Tell, Don’t Show: Writing The Chatty Narrator

#writing #tips #novels #creativity
By Whitney Jones

In my past few blog posts about showing and telling, which you can find here and here, I’ve talked a lot about the appropriate circumstances for telling. It’s not always a bad thing to do and it’s often a useful, nay necessary, strategy, especially when moving characters through time or depicting internal emotion.

But there’s one reason to use telling that I haven’t mentioned yet, one more appropriate moment during which telling comes in handy–when your narrator just won’t shut up and has Very Voluble Opinions.

In this post, I’ll talk about two different kinds of narrators in third person omniscient texts–the invisible narrator and the character narrator–and explain how one is perfect for showing and one allows a little more telling.

200_sThe Invisible Narrator

Most of the time, narrators are pretty invisible. The writer’s job, even when writing in third person omniscient, is to make the reader forget there even is a narrator. Most narrators are, like that old humbug the Wizard of Oz, pulling levers out of sight behind a curtain. 

Invisible narrators are crucial to most of the third-person books we read or write, and they are great for showing. When the TELLER of the story disappears, it allows the characters and action to SHOW through.

In fact, the Invisible Narrator is so… invisible… finding an example is almost futile. Go open a book and look at the back and forth between action and dialogue; that’s the smoke and fire, the riveting illusion of the great and powerful Oz created by the humbug narrator hiding behind a curtain.

Besides, there’s another, more voluble narrator clamoring for our attention.

The Character Narrator

The Character Narrator DEMANDS to be acknowledged. This narrator knows things and wants you to know them. The Character Narrator (say that three times fast!) has a point of view and ideas about people and events. These are narrators like the one of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, who says about Mrs. Darling:

“You see, the woman had no proper spirit. I had meant to say extraordinarily nice things about her; but I despise her and not one of them will I say now.”

Yikes!

Or this one by Jane Austen’s narrator of Northanger Abbey:

“In addition to what has been already said of Catherine Morland’s personal and mental endowments… it may be stated, for the reader’s more certain information, lest the following pages should otherwise fail of giving any idea of what her character is meant to be; that her heart was affectional, her disposition cheerful and open … and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.”

Harsh, much? 

And, finally, this one from the narrator of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones:

“…we shall be obliged to reveal all the Secrets of a little Family, with which my Reader is at present entirely unacquainted; and of which the Oeconomy was so rare and extraordinary, that I fear it will shock the utmost Credulity of many married Persons.”

Prepare to be scandalized!

What do these three incredibly different quotations have in common?

First, their narrators have sass. This is no person behind a curtain trying to disappear. These narrators want to be front and center. They don’t want to tell a story; they want to tell THEIR story THEIR way and for readers to see it through THEIR perspective. These guys lack all objectivity. They are usually bossy. Lucky for them, I love these types of narrators; I’ll go wherever they want to take me.

Second, these narrators are guided by their own internal senses of right and wrong, likes and dislikes, and moral codes. Barrie’s narrator hates Mrs. Darling; Austen’s narrator thinks her protagonist stupid; and Fielding’s narrator is certain you’ll be scandalized by the goings on he’s about to describe. These narrators are characters themselves, with motives, feelings, opinions, and–in the way they tell their stories–actions of their own.

What’s show and tell got to do with it?

So, what do we learn about showing and telling from these two types of narrators?

Because the Character Narrator is a major focus of the novel, because it’s the way the narrator sees and tells the story that matters, this narrative type allows for and actually requires a bit more telling. The narrator insists on TELLING the story their way.

But here’s the catch. You can’t JUST tell, you have to tell with style and in character. You’re going to need to know that narrator as well as you know your characters–likes and dislikes, motives, moral codes, values, etc.

In fact, if you want to try your hand at writing this type of narrator, I suggest you make a character profile in order to get to know your narrator as much as possible.

2017-09-03_13.12.22
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (top) and The Book Thief (bottom) have two of my favorite Character Narrators.

Also, read as many books as possible with this kind of narrator. You can start with the three I mention here, but also try out The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Book Thief. Reading these books will show you how a Character Narrator tells to great effect.

But if you’re not going to write a novel with a Character Narrator, then it’s best you SHOW as much as possible. Think about it, if your narrator isn’t a character in her own right, then why should your readers care about what she has to say? But if your narrator is like Fielding’s or Barrie’s narrators, then by all means, let them tell the story their own way. THEN, telling is interesting, revealing as much or more about the teller as about the characters she comments on.

Do you guys like third person omniscient books with Character Narrators? Which ones? Have you tried writing one of these narrators yourself? How’d it go?

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