Description and Narrative Time

Hello Friends!

Today I’ll talk to you about two things that are important in any story; Description and narrative time.

Narrative time is in short the time it takes the reader to read the narrative. Simple. But you ask yourself as you’re writing how much time do you spend on each narrative event? A realistic narrative lets the readers watch the action unfold. So the duration of the narrative scene is the same time it takes the reader to read. This model accrues a succession of scenes, much like a playwright does.

Most modern fiction is episodic, like in TV and films. This implies a lapse in time, the boring bits are cut out. The reader doesn’t have to see the character take a shower, eat their breakfast and brush their teeth unless it is crucial to the story.

You can also summarise everything to transition between the scenes. Realist novels are usually balanced by scene and then summarising.

But every part of the book can be a scene. It has to be summarised eventually or the reader will get lost in the text. How much story time is summarised will determine the rhythm of the writing.

When you are organising your narrative, you also have to think about how to present your character. Do you give some important life events? This was very popular in Victorian literature. In modern and minimalist literature it is more fashionable to describe mundane events to show character, for example going to the store to buy some milk and how the character becomes annoyed at the old lady taking her time with her change.

I know how annoying it is for a beginning writer to have one great action scene after another but no filler, so the action goes by so fast leaving the reader overwhelmed. So how do you fill in the gaps between the scenes, between the action?

You can take a descriptive pause. The narrator takes some time out of the action to describe the scene or characters. This section doesn’t fit in with the timing of the events. This helps to keep the narrative going and can move the narrative scene further because further information is supplied.

Description can also be used as part of the scene itself, this is common in modern literature. Such as this example from Patricia Cornwell’s  “Cruel and Unusual

“You don’t mind if we talk out here a minute,” he said, his breath turning white. “For privacy reasons.”

Shivering, I tucked my elbows close to my sides as a Medflight helicopter made a terrific noise take off from the helipad on a grassy rise not far from where we stood. The moon was a shaving of ice melting in the slate-grey sky, cars in the parking lots dirty from road salt and frigid winter rains.”

Description is useful to not only set a scene but to make the world the characters live in come to life.

“Jane walked into the restaurant” it setting the scene. Now describe it! Describe the restaurant, is it fancy? A dirty cafe? Is the waiter friendly? Snooty? Is the lighting bright or dim?

Describing a scene involves a series of “close-ups” to create a significant whole. “Jane noticed the over-flowing ashtrays and the sticky carpet.”

Also makes evaluations in your descriptions, metaphor is very important here. “The waiter leered at her, his shark teeth glimmering.”

Image

When using metaphor think about the effect it will have and not the accuracy. The waiter doesn’t literally have teeth that look like shark’s teeth but the reader gets the impression of a predatory man, ready to eat up the character.

Cheers

ABC

Narrative voice 1st and 2nd person

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. The 1st person narrative is considered a character written novel, such as “Robinson Crusoe” which is a memoir.

I WAS born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.

Today the Anglo-American novel has supposedly progressed so that the narrator is now invisible. The third person limited narrative voice is considered in literary circles to be more superior than the first person narrative.

The 1st person narrative is typically written in retrospect and often lacks drama. However there are exceptions to this as seen in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. In this amazing book the first person narrative draws attention to the fact that there is a narrator, her voice is clearly captured and this leads to a sense of intimacy and confession. What is also striking about this book is that the narrator is secretly telling her story on casette tapes for an unknown audience. So the sense of confession is heightened. She even at times addresses the unknown audience

“So I will go on. So I will myself to go on. I am coming to a part  you will not like at all, because in it I did not behave well, but I will try nonetheless to leave nothing out. After all you’ve been through, you deserve whatever I have left, which is not much but includes the truth.”

This paragraph drips with intimacy, the uncovering of facts too terrible for the narrator to narrate but she does so for the benefit of the reader.It gives a sense of the character, she confesses to doing things that the reader won’t like but because she is upfront about this the reader has sympathy for her. The difficulties, or interesting points, of this type of narrative hinge on such issues as authenticity. How much of this confession is true? Is it fabricated? Margaret Atwood address this in the final chapter, a historical meeting 150 years in the future discussing the taped confessions. Political questions are raised, what are the character’s motivations?

You can also write first person in the present tense so the action unfolds as the reader reads the text.

For the most part first person narratives are narrated by the central character. But this is not necessary. A peripheral narrator is also compelling an example of this is in Sherlock Holmes through his sidekick Watson. The peripheral narrator makes Holmes seem more mysterious and the reader can share in Watson’s admiration for him.

“He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods. I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval. “

Some authors use multiple first person narratives, an example is the Dracula correspondence, or in more modern fiction William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Brett Easton Ellis’ “Rules of Attraction”. The purpose is to capture conflicting points of view and opinions of relationships between the characters. You do have to be careful to catch the idiosyncratic speech patterns of each character. Different points of view can also be used to recount an event such as in John Fowle’s “The Collector”. Here the main character, Frederick, is proved to be an unreliable narrator.

So again the device of multiple characters establishes conflict. There is no point doing this is the recollections are all the same.

Let’s move on to second person narrative. This is rarely used and if it is it’s mostly in experimental texts. Unlike the first person narrative that says “I” the second person says “you”. This is a direct address to the reader which draws the reader into the character by addressing the reader as a character. An example of this is Frederick Bathelme’s Shopgirls

“You watch the pretty salesgirl slide a box of Halston soap onto a low shelf, watch her braid slip off her shoulder, watch like an adolescent as the vent as the neck of her blouse opens slightly – she is twenty, maybe twenty-two, tan and greatly freckled; she wears a dark-blue V-neck blouse without a collar, and her skirt is white cotton, calf length, split up the right side to a point just beneath her thigh…She catches you staring and gives you a perfunctory but knowing smile, and you turn quickly to study the purses on the chrome rack next to where you stand. You are embarrassed.”

Who is narrating? The second person narrative forces us to identify with the main character who is a voyeur. The use of the word “you” does not allow you to keep distance from the character.

Ok that’s it for now. Next time I’ll talk about description and narrative time.

Narrative voice

Let’s talk narrative voice. This is really important because the narrator determines the tone and the style of your story.

Most of us know about first person and third person narration.

First person narration is when the book is written from a character’s point of view, usually the main character. Generally the reader has access to all their private thoughts such as in “I woke up with a splitting headache.” This point of view is popular with writers and readers because it allows the readers to have intimacy with the character.  Also remember that as a writer it affects how you approach scenes. You can only include things the character would know. So if your bad guy is thinking about pulling out a gun on your main character you can’t include it. It’s also helpful to know that almost everything written in this point of view is considered subjective and unreliable.

But in this post I want to look more closely at third person narration.

Third person narration is not from a charcter’s point of view and usually takes a omniscient stance over the story. As in “She woke up with a splitting headache.” Readers usually assume that the narrator is the author themselves. This point of view allows for a lot of freedom within the story. The narrator is outside of the action and can go anywhere, look into any of the character’s thoughts and can also give character evaluations which are accepted as being reliable and subjective.

While setting up narrative authority is an interesting idea, modern readers are usually sceptical of it. I imagine that this device would be more helpful in fantasy novels or historical novels where lots of world building is necessary.

Third person can also be used in a limited manner. This is called Third person limited. The third person voice narrates from the point of view of one character, this puts the reader in the character’s shoes. A good example is Tim Winton’s “The Riders”. First the reader sees through the main character’s sensory impressions e.g the house he lives in. The focus then narrows in on the main character’s thoughts which are relayed unobtrusively by the narrator. The information that we are given is from the main charcter’s perspective so we are only given information when he receives it too. Previous information, the history, is only given to us when he thinks of it. So why use this instead of first person? Because this gives the feeling of eavesdropping without the character knowing. it is very intimate and gives the impression of honesty.

Another point of view to consider is the third person shifting narrator.. This is where the narrator shifts from one perspective to another so the reader gains multiple point of views with narratorial presence. Third person can also be used climatically. A good example is in Patrick Suskind’s “Perfume”. The third person narrator is at first the “all seeing eye” that knows every detail of 18th Century France. This detailing sets up authority so the reader can trust the narrator to tell the truth, or give impartial judgements. The narrator then focuses in on a character, the mother of the protagonist, and vocalises her point of view, absorbing her voice. So you see the stinking fish market, the poverty, the drudgery she is subjected to. The book continues to switch through multiple points of view.  This is a beautifully written because the main character is repulsive and by writing through this point of view allows the reader to feel the repulsion from other characters and also maintain distance from the main character so that no sympathy arises.

Last but not least for this post is the Objective Narrator. Ernest Hemingway is famous for it. This is the fly on the wall point of view that relies solely on what can be physically be observed. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”  has very minimal description, in fact only just enough to break up the dialogue. This gives the effect of eavesdropping on a conversation. Stories written this way are good for adapting to film.

Next post I’ll go more into depth with first person narrative and also talk about the strange, experimental second person narrator.