Three Thoughts About “Life Story”-Style First-Person Narration

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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How To Mix First And Third Person Perspective Narration

Although, ideally, you should stick to just one perspective (eg: first-person or third-person) in your story, I’ve read a few modern novels over the past year or so that combine both perspectives in various ways. This is one of those things that is tricky to get right, but can work really well when it is handled properly.

In short, the main thing to remember is that you should clearly signpost the perspective changes. If you are jumping from one perspective to the other, then the reader needs to be able to understand and adapt to this quickly, so that it doesn’t become too confusing. One of the best ways to do this is to use italic text for one of the perspectives and normal text for the other.

For example, both Tess Gerritsen’s 2002 detective thriller novel “The Apprentice” and Dana Fredsti’s 2012 zombie thriller novel “Plague Town” use a variant of this technique, whilst also setting the two types of narration apart via slight changes in the narrative voice too. This makes the jump from one type of narration to the other feel a lot less jarring.

On a side-note, one interesting variant of this that I’ve seen in at least a couple of thriller and/or horror novels is to include short italicised first-person asides (typically no longer than a sentence or two) in the middle of a passage of third-person narration. Since these are fairly brief and are often used for comedic or dramatic effect, they can actually work quite well.

So, italic text is a great way of signposting changes in perspective since it is immediately visible to the reader and allows them to clearly tell which type of narration to expect.

If you don’t want to use italics, then make sure that each chapter of your story only uses one perspective. Not only does a chapter change get the reader ready for something different (so, the perspective change is a bit less jarring), but it also means that the reader has a bit more time to get used to a particular perspective.

You can also use other forms of signposting too – such as in Tade Thompson’s 2019 sci-fi novel “The Rosewater Insurrection“, where each chapter heading contains the name of the character it is focusing on. This means that you’ll soon easily be able to tell which chapters are in first or third person perspective based on which character name appears. Since two characters consistently use first-person narration, and the other characters’ chapters usually use third-person narration, then this is fairly easy to follow after a while.

In addition to all of this, you also need to have a good reason for including perspective changes. For example, Tess Gerritsen’s “The Apprentice” includes first-person perspective segments because they give the reader a chilling glimpse into the twisted mind of one of the serial killers that the detective is trying to catch, adding extra suspense and horror to the story. Likewise, the third-person segments in Dana Fredsti’s “Plague Town” lend an extra sense of size and scale to the novel’s zombie apocalypse. In both of these novels, the perspective changes serve a valid practical purpose that adds something to the story and allow the author to use the best elements of both perspectives.

In Tade Thompson’s “The Rosewater Insurrection”, the reasons for the multiple perspectives are a bit more subtle, but they still have a practical purpose. The first-person narration in the opening chapter is a good way to maintain consistency with the previous novel in the series (which only uses first-person perspective), which makes the transition between the two novels a little bit more seamless. Likewise, one of the extended first-person segments later in the novel allows for some character-based stuff that works slightly better in first-person perspective.

So, in conclusion, if you’re going to use both first and third person narration in your story, then your changes should not only be signposted in a simple and consistent way, but they should also be there for a very good reason. In other words, if your story still “works” with just one perspective, then just use one.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Writing Victorian-Style Narration

Although I’m not sure if I’ve written about this topic before, I thought that I’d talk about how to write Victorian-style narration today. Although this is one of those skills that will probably feel like second nature when you’ve learnt it (and it’s been a while since I last read a proper Victorian novel), I can easily imagine that it might seem a bit more challenging if you’ve never tried it before. So, here are a few basic tips for making your story’s narration sound like it comes from Victorian Britain.

1) Read it (It’s easier than you think): The best way to learn how to write Victorian-style narration is simply to read it until you get a general sense of how people used to write back then. This won’t cost you much either since most Victorian novels are no longer in copyright in many parts of the world. So, you can often either legally find free copies online or find cheap “classics” editions of them in bookshops.

However, if you haven’t read any Victorian fiction before, then this might seem like a fairly intimidating and/or time-consuming task. After all, the Victorians have a reputation for writing giant three-volume novels and – thanks to some Victorian authors – their writing style isn’t exactly seen as “easily readable” either.

So, the best way to ease yourself into reading Victorian fiction is to start with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story collection “The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes”. For starters, each story is a short plot-focused thing that also contains an intriguing mystery that will make you actually want to read more.

Not only that, these stories also use a slightly more readable and “matter of fact” late Victorian writing style that sounds Victorian enough to teach you how to write in this style, whilst being just about modern and fast-paced enough for them to be relatively easy to read. Likewise, they are also written from a first-person perspective, which helps to cut down on things like unnecessary descriptions or long-winded asides.

Another good “starter” story for researching Victorian fiction is probably Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” due to the short length, timelessly quirky humour and easily-readable writing style. And, after getting used to the style, then perhaps try reading more complex/descriptive shorter Victorian novels and/or novellas like Anthony Hope’s “The Prisoner Of Zenda” or Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.

Once you’ve read some Victorian fiction, you’ll probably start to get a general sense of the style used by Victorian writers. And, when writing for modern audiences, you’ll probably want to use a Victorian style that is similar to the more compressed, focused and readable one found in late Victorian short stories and/or novellas, rather than the more meandering (and less readable) style used in longer novels.

2) Formality and context: Victorian-style narration is usually a bit more formal and descriptive than modern-style narration. The sentences are often longer and more complex too, with more of a focus on “telling”-style narration than on “showing”-style narration. And, when you understand some of the context and reasons for this, then writing in this style will become a lot easier.

For starters, film and television didn’t really exist back then in the way they do now. This had an effect on the writing style used back then. After all, if a writer had never seen a film, then their main frame of reference for how to write would be telling a story in the traditional sense. So, Victorian-style narration will often just flat-out tell the reader things about the characters, backstory etc.. and will often use slower-paced, longer and more complex/formal sentences too. After all, Victorians didn’t expect their novels to be like slickly-edited modern Hollywood films – because they didn’t exist back then.

Secondly, books were actually popular entertainment back then. Many Victorian novels would actually be released in episode-like segments in magazines (full-size books were more expensive back then, and TV didn’t really exist) – so things like cliffhanger chapter endings still mattered back then, since they made people want to buy the next issue of the magazine. This is also why Victorian novels can sometimes be a bit on the long-winded side of things, since more chapters meant more issues of the magazine that could be sold.

Thirdly, the internet didn’t exist back then. Not only did this mean that Victorian novels would sometimes explain or describe things a bit more (since their readers couldn’t just Google, for example, a particular ancient pyramid or castle), but it also meant that they often had more of a focus on small-scale mundane everyday life and/or drama than modern novels do. Not only was this easier to write, but it was more likely to be recognisable and understandable to the average reader of the time.

This also probably had an effect on things like metaphors and references too. However, since it’s been a while since I last read a Victorian novel, what I’m about to say is a combination of vague memories, generalisations and/or speculation more than anything else, but it is still worth thinking about.

Anyway, whilst novels aimed at upper-class readers will reference the Latin, Shakespeare and classical mythology that their readers would have learnt at private schools, novels aimed at a wider audience would often either reference texts that the average Victorian person was likely to have encountered (eg: the Bible, popular myths, popular Victorian novels, maybe a few well-known parts of Shakespeare etc..) or more “everyday” things that people of the time would easily have known about. Again, people back then didn’t have the internet.

3) Have fun: Victorian-style narration sounds very melodramatic, and a little bit silly, pompous and/or over-written, when read today. It is often unintentionally hilarious. So, don’t take yourself entirely seriously when you write it and you’ll find the experience a lot easier. Just enjoy the theatricality and overwrought melodrama of it and you’ll find that writing it is a lot more enjoyable.

Seriously, if a piece of Victorian-style narration makes you laugh when you’re writing it, then you’re probably doing something right. This style is incredibly fun to use because of its silliness and hyper-dramatic “so bad that it’s good” nature.

And don’t worry about getting it “100% perfect” either – as long as it doesn’t contain anything glaringly modern, then readers will probably be a bit more forgiving for the simple reason that they will probably already know it is a modern text written in a Victorian style. After all, you probably aren’t trying to pass your story off as an actual, genuine piece of Victorian literature. Not only that, some level of humour and/or modern streamlining will also make your Victorian-style narration more readable to modern audiences too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons To Use A Formal Writing Style In Your Story

Although there is a lot to be said for using a more informal or more “matter of fact” writing style on your story (eg: it’s faster-paced, easier to read etc..), I thought that I’d talk about some of the reasons why you might want to use a more complex, detailed, descriptive, elaborate and/or just generally formal writing style.

But, although I’ll be talking about the advantages of using a formal style, you don’t have to use it 100% of the time. In fact, quite a few published authors will actually use a mixture of formal and informal writing depending on what they are writing about at any one moment (For example, formal narration is great for setting the scene – but less great during a thrilling car chase scene etc..). Still, there are some good reasons to use a more formal style every now and then…

1) You can do a lot more: Although I’ll talk about mixing formal and informal narration later, one of the main benefits of using formal narration is that you can do a lot more with it.

You can write long, flowing sentences that “overload” the reader with fascinating detailed descriptions that leave them in an awe-struck state of pure wonder. You can use the exact words for what you want to describe (eg: there’s a very subtle difference between something being big, large, grand, colossal, gargantuan, expansive etc.. even if these words all basically mean the same thing). You can use lots more literary and linguistic techniques to create all sorts of different effects on the reader. You can devote an entire page to the events of a single second. You can paint with words. I could go on…

One of the great things about formal writing styles is that they are something that only books can do. They deliver an experience that you can’t get from anything except a book. Whilst more informal writing styles can create something that feels like a more immersive and detailed version of a good TV show or film, reading a well-written formal novel can feel like experiencing high-definition virtual reality. It can feel like stepping back in time or becoming someone else or whatever. It’s really awesome.

Yes, actually reading formal narration requires a bit more skill and concentration. To use a computer game metaphor, it means that the “system requirements” of your story will be a bit higher. It is a challenge for the reader, and this may drive some potential readers away. But, if you want to really dazzle devoted and experienced readers, then don’t be afraid to write in a more complex and formal style if you think that it will improve your story.

2) If it feels natural: Some writers only really thrive when they are using a formal style. Whether this is due to the books that influenced them to become a writer, the fact that English lit was their favourite lesson at school or just because they’ve had a lot of practice at formal writing, some writers are at their best when using a formal style. It just feels “natural” in a way that is difficult to describe if you haven’t experienced it for yourself (and probably why, even though I’m writing this article quickly at 4am, I’m still using a formal style).

Of course, fast-paced informal writing styles are popular these days. They are fun and easy to read, and this is a good thing – especially in this distraction-filled age. But, if you try writing in this style and find that it feels flat, repetitive, lifeless etc.. when you do it, then there’s a possibility that it isn’t really your best writing style. So, if you want to write a novel that really feels like the kind of interesting, unique thing that only you can write, then try experimenting with a more formal style. If it feels more alive, interesting, relaxing etc… then it is your best writing style.

If you are this type of writer – the type of writer who loves writing long descriptions, who likes to feel the heft of an extensive vocabulary or who feels the free-wheeling thrill of giving your characters long, interesting chains of thought, then embrace it and use your formal writing skills to make your story into the kind of beautiful, fascinating, unique thing that people will want to read.

3) Time and setting: If you’re writing a story set in the past, then a more formal writing style can help to add realism and authenticity to the story. After all, even up until the 1980s/90s, many popular writers (even in “low brow” genres like the thriller and horror genres) would use a writing style that would probably be considered at least mildly “formal” by modern standards. So, if your story is set more than about 20-30 years ago, then a slightly more formal writing style can be a subtle way of making your story seem more “authentic”.

However, don’t go overboard with this. One trend I’ve noticed in modern historical detective fiction is to use just enough formal narration and/or formal phrases to give the story a historical flavour, whilst using a slightly more timeless “matter of fact” writing style for most of the narration. This allows these novels to feel historical whilst also allowing them to be fast-paced and easily-readable enough to compete with detective fiction set in the present day.

But, if your story primarily revolves around atmospheric locations and/or complex characters, then use formal narration. This type of detailed, complex narration really allows you to flesh out your characters and/or locations to a level where they feel real in your reader’s mind.

Some great – but slow paced- examples of this are a 1980s dark fantasy novel called “Kill The Dead” by Tanith Lee, a classic 1950s horror novel called “The Haunting Of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson and a gothic novel from the 1990s called “The Vampire Armand” by Anne Rice.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Tips For Writing Stories That Can Compete With The Internet, Games, Phones etc…

Well, I thought that I’d talk about writing stories that can compete with the plethora of other entertainment mediums out there these days. After all, modern readers have a lot more entertainment mediums competing for their time than they did even a couple of decades ago. Whether it is smartphones, TV boxsets, games, social media, the internet in general etc.. There has never been more competition for your reader’s attention.

Still, all hope is not lost. One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed since I got back into reading regularly the best part of a year ago is how some more modern books have adapted to this change when compared to several of the older 20th century novels that I’ve read.

I ended up thinking about this subject because, a few days before writing this article, I bought a vaguely modern refurbished computer (to replace one of my two vintage mid-2000s computers). Needless to say, keeping up with the usual reading schedule has been a bit more of a challenge than I’d expected.

After all, these books now have to compete with “Oh my god! I can watch Youtube videos in HD on this thing!” and “I’ve got over a decade of modern gaming to catch up on! Where do I even start?

So, how can you make your story compete with the distractions of the modern age? Here are two tips:

1) Writing style: Yes, there is a lot to be said for more formal and descriptive writing styles. They add lots of richness, depth, gravitas and atmosphere to stories. They are the equivalent of turning a computer game’s graphics settings up to full. They show language being used to it’s fullest extent and, if written well, can also expand your reader’s vocabulary (since the reader will be introduced to new words that they can understand from the context they are used in).

On the downside, novels that use nothing but formal narration take longer to read and also require more effort to read – which is a problem when compared to the fast effortless entertainment of television, the internet etc…

But, although a more informal, pared-down and “matter of fact” style can be a great way to get people to read when they are beseiged by distractions (I mean, even during the few years I considered myself a “non-reader”, I still read the occasional thriller novel by Lee Child), there are still ways to get some of the benefits of formal styles whilst still writing something that modern readers will find gripping enough to choose over a smartphone or social media site.

Simply put, you need to use a mixture of formal and informal narration. Basically, save your more formal descriptions for the moments when they will have the most impact. For example, Adam Nevill’s 2011 horror novel “The Ritual” contains a fair amount of informal, realistic and “matter of fact” narration but, whenever the story is describing the creepy forest that the characters are trapped in or their feelings of fear, the narration often becomes a bit more formal and/or descriptive. This works really well. The “matter of fact” narration keeps the story moving and the formal segments add atmosphere to it in carefully-controlled doses.

Another good way of doing this is to seamlessly slip a few formal descriptive sentences into a passage of “matter of fact” narration. Formal narration is a lot easier to digest in smaller doses and, if done well, then your reader might not even notice that they’ve read a sentence that is more at home in an older novel.

A good older example of this is Graham Masterton’s 1991 novel “The Hymn“. When I first read this novel as a teenager in the early 2000s, I just thought it was a grippingly cheesy horror thriller novel. When I re-read it a few weeks ago, I was astonished at how many “sophisticated” sentences and descriptions were mixed in with the more “matter of fact” thriller-like narration.

An even better old example is Agatha Christie’s 1941 spy novel “N or M?” – this is written in a mildly formal way, but has enough focus on the plot and enough “informal” (for the time) dialogue and descriptions to keep the story fairly effortless to read.

Just because we’re almost living in the 2020s, it doesn’t mean that you have to abandon formal writing styles altogether. It just means that you need to choose when to use them. In short, the basic underlying narrative of your story should probably be written in a more readable, “matter of fact” kind of way – with more formal descriptions saved for the moments when they will be the most spectacular.

2) Premise: In this age of distractions, having an interesting premise that makes the reader think “I need to read this” is more important than ever. If your story does something interesting, original, strange or new, then there is an added incentive for your reader to look at it instead of their phone, social media feed etc..

In other words, if your reader knows that they are going to find the kind of story that they can’t find on TV, in the cinema or in a videogame, then they are probably going to want to read. Seriously, when coming up with story ideas, curiosity and/or “wouldn’t it be cool if..” are the things that you need to think about.

Some good examples of this are Edgar Cantero’s 2018 novel “Meddling Kids“, which is a Lovecraftian horror parody of “Scooby Doo” set in the 1990s. Then, there’s Rebecca Levene’s 2008 novel “Anno Mortis“, which is about a zombie apocalypse… in ancient Rome.

There’s Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series, which are eccentric sci-fi comedy thriller novels about time travel- basically what “Doctor Who” would be like if it was a late-night BBC3 sitcom. There’s Robert Brockway’s 2015 novel “The Unnoticeables“, which is a story about a group of 1970s punks (and a group of characters in the present day) fighting bizarre otherwordly monsters.

I could go on for a while, but if you want your modern story to compete with all of the other entertainment mediums around these days, then you need an interesting premise. You need the kind of quirky, intriguing “wouldn’t it be cool if..” premise that your reader won’t be able to find in the cinema or on TV.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How Formal Should The Narration In Your Horror Story Be?

Well, I thought that I’d talk about formal and informal narration in horror fiction today. This is because each type of narration does different things in horror stories and choosing how to blend both of them can have a huge impact on how your story affects your reader.

But, first, how do the two types of narration differ from each other?

Complex, slow-paced formal narration is perfect for scenes where you want to create an ominous atmosphere, gross the reader out with horrific descriptions and/or build suspense. The main advantage of formal narration is that it can be used to render events, locations, emotions etc… in a much greater level of detail, albeit at the cost of reading speed.

On the other hand, simple fast-paced “matter of fact” informal narration is perfect for scenes where you want to get the reader’s adrenaline pumping. If you want to add a sense of frantic immediacy or gritty realism to a scene in your horror story, informal narration is best. Likewise, because there are fewer details and descriptions, the reader’s imagination has to “fill in the gaps”. You can exploit this fact to add even more horror to your story.

Of course, most modern horror stories will use a careful blend of these two things. After all, too much slow-paced formal narration can get in the way of the story and too much fast-paced informal narration can make the story seem light, generic and/or superficial.

So, the best approach is to know when to use each type. A good modern example of this is the novel I’m reading at the time of writing this article – “The Ritual” by Adam Nevill. This is a novel about a group of hikers who find themselves stranded in a dangerous forest.

When Nevill describes the forest, he’ll sometimes use the kind of elaborate formal narration that allows the reader to picture it really clearly. Then, when he shows the characters reacting to the events of the story, he’ll sometimes switch to shorter sentences and more “matter of fact” informal narration. Yes, there are some notable exceptions to this rule, but it is used to great effect – especially in the earlier parts of the story.

The contrast between these two types of narration works really well because the descriptive formal narration emphasises the harsh beauty of the forest, whilst the gritty informal narration shows the characters’ intense struggle to survive physically and emotionally. By using slightly different narration for different types of scenes, Nevill is able to shape how the reader reacts to the story.

Another good example can be found in classic British splatterpunk fiction from the 1980s. In these stories, scenes of everyday life, dialogue, drama etc… will often be written in a relatively informal way in order to to add a realistic atmosphere and keep the story moving at a decent pace. But, whenever anything gruesome happens, it will often be described in a very formal, poetic and descriptive way.

Not only does this combine beauty and horror in a really unsettling way, but the formal narration also adds a lot of extra emphasis to the gruesome moments too. In other words, the contrast between these two types of narration makes the story seem even more gruesome than it might do if it only used formal or informal narration.

The common thread in all of this is that each type of narration has to be used for a good reason. The contrast between each type of narration also matters a lot too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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 🙂