Posts Tagged narrator
Daisy Hickman from SunnyRoomStudio has sent this question. ‘How soon, when writing in first person, does the story need to reveal the full name of the protagonist? And how do I weave it in? It always feels awkward.’
Slipping in your first-person narrator’s name is a small matter but often feels awkward. It’s logically unnecessary, since the narrator is talking to the reader directly. Of course, naming shouldn’t look like a piece of explanation for its own sake, the dreaded exposition. So writers can tie themselves in knots bringing in other characters who will intrude with a plausible reason to utter their name.
Dickens and du Maurier
Here’s how Charles Dickens handles naming in Great Expectations:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
This is the opening paragraph of the entire novel. No messing there. But actually, Dickens has another reason for giving us his MC’s name so early. For much of the book Pip isn’t very likable, but every time we see the name Pip used later on, we are reminded of his child self.
At the other end of the naming spectrum is Daphne Du Maurier’s narrator in Rebecca. She doesn’t have a name at all until she marries Max and becomes Mrs de Winter. This is logical because until she marries she is a paid companion, with no status and nothing of her own and no one ever uses her name. It is also resonant– the girl has no identity, to herself or to the rest of society, until she becomes Mrs De Winter. And of course she feels like she is an impostor… I could go on.
Dickens had a good reason for giving us Pip’s name at the very start. And Du Maurier had a good one for not giving a name at all. So the reader isn’t going to feel lost or annoyed if the protagonist’s name isn’t revealed for quite some time.
Names in a first-person narrative are usually pretty peripheral anyway, unlike third person, where the name can be a profound symbol. You can get interested in a first-person character without knowing their name. We do it all the time in real life.
A terrible memory for names
How many times do you hear people say they don’t have a good memory for names? When we first meet people, we remember them more by what we connected or disagreed over. I have a friend who I first met when she was crazy for a handsome Italian guy she worked with. It was a few weeks before her name was ingrained in my brain, but I remembered every detail of her romantic plight effortlessly – and always will, even though they have married, had a daughter and divorced.
Your first connection with someone who talks to you as ‘I’ has little to do with a name. (Usually. Except for Pip. And Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who has chosen a symbolic name that tells us something about his character.)
Also, to an extent, you have a safety net. Where is the first place a reader looks once they’re enticed by your title or cover? The blurb. Most blurbs – or the Amazon version – slip in the protagonist’s name anyway. If the reader really starts to feel rudderless, they can look there. (This may seem like a cheat but it’s not a bad idea to write with an awareness of what is on the blurb. Lionel Shriver was spurred to find an extra twist in We Need To Talk About Kevin because she knew the flap copy would give away the novel’s main event. But I digress.)
- Don’t be in a panic to slip the name in. It takes as long as it takes.
- If you have a brilliant reason for doing it at the beginning, like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick, then do it. If it doesn’t naturally arise until later, don’t fret – it’s not the most important thing the reader wants to know.
- Don’t try to shoehorn in a tired scene where the character picks up the morning post and sighs that someone has misspelled their name.
- As with all kinds of back story, see if you can use the name-revealing for something else as well.
Thank you, Daisy, for a great question, and Thunderchild7 on Flickr for the picture. Let’s share some examples: first-person introductions that work brilliantly – and ones that make you cringe
Do you see your novel as a movie in your head? That’s great for vivid storytelling – but you might be making these common mistakes.
We often learn storytelling techniques as much from movies as from reading. But novel-writing has its own laws of physics, as every medium does. Here are three techniques that work well in movie storytelling but not in prose.
1 Scenes with a lot of characters at once
In a movie you can put as many people as you like in a scene – because we can see them. But in a novel, that’s hard to manage. You have to keep them alive in the action and so you are constantly reminding the reader that they are there – fidgeting, scratching their nose or fiddling with their cup of tea. It’s cumbersome and interrupts the flow.
Some writers make it policy never to have more than three people in a scene. Others say it should only be two. One of my ghosting projects was an adventure series with five main characters. I split them into pairs as much as possible. It led to more intimate scenes, with better conflicts and development.
Sometimes, an ensemble scene is unavoidable – in which case it’s better to put it late on when the reader is well acquainted with the characters and what matters to them. Probably the most disastrous place to put an ensemble scene is at the opening.
Yes, I know Quentin Tarantino did precisely this in the opening of Reservoir Dogs. I know it only too well. I’ve seen so many novels begin with a large bunch of characters chit-chatting and revealing snippets about themselves and their world through oblique dialogue – and instead creating a confusing mess.
Yes, I confess I came out of Reservoir Dogs wanting to whack more panache into my writing. But its opening doesn’t work in a novel.
2 Short scenes that chop around a lot
Another filmic technique that I see mistakenly applied to novels is short scenes that jump around. In fact, I’m guilty of this myself. Almost the first novel I was commissioned to write featured a terrorist taking a bunch of hostages to a plane, watched on CCTV by their friends. I saw it all in my head and wrote very short scenes that intercut – the hostages, then the friends watching with bated breath, then back to the hostage. It was pacy and tense. But when I revised it I realized it was a nightmare to read – because I’d written a screenplay, not a novel.
In a novel the reader has to load each scene in their head – where it is, who’s there, what they’re doing. All the things that come over at a glance on a movie screen. In a movie you can hop back and forth all you want. In a novel, if you do it too much it becomes irritating. Think of it as like trying to access a web page on old-fashioned dial-up. If you chop around scenes, the reload time is longer.
3 Point of view
In a film, the audience is a passive observer seeing from the outside. The camera acts as a narrator, drawing our attention to things. It can show us things outside the characters’ usual point of view – perhaps warning that the heroine has left her phone on the kitchen table. In a novel, if you haven’t set up a narrator who can do dramatic irony (‘Little did he know…’), then you can’t show it or the reader will feel something is off.
If what you’re doing with your novel is writing a description of the movie on the page –
a – the scenes might not work as you expect, and
b – you’re missing most of what prose can deliver.
Yes, in the novel you have only words, one after the other. This makes movies – with music and visuals – like broadband and the novel like dial-up – you can’t have too many streams of input at one time.
But these limitations don’t make the novel inferior. They don’t mean you can’t have complexity. Quite the opposite.
Novels go deeper than films; they are less literal too. A novel about scientists trying to control the weather, for example, can also make you feel it’s about humanity wrestling with randomness in their lives. Novels set the story going inside you rather than show it to you finished. This makes prose an incredibly powerful medium. Novels can take you right inside what people are feeling in a way that movies can’t.
I prefer that, which is why prose is my favourite storytelling medium.
I assume you prefer prose, or you wouldn’t be here. Let’s discuss some story techniques that work better in prose! And techniques that are better for movies…
If your book is about a relationship (and most are in some way), you often like to explain how it started. But if the characters’ first encounter was average and unremarkable, how do you write it? The kind where there are no bells and whistles, fights or thunderbolts – where the two people don’t take any special notice of each other?
In real life, many of our friendships may have started with encounters that are unmemorable. I was reading a friend’s novel the other day and she had just this problem. A meeting that isn’t notable in any way, except for being the first time two characters meet. There was some dull chit-chat and it was dead on the page.
So how do you make it interesting? Here are two possibilities.
Maybe you don’t have to make a scene of it. You could do a montage of snapshots to build up a sense of these people being in each other’s lives. ‘They met often at the same parties; coinciding at the fridge for another beer, squashing down the crowded corridor at the same time to get their coats. One rainy evening in November he found her browsing the film books at Foyles.’ A few little encounters, compressed artfully, can add up to a growing connection – while leaving out the dull bits.
Many of us learn our storytelling, consciously or unconsciously, from films – which generally show everything blow by blow. But in prose, the narrator is a versatile lens that can telescope out or zoom in with far more agility. You can describe time in the way it feels internally, capturing how the experience is more accurately than if it was shown literally: ‘There she was in the corner, as she usually was at this time of year. I wondered whether to talk to her, then I thought, no I’ll do it next year.’
Of course, summarizing a scene can be distancing – unless there’s a good reason to. Here, though, it makes the material far more engaging.
Or don’t show the first meeting at all. Yes, if it’s that unremarkable, perhaps you should start with the third meeting: ‘It’s you. I can never remember your name.’ And there you have the beginnings of a fun conversation.
If nothing particularly memorable happens when your characters first meet, then don’t show it. Break out of the step-by-step unfolding and get creative with what you show and the way you show it.
Have you had to solve the ‘unremarkable first meeting’ scenario?