Are you storytelling-telling? Too much told narrative can force the reader to experience a story through extraneous layers that add clutter rather than clarity. Here’s how to identify one type of told prose and write with more immediacy.
Narrative distance and the layers of reader experience
There’s a story ... stuff that happens to people and things. We experience it on the page via a narrative voice – this could be a first-, second- or third-person viewpoint.
The closer the reader feels to what’s being narrated, the more immersive the experience.
It can help to think in terms of how many layers readers must travel through to experience the story through a viewpoint character’s lens.
Let’s imagine Joe, a young teen. His journey is unveiled via a third-person past-tense narrator.
The viewpoint style is limited, or close – we can access what Joe can hear, see, smell, touch, feel (his emotions) and think. That accessible information can be either be shown or told.
With each approach, the reader pushes through various layers of the story as they are experienced by Joe.
EXAMPLE: A TOLD NARRATIVE
Joe heard the sounds of grunts coming from his mother’s bedroom. He pushed the door open and looked on in shock as his mother screeched and pulled the duvet over herself and their neighbour Mr Michelson.
He looked at the bed and saw them both lying there naked. She started talking fast but he couldn’t make out what she was saying because everything felt confused in his head. He wondered where Dad was, and felt worried about Christmas and the trip to Grandma’s. And what about soccer practice with Mr Michelson’s son, Justin? he thought. Then he remembered how Abbie’s parents had got divorced, and how awful she’d said it had been.
EXAMPLE: A SHOWN NARRATIVE
The grunts were coming from his mother’s bedroom. Joe pushed the door open. His mother screeched and pulled the duvet over herself and--
And their neighbour Mr Michelson.
They were both lying there naked and she started talking fast but the words made no sense – just a wah-wah-wah like Charlie Brown’s teacher in those old TV shows. And where was Dad, and what about Christmas and the trip to Grandma’s and soccer practice with Justin, Mr Michelson’s son, for Christ’s sake? And then there was what happened to Abbie. Her parents had got divorced – a right old bloody stink-up, she’d called it.
Gridding the layers
If we place each unfolding layer of our story in a grid, we can see how much harder the reader has to work to get from start to finish with the told narrative – 23 layers as opposed to 10 with the shown alternative.
Layers of doing being done: Putting the reader on pause
In the Told column of the grid, notice how much doing being done there is: heard, felt, wondered, saw, thought. Each of those words adds a new layer that puts the reader on pause.
Instead of seeing a bed (and doing it with Joe because he’s the viewpoint character), we see Joe seeing a bed. We’re not focused first and foremost on the bed, but on Joe doing seeing.
That extra layer increases narrative distance, unless that’s the effect you want to achieve, because it’s like a tap on the shoulder, telling us what to do. It screams: Reader, you’re not in this world; you’re just holding a book.
Limited narrative viewpoint and the reader
When writers choose a limited viewpoint, the reader’s already in the perfect position to know ...
Shown narratives respect this – it’s storytelling. Told narratives overplay it – it’s storytelling-telling!
If you think you might be storytelling-telling, try gridding a section of narrative to identify each layer. Then recast to tighten up the prose. Chances are, it’ll be more immediate and immersive.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, connect via Facebook and LinkedIn, and check out her books and courses.
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