Choosing your Narrator
Who's gonna narrate the story? So now we know who the story is about, we have a very minimal framework about what's gonna happen in the story, so now we're gonna ask who's telling the tale? So, it's a very important question to ask and you would be surprised how many writers don't actually ask this, and their narratives bounce around and they bounce around in time, they bounce around in perspective, point of view problems and chronology problems are rampant in manuscripts that I see. Just taking a minute to think who is telling my tale and why are they the best person to tell it is really important. And it's, the basic idea of a storyteller is one guy telling a story. You know, you're sitting around a campfire, you're in an audience, one guy telling a story, that's the basic idea of a narrator, and we have obviously different ways of doing that in a work of fiction, and those two main ways, there's two main choices, that's it. First person, and we all know what that is, that's I went t...
o the store. (laughs) It's one narrator telling their own tale in their own voice and you can also have multiple narrators each speaking in their own voice in a serial manner, so I speak, you speak, you speak, and we go like that, but it's a narrator speaking in their own voice and telling their own story. Now in a memoir, that's what it's gonna be, right, it's gonna be I'm telling my own story, I'm speaking in my own voice, there's really not a choice. You are the protagonist. We'll talk a little bit later about where you stand in time, but in memoir you're gonna be writing in first person and the thing to think about is, in memoir, you are the narrator and you are the protagonist, you're all of those things. There's many selves that come to the page in a memoir, but just to think of yourself as I'm the narrator and I'm the protagonist. In fiction, the first person narrator does not necessarily have to be the protagonist. It could be somebody else. We talked before about The Great Gatsby, that's a very famous example. It's Gatsby's story, I mean, that's the title. (laughs) But the narrator is Nick the neighbor who's watching this whole thing unfold. So the narrator is first person, but it's not the protagonist. So it doesn't have to be the same thing. Third person is simply, she went to the store. And you can either have third person close which is a very tight focus on one character, we don't leave their head. There's a thing called head hopping. We want to avoid head hopping at every cost. So head hopping is where the writer is in one person's head and then in the next paragraph they're in another person's head, and you have no idea what to hold onto. It's very disconcerting as a reader to hop from head to head to head. The general rule of thumb is one scene, one head. So if you are doing third person close, you're focus can shift from character to character to character where you're close in on their, you're in their head, but you can't have it all at the same time if you're doing it in that voice. That would be omniscient. So an omniscient third person lets you be in all people's heads, that's the way to think of it. You're omniscient, you can see everything, you can go everywhere, you know everything, you are God and you can tell us anything you want. If you're either in first person or third person close you have to stick within one person's head, that's the rule. So there's different permutations of this, we can slice and dice it all day long, but really these are just the basic choices that you want to make, and just to think through, okay, well how should I make them? The benefits of first person is we speak this way about ourselves all the time. We tell stories in this way all the time, so it's very familiar and comfortable to speak in first person, even if you're not telling your own tale, the mechanism is comfortable. And it's easy to remember to be in the character's head because that's your whole decision so then it's easy to let the reader in. A lot of writing is what I call stingy. It's so tight and it's so, it's so inwardly focused, it doesn't let the reader in, there's no room for the reader. There's no, we don't get to be in it, we don't get to watch it unfold, and one of the most common comments that I make on any page of writing is, well, what did she feel? Well, what did she think? Well, why did it matter? Those are all questions about letting us inside the character's head, like that's where we want to be. That's where the good stuff is. First person, it's easy to remember that 'cause that's the natural way of first person, and then the third benefit is the constraints are really clear. If the character is present, they know what happened. If I'm in a, um, if I'm at a festival, a music festival, and I'm the narrator telling my story and I'm there, I can tell you what happened. If I'm not backstage, I can't tell you what happened backstage 'cause I didn't go backstage. The only way I know what happened backstage is if somebody told me and then I would have, you know, or, I saw a news report, or I got a letter, or you know, all those kind of tricks or conventions, but the basic constraint is you can only say where that character is standing in time. Okay, and third person, the benefits, it's actually quite similar. We speak this way about other people, so it's familiar to talk that way. The narrator can be everywhere, they can know everything. You can move from head to head to head, so then that instance that I gave before, I'm at a concert, I'm seeing a concert, another character's backstage, in the next chapter we're with them backstage. You can do that, or you can have the omniscient narrator go from each of those people to each of those people, and then, the third benefit is it allows you to follow multiple characters so you can describe scenes where the protagonist isn't happening. So the main thing you want to ask yourself is, with my story, what is the best narrator to tell what I need to tell? Do I need to be in multiple places? Do I need multiple perspectives? And that goes back to the protagonist and what we're gonna be following while they're in this battle for what they want and things are standing in their way. So you really want to just think through, can I tell the tale I want to tell and which voice would be the best to tell that in? Does that make sense? Are there questions about that? Okay. So, the other critical piece about the narrator which most people never stop to think about is where is the narrator standing in time when they tell the tale? So what this means is, here we have a timeline of World War I. And the narrator in most stories, the vast majority of narratives, is standing at the end of the timeline, the action has already taken place, they know everything that happened, and they're telling the tale. So they're standing in time over there, and the story starts here, and they're moving forward, but they're standing in present time. So in this case, that narrator could tell the story of the whole war. They know how it ends, they know who wins, they know who dies, they know all the answers to all the questions, and they can then choose how much of that to reveal. So depending on the type of story that you're telling, you're telling a mystery, for example, you're not gonna reveal everything that you know right at the beginning, that would ruin the whole thing. If you're telling a thriller, you're not gonna reveal everything right at the beginning. But if you look, a lot of very famous novels give away the whole thing in the very first paragraph of the book. The one that I always point to, a lot of people have read John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, and that book, in the first paragraph, it's completely given away that, who dies, who killed the person, what it all meant. You know, it's, I don't have it pulled up so I can't recite it, but it's about, you know, my religious conversion happened because Owen Meany killed my mom with a baseball, that's basically what it is. So what's interesting about this is, why would we read a story when we know what's gonna happen? Any attempts at answering that? Why would we read a story, if John Irving tells us in the first paragraph what's gonna happen? Yeah.
We want to know how it happens and why it happens.
Right, exactly. You want to be in it, you want to feel it, so giving away what happens, the what is not what we come for. We do not read for what happens. You could tell me all day long what happens, and that's actually what we do. You know, I went to the store, I went to the movies, I did this thing, it's like, okay, so? That's the so what, we're looking for is why did that matter? What, why did you care? Why are you even telling me this? It goes back to our very first question is why does it matter? So, if your narrator is standing after all the events are over, reciting all this, you have to decide both where they're standing in time and how much they're going to reveal when, and that's going to need to hold through the whole timeline. So in other words, you can't have somebody um, sort of like be totally naive about how the war ends and then midway through talk about how the war ends. It's got to be consistent. Their burden of knowledge, if you will, are they going to reveal what they know or are they not? And entire plots are made, this is why this is in the structure thing, entire plots are made or broken by these decisions. A perfect example of this is Romeo and Juliet. So, that whole thing is built on the fact of who knows what when, and different people have different information at different times, and that's why it's a story, and that's why when we're in it, and we're like, no, don't take the potion! It's 'cause we already know that Juliet isn't really dead, so it's who knows what when. The narrator of that story, Romeo and Juliet, knows everything. They, he, I guess it's a he, they were all hes, he says so right at the very beginning. There's a little prologue to Romeo and Juliet like "I'm gonna tell you this terrible tragedy," and then it's this love story, but the first words are "I'm gonna tell you this terrible tragedy." So the narrator knows what happens and they give and withhold information to make us be in the moment of the character who doesn't have all the information. So, where your character stands in time is super important. Now, you can also put your narrator in the time where they don't know what happens. They have no idea who wins the war, they have no idea who lives and dies, they're moving along like this as they tell the tale. So as they gather information about the world they're moving through it. So the decision to do that is one that you also have to make, it's pretty clear once you make that decision. They don't know what they don't know, so you can't, you can't break that contract, if you will. So, I want to take a minute though, I'm gonna get back to the timeline in a minute, about the idea of backstory. We're gonna get to that a little bit later, and the idea of flashbacks and where does that come in, 'cause there's a whole thing around that, but I just wanted to make sure you guys understand the basic idea of the structure of where your narrator stands in time.
Does that impact on tense? So would that be present and the after the fact be past?
Yeah, so that's a really good question. If we go back, this person standing at the end of the timeline must be talking in past tense because events have already passed. So that absolutely impacts structure. This person standing here, you could do it, actually it doesn't have to be present tense. You could be narrating things, well like, if I'm talking about my day today, you know, I got up in the morning when my alarm clock went off, and I'm talking in past tense, but it's just, I'm talking about today. So this decision to put your narrator here does not necessarily equate to present tense, it just equates to what they know when they know it. So you could still be, the traditional way of telling a story is past tense. So it would be, I woke up this morning and here's what happened, and I drove in the car and then there was this terrible car crash, and you know, it's past tense, but it's day by day. Does that make sense? Okay. So, I would like for everyone in the workbook to sketch out their timeline, to make a decision about their narrator. Who is their narrator and where are they standing in time, and we know the protagonist and we know now the narrator so those decisions are gonna inform our structure. And when I ask here, is the choice sound, what I mean is does it work for the story you want to tell? Because you can't have it all ways. So like I said before, if you want to tell a story with a lot of scenes in a lot of different places, you're either gonna have to put your first person narrator in all those places, or you're gonna have to choose a different narrator. Now, that being said, in this as in everything else, people break the conventions all the time. You'll see very interesting choices where a writer will write, oh, the book Sarah's Keys, the novel Sarah's Keys is written with two timelines that are sort of converging on each other, both told in first person, and then they converge, and it's told in third person. It's very, it's a very unusual structure, and you don't even really notice it when you're reading it, but you can do things like that as long as you're very intentional about why you're doing it. The protagonist we talked about before, the queen who doesn't want to be queen, when I was working with that writer, there was a big decision because if you remember the girl, she was a girl at that point, she was three, she was kidnapped from, not kidnapped, the kingdom burned down and she went and lived with the pirates when she was three, so the question is, would she remember the events when the castle was burned down when she was a three-year-old, and are you gonna have a thing at the beginning with that scene and then tell the rest of the story in her voice, that doesn't make any sense. She wouldn't be able to recount that as anything other than a three-year-old. So the question became, does somebody else tell her what happened when she was three? Does she recall that story? Does she meet somebody later in the story who tells her about that moment? So those are the kinds of structural decisions that come from this. In that case, the writer made the decision not to open with the scene of the castle burning down, and much later in the story she comes across somebody who also fled that night who was an adult who shares with her what happened, and it comes at a moment in the story when it's important for her to know that. So those are the kinds of structural decisions that come from these choices, and you want to make sure that they're sound, that they can support your story.