in a jam and any number of strange or unpleasant things happen. She ends the story a wiser but sadder woman.
If you’re interested in this fairly antique style you might want to read Rinehart’s first novel, The Circular Staircase (1908).
The Unreliable Narrator
There can be any number of reasons why the narrator is unreliable. For instance, the narrator doesn’t know very much because they’re a child (To Kill a Mockingbird), mentally ill (The Tell-Tale Heart), or have secrets they want to keep (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).
Examples: Lolita (1955) Vladimir Nabakov; Heart of Darkness (1902) Joseph Conrad; The Catcher in the Rye (1951) JD Salinger; We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) Lionel Shriver; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) Mark Haddon; The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) Patricia Highsmith; A Clockwork Orange (1962) Anthony Burgess.
Advantages: They control the reader, allow for an element of surprise, and make the first-person narrator much more present in the story than the straightforward first-person narrator can be. They can also allow the reader to identify with an otherwise fairly inaccessible character. Ripley is a murderer, for instance, but because the reader is inside his head he seems somewhat sympathetic.
Disadvantages: Can be very hard to pull off. You can really annoy your readers. It also makes it very difficult to fully appreciate the other characters in the novel. After all, you’re only seeing them through the tainted eyes of the narrator.
The Secondary Character Narrator
Examples: The obvious examples are ‘Ishmael’ in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby (1925) and Doctor Watson (the Sherlock Holmes stories(1887 and on). There’s no question Jay Gatsby and Sherlock Holmes are the heroes of their tales, but revealing these heroes through the eyes of an admiring friend gives them a gloss they might otherwise lack.
Advantages: They can make a forceful main character seem all the more charismatic or exciting. If we were told the story of Jay Gatsby by a detached narrator would we find him as captivating? What if Atticus Finch told his own tale? Even if he did try to make himself sound heroic, it wouldn’t succeed nearly so well as when he’s viewed through the eyes of a loving child.
Disadvantages: It can divorce the reader from the action somewhat. Even though the narrator is a secondary character and not nearly as engaging as the hero, he or she must be able to maintain the reader’s attention. Some critics dismiss Doctor Watson as foolish or dull, though it is hardly likely a man like Holmes would want a dullard for his closest companion. The writer is challenged to create a narrator who’s engaging in his or her own right, but not so much as to overshadow the main character.
Multiple-character first person narration
In her book, Reading Like a Writer (2006) Francine Prose likens multiple-character points of view to Russian nesting dolls. There’s a story inside a story inside a story…
Examples: Dracula, (1897) Bram Stoker – is told in a series of diaries, letters and so on. Wuthering Heights (1847) Emily Bronte – has the story told by several people, first Mr Lockwood, and then other characters relate their part of the Heathcliff and Cathy story, all in the first person. The Turn of the Screw (1898) Henry James functions as a story within a story.
If you haven’t seen Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950) you should check it out. Not only is it a classic but it can teach you a lot about multiple points of view.
The story is set in 12th century Japan and concerns five people – a bandit, a samurai, his wife, a priest and a woodcutter. They each tell their own version of the same story, that of a murder and rape. Each one tells a different version of the facts. This so-called Rashomon Effect has been used many times in books, films and television series.
Advantages: Can keep the narrative interesting, especially when various narrators contradict each other. The author can also include ephemera, diaries, letters, news items, and so forth to give texture to the story.
Disadvantages: It can make for very muddy story telling unless the author has a firm handle on each character. The challenge is keeping each of the voices distinct so the narrative of person A isn’t confused with the narrative of person B. You don’t want a reader putting the book down mid-chapter and getting confused about whose story he or she was reading.
THE LIMITED THIRD PERSON NARRATOR
Generally this form of narration sticks to one or two characters, but is told in a ‘he’ or ‘she’ format.
Examples: Pride and Prejudice (1813) Jane Austen – While Austen tells most of the story from Elizabeth’s point of view she does on occasion slip into the thoughts of other characters, such as Darcy. These digressions are rare, though. For most of the novel the reader stays with Lizzy.
Advantages: Allows the reader to identify with the character more intimately, something that’s a bit harder to achieve when there are several different characters vying for his or her attention. It also allows the author to be somewhat removed from the character so he can comment upon them. Austen can tell you that Darcy isn’t really prideful, but it’s not something he’d say of himself. (He’d have to telegraph it in his actions.)
Disadvantages: As with omniscient third-person narration, this is obviously a literary conceit and some writers dislike it because of that. Who is telling the story? Who has access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings? Why are they telling you, the reader?
THE OMNISCIENT THIRD PERSON NARRATOR
The ‘God’ voice. This is the smarty pants who knows everything. They know where all their characters are and what they’re thinking. They have the goods on everyone and aren’t afraid to dish.
Example: The Lord of the Rings (1954) JRR Tolkien is a good example. Although Frodo is our chief protagonist, he sometimes takes second place to Gandalf or Aragorn. Anna Karenina (1877) Leo Tolstoy Also tells the story in the third person through the point of view of various characters.
Advantages: Allows the author to cover a large number of characters, time periods or geographical areas. The author can also tell the reader what the characters are thinking and how they are reacting to other characters or their circumstances.
Disadvantages: It can be confusing to keep track of all the different characters. New authors sometimes shift point of view in the middle of a paragraph, or even in the middle of a sentence. It also means that some readers will step away from the story and think, “Yeah, but how could she know all that…?”
The Second Person
This is when the entire tale, or significant parts of it, are told by “You”. It’s pretty rare and, in my opinion, still feels a bit clever for the sake of cleverness.
Examples: Bright Lights, Big City (1984) Jay McInerney is the most obvious example and works in this context. The drug-addled “you” of the story has lost so much sense of self he can’t even think of himself as “I”. The conceit has been used in sections of novels or short stories by the likes of Hawthorne, Camus and Faulkner, but I’m not familiar with another novel where it is used throughout as in McInerney’s.
Advantages: If your protagonist, like McInerney’s, is so dysfunctional as to have lost his sense of self, it might work.
Disadvantages: It feels too much like novelty writing. You really need to have a good reason for using it, and you’d better be as good a writer as Jay McInerney if you’re to pull it off.
SOME OTHER THOUGHTS ABOUT POINT OF VIEW
If a story isn’t working it might be because you’ve selected the wrong point of view. Try to rewrite a chapter in the first person, if you’re currently writing in the third. Or select a different character to tell the tale. What if Jane Austen had written Pride and Prejudice focusing on the character of Jane? Or if Elizabeth told the story in the first person? What if the story moved to Charlotte Lucas?
The unnamed first-person narrator of Rebecca is inexperienced and in awe of her husband. Does this alter the narrative style? How? In what way does her perspective differ from Mrs Danvers, for instance?
If you’re writing in the first person and your narrator sounds exactly the same as all your other characters you’re flattening out your prose. Try to inject a different personality and voice into the narration. How? Listen to the way people talk. Have a specific voice in your mind for your narrator. Know what they look like, if they’re funny, if they’re spiteful. The more you know, the more rounded your characters will be. And that includes your narrator.
Something I haven’t addressed above but you should also give some thought to is the tense. Most novels are written in the past tense, regardless of point of view. However, there has been a trend in recent years for some authors to tell the story in the present tense. This approach seems particularly popular among YA authors.
Examples: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) Erich Maria Remarque; The Hunger Games books (2008) Suzanne Collins; And the Mountains Echoed (2013) Khaled Hosseini.
Advantages: It seems more immediate than the present tense. It gives the writing a sense of urgency. Also, it can be easier to handle from a grammatical point of view.
Disadvantages: It can present challenges when you want to give someone’s backstory or write a flashback. That, in turn, can restrict your ability to develop your characters on the page. It can be difficult to create tension because in this conceit the writer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. The writer might find himself adding trivial details to the writing “then I stopped for lunch and had a burger…” simply because the plot might seem odd without it.
Phillip Pullman wrote an article in which he criticised the use of the present tense, saying:
But if every sound you emit is a scream, a scream has no expressive value. What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.