Five clever narrative techniques you should think twice before using
Why do you want to write? Is it to tell a story, or to get to know a character or visit a place you glimpse in your mind? Then go, sit down, write. But if you write because you want to be a famous writer and have famous critics debate you, it’s just possible you’re not doing the literary world any favors. And it’s also just possible you’re thinking about technique more than about character and story, and that’s a bad sign too. And if that’s the case, then I would like to persuade you to take up one of our many fine video games rather than novel-writing.
The following are five techniques that sometimes are found in good novels, but which, in my humble opinion, should be used only if the story itself seems to require them. Otherwise they are showy and distracting and they will drive readers away. They’ll certainly drive me away, anyway.
- Multiple Viewpoints. It worked for The Odyssey; it worked for The Lord of the Rings; why can’t it work for my new “The War of the Dragon Thrones” trilogy? Because Homer and Tolkien were geniuses and you and your readers are not. Or perhaps you are a genius, but it’s possible to outsmart your readers, and even if you’re writing a mystery novel, outsmarting your readers is not that smart.
Besides, Tolkien and Homer tended to stick with a particular main character for chapters or books at a time, rather than (a la The Cellist of Sarajevo) changing viewpoints every ten pages. Readers get whiplash.
How bad could this be? Isn’t variety the spice of life? Well, suppose you have four main characters, and each one is cleverly associated with a House, a Weapon and an Element (so Bardorph has the Fire Sword of the Bladorghash, Shalyna bears the Ocean Goblet of the Maraffynn and so on). But Shalyna is witty, fun and sexy, while Bardolph is a big dumb dork. Now I happen to have picked up the first volume of your trilogy. I get through Bardolph’s first appearance, and then I meet Shalyna. I fall in love with her sarcasm, her style, her questionable morals, her hard-boiled attitude. I float on through Joram of the Earth Monks and Yahayisa of the Winds, and there’s Bardolph again. Do I have to…? Ugh. I skim his pages, then go through Shalyna again and when she gives way to the boring, pedantic, overly moral Joram, I think, either I am going to read exactly 25% of the rest of the book, or, better, I’ll reread the Harry Potters and get 4,200 solid pages of the sweet kid with the lightning bolt scar.
Rotating main characters, especially in large numbers, strike me as a sign of a tour-de-force: the author is going to show off. Unless the story itself forces you to do it (as in Lord of the Rings and The Odyssey) or you really are good at character (like Elmore Leonard in Get Shorty), you should definitely keep it simple and stay close to the one character you and your readers can really trust.
- Chronological Shiftiness. It’s one thing to have a character interrupt the main line of the story to tell us about something that happened many years ago. It’s another for your vampire to fall asleep in 1933 and wake up feeling two hundred years younger, in 1733. Even that can be followed, sort of, but it’s far too clever and stylish (and confusing to the poor reader) to keep switching back and forth between a flapper in the 1920s, her granddaughter in the 1990s, and her grandmother in the Civil War Era. Just to make it worse, why not have all of them be first person narrators? I bet you’re going to reassure the reader by stacking each time period with stereotypes and clichés.
I want to make clear that I’m not talking about flashbacks. But, now that you bring them up… let’s accept that the flashback, where the reader hears some sort of sound effect and then finds herself twenty years in the past, looking at the main character as a child, can be disorienting too. In many stories (from The Great Gatsby to Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely to Proust to Tolkien) the past is told as a story within the narrative rather than as a chronological flashback. For example, Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings tells the story of the Ring in an extended quotation, interspersed with questions from Frodo. It’s not confusing even though it stretches the hitherto rather Jane Austen-ish Fellowship of the Ring thousands of years into the past and introduces characters we’ve never heard of and won’t ever meet: the quotation, which itself might create confusion, clarifies for the reader that the old wizard is telling a story. And when J. K. Rowling engages in flashback late in the Harry Potter novels, it’s through the (literal) device of the pensieve, and any disorientation is intentional and purposeful.
- Unreliable Narrators. This too is one of those things that great writers can get away with, and it does not follow logically that you need to do it in order to establish to the reader that you are great. English majors write long papers and publish journal articles debating whether Ishmael in Moby Dick or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is an unreliable narrator. I take it as an axiom that one does not write in order to give English majors something to debate.
The narrator, especially in a true first-person narration, is the reader’s chief source of information on the story. And the primary aim of most writers is to tell a story. (When you find that your aim is to amaze and awe the reader rather than to tell a story, you have probably lost your reader.) Unreliable narration can create great tension in the reader’s mind, but it’s not surprising that most successful writers, even those (like Lovecraft or Hammett) who use first person a lot, stay away from unreliability. It puts a layer of doubt between the reader and the story, and simultaneously makes the reader suspicious of the main character, and when story and character are compromised, what does the reader have left? Your amazing genius?
- Visits to the Bad Guy’s Brain. Why not let the Devil have his due? Why not give the villain a chance to make his point? Because we don’t like the villain, schmuck.
What’s the worst that could happen? Well, you could wind up like Milton. Do not get me wrong. I actually liked Paradise Lost, at least on multiple skims. But Milton surely never meant anyone to think Satan was a sympathetic character.
Long ago I picked up the first of the Aurian novels (by Maggie Furey). I fell hard for Aurian, who was (get this) an orphan left behind by the deaths of her parents, who were both wizards. She gets sent (really, this is before Harry Potter) to the college of wizards. The college of wizards has exactly seven actual wizards, not a sustainable population, and they keep getting snuffed. There’s an especially bad guy, Miathan, a sort of evil Gandalf, and we spend many awful pages in his brain. He is awful, and being in his brain is icky, like swimming in earthworms. The only thing that got this reader through was the need to know how Aurian escapes all the traps he and others set for her. And I didn’t actually need to know what the traps were before she ran into them.
- A Game of Categories. Let me go back to my example with Bardolph the Boring. Some fantasy writers (and Aurian’s Maggie Furey is an example of this) feel they have to divide the world into four kingdoms, each of which has its own element (Air, Water, Fire, manganese), each of which has its own item (The Sword of Fire, the Magic Water Bottle, the Air Conditioner of Air, the Manganese Paperweight) and its own color (Gold, Blue, Light Blue, and whatever color manganese is) and its own God and Goddess and its own Demon Realm and…
It’s too neat by half, and it’s reductive. The real world isn’t that simple, or the U. S. population would be 25% Black, 25% Latino, 25% White and 25% Asian. (And 25% Native American, etc.) A scheme like this makes for an easy structure for the writer, but it doesn’t do the reader any favors: we have to be told a lot more in order to understand the four to the fourth ways each category responds to each other one, and when we’ve been told that, we still haven’t been given much, really, on how actual individuals relate.
Successful fantasy writers do sometimes skirt these issues. Rowling has four houses in Hogwarts, and each one supposedly has its particular qualities, but she makes sure the actual characters are much flowier than their houses are. Harry, we’re told, could as easily have been a Slytherin. Perhaps the only reason Hermione wasn’t a Ravenclaw was that she was brave and true; but Cedric was also brave and true. Neville doesn’t seem a Gryffindor at all; of course we are told that by the end he proves himself worthy of his house and sword and all, but he would at most done it slightly differently as a Hufflepuff. Snape is a Slytherin through and through, except that he isn’t really, he’s very Gryffinclaw.
Similarly, Tolkien gives us Elves and Dwarves and tells us that they harbor ancient resentments against one another, but that’s only to set off the fact that in the end the Dwarves and the Elves settle their differences. Balin and company at the end of The Hobbit seem to have made arrangements with the wood elves; Gimli and Legolas cement a fast friendship; Gimli falls head over heels for Galadriel, who treats the Dwarves with honor. The supposed category divide is shown to be easily crossed.
That’s my rant for today. I’m just trying to improve what I have to read, and it’s all subjective anyway. Your thoughts?