Thursday, March 12, 2015

Things That I Like: 5 Ways to Handle Narration

A little ways back I wrote an article about the second-person POV. I don’t think that there’s much for me to say on that topic that I haven’t already said, but there are other ways of telling a story, including a few that I haven’t seen taken advantage of very often.
  1. Epistolary stories
I am told that there are three kinds of epistolary story: the monologic, the dialogic, and the polylogic. The first is written by only one character, the second by two, and the third by three or more. According to Wikipedia, “a crucial element in polylogic epistolary novels… is the dramatic device of ‘discrepant awareness’: the simultaneous but separate correspondences of the heroines and the villains creating dramatic tension.”
This, I think, is one of the strengths of the epistolary story. It’s much easier to introduce unreliability in the narrator(s). At least it is easier for the reader to consider and accept the idea. It’s more prominent, that we’re dealing with a person, who has made a recording of some kind, and that both may be fallible.
Another strength of the epistolary story is that it explains its existence. There was a letter, a tape recording, a journal, something that presumably corresponds to an existing artifact. The story does not simply… come into being.
But then, I’m fond of both unreliable narrators and framing devices.
While there are limitations inherent in the epistolary style, there are other possibilities opened up, like using footnotes. Of modern epistolary stories I would propose that House of Leaves is the best example of what can be done with the format, presenting its many layers in such a fashion that you can almost believe that there is truth to it, and the book is held in your hands (or on your screen) at this time because Johnny Truant passed his papers on to a publisher.
A word of warning, however: My editor informs me that epistolary novels are not very popular, and I’m only so fond of them because I’ve stolen some of my literary preferences from dead people.
But on to some other ways of telling a story…
  1. Killing the narrator partway through
Obviously this needs to be set in a story with some kind of fantastic element. Magic realism, at a minimum (although it occurs to me that science fiction could do the job with, for example, personality downloading), if for no other reason than that this idea shifts it into those territories by definition.
See, I’m not saying that the narrator dies, and then you change over to another one. I’m suggesting killing the narrator and then keeping the narration going without skipping a beat. The narrator has become a ghost, or zir mind has been downloaded into new hardware, or is simply trapped in the confines of zir corpse, a silent observer to all that is going on.
Bonus points if your narrator doesn’t even realize that ze died for a while. Maybe even at all.
  1. Conversations
We can obviously do this as a conversation with the reader, or another character who does not speak and is effectively an audience surrogate. Pickman’s Model is the first such story that comes to mind. I don’t think that I’ve yet seen a story where every chapter trades off between two or more characters, whether they talk for a paragraph or for many pages.
And maybe there’s a good reason for that. But as with many ideas that I’ve had, I’m going to have to try it out a few times before it gets written off.
(And perhaps we can put these two together, and include chapters where, in the second person point-of-view, the reader is participating in the conversation).
  1. The unskilled, omniscient narrator
You have omniscient third-person narration. You have first-person narration. I haven’t seen the two together. And it might be interesting to have such a character (even if it could be done very badly, very easily), what’s catching my muse more is something more: an omniscient character who is handling it badly.
Maybe ze’s new to the job. Maybe the job just never gets easier. But the narrator is no better of keeping track of more than one thing than anyone else is. Sometimes multiple threads are perceived at once, confusing the narrator as much as the reader. Sometimes the threads simply skip here, then there. They can switch without reason, or in accordance with distractions and change in thought. Imagine a stream of consciousness story where perception of events followed the stream. That’s what I’m going for here.
  1. The fourth person point-of-view
What is it? If there’s first, second, and third person, could there be a fourth? Maybe. There’s no consensus on what the fourth person point-of-view would actually be. Any time that I read somebody’s idea on it, I immediately start wondering “And could there then be a fifth person point-of-view?” So I don’t’ think that I’m going to stop wasting time on this kind of thing for a long, long time. Either I’ll be old and gray and still thinking about the fourth person point-of-view, or I’ll be old and gray and thinking about the ninety-fifth person point of view.
Here are some people’s ideas, though:
  • From Urban Dictionary: “When you make a statement referring to yourself in the first and third person at the same time. Perfect for Jekyll/Hyde types, wolfmen and superheroes.” This is the least satisfying definition.
  • From Vanessa on Yahoo! Answers: “The fourth person would not be separate from the first speaker. It is a presence that is a part of all things, all places, and all times.”
  • Dan Bergstein gets ridiculous as he continues on all the way to the tenth person point of view, but here’s his take on the fourth person: “First, it might mean the original narrator dies and a new narrator takes his place.” Doesn’t work for me. “Fourth Person Point of View may also refer to a story told by someone who wasn’t there when the events took place.” I can see where he’s coming from with this, and it’s interesting, but let’s keep looking.
  • In the context of marketing, Douglas Karr proposes the fourth person point of view as a point of view “allowing the reader to interact with the writer. This could be comments to blogs, or it could be web-based forums, robust internal search, feedback forms, etc. This allows two-way communication, a much richer experience.” Karr also supposes proposes the fifth person point of view as one “allowing readers to speak to other readers.” If we haven’t already got this kind of story with MS Paint Adventures and the like then we’re very close. But I like it anyhow.
  • Wikipedia says that “fourth person is also sometimes used for the category of indefinite generic referents, which work like one in English phrases such as ‘one should be prepared’ or people in people say that…, when the grammar treats them differently from ordinary third-person forms.” I don’t think that’s what we’re going for here.
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