Dispatches is a new series on our blog in which our writers-in-residence, Joan Leegant and Kary Wayson, discuss topics that come up often during their office hours. As a bonus, the posts will end with a prompt that addresses the topic at hand. Want to make an appointment with Joan? Simply schedule one here.
Once Upon a Time: The Case for a Strong Narrator
by Joan Leegant
At the recent day-long marathon of workshops at Hugo House called Write-O-Rama, I gave a session urging prose writers to indulge their narrative gifts by letting their stories have more, well, narration. This may sound redundant—aren’t narratives by definition delivered through narration?—but it’s a question of degree.
In the sentence, “Stop running my life!” Marie said to Henry, the narration consists of Marie said to Henry (the rest is dialogue). In the sentence, Marie and Henry faced off as determinedly as fencers in full armor—mask, gloves, foil—each holding fast and waiting for the other to parry and looking just as ridiculous, all the words are narration. If we follow that sentence with a gush of similarly high octane pronouncements—This was how everyone in Pheasant Hill conducted their marriage: verbal sword-fighting, emotional jousting, blood sport all parties relished—we’ve got ourselves a full-blown, strong, opinionated narrator.
Who is this narrator? It’s not one of the characters. It’s the voice of the story (Once upon a time there was a boy named Jack). But unlike in stories where this eager speaker is only allowed to utter neutral directives (he said, she looked at the boy, they went outside where the car was waiting), Marie and Henry’s noisy narrator has attitude and authority; it’s the reader’s guide, ensuring we get the picture. This narrator can give us crucial information (“Imagine five or six city blocks could lift, with a bump, and float away”), tell us what to think (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”), and provide commentary from outside the characters’ perceptions of themselves (“Dora Flood is a great woman. A great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening wear.”). It’s like the difference between a fancy restaurant’s maitre d’, whose job is to escort you to your table, give you a menu, then disappear, and a night club emcee who’s going to be with you till dawn to make sure you have a damned good time and know when to applaud.
Most of us were schooled in the more invisible narration, a centuries-long reaction to the old-fashioned novels of yore where omniscient narrators stomped all over the page talking to us (Dear Reader), artifice often overpowering story. Eventually, literary style-makers rebelled; intrusive narrators had to get out of the way. Everyone craved authenticity, a reading experience that resembled life being lived, the reader as fly on the wall.
But in our haste to flee the excesses of artifice, many of us writers abandoned robust narration. We became skilled dramatists, a useful talent, but often at the expense of becoming better stylists. We strait-jacketed ourselves by requiring that our stories be told solely through the actions and thoughts of the characters, no commentary allowed. We lost a way for saying all that we know. And, for some, the reason we became writers in the first place: Once upon a time…
Exercise/prompt: Begin a story with a strong narrator that’s the voice of the story, not one of your characters. Have that narrator describe a person, place, or event, and see where it goes.