NARRATIVE STYLE, Part 2
Last week we looked at some advice on writing/style/narrative style from the Greats. And now, a few thoughts from yours truly:
- The importance of Lewis’s point no. 3, write for the ear, cannot be over-emphasized. Always read your story out loud, and listen to yourself. If it doesn’t sound natural coming out of your mouth, it probably won’t seem natural coming out of your character’s mouth or your narrator’s pen, either.
- Lewis’s points nos. 5-7 are crucial too. I can boil them down into one further piece of advice: Concentrate on your verbs. Too many writers think that in order to be descriptive you have to load your sentence up with adverbs and adjectives. Using a few, and choosing them well, as Lewis and Twain advise, is important; but most writers overlook what can be got out of a well-chosen concrete verb. One grows weary of reading student papers in which every quotation is “stated.” People can argue, insist, suggest, note, urge, wonder, complain, discover, protest—the list goes on. Which verb precisely captures the rhetorical stance of the speaker? Give this some actual thought! Don’t always have your characters walk or ride. They can amble, stride, trot, march, gallop, sashay, wander, jog, lope, push, stumble, swagger, etc. Which verb best captures their attitude as well as their gait? If you pick the right one, you won’t need a lot of additional verbiage. Twain’s line about adjectives applies even more here. You get the idea.
3. Don’t get those verbs from the Thesaurus. Well, OK, you can use it to remind yourself of words you already know. But be careful. It may not tell you about connotations you need to know about if you just pick a word because it sounds cool but with which you are not really familiar. You could end up like the Japanese exchange student in my high school. The unfortunate young lady was trying to learn English that way, and so for a while she was going around asking people (including boys) if they would like to have intercourse with her! She just wanted to practice conversation, and could not figure out the reactions she was getting. Ahem.
4. What kind of narrator should you use?
A. Third Person Omniscient is the default setting. This narrator knows everything, including the thoughts in every character’s head. He should normally have a neutral voice. He can have an attitude toward the characters and their story, but his style should not call attention to itself, and he should insert editorial comments on the action rarely and lightly—let the story tell itself. If you have to have your narrator explain its meaning to the readers, you have already failed.
B. First Person narration is useful when you want to have the story be told by one of the characters who is participating in it. He does not have to be the central character; you can get some interesting effects by making someone else your mouthpiece. Be careful not to confuse this technique with the Omniscient Narrator—your character can only see and hear what he can actually see or hear; he cannot know what others are thinking except by inference, the way we all do. (This is very useful if you want to build up to a big surprise ending; it lets you carefully control what we know and what we do not.) One piece of advice: Do not yield to the temptation to use present tense with the First Person narrator (“I do this and then I do that and then I say this, yadayadayada.”) Young Adult writers are addicted to this technique right now because they think it gives the story immediacy; but it does not wear well.
C. If your (First-Person) narrator or some of your characters speak in dialect, you should not try to give a transcription of it. Just suggest it lightly by a word choice, phrase, or spelling here or there, and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. Otherwise, deciphering the text will be too much of a chore. (This is especially important if a First-Person Narrator is speaking in dialect.)
If the person writing your post on style uses terrible visual puns, you have a different problem. ‘Fraid I can’t help you with that one!
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Posted on April 15, 2013, in C. S. Lewis, Donald Williams, Language, Literary Criticism, Shakespeare, Style and Structure and tagged adjectives, description, dialect, narrative style, style, thesaurus, verbs. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.