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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

Four Better Alternatives To Rotating First-Person Narration

Well, I thought that I’d talk about rotating first-person narrators today – since, to my dismay, the book I’m reading at the moment uses (a thankfully rather mild) version of this modern narrative technique.

If you’ve never heard of this narrative technique before, it’s a style of first-person narration where there are several narrators and the story switches between them every chapter or two.

Yes, it’s a style that supposedly allows writers to use both the omniscient perspective of third-person narration and the intense immersive immediacy of first-person narration. However, rather than being the best of both worlds, it is the worst of both worlds.

This is mostly because it tends to ruin the immersive nature of the first-person narration due to jarring changes between narrators, and because it still limits what you can and can’t show (when compared to third-person narration).

So, here are some better alternatives to rotating first-person narration. Yes, most of these still involve multiple first-person narrators, but they’re more intuitive to read than standard modern “rotating narrator” narration is.

1) Letters, Journals etc..: One way to introduce other narrators without breaking the immersion and narrative flow that comes from using just one narrator is to include the other narrated segments as letters, journal entries etc… This way, they’re something that the main character could still theoretically see or read, but they don’t involve any jarring jumps between perspective characters. After all, when you’re reading a letter, you’re still you. And the same is true for your narrator too.

The only thing that I would say about using this style of multiple narration is to make sure that you clearly signpost when your story’s letters, journal entries etc… begin. Ideally, you should differentiate them from the main story through the use of italic text, or a different font or something like that too.

And, yes, this is a very old narrative technique. If you don’t believe me, then read Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – this novel mostly consists of letters, journals etc… by different characters, and the multiple narrators work really well because you get the sense of reading a collection of documents, rather than eerily jumping between different people’s consciousnesses.

2) In-depth third-person narration: If you want to show lots of things happening in different places in an in-depth way, then using third-person narration that focuses heavily on what a particular character is thinking or feeling is a much more “ergonomic” way of doing this. This also has the bonus of allowing you to use a single, consistent narrative voice- which means that it is easier for the reader to follow the story.

If you want a good example of this, then read G.R.R Martin’s “A Song Of Ice And Fire” novels. Each chapter usually focuses on a particular character but, because Martin uses third-person narration instead of first-person narration, the jumps between characters and locations feel a lot more natural and organic than they would do if he’d used first-person narrators instead.

3) Don’t repeat your narrators: If you absolutely must use multiple first-person narrators, then use the format to full advantage!

In other words, don’t repeat your narrators. This might sound like it would make the inherent problems with rotating narrators even worse, but – surprisingly – it doesn’t. This is mostly because using a totally new narrator for each chapter or segment of the story means that your novel reads a lot more like a short story collection, rather than 2-3 novellas that have been awkwardly grafted together.

A great example of this narrative style is Max Brooks’ “World War Z”. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve read it, but it’s a novel that follows a UN official in the future who interviews the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Because there’s a new narrator for each chapter/interview, the novel feels like a really cool short story collection. Seriously, if you want to know how to use multiple first-person narrators in a good way, then read this book!

4) Framing story: One way to avoid breaking immersion whilst including multiple narrators is simply to include an old-fashioned framing story. In other words, your narrator listens to another character narrate the main story. This way, you get all of the benefits of multiple narrators, whilst also having a single consistent “main” narrator too.

This technique also feels more “natural” than modern-style rotating narrators because it mirrors the traditional experience of sitting down and listening to someone tell a story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

How Straightforward Should Your Narration Be?

Ever since I got back into reading regularly a little over a month ago, I’ve noticed something that I hadn’t really thought about before. Namely, the difference between the narration in more modern 21st century novels and in novels from the 20th century. Obviously, this is a major generalisation and there will be many exceptions to this rule, but I have noticed a vague difference between 20th and 21st century narration.

In short, modern narration is often a bit more straightforward. It’s a bit more matter-of-fact. It is designed for quick and efficient readability. And, in a lot of ways, this is a good thing. After all, narration shouldn’t get between the reader and the story. By making the narration reasonably effortless to read, a writer can easily immerse the reader in the story. And, when this works, it works really well.

For example, when I went through a phase of reading Clive Cussler novels a while back, it was striking to see the difference in narration between Cussler’s older thriller novels from the 1970s-90s and the more modern novels that have been co-written by other thriller writers. The differences in sentence length, descriptions and linguistic complexity are fairly noticeable. Yet, the more modern ones tend to grab your attention a bit more strongly and tend to be more effortlessly readable.

Or, to give a more nuanced example, I’m currently reading the third novel (“Dawnbreaker” – from 2009) in Jocelynn Drake’s excellent ‘Dark Days’ series and, after I got used to the narration in the first novel (which is slightly more descriptive than the average thriller novel), reading the subsequent novels has felt as effortless as watching a gripping TV show. The narration is still reasonably descriptive, but it is also written in a fairly direct and matter-of-fact way too (which is helped by the use of a first-person perspective).

To give an even more nuanced example, take a look at Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” (2015). Although the descriptive narration in this novel is meant to evoke 19th century narration, it is still designed to be very readable through things like the careful use of formal language that will be easily understood by modern readers, few to no references to classical mythology and slightly more straightforward sentence structures (that will be familiar to modern readers). And this works really well πŸ™‚

But, I’ve also been reading some slightly older novels too and it always surprises me how slower and more descriptive the narration can be. Even in a thrilling action-horror novel like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” (1984), the narration will often be a little bit slower, more formal and more descriptive. Plus, of course, there are novels like Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” (1995) that deliberately use dense, formal, ultra-descriptive narration.

Yet, I’ve found myself reading a mixture of older and newer books. This is because, although more formal and descriptive narration can be slower to read, it does have benefits. In short, it allows for a greater sense of richness and depth, at the cost of speed and ease of reading. It is something that requires a little bit of extra skill and effort to read, but you get more of a sense of accomplishment and a deeper story in return.

It’s kind of like the graphics settings in a computer game. If you set the graphics to “ultra-high”, then the game will look really good, but it will run more slowly. If you set the graphics to “low”, then the game won’t look as detailed, but it’ll be a lot smoother and more intuitive to play. Of course, there’s also a “medium” setting too…

After all, as I mentioned earlier, this is a massive generalisation. It’s also a bit of a simplification too.

Because, even more “readable” modern novels still need to use descriptions. Likewise, even more descriptive older novels still need to tell a compelling story. So, it isn’t a question of one extreme or the other, but more of a question of balance. And, if you’re telling a story, you need to think about this balance.

Whilst more straightforward modern-style narration will make it easier for people to pick up your story and keep reading it (and it means your story can compete better with TV, videogames etc.. for people’s attention), it also means that you have to be a lot more economical with your descriptions. You need to edit ruthlessly and efficiently.

Likewise, you’ll also have very slightly less room for using a unique narrative style too – so, you have to place extra emphasis on making your story unique in other ways (eg: characters, plot, settings etc..).

On the other hand, more complex, descriptive and “slower” narration can put off potential readers, but it means that your story will have a greater sense of richness to it. It means that your readers will be able to better picture the scenes you describe. It also means that your narrative style can be a little bit more unique (and memorable) too. Finally, it means that you can also do even more things (eg: literary techniques etc..) that no other storytelling medium can do.

As I said earlier, this isn’t an “either/or” thing. All stories, modern and old, fall somewhere between these two extremes. But, working out exactly where you want your story to fall is a decision that is well worth thinking about carefully.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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 clichΓ©d “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 πŸ™‚

Narrative Voice And Perspective – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Second person narrative voice article sketch

As regular readers of this site probably know, I tend to write these articles quite far in advance of when they’re actually posted. So, at the time of writing, I’m working on an interactive fiction gamebook project that may or may not have been posted online sometime around last Halloween.

Anyway, I noticed something very interesting when I was writing this gamebook. My narrative voice was different to how I remembered.

Back when I wrote fiction on a much more regular basis, I was very proud of the fact that I had a distinctive narrative voice. I’m not quite sure when it first emerged, but it was probably sometime in early-mid 2009. I’d gone through a few other narrative voices and I’d finally found the one that was perfect for me.

It was the perfect fit for the fiction that I wrote in 2009-11, since most of these stories were sci-fi/ horror/ detective stories that were narrated from a first-person perspective. In fact, my narrative voice was only at it’s best when I wrote stories in the first person. Whenever I tried to write from a third-person perspective, my narration often just sounded kind of dull and “functional”.

As fans of old-school 1970s-90s gamebooks (eg: “Choose Your Own Adventure“, “Fighting Fantasy” etc.. ) will know, these books are always written in the present tense and from a second-person perspective. In fact, this is the only genre of fiction that has to be narrated in this particular way.

Still, having had relatively little experience with writing from a second-person perspective (apart from this, this and part four of this ), the effects that this had on my narrative voice were extremely surprising.

If my usual first-person narrative voice sounds a bit like a twentysomething punk/goth woman from the future, then my second-person narrative voice in the gamebook that I’m writing sounds more like a cross between various American comedy writers, a rather posh old man, Missy from “Doctor Who” and something from this hilariously melodramatic vintage horror movie trailer.

Seriously, the difference really shocked me.

Even so, I can still just about see a few traces of my first-person narrative voice when I’m writing in the second person but, for the most part, my narrative voice is totally different when I write in the second person.

Interactive stories narrated from a second-person perspective have to do both of these things. Not only is the narrator an omniscient figure who is only partially in control of the world of the story, but he or she also has to talk directly to the reader too. I guess that this means that the narrative voice you use for second-person stories has to be tailored to the kind of story that you’re telling.

So, if you’re telling a horror story, then I guess that your narrative voice will probably sound a bit more nihilistic or “evil”. If you’re telling a fantasy story, then I guess that your narrative voice would probably sound more old and wizened. If you’re telling a detective story, your narrative voice will probably sound more “hardboiled”. I’m sure you get the idea.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but my narrative voice is certainly a lot more flexible when I’m writing in a second-person perspective.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚