Posts Tagged ‘narration’

I have not been blogging much in the last week or so, though I’ve read just about every blog post that shows up in my inbox. This is partly because I haven’t had anything I’ve felt passionate enough to blog about and because of time constraints, but it’s mostly because of the story I’ve been working on lately. You see, this story is challenging me as a writer, and the challenge has me engrossed, more so than a test engrosses Hermione Granger around exam time (oh Harry Potter, you always give me something when I ask). It’s so engrossing, that it’s taking up all my creative energies, leaving me unable to blog or even come up with new ideas for stories (though I already have more ideas than I know what to do with, so that’s not a huge problem).

Some of you may remember that I started working on a story I thought might become a novelette or novella in between drafts of Rose back in October or November. After finishing the short story Do-Over the other day, I started working on this story again, and as I said, it’s been challenging. On a number of levels, actually: for one thing, there’s an anthology I’ve heard about that’s looking for stories of a certain word length, so I’m trying to write this story to keep it within the anthology’s word limits. Yeah, I know I should let the story be whatever length it’s meant to be, but after expanding Rose to twice its word length last year because it was suggested I do just that, I feel like I can aim for a certain word count and still get a good story out of it.

Another reason it’s challenging is because of the narrator. Like Rose, I’m telling this story through the eyes of a first-person narrator, which means I’m reliant on her as a narrator to tell the story and to create a good horror ambiance. But at the same time, she’s got a history, a personality, and observations that she’s putting into her story. It’s less like I’m writing the story and I’m channeling my narrator as she’s telling the story, though I do have the power to go in and make changes as needed. And creating that horror ambiance while balancing my narrator’s voice and what she feels is necessary to put into her story, such as her interactions with her husband, isn’t that easy.

Did I mention that this story also takes place over thirty years before I was born, in a state I’ve only visited once? Well, it does, so in addition to being a horror story, it’s also historical fiction, and I’m working hard to recreate an age and place I’ve never experienced, with all the fashions, technology, and attitudes in place. It’s a lot of work, to say the least.

And on top of that, you have all the normal challenges of storytelling: making a story interesting, pacing, showing vs. telling, dialogue, word choice, et cetera, et cetera. I’ve got my work cut out for me.

But honestly, I think it’s all worth it. Because in my experience, if a novel challenges the writer, it’s going to be a better story in the end. Look at Rose: that novel challenged me every time I worked on it. The first draft alone, I had to go back to the very beginning and start over again because I had to totally reroute the path the story was taking. During the third draft, I added forty-thousand words, a whole new plot line, and even a character or two just to make the story not only longer, but better. And in the end, I created one hell of a story that I feel has a great chance of publication. Hopefully with this story I can get a similar outcome.

Stories can be challenging to write sometimes. It may be difficult to get the words on the page, but in the end, with a lot of work, I think it can lead to a really compelling story. And I’m looking forward to seeing if, after a lot of blood, sweat and tears, I can wrangle out a good story here.

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I’ve two short stories, one that has had two drafts already and another that I’m trying to get through the last act of. Both stories involve the supernatural, and both focus on two characters, a man and a girl (though in each story the relationship dynamic is quite different). As I’m thinking of the different things I could do with each story in order to improve it, one thing comes to mind for both of them and it’s really got me thinking about the possibilities.

One story is State Fair, which I’ve mentioned here before and is about fairgrounds haunted by ghosts. The other is called Streghe (that’s Italian for “Witches”) and is based off a witch mythology I learned about in my History of Witchcraft (that class is already pretty useful). At their current stages, both short stories are told mostly from the male character’s point of view. So I’m thinking to myself, one of the ways to improve them might be to tell part of the story from the female character’s point of view.

Two narrators in a single story isn’t unusual. I’ve read a couple of well-known short stories that were told in this manner, one of which immediately comes to mind is The Falls by George Saunders (boy, is that one a trip). And the Bartimaeus books, which I loved as a kid, often had two to four narrators, depending on which book you were reading. And most of my novels are told from multiple points of views (and people tend to like those). So I’m wondering why I haven’t tried that with my short stories. Heck, I’m wondering why I haven’t tried it with either of these short stories. I mean, State Fair‘s main character spends most of the story following a girl named Lizzy around the park, so why did I not get her POV on being followed around? And the events of Streghe happen as much as to my young female protagonist Sarah as it does to my nasty male antagonist Tom. Not sure why I’m saving her POV to the end.

Well, it’s something I’ll definitely try. Since I’m still working on the first draft of Streghe, I’ll see about getting Sarah’s POV in this thing, maybe heighten the mystery element of the story by including her. When I get around to another edit of State Fair, I’ll see where where I can put Lizzy’s point of view. It’d be interesting to see how she reacts to a ghost following her around.

But what do you guys think? Am I onto something? Do you use multiple narrators in your short stories? And if so, how does it usually work out for you? Let me know, I’d love to discuss.

Every now and then I look to do a post musing on the mechanics or subtleties of writing fiction, and today is one of those days. And as you can tell from the title of this post, I want to talk about unreliable narrators, those strange voices in the books we read (and occasionally in the films and TV shows we watch) whom we can’t always trust.

According to that awesome source of usually-factual info that is Wikipedia,¬†an unreliable narrator is a narrator, usually in some medium of fiction or another, whose veracity has been called into question. Usually this happens very early in the story, where the narrator may make a plainly false or delusional claim, or it may happen elsewhere in the story, perhaps near the end where a twist in the story turns everything we thought we knew upside down or slowly through hints that are given to us in the narration. Stories with unreliable narrators can feature a single narrator, or multiple narrators giving their own versions of events, or even a supporting or side character who tells a story in such a way that we question whether or not they’]re being entirely truthful about what happened.

A great example of an unreliable narrator is Patrick Bateman from the novel American Psycho. As a man suffering from psychoses and the occasional hallucinations, Bateman makes a great unreliable narrator. Other examples include Nell from Wuthering Heights, most of the characters from the Japanese movie Rashomon, and Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother (according to show creator Craig Thomas, anyway). Oh, and any story that has children narrating it could possibly have unreliable narrators, because kids sometimes remember things incorrectly.

(If you want to think about it though, every one is an unreliable narrator, because no matter how they see events, they are biased, they may mis-remember details, and they may cover things up in order to make themselves look good or to hide their own guilt. But let’s not get too philosophical about this. Otherwise we’ll be here all evening)

One of the characters in my thesis project, the antagonist, is an unreliable narrator. Because of his mental problems and his infatuation with protagonist Rose, he sees things through a very certain light, so when he tells a story it is often through that lens, which probably won’t reflect reality too well. As I’ve never written a story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator, so exploring the device through this character should be interesting. (Or have I used unreliable narrators before? Technically, any time I tell a story from the protagonist’s first-person point of view, it could be construed as unreliable, but i’m not sure if it counts. Oh darn it! Now I’m an unreliable narrator of my own writing career!)

But why are unreliable narrators used so much? And why do they appeal to readers and writers alike? It’s a very difficult question, and I’m not sure I have an answer. Perhaps for writers, it’s the chance to tell a warped version of events. When we tell a story, especially through the lens of an omniscient or almost-omniscient third-person narrator, it’s almost expected that the story being told is what actually happens, one-hundred-and-ten percent factual. Even when the story is limited to the viewpoint of a single character, that third-person narrator’s portrayal of events is assumed to be accurate. Heck, even when we read a novel told in the first-person, we tend to see the depiction of what happens as true. Especially if we like the character.

An unreliable narrator allows the writer to break from that, to tell a story that might not be accurate, and that the reader and maybe even the writer will have to guess how true the story is or how much we can trust the narrator to tell the truth. In fact, maybe that’s what the reader gets from these sort of storytellers: they have to figure out how trustworthy the storyteller is, or where the line between truth and the storyteller’s own delusions or beliefs is laid down. It’s like solving a mystery or a puzzle, in a way, and the only way to really solve it is to read on until you finish the story. And even then, you might not be able to tell how reliable the narrator is (which is why there are e-forums to discuss these issues).

In any case, I’m going to enjoy exploring the antagonist’s own unreliable stories and seeing how much we can or should believe him. It’ll make for an interesting discussion point when talking about my thesis with my adviser during the next semester.

What do you think of unreliable narrators?

Have you ever used them in your own writing? How did it go?