The narrative situation: „Is it about you, or me – should my story be told by a he or a she?“ The narrator‘s chosen perspective is oftentimes one of the very first hurdles a new author must take when telling their story, which is why in our newest blog article, novum publishing is jumping into the fray to take a closer look at narrative situations.
“Who am I, really, and what do I actually know about my story?“ – These are essential questions for any writer scouring narrative situations on the hunt for the perfect match to their story. Once the plot line, time, style and place are as firmly set as a diamond in a wedding band and the protagonists and punchlines are more real to you than your steaming mug of morning coffee, you‘d think you are good to go. Well, almost! With your storyline spread out like a map in your mind, every tiny detail memorized, you can certainly begin the ascent to your story‘s climax like a seasoned climber. The metaphor is rendered all the more fitting here by the fact that it takes many authors years to prepare before they write down their first paragraph, just as it takes many climbers years to prepare for a special climb. So, when the first sentences are flowing freely and the literary stage is ready to welcome your hero or heroine, about to make their first appearance…this is when it comes crashing down on you, the one question you did not see coming but yet it had been ambushing you all along like a lion stalking its unsuspecting prey: „Erm, which point of view should I tell my story from, by the way?“
Unsuspicious as it may seem, the narrative situation of a story is wielding more power than one might think: be it in generating suspense, creating emotion, gaining proximity or keeping a conscious distance to your readers. Building up your storyline without carefully choosing the narrative situation out of which it ought best to be told beforehand can come back to haunt the most prolific of authors. And for good reason: without a clear point of view and the narrative’s path cemented by a suitable perspective, hurdles will obliterate the way to literary success. If not before, then definitely during the writing process! If the narrative situation is unclear, it will inevitably lead to confusion – with the writer as much as the reader, and sooner rather than later!
When thinking of letting new characters enter the scene or when this particular storyline requests a few years to rush by in a single page‘s time lapse, even the most ambitious of authors will soon be faced with their literary limits. If our meaning is still a little unclear, we may elaborate: how could a first-person narrator, holding his ground effortlessly right up to page 72, delve into the complex background story of a fictitious stranger – someone they have not known and never even heard of before? Or how does a reader learn of the subsequent story and fate of a character while having been geographically removed from the main character from whose perspective the story is exclusively told?
In order to prevent problems of this kind from happening – which might very well result in a complete revision of the manuscript or even every single page written up to that moment – the preferred narrative entertainment should be an issue right from the start and basically already included in the very first creative thought. In literature sciences, the Austrian literary theorist Franz Stanzel, who specialized in English literature, made a name for himself by introducing a distinctive narrative terminology. According to him, there are three narrative situations that we can differentiate from, which can even be further expanded into four situations. His „Narrative Theory“ is the global go-to bible for literary theorists and students as well as writers and authors-to-be.
1) The Omniscient (external focalizer or narrator focalizer)
The omniscient narrator, oftentimes endowed by their author with a divine omnipotence (or so it seems to the reader), tells the story from an authorial narrative perspective. This narrative situation is presenting the protagonists, their relationships, their personalities, thoughts and inner struggles in utmost detail. Telling the story from the point of view of an external focalizer, this narrative perspective holds the power not only to inform the reader, but to manipulate them, as well. The external focalizer can turn evaluative phrases and insert well-placed commentaries that can, in turn, shed light on the personal development of certain characters by implication only. Furthermore, reviews or hints at future events are painting a literary picture that will be more appealing, lending a more realistic – and thus more „complete“ – feel to the story, making it all the more relatable for the reader. The difficulty with the authorial narrative perspective is to never confuse the narrator with the author of the tome. This pertains to the writer as much as to their audience, the cherished reader. Whereas the writer might be tempted to project personal, illogical or even downright discrepant actions onto their protagonists, the omniscient perspective nourishes the reader’s belief of thus knowing the mind of the author, as well. Another aspect that is likely to suffer by choosing an external focalization in the narrative is the psychological depth that comes more easily by use of the more personal forms of narration.
Examples: „Bleak House“ by Charles Dickens
2) The Director (personal narrative perspective)
Another possibility to tell a story from the narrative point of view of an external or third person is the personal narrative perspective. Here, the narrator is telling the story from the point of view of one or more of the story‘ s protagonists. Personal narrators exclusively describe the protagonist‘ s personal experiences and impressions of people, places, events or scenes. By doing so, they allow their readers to expand their own creative reading experience, shaping their perception of the plot lines accordingly. In his book „How To Write A Fantasy Bestseller“, Holger de Grandpair describes the personal narrative perspective with and likens it to the metaphorical image of the narrative camera. The narrator, be it a he or a she, lets their camera roam the scenery and either zoom in to details of their choice or expand to a panoramical overview of the protagonists, depicting their whole sphere of living with a continued commentary – thus making them the director of their own story, so to speak. Disadvantages of this point of view come to the fore when a story is made up by a veritable mass of characters. With every additional person that should add to the richness of a good story, it gets more and more difficult to adequately bestow them with depth as well as character. For readers, another obvious difficulty is the thus disturbed flow of reading, as with every added character and aspect it gets harder to follow the plot line. A rather easy trick can be of tremendous help if a very creative and ambitious writer feels that a certain multitude of characters is necessary for their story to be told, and rightly so. By telling the various chapters from the perspectives of different characters, readers can enjoy and experience the story of all of the most important protagonists. A very popular example for this narrative approach would certainly be the epic fantasy series „A Song of Ice and Fire“, known to most as „Game Of Thrones“ by George Raymond Richard Martin. In his chapters, Martin frequently and consistently alternates from the points of view of one main character to another.
Example: „A Song of Ice and Fire“ (The Game of Thrones Saga) by George R. R. Martin
3) The Distanced Narrator (neutral narrative perspective)
The exaggerated form of the personal narrative situation is to be found in the neutral narrative perspective. For further explanation, it behooves us to use the metaphor of a camera once again. The caption of the moment does not happen in a „live“-mode, though – the storyboard presents itself unfiltered, uncut and, dare we say it, uncensored. Readers are encouraged to paint their own picture of the story which is unfolding before them, judging or not judging the characters and actions accordingly. The art inherent to this narrative approach expresses itself in baring the innermost feelings of the protagonists by use of monologues, dialogues or descriptive observations and thus closing the space between fiction and reality, characters and reader. The readers’ interpretations can run wild and free and are, in fact, centralized. Authors choosing the neutral narrative perspective are making the conscious decision to turn the tables on classical storytelling and to give their almighty powers as creators up to their readership, giving them as free reign as is possible in a preset scenario. Advantages and disadvantages go hand in hand with this narrative choice. On the one hand, it can be endlessly exciting for any author to witness their readers mold their story. Then again it does take an inordinate amount of tact and foresight bordering on clairvoyance to mold your protagonists and even minor characters in the intended way, all the while choosing such a literally demure form of narration. Besides, a writer should be aware at all times that, by choosing this narrative situation, they also choose a certain distance to their readers that cannot be undone. The minor emotional depth that is inexorably linked to the neutral narrative stance, be it intentional or unintentional, is keeping readers at a distance that is neither easy to broach nor balance. The distant and neutral point of view does not really permit readers to identify with certain protagonists or characters. It much rather brings central issues to the fore, conveying important messages of a more general nature. Examples for this neutral and distanced narrative perspective would be dramas, dialogues or inner monologues, yet newspaper articles and reports can be counted as part of this narrative genre as well.
Examples: „Mrs. Dalloway“ by Virginia Woolf
4) The Candid Perspective (first-person narrator)
Writing from a first-person perspective has many advantages that especially beginners quickly come to appreciate. Vital things are immediately made easier that way: telling a story from the individual point of view of a protagonist , creating emotion and proximity to a character are just a few examples of how the choice of a first-person perspective could be the obvious choice for any first piece of writing. Isn‘t it often exactly that, as many writers are or used to be diarists, as well? Furthermore, with a first-person narrator, readers always know just as much as the narrator – never less, but also never more. That is a key factor in the building-up of suspense. Every step of the way brings along new insights and is literally clearing the fog of possible uncertainty – very much so as it happens in real life, if we may borrow a methaphorical likening that Holger de Grandpair uses when describing the advantages of this frank narrative process. Another asset this narrative situation brings along is the broad expanse of creative freedom of a first-person point of view. Beginners can swiftly dance around the tricky trap of having to depict the multi-layered and facetious personality and psychological depth of a character by camouflaging the first-person perspective as the point of view of the third person. This trick, by courtesy of Grandpair, enables a writer to tell a whole story from the point of view of one person while yet never having to lay bare the totality of this person’s inner life, thoughts, emotions and experiences and to make them accessible to readers, to boot. As a possibly interesting side note, this literary tactic was supposedly already employed by no one else than the great Cicero while writing his own personal autobiography. His aim was to depict himself and his personality in a truly epic, yet none too personal way and to position himself by use of his own words as the important figure in Roman history that he truly was.
Another possible variation to the candid first-person narration would be to let a secondary character tell the story, as opposed to the more commonly employed tactic of making a primary character the narrator. Advantages like flashbacks or a broader view on the plot are arguments that can be brought forth in favor of this self-centered way of observation. The disadvantage of this narrative situation being its limited view, seasoned writers often stray from this format after gaining experience and literary footing. More complex strands of action that may happen in various times and locations cannot be told from this limited narrative perspective – to give readers a bigger picture, life is once again a perfect model for writing: to expand your characters‘ as well as your readers‘ view of the story, writers need to employ a different point of view than only the one. One last aspect to be treated with caution when writing from a first-person perspective is never to let your narrator tell about things that they cannot possibly know about!
Which narrative entertainment proves to be the best choice to tell a story might, after all, only truly reveal itself to a writer during the creative process of writing itself. This has happened before, and to the very best of writers. At an advanced stage of writing you suddenly notice that your inherent choice of narrative situation does not suit your story the way it should. For example, when the edges of a protagonist‘s self cannot contain the complexity of a story and the narration needs to expand far across the borders of this characters fictional being. Also, if you find yourself struggling with inserting emotion into your narrative flux, a change from the neutral to a more personal perspective might be the right thing to do. At the end of the day, the most important thing is, as in so many situations, to never give up. No matter how many revisions (and how many different points of view) it might take to finally bring one‘s story to paper and to fruition, never accepting defeat really is key!
And remember, dear readers and writers – when in doubt, one might want to adopt the honorable Ernest Hemingway’s stance, who was of the firm and very frank opinion that “the first draft of anything is shit“.
Well said, Mr. Hemingway – we have nothing to add to that!
„Keep writing, keep typing!“