Letting The Narration Fit The Story – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about narration. Whilst most writers develop their own unique narrative styles, there’s also something to be said for adapting your style in order to fit the story that you’re telling – or even deliberately using a slightly different style for dramatic effect.

For example, the novel I’m reading at the moment is a vampire novel called “Nightwalker” by Jocelynn Drake. A lot of what gives this book a wonderfully rich, sumptuous, sensuous, dark, thrilling, stylised and gothic atmosphere comes from the narration.

“Nightwalker” uses first-person narration that allows the story to focus intensely on what the narrator is thinking, feeling and experiencing. This narration often uses longer, slower and more descriptive sentences in order to add atmosphere and to reflect the fact that the narrator is a centuries-old vampire. But, during more intense or violent scenes, the narration will switch to shorter, faster, simpler and more “matter of fact” sentences in order to speed up the story and give these moments more impact.

This narration (which uses techniques from the horror, thriller and romance genres) is an absolutely perfect fit with the story that accompanies it.

Another good example of a novel where the narration fits the story really well is “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” by Natasha Pulley. This is a whimsical steampunk magic realist novel that is set in the 19th century.

As such, Pulley’s narrative style will often evoke 19th century fiction by using more formal language and longer sentences. However, since the story is designed to be accesible to modern readers, some of the more obtuse elements of 19th century style narration have been deliberately left out.

For example, whilst the novel uses a fairly formal vocabulary, it usually sticks to words and sentence structures that modern readers will be familiar with. Likewise, the story’s dialogue is also designed to sound fairly “natural” too. The novel also creates a slightly whimsical atmosphere by describing strange or unusual things in a slightly witty, formal and “matter of fact” way.

On the other hand, novels like “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson will deliberately use a narrative style that you wouldn’t expect in order to achieve a particular effect.

“Erebus” is a splatterpunk horror novel about a rural village being overrun with zombie-like vampires. So, you would expect the story’s narrative style to borrow heavily from the thriller genre (eg: shorter sentences, brief descriptions and simpler “matter of fact” vocabulary). But, instead, the novel will often include lots of long words, longer sentences and elaborate descriptions.

This contrast between style and story works really well because it turns the story into a subtle parody of more “aristocratic” stories set in rural England, whilst also creating extra horror by using “beautiful” narration to describe ugly things (eg: death, violence, decay etc…).

But, unlike the three novels I’ve described, there are also novels where the narrative style is too close to the subject matter of the story. Ironically, this can make the story less readable because the narration gets in the way of the story that is being told. Two notable examples of this are Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” and Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”.

Both of these novels are set in dystopian futures and are narrated from the perspective of young men who have grown up in these worlds. In both novels, the narration reflects how the dystopian surroundings have altered the English language (by using lots of made-up street slang, phonetic spellings etc..).

In principle, this should immerse the reader into the story, but it often just leaves the reader feeling confused. This is because the reader is left to work out the meanings of the many unfamiliar words in these stories from the context that they are used in (although, apparently, the American edition of “A Clockwork Orange” actually includes a glossary).

This interrupts the “flow” of the story and places more emphasis on the narration than the story itself. In fact, I actually stopped reading “Riddley Walker” after about twenty or thirty pages because the confusing narration annoyed me so much that I just didn’t want to read it anymore.

On the other hand, a cyberpunk novel like “Neuromancer” by William Gibson can make something like this work really well. But, why?

Although the narration in “Neuromancer” bombards the reader with lots of futuristic jargon, this is combined with a much more readable and “matter of fact” style of narration that is inspired by thriller novels and old “hardboiled” pulp novels. In other words, most of the novel is narrated in standard English, but with the occasional futuristic word added every now and then.

This standard narration gives the reader a familiar reference point to cling on to whilst trying to work out what the futuristic words in the novel mean. The novel’s narration is also rather fast-paced too, which holds the reader’s interest and also allows them to quickly gloss over anything that they don’t understand.

So, yes, it’s important to think about how the narrative style you use relates to the story you are telling. Whether you use a style that complements the story or one that contrasts with it, you need to think carefully about what you are trying to do and what effect it will have on the reader.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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