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The second in a short series of posts accompanying workshops being taught for the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College. This post is on narrative, and why it is both a simple and deliciously complicated idea.
In Reading Like a Writer, novelist Francine Prose says that the true problem with narration is not who is speaking, but rather who is listening? And sometimes, especially for beginning writers, the problem is understanding that anyone is speaking at all.
We often use the word narrative interchangeably with both story and plot, and forget that while all three refer to some kind of sequence of events, each also has a quite separate specific meaning. A narrative is a told sequence of events. We call the teller a narrator, and the process of telling narration.
When writing a narrative we have to think about the point of view of the teller. Is the narrative being told in first or third person for instance. What is the voice of the narrator? How is it coloured by accent, attitude, emotion or other factors. How much does the teller know about the narrative? These can become thorny, circular arguments for writers, unless they are related back to the fundamental idea that a narrative has to be being told by a person. Sometimes the narrator is the central character, sometimes a subsidiary character or outside observer, sometimes by the author herself, or a combination of all of these.
For most of human history all stories were told. We passed them from one teller to the next, through an oral storytelling tradition stretching over thousands of years. Even once we began to record stories in writing, the written word was still written to be read aloud. With printing and mass literacy came the possibility for novels that were written to be read from the page. But without an actual human voice there to give the words shape, the writer has to work even harder to create the voice and viewpoint of the narrator. So it was really with cinema and TV that we began to lose the relationship between narrative and the voice of a narrator.
When you as a writer know who is telling the narrative, and also as Francine Prose suggests who they are telling it to, the entire writing process becomes both easier and filled with many more sophisticated opportunities. Take a simple children’s story like Jack and the Beanstalk. Imagine that Jack is telling the narrative as an old man, reflecting on his youthful adventure. Then imagine that he is telling it to the giant, somehow recovered from his fall from the beanstalk. Maybe the story is being told over a flagon of ale at an inn, two old men (or one old man and a very old monster!) reminiscing about better days. Or perhaps Jack is telling the story to his own wastrel son, an old man telling a young one what life is really about. With a scenario like this in mind, the richness and details of the story just come flooding out.
Once we understand as writers that there always has to be someone telling the narrative, and someone listening, we can work with that understanding in subtle ways. The narrator can be made invisible, the narrative transparent. As long as we as the writer understand how the narrative works, the workings can be hidden from the reader. The best narratives often work this way.
Imagine a woman (or man) recounting a serious crime she has committed, such as a bank robbery or even a murder. In the space of one page, have the woman first recount the crime to another criminal she wants to impress. Then secondly, also in the space of a page, have her recount it to a judge who she wants a pardon from.