by Adam Huddleston
Sometimes we take for granted our readers’ understanding of literary terms. This week, I wanted to quickly define the main types of narrative.
First-person narrative: The story is told from the narrator’s point of view. Pronouns seen are typically I and me. If the plot is in past tense, the reader knows that the narrator will survive whatever dangers they face. If it is in present tense, the suspense is still there.
Second-person narrative: The story is told from the reader’s point of view. You are actively participating in the plot. A well-known example of this is the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.
Third-person narrative: The story is told from a narrator outside of the story. They may either be omniscient or remain in the “heads” of one or more of the characters. This is the most commonly seen type of narrative.
Check Your Word Choices
By Cait Collins
There are times when I find myself using too many passive sentences and echoing words in my narration. Robert Ray author of The Weekend Novelist Writes the Novel, suggested this exercise during a workshop. You will need a pencil, paper, a timer, and highlighters.
You will be free-writing. Do not think. Do not lift the pencil from the paper. Do not cross out and correct. Just write. The opening sentence begins, “My first boyfriend (or girlfriend) sat across from me….” Set the timer for five minutes and start writing.
When the timer goes off, put down your pencil. Do not complete an unfinished sentence. Read your work. Using your highlighters, underline the nouns. Highlight your active verbs and circle the passive ones. Highlight adverbs in a different color, and adjectives in a third color. Now count your strong nouns. How many strong, descriptive nouns are in the paragraphs? Do the adjectives enhance the noun choices?
Count your active verbs and your passive verbs. Do you have more active verbs or more passive verbs? If there are more passive verbs how can you correct this? Adverbs are not your friend, so can you eliminate some adverbs by choosing more active verbs?
Free-writing allows the subconscious mind to take over and pilot the narrative. It allows our instincts to lead us to choices we might not consciously make. Using exercise like this we can develop a better vocabulary, improve our word choices, and create better narration in our stories.
SHORT STORY NARRATION
My critique group is busy crafting new short stories for Book 2 of our Route 66 Anthology series. My story is going great. It’s not all on the page yet, but it is in my head. Also, the ending came to me clear as a bell. The main character spoke the last line of the story and I wrote that scene as soon as I could. I have two main characters and I have a theme: regrets. One problem I realized after our discussion is that my story has no antagonist.
Short stories have the same components as full-length novels. Neil Gaiman talks about short stories in his MasterClass (well worth the price at masterclass.com). He learned from a mentor that “a short story is the last chapter of the novel that was never written.” How brilliant is that?
Here are your short story components:
- Strong sense of place, setting.
- The basic story conflicts apply, as we’ve noted in a previous blog: man versus man; man versus nature; man versus himself.
- Plot (sequence of events)
- Theme. Some examples: big idea, universal, underlying meaning such as ‘loneliness’, what lies beneath the surface ‘obsession’, moral of the story ‘love stinks’.
- A protagonist and an antagonist.
Even short stories feature a main character (MC) that changes in some way from beginning to the end, called the character arc. What does your MC want? What are the things that prevent your MC from achieving that goal? Flat characters are boring and does not experience any growth from beginning to end.
Dig deep and make that emotional connection with your reader. Tug at their heart strings. Keep writing, and good luck with your short stories!
A SHEEP OR A ROCK?
Comparisons are a useful way to create imagery in a story. My friend considers a well-written novel to be full of metaphors. In the book Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, Rebecca McClanahan states, “An effective metaphor or simile is significantwhen it calls forth an image that reinforces the overall description.”
Beware of mixing your metaphors. For example: “The fluffy sheep grazed in the pasture, a black rock in knee-deep grass.”
Wait. Rocks are solid and unmoving. The sheep is soft and in motion. Which image am I suppose picture in my mind?
Every word you choose is important. They should work together to create one solid image to immerse your readers into your world.
By Cait Collins
I love writing dialogue, but I’m not as enamored with writing narration. You see, my background is in journalism. When writing the news, you’re limited by time. Let’s face it; each story might get 15 seconds. And unless it’s a major event, 30 seconds would be the maximum for a story. A good journalist learns to get the who, what, where, and why covered quickly and efficiently. There’s just no time for excess words.
And that’s where I have problems. I try to tightly edit my stories so that I’m not using too many words in a scene. After all, is the sky color that important? While I’m working hard to keep the novel or short story clean, I under write the piece. Believe me, editing out can be easier that adding in. Adding in is a risk as the additional words could overpower the story. And then you have to rewrite the scene.
I’ve come to realize that writing is a study in balance. It takes time and practice to master the narration of a work and the verbal action. I’m still working on it.
Active Story Narration
Defined: a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious. The art, technique, or process of narrating, or of telling a story.
Verbs can be a valuable tool in telling a story.
The right verb can evoke emotion, create strong imagery, and set the scene in the mind of your reader. Active verbs can be powerful and put your story in motion. In grade school when my sons worked on their homework using “spicey” words. I love that!
The “B” verbs have got to go: be, being, been, was, were, is. Hands up: who else is a “was” fan. I use it all the time. During my second pass of edits I find and replace as many of them as I possibly can. You probably have some common or overused verbs in your work. They only dull your sentences.
Here are a few examples:
Is fighting TO: attacked.
Was mad TO: flipped out.
Was walking TO: shuffled.
Was running TO: darted.
Don’t be afraid to let your verbs do the heavy lifting in your story narration.
My weakest part of writing is descriptions. I’ll rather write dialogue and get to the action. But meager images shortchange my readers by not putting them into the story. Several years ago, author Cecil Murphy gave me this advice. He told me to write down the descriptions I found in the books I read. By doing so, I will get a feel for how to do them.
This technique has improved my ability to describe, though it’s still a challenge for me. As an added bonus, I now have notebooks filled with these passages. I read a page before I write to get me into author mode. If you are having trouble with descriptions, give this method a try.
The Unreliable Narrator
by Adam Huddleston
In literature, films, etc, an unreliable narrator is one which is not completely credible. The story that they are telling you is either false or exaggerated. What’s often interesting is that this may or may not be apparent to the narrator. They could consciously be telling tall tales, or be affected by mental illness or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Examples of an unreliable narrator include: Pi Patel in both the novel and film versions of The Life of Pi and the main characters in Forrest Gump, Big Fish, and The Usual Suspects, Fight Club. One of my favorite parts of reading a story or watching a movie with an unreliable narrator is seeing if the tale contains a twist ending. These endings often show us what the true situation with the narrator was and are quite enjoyable.
Keep It Simple
By Cait Collins
Have you ever started reading a story or book and realized you needed a dictionary to understand what the author was saying? I can’t say I had to pull out my handy Webster’s Dictionary, but there have been times when I had to read paragraphs several times before I could follow the story. I usually don’t finish the book.
The point is that we don’t need to impress our readers by filling the pages with flowery description and hundred dollar words. Our narration should lead the reader in entering the story and bringing him in to the lives of the characters. The words should be descriptive, seasoned with adjectives and adverbs that strengthen but not over power the narrative. Less can often mean more and better.