Thursday, June 20, 2013
Establishing Your Narrative Authority
Reviewed by OFW editor:
Published: July 10, 2012
Show versus tell. We like to debate that one, don’t we? Some say telling ruins a novel, while others argue that it’s a stylistic thing that’s neither right, nor wrong. The thing is, there’s a very good reason writers are advised to show whenever possible. (Note: I said whenever possible, not all the time.) Writing to show helps to make your writing authoritative. It gives your narrative a
When you write with narrative authority, it gives the prose believability and combines subtle, but intentional cues to convince your reader that she reads a realistic account—a possible human experience. Your narrative authority, or voice, enables your reader to suspend disbelief so she can fall into the illusion you’ve created and leads her to believe that the story is as real as everything around her.
Narrative authority is much like a magic trick. It’s intentional, but to work it must be subtle; it shouldn’t point to itself. Instead, it should simply reveal the clues you’ve hidden along the way. How do we write with narrative authority? There are several components that an authoritative narrative must contain.
If you’re writing about a bartender, then it would make sense to know about mixing drinks, bars, etc. This knowledge would seem pretty simple to anyone except someone who has bartended. There’s jargon, techniques and other specifics that only someone with experience would know. To write an expert character, you must research. If your narrative relays any history, you’ll need to gather more facts than you’ll actually use in the story. Why? Because then you can expertly include the ones that matter to the story without sounding like you’re simply listing trivial facts. Expertise involves more than trivial information. It means that if you’re a woman writing from a man’s perspective, you stifle the natural inclination to include feminine traits. This sounds sexist, but women and men think differently. For example, a man is highly unlikely to notice a woman’s clothes first unless there’s something that stands out, like a sheer fabric, or unavoidable colors. He is more likely to notice eyes, ass or hair color. Another example: If you’re a pavement child writing about a rural community, there are details that you’ll have every day that someone living in a rural area would never experience. For example, most residents in rural communities can’t order out for pizza at 2 a.m. The streets roll up before midnight and there aren’t many take-out joints to call up anyway. You might encounter strangers on a regular basis, but in a rural situation, most faces are familiar. An outsider stands out. Basically, expertise involves awareness of identity and place. The narrator must know what he’s talking about inside and out.
Depending on the POV, you can go as far into your characters as you want. You can take them as far back into time as necessary to do so. Given the room to explore that fiction provides, the sheer size of the toolbox in your hands is intimidating. Where do you start? Where do you end? How deep do you go? There’s a process that writers must follow to determine where in time you need to start and with whom. It starts with specifics. The more specific you are in your descriptions, the more authority your narrative has in terms of an authentic or realistic experience. Specificity in fiction writing promises genuine experience. When the particular enters the vague, the precise happens within the intangible, and the weird seeps into the familiar, you have authoritative narrative.
The story, no matter which scene, character or event you convey, must include a specific time, place, character, and want. From there, you can take a thousand roads to bring your story to the reader with authoritative voice.
Although I stated that authority gives narrative a voice, the two are not the same. Voice is a huge part of it, but a separate element. Voice is a combination of things, including language, syntax, diction, dialect, and jargon. These elements help to establish the narrator’s identity, his limitations, and whether or not he’s reliable. It also establishes place and point of view. Voice creates the terms of the story, and the effects of your narrative voice should be immediate.
It doesn’t matter what POV you write from, but once you’ve set the voice and begun conveying the narrator’s thoughts and language, you have to be credible from that point onward to maintain narrative authority. What does this mean? It means you shouldn’t explain the terms of narration or a particular character’s language and jargon. When you do this, you reveal the hand working the puppet. This destroys your authority. Slipping out of POV, inserting language that doesn’t suit time, place or character, or telling the reader why a character thinks or does this or that reveals your presence behind the narrative voice.
Accuracy, voice and specifics are vital, but without consistency and cohesiveness, your attempts to write with authority will fail. To break from an established narrative voice is to break the unwritten agreement you establish with your reader from the first lines. Coherent writing entails using necessary information and details. The writer must convey his fictional world and its characters without filler. Many writers fail to convey authority because they’re too interested in their own chatter. Drunk with their witty or frilly language they’re unable to see that fancy writing or thoughts may not fit the story. To put it simply: once you’ve established a voice and put it in a time, place and background, you have to stick with it to the bitter end. No matter what happens in the story, you cannot break what you’ve established. To give you an example: If a five-year-old child is the narrator, you can’t convey emotions, thoughts, or words beyond a five-year-old’s cognitive ability. To do it would ruin the narrative’s consistency and cohesiveness. If you’ve established that your narrator is a medieval woman, you can’t include modern language, items or ideas, or you ruin the consistency of her narrative.
The reader must trust the writer. This is perhaps the most important component of narrative authority. Without it, you will fail at dragging the reader into your world. Narrative authority creates the illusion of a story that exists in its own world and for its own reasons. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, and it should never remind the reader what “type” of story she reads. A confident writer does not make certain thematic connections obvious. Littering your story with road signs that point to themes or meanings tells the reader what she must think or believe. This kind of writer does not trust the reader to come to these conclusions on her own, or trust his ability to convey elements without a big light show around them. Authoritative writing forces the reader to work so she marvels at having discovered something on her own. Drawing attention to the tricks you’ve performed doesn’t satisfy the reader.
Narrative authority in fiction shows that you respect the reader and don’t for a second doubt her intelligence. When you show, this respect comes naturally.
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