Blog by VONNIE DAVIS -- International, Award-Winning Romance Author: Adventurous...Humorous...Amorous.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The New Art of Narration

A friend told me yesterday she was reading Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. I groaned inwardly, remembering that boring book from my sophomore reading class. Yet she was animated as she gushed on about it. I suppose I should revisit it myself.

I do that, you see, judge a book by my immature reaction to it as a teenager. A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, Moby all. Couldn't the teachers have chosen something more spell-binding? Books that contained less narration and more dialogue? Books that drew the reader into the mind of the character?

That's the mind-set of current day novels. We've moved away from long narrations in books. We're told by editors that this is too old-fashioned or literary -- as if being literary is a bad thing.

I grew up on gothic romances where detailed descriptions of rooms and clothing could take up pages. We readers, who figured we'd never have a chance to enter those worlds, devoured every description.

Now, writers tend to focus on dialogue-driven text, with fast pacing and a deep focus on the emotions and thoughts of the point of view character.

Narrative has been defined as information the reader needs to know that helps move the story forward. Back in the day when people had long attention spans, a novelist could take a long time up front giving the reader the history of the character. "Those days are over," claims James Scott Bell in The Art of War for Writers.

"Now you have to give the reader little bits of narrative at a time--not pages, but paragraphs, perhaps a sentence or two woven in with dialogue so that it's well done, not overdone." Narrative, including the backstory Bell speaks of here, must serve a purpose.

Authors struggle to write opening scenes in their novels that move at a brisk pace or delve readers right into the heart of a conflict, emotional or physical. This crucial first scene sets the tone for the reader. "Act first, explain later," Bell so astutely says. Gone are the openings with narrations about the weather or the scenery or the reflections of the character. If we can't hook an agent or editor on our first page, our carefully crafted manuscripts are tossed. Talk about stress levels!

Todays readers often freeze when they see big chunks of narration. They claim it's unfriendly looking. They skim. They yawn. Sometimes they put the book down. The intrepid readers sludge through narrative mud, hoping something interesting will emerge, waiting to return to the action. Which is how I felt reading that long narrative on economic history and policies in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Big yawn here.

Still, we writers must create a balance of narrative and dialogue/active scenes. It's a fine dance and if you have two left feet, like me, it can be daunting, if not painfully awkward. 

Effective narrative...
  • is best in bits, not chunks
  • works best when told from the deep point of view of the character
  • should never stagnate
  • contains sharp imagery and sparkling verbs
  • has varying sentence lengths
  • is essential to the story
  • conveys crucial info the reader needs at that particulat point in the story
  • should be done so well that the reader isn't aware there has been a break in the story
  • must be properly paced so it won't deaden emotional impact, kill tension, or result in the reader taking a nap or abandoning the book.


Rhiannon said...

Great post, Vonnie. It's tough to find the right balance, especially when writing something--like romance--that requires a lot of inner narrative. Sometimes I think this new way of doing things takes some of the intrigue out of a story, but I do like a faster paced story, so there's good and bad.

I really like bullet point number 5, about varying sentence lengths. Sentences flow better and are therefore read faster. That helps a great deal with those unavoidable large chunks of narrative.

Leah St. James said...

I think narrative needs to sound natural too, almost like speech, and varying the sentence length helps to accomplish that.