Stenographer Notes or Dusty Diary (Narrative Filter)

 

A comment that slapped me upside the head a year or two ago was around narrative technique, and specifically if a filter was being applied or not. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the source, but it essentially said that a narrator can be one of either two form:

  1. Objective (no filter).

“Just the facts”. Such as a stenographer’s word-for-word typing  of a court proceeding.

Here, the author is trying to describe the action of the character and world as clearly as possible, without distortion, as if there were a video camera recording events. The reader sees facts, or ‘truth’. (I know, truth is subjective, but that’s the point. This style of writing tries to avoid subjectivity.)

You can still have emotion, and even close POV, with this narrative voice, but you are providing information to the reader as accurately as you can, without bias, other than what is clearly identified as the thought of the reader. You can have

‘Jonathan smiled. He was sure that there was a leprechaun at the end of the rainbow, no matter how CNN reported it.’

But you’re less likely to have:

“Susan smirked at Jonathan. She didn’t know the truth, how the rainbow was only anchored to earth by the presence of a leprechaun. Scholars might argue that point later, but those who deny magic have only their limited world views to blame. But I digress. As Jonathan stepped forward…”

In the latter, you have a strong and definitive narrator statement about something that isn’t as clear cut. The narrator is filtering the information and providing you his or her views on it. There is a narrative filter.

  1. Subjective (filter).

“Here’s how you should interpret the facts”. A filter is a decision to tell a story with someone’s bias. A diary, instead of a video camera. Someone’s ‘truth’, as they would remember or experience it.

In this case, the narrator might still be reliable (they’re still telling you the truth as best they can), but with some ‘flavor’ in how they tell it. Or they might be unreliable. They are deliberately misleading you, in how they tell the story. But either way, it should be obvious to the reader that some kind of a filter is being applied. They should ‘hear’ the bias in the writing. Events are being interpreted for them, to an extent that the facts don’t support on their own.

As an aside, a narrative filter can either be using the opinions and ‘voice’ of the point of view (POV) character, or someone else, which is a significant choice to make, but beyond the scope of this post.

Summary:

This clarification of narrative voice (that it can be objective or subjective, a filter of colored glass or a clear window without distortion) may seem obvious, but was an important point for me to think through. If you don’t decide what you want to do on this front, it’s easy to go astray. Plus, it’s also nice to know the range of things that you CAN do! Is your narrator almost non-existent? Is your narrator the character themselves? Or is the narrator someone else, maybe someone with a strong opinion on the story, such as a secondary character? And if you do have a subjective narrative filter, who are they telling this story to? Is it anyone in specific? If you haven’t thought through all these questions, you run a big danger in writing your story. One of the biggest risks in voice is inconsistency, which clearly marks you as an amateur to a publishing professional. So don’t do it!

This is one of these things that is easy to get right if you think about it (or at least avoid getting wrong), and very easy to go wrong if you don’t. Hopefully this post helps!

Best,

Adrian.

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Life is crazy, outside of writing, so you’re getting a repeat image. But I haven’t used it for a while and kind of like it, so there you go. :) Also note that I will be posting on Selah Janel’s website, Come Selahway With Me, in the next couple of days, as part of the ‘Improbable Truth’ Sherlock Holmes’ anthology’s blog tour. Please come and visit! I’ll try to update the link closer to the day. I’ll be talking about Theme and Spiders (very Halloweeny). 😀 Enjoy!

If you interrupt me, you’d better have a BLANK good reason! (Or ‘Dialogue Attribution)

I give and watch presentations on occasion, for my Mathy day job (I was at an industry conference as I wrote this, one I helped organize, in my hotel room late at night, trying to edit a recent manuscript). And it occurred to me that one of the most common problems in conferences or speaking events is that an audience member intrudes themselves on the conversation, unwanted. Usually this type of person likes to hear themselves talk, desperately wants to be the speaker, but wasn’t invited (I’ll leave aside the question of qualified). This type of person thrusts themselves into the lecture anyway, by asking a ten minute question (usually more of a statement of opinion than a question, actually) of a presenter that only has a 60 minute time slot. And that everybody paid to see. Grrr.

So, PLEASE, don’t interrupt unless you have a reason. Don’t speak up unless there’s something that would benefit the audience to clarify, or understand. And even then, do it in as few words as humanly possible. Otherwise, the people around you will get annoyed. Trust me!

And so it is in writing. Specifically, dialogue.

The most effective dialogue are conversational quotes without any attribution or action tags at all. Fast-paced, back and forth, thrust and counter thrust (conversationally). When it works, it’s great. Fast, powerful. Flies off the page.

But, unfortunately, it also often leaves you in white space (see ‘painting the set’).

So, okay. Failing that, you should only ever use ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.

But wait—now you’ve lost the tone of the conversation. Robots talking to each other aren’t so great either. What are the characters thinking, how are they taking these brutal stabs and ripostes (conversationally, again, despite my featured image).

Okay, so failing that, you should only use bare actions and adverbs that ground the characters, and sustain the mood and tone of the conversation (‘painting the set’, once again). Additions which improve the stakes and tension of the scene.

Okay, I think we’re good. So let’s stop there.

But have you noticed the trend of my comments?

The repeated word, you’ll notice, is necessary. Only include something in dialogue attribution when you cause harm by its absence. You don’t want anything that is unnecessary. It slows things down, takes away from the pacing and tension of your story. It annoys the audience.

So as a general rule, if it isn’t doesn’t cause more harm by its absence, than harm from its inclusion, remove it. Consistently.

In other words, when someone’s talking, only interrupt them if you have a damn good reason.

Unless, of course, I’m in the middle of a blog post. Then: SHHH!

:)

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My household has been a bunch of sickies the last couple of weeks. And back and forth to the doctors for the kids on things that I’m hoping are only minorly serious, but still need to explore. So a cut out of an existing image will make do for the featured image (from the Angel and Devil War, which is great for zoom-ins as it is a pretty big original piece). And there’s lots going on at my day job as well, so I’m plodding along with my editing efforts, but at a slower pace than usual, sadly…