Tag Archive | narrative

A Good Narrative

Narrative is one of those flexible words. The basic meaning is the same as a story, but narrative can be use as a noun or as an adjective. it is an account of events, experiences and details. But as an adjective, narrative describes the style of the story being told. A good narrative means in part a good style in the story and style matters.

I’m teaching my workshop on showing and telling in February for Outreach International Writers, and I’ve also been reading The Paper Magician, which is a wonderful book to illustrate great narrative, which relies on really excellent telling mixed with showing. That’s right–it’s not only show your characters to the reader.

Now, too much narrative can indeed slow the pace of any story–but it is also useful to set the pace. That includes the details that make up the style. Style is partly a matter of work choice, and also how do you structure your sentences, and how do the paragraphs connect and flow. What are the modifiers you use–are they fresh and specific? Do you vary sentence structure, using shorter sentences to speed action and longer to slow the reader? What words to you choose to set the mood for not just the scene but the entire story? All these details matter.

You may not be too concerned with style when you are just trying to get words on the page and get started, but it’s something to look at as you edit and revise. The style of the story is what pulls in a reader–this is your writer’s voice.

There is a danger here–too much style can become a burden to the reader. This is where the writing gets “writerly”–the writer is drunk on words and this can trip up readers, throwing the reader out of the story. Sometimes the right word is an unusual word–sometimes the unusual word is just the writer getting in the way of the story. This is where the phrase “kill your darlings” can be helpful. It’s a lot like choosing the style of your clothes. That extra watch or scarf or colorful hat may be the right touch–or it may just be one step too far over the edge. But we are back to style. There are writers who can take things far too far and still make it work.

Narrative is all about the details. Is the sky black or inky? Or purple edged? Or pale blue-white, dotted with fluffs of gray? Those are the details that put the reader into the world, and that’s all about telling the reader those exact details. Don’t forget to layer specific details that weave into the style–the sense of smell is one of the strongest to evoke an emotion. Sounds can also act to bring in mood and emotion onto the page. We all have good and bad connotations associated with sounds. Taste and touch are also often neglected as “telling” details that help put the reader into the world. Smells can connect to a taste, bringing in a a bitter taste or a anticipating taste of something delicious. Touch puts the reader in touch with the world–the air, the weather, the heat, the chill, and all the reactions to the setting.

Again, this goes back to style. Some writers have a sparse style–the focus is more on dialogue and action and more on showing. Others have a talent with description and can weave a spell that keeps the reader going. Part of this is about the genre of the work Stories set outside the normal world tend to need more details–and often a slower pace that appeals to the reader–to bring the reader into the world. While action-based stories usually put the action first. It’s all about knowing what is your writing style, and using what you’re good at.

That all starts with being able to know how to show the character to the reader, but also knowing how to use great telling to pull the reader into the fictional world. More on that in February.

Do More With Descriptions

Descriptions and narrative can be a wonderful tool for a writer. It is often overlooked by beginning writers—or those still learning their craft—in favor of going for scene after scene after scene. We’re all influenced by both the fast pace of modern life and the fast pace of movies and TV, but stories in print have advantages that the screen lacks. What can great description do for your stories?

"Use the right word, not its second cousin." -- Mark Twain

Set the World—Vivid, specific descriptions put the reader into the world you build. While you may be able to assume much if you’re writing in the modern world, you may still have unique places you want to bring to life. Don’t assume the reader knows what your fictional seaside small town looks like, or what the big city feels like—you may have readers who have never been and want to be transported. In a historical or fantasy setting, you have to build the world for the reader, and you don’t just want the reader to “see” the world, but to experience the sounds, the smells, to feel the weather, to have the touch of the wind on their skin and all of this takes vivid details. You want to layer in sensations for the characters, so they become the stand-in for the reader in that world.

Reveal Your Characters—What a character notices tells the reader a lot about that character. Is your main character a baker, and smells really matter? Does your character have an artistic bent and colors stand out right away? Is your character someone who pays a lot of attention to sounds, or to the clothes of others, or to cars, or to the status of others? Figure that out and weave that in. Maybe your main character is a little bit of a snob and the frayed cuff of a coat sleeve stands out. Or maybe your main character notices the laugh lines around a woman’s face before she sees the diamond and sapphire necklace around that woman’s neck. Again, vivid specific details matter the most. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader, but you want the right description to pull the reader into your character’s thoughts.

Control Pacing—A story can move too fast. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, the action just becomes action without any emotional stake in the outcome. The reader also can use a breather between too much action—you can wear a reader out if it’s just one thing after another with no relief. Descriptions can help you slow the pace as much as you need by bringing in a change of scene where descriptions matter to put the reader into a time and place. It can help you slow the pace between scenes to give the main character time to regroup and make new plans. It can also help you weave in backstory.

Set the Mood—A great story has a theme and it has a tone or mood. Descriptions are a huge part of this, ranging from the storm battered coast with a leaden sky and a crumbling castle outlined in a brief flash of lightning to the rolling, endless prairie grass dancing in a breeze scented by a cascade of wildflowers that dot the landscape, to the crowded streets of a city with gleaming skyscrapers and the rush of buses and taxies and the blare of sirens in the background. The details you weave in can set an ominous mood or a romantic one, or can increase tension or layer in the details that make the reader want to cozy up on the couch with a tea and dive into your world. We are back again to needing vivid specific detail. If you don’t know your world you must invent or you must research so that you can bring this world to life. You need to know not just the sights, but the sounds, the aromas, the feel of the place.

Is a Vital Part of Voice—A writer’s voice is one of the most powerful tools to hook a reader into wanting more of your stories. You have to discover your voice and develop it—writing is a craft to learn, and then can become an art to practice. Is your voice best suited to sly comedy or to tense drama? Look at your bookshelf for what attracts you most. Do you have a voice better suited to the modern world or to a historical era? Is your voice best for the old west or for a pirate’s adventure on the high seas? Every writer has to figure this out, and then use description as part of that voice. This is how you phrase things, how you view the world, how your characters view the world. Do not be afraid if your voice works better with omniscient viewpoint instead of third person, or go for first person if that’s the voice where you feel comfortable. Beware following trends—if a voice isn’t right for you that story’s not going to work.

Description takes all your skill as a writer to make the writing disappear for the reader, to bring the reader into your fictional world and show the reader this world through your characters’ eyes and through the vivid details that you weave into your story. You have to choose the right descriptions for the place and time—not just the era, but the month, the week, the day, the hour. Vivid, specific description—not just yellow, but vibrant lemon—make the world come to life for the reader, and that’s one step closer to making your characters come to life.

It’s About Craft – Showing More, Telling Better

I’m teaching my Show & Tell Workshop for OCC Romance Writers this March. It’s a workshop with a lot of hands-on, because I believe that learning to show more and tell better is a vital part of any writer’s craft.

Now, I know the advice is usually “show, don’t tell”. However, narrative has it’s place in fiction. Writers need to know when to show more, and how to make the telling (or narrative) compelling. Some tips for writers;

1 – Show more by eliminating dialogue tags that tell everything. This means no more tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are telling the reader an emotion. You want to show how a character expresses emotion–readers want to see the characters in action.

Replace every telling dialogue tag with an action that better shows the character expressing an emotion. To do this, you must know your characters. How does your character pout? Does she stick out her lower lip, or bat her eyelashes? Does she fold her arm, or twirl a curl around her finger? How does your character leer? Does he overdo it, making it into a joke, or does his stare strip a woman bare? Show the emotion with actions.

2 – Show more, also, by eliminating places that simply tell the reader information. This is where you the author slip in to add a note.

For example, maybe you want to say something about a man’s grin, that it’s infectious, so you write: His grin widened and Sally found it infectious, so she smiled back.

This is you, the writer, are telling the reader the exact information instead of showing and letting the reader figure things out. Again, you have to know your characters—and this is where you show the grin being infectious, as in: His grin widened. Sally’s lips twitched, lifted; laughter rose like a bubble in her chest. Now you are showing Sally smiling back instead of telling the reader.

3 – Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blond, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of showing the enmity between these women. This is where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for information that shows these two women being bitchy with each other.

4 – Do remember to show; get the emotion onto the page. A lot of novice writers forget about this vital part of the story. This is where you’ve got action, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about all that action.

For example, maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story has jumped out to save a small boy from being hit by a car. She jumps out, grabs the boy. Great stuff. But…what’s she feeling? Is she frightened? Amped up on adrenaline? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go into the street after his baseball? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops should show emotion?

Again, you have to know your characters—and you have to give your readers a chance to get to know your characters, too, by putting in those emotions. Once you’ve finished the book (or any scene) go back and look to see if you wove in all those emotional reactions—or did you get just the action?

5 – If you show, don’t tell. Repetition shows insecurity—it means you are the master of your story. Trust the reader to get the information you’ve shown. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. Trust your readers to get what the actions mean.

6 – Cut the clichés. We’re back to needing to know your characters—and needing to know them as unique individuals who do not have cliché actions and reactions. You want to show who your characters are by having them reveal their personalities with their actions and reaction—if you go for cliché actions, the characters become walking clichés, too.

This means no stalking into the room like a panther. No gazing into a mirror and doing an inventory of hair, eyes, and the standard description. No women (or men) who had their hearts broken once and so that person has vowed never to love again.

7 – Show your character in action right away. This is vital. If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super right off. This is why a crazy cop has to do something crazy right off so that everyone “gets” this is one crazy dude.

Start off by showing your character’s strengths and weaknesses right away—get those onto the page. It’s no good saying your hero is a healer—you have to have the guy heal someone. And it’s no good saying the healing costs him some of his own life each time—you have to show him aging or losing strength each time he heals.

8 – Use narrative to slow the pace. Telling will slow the pace of any story, so it can be used to help you transition the reader into a new scene, or to convey passage of time, or it can be used to set a mood.

9 – Revise, revise, revise. Remember that if anything that is first draft (and sometimes even second) may be rough, and will lean on your own habits. Do you habitually overwrite–that means you need to cut. Or do you habitually underwrite–that means you need to flesh out your scenes.

10 – To quote Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug in a jar.” This goes back to editing your work, and in particular your narrative passages. Is every word the right word? The right mood? The right meaning? And, yes, even the right spelling. Read your work aloud to catch errors, places where a reader will trip up, and just awkward spots.

More tips and tricks in the workshop, but these ten will help bump up your writing.

The Art of Narrative

showandtellI’m about to do my Show & Tell Workshop online for OCC this May, and I always put in a pitch not just to show more, but to tell better.

Narrative seems to have gone out of fashion. It doesn’t seem to be taught, and no one seems to really get what it is. So let’s make it easy.

Merriam-Webster gives us the root for narrative/narrating as the “Latin narratus, past participle of narrare, from Latin gnarus knowing; akin to Latin gnoscere, noscere to know.”

This means it’s basically the author telling the reader the information the author knows, which the reader also needs to know. And now you ask, what does the reader need to know, and when does the reader need it, and how much does the reader need. This is where narrative becomes an art.

Look at this passage from Delta of Venus by Anais Nin:

They fell on this, the three bodies in accord, moving against each other to feel breast against breast and belly against belly. They ceased to be three bodies. They became all mouths and fingers and tongues and senses. Their mouths sought another mouth, a nipple, a clitoris. They lay entangled, moving very slowly. They kissed until the kissing became a torture and the body grew restless. Their hands always found yielding flesh, an opening. The fur they lay on gave off an animal odor, which mingled with the odors of sex…

That’s beautiful, evocative writing–and it’s all narrative telling. But it works!

Or from the Dubliners by James Joyce:

Then late one night as he was undressing for bed she had tapped at his door, timidly. She wanted to relight her candle at his for hers had been blown out by gust. It was her bath night. She wore a loose open combing-jacket of printed flannel. Her white instep shone in the opening of her furry slippers and the blood glowed warmly behind her perfumed skin. From her hands and wrists too as she lit and steadied her candle a faint perfume arose.

Now, I’m not saying you have to strive for great art–although that’s not a bad goal. But narrative can be some of the most beautiful writing you’ll ever do. The trick here is when do you use narrative, and do you make it wonderful? Or do you slap down descriptions to hurry forward in the story, terrified that your pace is flagging?

I read too many manuscripts these days from young writers (and I mean by writing age, not their real age) which seem rushed. They  hurry into scenes without setting up the world and the time and the true pace of the story.

Showing can be a great too–but so can  narrative. Don’t neglect this invaluable tool! And to learn more about how to do this, check out the workshop. We’ll be doing a lot of hands-on work.