Narrative Styles And Emotional Tone – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d look at how the narrative style of your fiction can affect your story’s emotional tone. This is mostly because I’ve seen some really interesting examples of this in some of the novels that I’ve been reading recently.

The most striking example is probably in the novel I’m reading at the time of writing this article. This is an Alice Hoffman novel from 1992 called “Turtle Moon” and, on paper at least, it should be an incredibly bleak and depressing story.

Literally none of the characters seem to have cheerful backstories and virtually nothing good or happy has happened within the first hundred pages or so. Yet, despite this, I’ve kept reading it eagerly and thankfully haven’t been overwhelmed by misery and sadness. But, why?

Simply put, the writing in this novel is beautiful. All of the story’s grimness, sorrow and bleakness is expertly contrasted with a lush, poetic, magical and hyper-vivid writing style that is an absolutely joy to read. Seriously, the sheer beauty of the writing means that the depressing elements of the story are kept at a slightly safe distance from the reader. We still see all of these bleak, gut-wrenching, depressing things happening, but it’s like looking at a beautiful painting rather than at a grim photograph.

On the other hand, Shaun Hutson’s 2009 horror novel “Last Rites” contains a lot of similar themes to “Turtle Moon” (eg: broken relationships, bereavement, delinquent youth etc…) and also contains lots of characters with miserable backstories too. Yet, this horror novel feels about ten times more grim and depressing than “Turtle Moon”. But, why?

Ok, there are reasons like temporal and geographic distance (eg: early 1990s America vs. late 2000s Britain) too. But, the most important reason is the different writing styles that these authors use in the two novels.

Whilst Hoffman is able to give the reader a safe level of emotional distance through beautiful, magical, poetic writing – Hutson takes the opposite approach. Hutson’s writing style is a lot more “matter of fact”. This makes the story seem a lot more realistic, which emphasises the grim and bleak elements of the story a lot more. If reading Hoffman’s narration is like looking at a beautiful painting, reading Hutson’s narration is like looking at stark CCTV footage.

This, incidentally, is why traditional 1980s splatterpunk horror novels are so morbidly fascinating. When writers like Clive Barker or Shaun Hutson were telling horror stories during the 1980s, their narration would become (or, in Barker’s case, remain) very beautiful, vivid, detailed and poetic whenever they described something grisly, grotesque or disgusting. This contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque lends these scenes a unique quality which is both intensely horrific and intensely fascinating at the same time. It’s a really weird emotional tone that is difficult to describe (and has to be read in order to be understood properly).

Of course, writers can use the narrative style to affect the emotional tone of their stories in lots of other interesting ways too. A great example of this is a time travel-themed sci-fi novel from 2013 called “Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor that I read recently. This novel uses informal, punk-like first-person narration which is fairly “matter of fact”, whilst also emphasising the narrator’s irreverent, eccentric and practical personality.

This style is really interesting because it makes the novel’s many comedic moments even funnier by, for example, showing the narrator’s irreverent attitude towards serious things (eg: rules, history etc..) and also showing how different her perspective is to a typical sci-fi thriller protagonist. It also lends the story’s comedic scenes a jaunty and chaotic punk-like atmosphere too.

Yet, at the same time, this “matter of fact” narration also means that when bleak, nasty and depressing things happen to the main character, they’re considerably more intense and depressing. The same “down to earth” narration that makes things like the narrator getting wasted the night before a crucial research mission so hilarious also makes the novel’s grim moments about ten times bleaker, more intense, more “realistic” and/or more shocking too.

So, yes, your choice of narrative style can have a huge effect on the emotional tone of a story. A vivid, poetic, artistic narrative style that can lend beauty to joyous things will also moderate the effect of grimmer or more depressing things. By contrast, a more “matter of fact” style will add intensity to anything from comedy to bleak sorrow.

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Anyway, I hope that this is useful 🙂

Three Quick Tips For How To Fake “Film Noir”-Style Narration

Since I write these articles quite far in advance, I was busy writing last year’s “film noir” Christmas stories at the time of writing this article. However, although I’ve obviously seen and read a few things in the noir genre, I would hardly call myself an expert on it. Still, one of the most difficult things to get right if you aren’t an expert on the noir genre is the narrative style used in many things in this genre.

So, here are a few quick tips for faking “film noir”-style narration in your stories:

1) Less is more: Simply put, film noir narration doesn’t actually have to be that different from ordinary narration. If you go overboard with clichéd “film noir” narration, then it will come across as obviously fake pretty quickly.

So, just write ordinary narration – with the occasional use of short sentences, pithy metaphors and/or drily amusing observations. The thing to remember about hardboiled narration is that it wasn’t originally meant to be a stylish fashion statement. It was meant to be an engaging style of writing that was quick to read and quick to write – after all, a lot of old stories in the noir genre were published in monthly magazines for a mass audience.

As long as the content of your story (eg: private investigators, crime, gloomy lighting etc..) fits into the noir genre, then you can get away with using ordinary narration that just includes a few cleverly-chosen noir features. But, remember, less is more.

2) Keep it simple (but not too simple): Following on from the “ordinary” thing I mentioned earlier, one of the easiest ways to fake “film noir” narration is just to make your narration sound a little bit like ordinary speech. In other words, there should be the occasional long word or complex sentence when necessary, but the prose shouldn’t just be elaborate for the sake of elaborate.

In other words, keep it simple. But not too simple. Once again, remember that noir stories were originally meant to be popular entertainment for a mass audience. They weren’t meant to be books for children or books for highly-educated literary critics. So, if you go to either extreme, then you’re missing the point.

Basically, just look at one of the noir genre’s modern equivalents – ordinary thriller novels – if you need examples of this happy medium between sophistication and simplicity. An author who provides a good example of this writing style is probably Lee Child. He writes in a fairly hardboiled and “matter of fact” style, without actually writing stories in the noir genre.

3) Small details: One of the easiest ways to give your narration more of a “film noir” quality is to include a few mildly unusual small details. These should be things that are slightly unusual, but could realistically be expected to be seen in everyday life. Generally, things that seem like kitsch or ephemera tend to work best for this.

For example, the second story in my Christmas collection last year includes this descriptive segment: ‘My eyes rested on the ornate marble finish pen that took pride of place on my desk. After I’d filed off the “Ebenezer’s Floor Tiles” e-mail address on the side, it actually looked like I’d paid good money for it.

Don’t ask me why, but this sort of thing tends to create a wonderfully noirish atmosphere. So, focus on mildly unusual everyday details occasionally and this will help to give your story slightly more of a “film noir” quality.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂