I have recently been asked if I can help another writer with regards to narration.
(Narration is sometimes referred to as the ‘stories voice’, at term which is frequently used in the USA and is essentially descriptive of its nature.)
The writer in question is not a ‘new’ writer, in fact she has authored several books over as many years.
She has asked for my assistance now, because her works to date have been of the same genre, they have required the same form of narration; one she has developed and honed, one which has also become her ‘style’.
Perfect for what she has accomplished, but a difficult task to abruptly alter, as it brings much self-doubt and worry with it.
Luckily, I am not one who writes in one genre, or in one style. Much of my work ventures into realms unknown and unexplored (from a personal perspective.) I push my wordsmithing skills every opportunity I have.
Whilst helping my author friend, I found having her read a sample of my own work, one with a certain narrative style, helped me explain how I achieved to create that chosen narration.
In this post, I shall try and do the same.
I have three examples to share with you; the first is taken from a humourus tale, the second from somewhere much darker and the third is told by a character where English is not their first language.
Each of the above forms of narration hold certain challenges for the author if they are to allow the story to flow smoothly, while still making each word believable.
Without further ado, here is the first sample, an excerpt for my short story ‘Fixing the thingamabob.’ (It is an exercise of using metasyntactic terminology.)
I had a job to do which needed more than a screwdriver and a pair of pliers.
So, I wandered down the garden to my shed to find the whatchamacallit, which I knew was in the wooden box under the shelf between the screw box and the other thing.
My wife had been nagging me for eons regarding fixing the thingamabob, which had started to rattle and shake several months ago.
As it happened today was sunny, bright and warm. Just the type of day I liked to attend to the pesky little jobs that stack up over time. Plus…I was in the mood for tinkering, which was actually a big plus!
Once I had the whatchamacallit in my hand I wandered back to the house, placed the thingamabob on the kitchen table and started to dismantle it.
Personally, I would have ditched this one years ago and replaced it with a new, up-to-date, all singing, all dancing, micro chipped, high tech whatchamacallit. But because this old rusting one had some sort of sentimental attachment my wife was certain I could fix it and all would be well for another thirty years.
I was not so sure; especially now that I had umpteen bits and bobs scattered on sheets of newspaper spread over the table top.
I was not even sure if they all belonged to the whatchamacallit, or if some pieces had tumbled from the small jars of screws, washers and odd bits I had kept for repairing such items.
Besides the springs there were a few plastic doodahs of indiscriminate origin, a strange angular thingummy with various sized holes and a host of………bits…..loose sort-of-screw(ish) pieces.
I was still quietly confident that I would not have to fork out a fistful of klebies to purchase a new whatchamacallit, because despite the number of random odd and sods before me, I had all the key parts in separate saucers. The rest I could figure out during re-assembly.
Having got thus far, I decided a fresh brew was in order and proceeded to stand from the kitchen stool. That was when my knee came in painful contact with the underside of the table top, sending all the random and the carefully separated odds and ends flying into the air, most of which came crashing down onto the stone tiled floor.
As I have said, being an organised sort of bloke I was using several saucers to keep the whatsits from rolling all over the place, thus avoiding the chance of mixing them up with other doodahs or losing them altogether.
Now, not only were all these jumbled-up with the rest of the bits and bobs which I had previously spread out ready for use, but my wife’s best saucers were in splintered shards on the kitchen floor, mixed among the plastic and metal thingamajigs…..
End of Sample
In this excerpt the reader automatically senses the light-hearted pace of the story. The ‘nonsense’ words liberally sprinkled through the character’s speech seems to confirm the cheerful tones of, if we could hear it, the character’s voice; and that is the clue here, the character’s voice…his narration…his is telling this story and you, the reader, are sitting comfortably and listening with a half-grin already plastered on your face.
To achieve such a form for this stories voice I found myself ‘playing’ the character. During the moments of writing I was that ‘doddery, old, half- henpecked, half-happy-go-lucky, uncaring/caring, semi-foolish husband’!
I became that ‘chap’ and wrote this in a manner I felt was akin to which I would have done if I were sitting in a bar and relating the tale to half a dozen of my cronies.
Now read this next example of my narrative form. This is from the story called ‘Deep Waters’.
When they came to remove the last of the medical equipment from the house they found me laying on the kitchen floor in a pool of my own vomit.
The nurse said it was ‘lucky’.
Lucky I was found when I was, or I would have certainly died.
I did not consider myself lucky.
After that incident?
Two years of psychiatric help is enough to send any man insane, which is why I have come to the island. To get away from the hospitals, the clinics, the doctors and shrinks.
To get away from that house.
A house which held too many precious memories; cupboards in which her scent still lingered, rooms where her voice echoed at night and doorways where I always caught a glimpse of her figure.
I needed to clear my mind, to find out what I was supposed to do now.
To do that I did not need white coated, bearded psychoanalyst prying into my life, or friends constantly nattering in my ear, however good their intentions. I did not need a shoulder to cry on, or soft breasts on which to rest my head. I did not need friends with benefits.
Although I appreciated their efforts and the offers, all I needed was some peace and quiet. I needed isolation and tranquillity.
I needed time.
That is why I came here, why I came to the island.
Now I am here I realise how integral to life boats are. As I have said, I am no master of the sea, but I do fancy a small pleasure boat in which I can sail out to the centre of the lake. Maybe even take up fishing, something else I have never had the opportunity to try before.
But I think I shall deal with the boat first.
One thing at a time.
I think I know what I am to do.
But I am not in any rush.
The small craft I eventually chose was a twenty-five-foot cabin cruiser. Cabin cruiser sounds a grand title for a small fiberglass and wood boat with a slightly extended wheelhouse. I think the wheelhouse was considered the cabin, or was that the tiny compartment just below?
This compartment housed a toilet, which was half the size of a broom cupboard and a ‘main galley’. The main galley was a miniature sink & a two ring gas burner, opposite was a seat large enough for two people to sit on, providing they were in an intimate relationship.
The seat lifted and pulled-out to become a three-quarter size bed. I am not certain to what the ‘three quarter’ referred too?
However, the boat suited me perfectly, because I had no intentions of sharing it with anyone. This was the perfect vessel in which I could detach myself from the rest of humanity. Floating out there in silence in the centre of the lake sipping a hot coffee, or maybe a hot whiskey, would be absolutely perfect while I looked introspectively at my life.
While I considered my options.
End of Sample
This is an emotionally haunting tale, one which guarantees to bring a tear to the eyes of everyone who reads it. The reason is the soulful nature of the stories telling. It is spoken with an intimacy.
This is not like the first example, you could not relay this in a crowded bar. The narration is designed to ‘almost’ be a secret; a secret solely shared between the character and the reader. It is the reader finding a personal diary, reading that person’s own thoughts and secrets and fears and doubts.
Once again, the writer, the author must have their mindset ‘set’ into that mode and write as they would themselves, should they ever find themselves in such a position.
As the writer sits at their desk or in the café they should feel everything the character would feel if this were true. The author must become the moment, feel the air temperature, hear the ripples lapping the shore, smell the ozone and the scent of pine trees on the breeze.
My third and (for now) final excerpt is from ‘Estell’s Tattoo’ (A story which raises awareness of the rape of women in Africa.)
When I wrote this, I wanted (and still do) to show that fiction can also be used to spread the word about important social issues.
Grace and Estelle and I once more walked along the dusty path that wound its way from our village, down the steep hill and on towards the river. The river was wide and twisted, like a glistening giant brown snake that wound its way through the lush green vegetation of the forests.
As we became closer to this river the path changed from dust to crushed grasses. Many feet had trodden this path and in their passing had squashed the plants along the way, so that now only the toughest grass and the most persistent of weeds grew along the narrow footpath.
Grace, Estelle and I spoke of many things during our journey to the river this day and when we were not talking of our village or family matters we sang our songs. I am sure that on this morning many birds came close to us to hear our sweet tunes, or at least that is how I remember it.
I do not remember before that day seeing so many birds along the edges of this footpath. On any other day to see such colourful birds you would have to stray deep into the forest and sit very still for a long time. But that morning they came to us.
It took us about one and a half hours before we reached the river. On arriving we put down the large bundles of clothing we had brought to the river to wash. All through our journey along the footpath we had balanced these bundles upon our heads. It is the way we women carry heavy loads over such long distances.
Once we placed the laundry on the bankside we sat and drank water and rested our legs for a short while. In fact, it was a long short while because today was also a very hot day. The winds were not blowing at all and the sun shone fiercely down upon the earth, baking the soil into a hard crust which began to crack open and crumble.
But here, in the shade by the river it was much cooler. So, we sat and spoke between ourselves for a long time during our short rest.
Finally, we began to wash the clothing we had carried all this way, which was after all the reason for our journey to this place today. Using stones and a lot of effort we washed the dirt and grime from the materials. After which we hung the garments upon the branches of the nearby bushes to dry in the sun. The sun would soon dry the clothes today as it was a very hot sun, much hotter than on most days, something I have told to you already.
We had also brought with us a little food. So as the sun beat down from the sky we sat near our drying clothes and ate. After that we decided to go into the river to cool our bodies and to cleanse our own skins from the dirt and the dust….
End of Sample
Before I wrote this story I read several books and listened to audio readings of books, written by people whose first language was not English, but of African origin.
I wanted to create an authenticity of ‘voice’ in this story. By using long descriptions, yet using simple words and repeating some of them far more than one would ‘normally’ do, I found I could capture ‘Estell’s’ voice.
Once I was happy with some short draft pieces, I became Estell and, looking through her eyes, began to write this story in earnest.
I have received many compliments for this story because of its narration.
Please note: as a way of comparing the three examples above, you will note I have chosen stories which are all written in first person singular.
I shall leave you to consider the above and how one can alter each story’s narrative by some simple, and some not so simple, adjustments!
The prime factor is to try. Write some shorter pieces, use them as a literary exercise to flex your wordsmithing muscles. If you are uncertain, try poetry or prose to create those first few lines of text which take you away from your standard form.
I for one love to try something new whenever I get a chance.
I love to flex my literary fingers and fumble about in places I have never been before. It is often surprising, frequently exciting and, more often than not, extremely rewarding.
Read more of my short stories: A Little more Fiction