Although I’m not sure of the exact name for this narrative technique (it’s probably a variant of a traditional epistolary novel), I was surprised to notice that both the novel I’ve just finished reading (“Pandora” by Anne Rice) and the novel I plan to review next (“Survivor” by Chuck Palahniuk) use a really interesting first-person narrative technique which I haven’t really seen that often before. Needless to say, there may be mild-moderate SPOILERS for both novels here.
In short, both novels begin with a first-person narrator pointing out that they are recording their life story in some kind of in-universe document. In “Pandora”, the vampiric narrator has been asked to chronicle her life story in a notebook for a fellow vampire’s library. In “Survivor”, the narrator has hijacked a plane and decided to recite his unusual life story into the flight recorder before the fuel runs out. Having the narrator tell their life story in some kind of in-universe document is a really intriguing narrative technique, so I thought that I’d offer a few thoughts and observations about it.
1) Set-ups, suspense and spoilers: Because these types of stories start after the main events of the novel, the opening segment of the novel is more important than ever. Since the reader already knows what happens to the narrator at the end of the story, this means that things like suspense have to be handled a bit differently. After all, the opening scene is a plot spoiler of sorts.
But, whilst traditional-style suspense is less effective in these types of stories, this isn’t to say that these stories can’t intrigue the reader or put them on the edge of their seat. You just need to focus more on curiosity, contrast and process, rather than suspense. In other words, whilst your reader might know what the narrator is like at the end of the story, the reasons how and why should be intriguing enough to make the reader want to learn more.
One classic way to do this is through contrast. For example, in the opening scenes of Anne Rice’s “Pandora”, the narrator is two thousand year old vampire who thinks nothing about tearing people’s hearts out whenever she feels peckish. Yet, when she starts narrating her life story, it begins with her joyful and idyllic childhood in ancient Rome. So, the reader is instantly intrigued about how and why she went from such a happy life to such a horrifying one. In other words, this story is more about the journey than the destination.
Another way of doing this is to make the beginning of the story a mysterious puzzle that can only be solved by learning more about the narrator’s history. For example, Chuck Palahniuk’s “Survivor” begins with the narrator committing a serious crime and voluntarily placing himself in a situation where only certain death awaits. So, the main mystery here isn’t “will he survive?” but “why did he do that?”. In other words, the opening scene is a puzzle – where the answers are revealed by learning more about the narrator’s backstory.
2) Unreliability, intimacy and realism: Another interesting thing about this narrative technique is that it comes across as more “realistic” than traditional first-person narration, since the reader literally feels like they’re reading something written by the narrator.
It also adds an extra layer of intimacy to the story since, rather than just seeing everything through the narrator’s eyes, we feel like they’re talking directly to us and/or that we’re perching over their shoulder and reading their diary. So, although the reader doesn’t get to “be” the narrator, they feel like they are in very close proximity to the narrator. This is difficult to describe well, but it adds a very different atmosphere to a story than traditional first-person narration does.
It is also absolutely perfect for unreliable narrators too 🙂 Because the narrator makes the fact that they are a narrator really obvious in the opening chapter, the reader is even more aware than usual that they are seeing the events of the story from one person’s perspective. They are hearing one person’s side of a much larger story, they are seeing the story one person is telling in order to explain or justify their actions, the story they want other people to believe.
So, if you’re using an unreliable narrator, then this technique can work extremely well 🙂
3) Metafiction and narrative voice: Because the reader knows that the narrator is recording their life story, this means that it’s a lot easier to include interesting “meta” stuff in your story without breaking the reader’s immersion in the story. After all, if the narrator is writing something that is meant to be read by other people, then things like “breaking the fourth wall” by talking directly to the reader make a lot more sense in this context. Likewise, the narrator’s comments about storytelling don’t come across as pretentious or random when the narrator is quite literally writing a story.
However, using a narrative voice that reflects the narrator is even more important than usual in these types of stories. If you’re going to create the illusion that the narrator is actually writing the book that your reader is reading, then it needs to actually feel like it was written by them (rather than you). So, knowing how your narrator thinks, speaks and writes is an essential part of telling one of these stories.
To give you an example, the writing style in Anne Rice’s “Pandora” is formal, elaborate, slow-paced and filled with references to classical mythology. This works really well because the narrator is an ancient vampire who was part of the upper classes of ancient Rome. In other words, this is the kind of narration that the reader would expect from a character like this. Likewise, the narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Survivor” is a nihilistic, disillusioned and vaguely sociopathic thirtysomething who only has a few hours left to live – and the novel’s more informal, irreverent, faster-paced, rambling, cynical and/or “matter of fact” narration sounds like how you’d expect someone like this to speak.
So, yes, having a narrative voice that “fits” the character is even more important than usual in this type of story. If the narrative voice doesn’t feel right, it’ll break the reader’s immersion in the story a lot more quickly than in a “traditional” first-person perspective novel.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂