Welcome to part 2 of the “How to Fix Your Writing” series! In part 1, we talked about tone, its definition and its variations. This week we’ll be taking a look at narration, which is what writers use in order to set their tone and tell their story. How can you decide the best way to narrate your story? Is it going to be first, second or third person? How much is your narrator going to reveal? Are they even going to tell the truth? Let’s figure it out.
The exact use, purpose and definition of narration will fluctuate depending on the medium, but for the sake of this post, narration is defined as the method you choose to tell your story. Now, there are many types of narrators in novels. Most writers will either use a combination of characters, a single protagonist or a detached, all-seeing narration (like third person).
Whose Story is it Anyway?
Picking a character is easy, right? Usually it’s whoever appears in your head first. That’s what I thought at least, until I started working on my own book and realized, four incomplete drafts later, that I was missing something. Actually, I was missing someone. The use of multiple narrators is a growing trend in fiction and one that I highly endorse. Not only does it expand the plot and make it much more intriguing for us as writers, but it sheds so much light on situations and behaviors that readers may have not understood (or even downright hated) otherwise.
When you choose a narrator for your novel, pick someone who has a lot to lose. For example, you wouldn’t want to write a book about a trip around the world and tell it from the perspective of family waiting back home for the traveller to return or a tour guide in a single city. Sure, these people may have their own ideas, but they aren’t relevant to the plot. They don’t have anything to lose by this trip going awry. Instead, you’d want to write from the perspective of the voyager, and perhaps even through the eyes of a travel companion they don’t meet until halfway through the novel. Two narrators whose stories collide and propel a plot forward can make for an exhilarating reading experience.
How to Choose a Narrative Style for Your Book
Your narrative styles are as vast as you can imagine. Although most novels nowadays are written in either first or third person, there are plenty of ways to put a spin on this. You can tell the story over different periods of time. You can have multiple protagonists who each present a different angle – and even conflicting views – of the story. With the right idea and enough practice, you can even write a book in second person that transforms the reader into an active part of the story.
But which one is right for you? In order to choose the right narration style for your novel, ask yourself these questions:
- What drives my story, the plot or the characters?
- How long does the story go on? I.e., does it cover a long period of time or just a few days/weeks?
- Which style am I most comfortable writing it?
- Which narration style do I enjoy reading the most?
Your answers to these questions can help steer you in the right narration style for your work. What drives your story can give you a clearer scope on your book’s scale. If it’s plot-driven, then a “bird’s eye view” from third-person could capture the magnitude of every event while simultaneously focusing on a bigger picture. If your story is more about the people being affected by an event than the event itself, first-person narration can help readers get to know the protagonists on a more personal level and truly connect with them thanks to the “I”.
Ultimately, deciding to go with first or third-person narration will boil down to what narrative style you’re most comfortable writing. I personally enjoy reading first-person more, and that’s what I’ve always instinctively written in. There have been times where I’ve started to describe things in third-person and gone with it, but I was come back to first.
Writing is all about what’s most honest for you. Go with your gut and write what feels right.
Another way to choose a narration style for your book is to just try out different ones. Pick a passage that you really enjoy and write it in first person. Now rewrite it in third. Compare the two and assess which one reads better, as well as which one leaves more room for detail. You may find that your descriptive writing feels like overkill in first person, but it flows perfectly and helps set the scene in third.
You can also take portions from your favorite books and rewrite them into a different narrative style. Reimagine how the author might have described things if they’d chosen to use a third-person style or a different character as narrator.
A Note on Second Person
Some people wonder whether or not a book written in second person is viable in the marketplace. I say absolutely, so long as your plot can account for the approach. I think writing in second person isn’t something you would need to decide. A book that is written with “you” would, in my opinion, come to you naturally. If you have to question whether or not addressing the reader directly and turning them into a character is a good idea, it’s probably not in terms of this specific project.
If you want to use second person in your book at some point for a more personal touch, you could try incorporating letters or other things your character writes to someone while still maintaining a consistent third or first person narration.
One thing readers never question when they start reading a book is whether or not they can trust the narrator. After all, the protagonist isn’t going to lie about the events of their own life, right? Not necessarily. The use of unreliable narrators is not something that should be toyed with lightly, and certainly not used in a plotline where it doesn’t fit. But it can be done and when it’s done right, it can throw a huge twist on your entire book and leave readers questioning everything in the best way.
Using unreliable narrators can create a rich and gripping story, but it can also cause your readers to feel betrayed if done poorly. They key is to do it in small doses. Don’t weave an entire plot on fallacies, but instead focus on omitting certain details or having situations, people and actions distorted by your character’s skewed perception. Going this route, you’ll also need to craft a clever way to make sure that the actual truth is evident to your readers by the end of the book.
Narration Writing Prompts
Write a paragraph or choose one from your current WIP. If you’re writing it from scratch, go with the narration that comes naturally to you. If you’ve chosen a section, rewrite it using the opposite tense (so first-person would become third or vice versa). It’s best to write or choose a portion of text that involves both dialogue and descriptions so you can get a feel for how characters are portrayed in each. You may be surprised to discover new things about your main character when you’re writing about them from the third person, and maybe even more surprised by the thoughts that they have when you try writing them in first.
What narrative style do you like to use in your writing? Do you always write in the same one? Do you use one character or multiple to tell your stories? And have you ever used an unreliable narrator as a plot device?