Tool #2 — Multi-Tool, Part 4

We’ve been discussing the so called Writing Multi-tool in this Tool Series.  Basically, the idea is to develop several writing strategies with which you can switch back and forth smoothly when writing scenes.  I use these four basic writing strategies as my multi-tool; they are actually rather straightforward once you understand them:

  1. Description
  2. Dialogue
  3. Narrative
  4. Action

Each of these strategies requires a different style of writing, obviously.  Today let’s discuss Narrative.

So what is narrative?  Well, first of all, let me establish one important, though somewhat subtle, distinction a writer of fiction must always bear in mind while writing.  As writer you are not the narrator.  There is a difference between writer and narrator.  You are acting on behalf of the narrator but you are not actually the narrator, per se.  The narrator is the fictional storyteller who, somehow, knows intimately the characters of your story and the facts of the story so is in the unique position of being able to tell the story well.

As a writer of fiction, you have the skills to write for many different storytellers who each have their own unique biases and conventions for telling stories.  And this makes sense because if the story is set in the Bronx, New York the storyteller will most likely be someone from the Bronx, though you the writer might never have lived in the Bronx yourself.  On the other hand, if the story takes place in, say, New Orleans, Louisiana, it would make sense that your storyteller is at least familiar with the culture of New Orleans if not a resident of that city.  This, however, does not preclude the possibility of a protagonist from the Bronx being the main character of a story set in New Orleans and the narrator telling the story from the main character’s perspective—that of someone from the Bronx.

One thing I sometimes do is let my storyteller (who knows all of my characters intimately) narrate a portion of a scene from the point of view of whichever character happens to be the focus of that scene at that time.  But back to the question: What is narrative?  My definition of narrative is when the storyteller pauses to give the audience some insight into how a particular character in the story is processing what is taking place in the scene.  Let’s look at three examples taken from my novel Wanderer Come Home.

In this first example Hunter Carr has to attend an office party he’d rather skip.  The storyteller, therefore, takes the opportunity to give the audience a glimpse into Hunter’s perceptions as he enters the venue.

And all Hunter knew about the “little social event” in Gene’s office was that Gene insisted he be there.”Drop whatever you’re doing and come around five,” Gene had said.  Hunter had no idea the social event was actually a party in his honor.  So, unfortunately, with all that had happened that day, Hunter arrived at Gene Moore’s party in a buzzkill frame of mind.

Gene’s office was large and the doors were open; it looked as if about twenty-five people were there already.  A couple of members of the board were uncharacteristically present.  Three or four partners were there as well.  Important people from Matuka & Moore, including Glen Matuka himself had shown up.  And of course, Jan Towner was at the party; she was always at such events.  It seemed Jan, though only an office administrator, had a knack for getting included in the most important circles at these social gathering.  She was, of course, a very attractive woman though now approaching forty-five; but her looks had matured nicely; and she could keep conversation lively and interesting by charging it with a certain element of sexual energy.  At that moment, she was engaged in conversation in a circle that included Glen Matuka.  Glen spent most of his time, these days, at the country club though he had not yet fully retired.  He loathed talking shop at such gatherings which was why he avoided Gene Moore who could never stop talking shop.

Jan Towner smiled and winked at Hunter as he passed on his way to the refreshment table.  And though it was not an unusual gesture from Jan it did make Hunter feel a tad uncomfortable, only because there was something in it which he could not fully interpret.

From this example you can see how narrative adds depth to the story and its characters and how it can build emotional tension.  Earnest Hemingway, who believed internal narrative was a distraction to any good story, avoided narrative as much as possible and was—especially by women readers—severely criticized for doing so.  They said his characters were opaque and without emotions.  Hemingway was first a journalist so we might understand his bias against narrative.

In this next example, Annabel Stiles is riding a bus at night and has shared some personal history with the elderly gentleman sitting next to her.  For some reason, the elderly man (Axel, our main character) breaks down and begins weeping.  Annabel has no idea why.  So, again, the storyteller takes the opportunity to provide the audience with a description of Annabel’s internal narrative—how this incident affects her.

As of yet, Annabel Stiles had no idea what had triggered Axel’s breakdown.  Because of certain anomalies which were part of her youth, Annabel had made a decision a long time ago not to live in the past.  In fact, it was unusual for her to even think about the past, and why on earth she had brought it up to an almost complete stranger like Axel, she had no idea.  That will teach me, she thought, bring up the past and see what happens?  A perfectly calm man falls apart!

She had made it her motto that whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, except in this case “Vegas” equaled The Past.  It wasn’t that she was ashamed of it, necessarily.  It was just that it presented such a huge tangled mystery which she knew she could never unravel.  So why crack your brain over a riddle that defies reality? she thought; it’s unproductive.

From Annabel’s point of view, her own life could be divided into three distinct segments: life before Tom Stiles; life during Tom Stiles; and life after Tom Stiles.  Tom Stiles had been “the biggest mistake of my life” according to Annabel, and their brief courtship and marriage marked the transition period between Annabel’s former life and present life.

I might mention that the passage above leads directly into a segment of backstory for Annabel who, at this point, is a new character for the audience.  In this final example Miss Plackie awakes at dusk in her empty house, having just dreamed about her ex-husband and lost soulmate, Albert.  She finds herself in a melancholy mood.  So rather than just reporting what Miss Plackie does after waking—as Hemingway might have done—our narrator adds for the audience the emotional impact this moment has on our Miss Plackie.

Miss Plackie had not changed her name after Albert Plackie divorced her.  She had decided that at least he would not take that from her.  In her heart she would remain his devoted wife and he her husband—till death do us part—just as she had promised.  At the time of the divorce, she half-believed that God would not let Albert remarry, though, as it turned out, Albert did remarry—twice.  But then, Miss Plackie knew that God did not sanction either of those marriages because, first of all, God, she was certain, only recognized a person’s first marriage and, second, both of Albert’s subsequent marriages were to loose women who had sullied reputations.  Certainly God would not bless that, she reasoned.

And oh how she had wanted to be at Albert’s side when he lay on his deathbed during those final days of suffering.  But Albert would not let her, nor would his third wife.  That was the last and deepest wound he would inflict on her.  If she had been allowed to at least comfort her beloved Albert on his deathbed then Miss Plackie might have been able, afterward, to right her emotional ship.  But that did not happen.  Instead, her heart and life were dashed on the rocks of love when Albert died of pneumonia which was a complication of his severe emphysema.  Albert had smoked his entire life.

Well, another long post today but I think the examples were important to give you a clear picture of what I mean by narrative.  Remember to leave your comments in the comment box below.  So until next time…