The OF Blog: I Narrator

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

I Narrator

I might as well splash my first posting here, half a year late at the very least. Anway, I've been thinking over the past several weeks about the power of the narrated story, somewhat like Larry's post about the power of stage plays on the audience.

Over the recent weeks, I've been reading Gene Wolfe's Wizard Knight, Caitlin Sweet's A Telling of Stars, Matt Stover's Heroes Die, and Dan Simmons' Olympos. These very different novels and authors have each added to my thoughts on the power of perspective storytelling. Many of us are familiar with the pull of stories told in the typical 3rd person format. Some people are truly drawn to 1st person narrative for the obvious reasons of the immediacy of the story and the main character's reactions. For me, I've realized that I enjoy types of "Telling", to borrow Caitlin's term, a narrative within the larger narrative. This "telling" can come out in different styles and forms in written works, but they all have in common the sense of a deeper sharing of the story, readers and the characters.

Much like a play unfolding before an audience, certain aspects of this "Telling" style draw the audience into plot, setting, development, suspense, more directly than many other forms. Gene Wolf's Sir Able, in Wizard Knight, is writing a letter to his brother, a letter that we are reading. Through the process, the character has to contextualize his experiences, his gained understandings of the events going on around him. He also happens to underexaggerate, smooth over, forget, avoid and lie about certain details. The telling here becomes a living thing. The entirety of the novels exist as this letter; however, Wolfe has managed to create a story that is somehow larger, more complex than the entirety of the written work... he managed to put his letter-styled novels into a larger context without even writting it.

Caitlin Sweet's A Telling of Stars is both a telling and a story about a series and intersection of many tellings. The novel is tied together in a weave of different characters stories, partially revealed for the most part, that bring a greater understanding and deeper feel to the overall story, which turns out to be a Telling of it's own. While the novel is not directly a first person account, it does force to reader into multiple and ever-changing understandings of characters, events and situations as each new element and telling brings in a new texture to the main chracter's world. The interesting thing is that these interconnected tellings seems to be the power behind the reader's connection with the characters and the story. There is a kind of power in the constructed words of the characters in this novel that allow us to sit next to the characters for the revealing.

Both Simmons and Stover use "Telling" in more conceptual ways in the noted novels. In Ilium and Olympos, Simmons is working with a multi-part story, one part revolving around a re-telling of the epic battle for Troy, Homer's Iliad, from the perspective of an on the field scholar. This part of the novel also happens to be in 1st person narrative. Thus, we get commentary on actions, characters and developments from an observer. This device allows the reader to enter into the novel in a different way... with specific context and conversation as much as a simple reading of the plot elements. Simmons explores the ideas of "Telling" in other ways as well... the events of the war of Troy enter into another arc of the story, but as a form of media entertainment... also as an intended means of education. This gives characters not involved with the Troy arc an odd connection and interplay with the other section of the novel. As events unfold, the reader finds themselves in much the same situation, holding "observed" information from the Troy arc as new characters and events unfold. Finally, Simmons' has created a society where history has been lost, for the most part, and the power of the story has been reintroduced. So in one book, you get a narrated story of a war, a complex interaction with that narrated story, and actual stories of events and developments that happen off the page. All in all, this creates the sense of a much more developed and complex world and story than simply spelled out on the pages.

Stover goes at this in even another way. In Heroes Die, Stover creates a world that watches actors transport to another world for the purpose of adventure. It is like reality tv and fantasy high adventure combined. The interesting aspect for the reader is that Stover places us on both sides of this "Telling". We are sometimes in the PoV of a watcher of events, the PoV is actually coming from a person virtually "living" the main character's events. At other times, we are getting a more standard style of story, though the character will break into monologue for the benefit of those watching his "adventure". In this way, the reader gets involved in several different levels of the story, from the main characters personal thoughts, his carefully crafted and contextualized telling of events, and a completely removed and almost secondary connection to the story. It is an interesting concept, and it was used to great results in the novel.

What captures you when reading? Are there times when you feel more connected to a story than at others? Is there a narrative style that makes novels more immediate to you when you're reading?

For me, an author's ability to involve me in the story by changing my typical relationship to the words on the page makes all the difference. "Telling" makes me feel involved in a novel in ways that are different... I can be further removed and seeing the story through the lens and context of a character, or I can be so far into the events and actions of a character that it's difficult to make out a larger story. The styles and techniques are different, but I enjoy the results.

Anyway, I'd love to hear any thoughts or comments.



Angel said...

I have to say that I prefer to read a book in which I can observe more than be a part of... if that makes sense. It can be very annoying to be reading a book and it seeming that things are happening to 'me' due to how the book has been written as opposed to observing what is happening to the various characters.

As I have not actually read any of the books you have discussed in your post, I can only relate to what you are saying in general. Perhaps I will try to read them and then give some feedback!

Jacob said...

I know exactly what you mean, Angel. I'm not really talking about being so involved with a story that the actions seem to be happening to me. It's more the author's ability to pull me closer to the story, almost an active or present observer rather than merely a removed, passive one.

I'm certain that people have different styles that they enjoy, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. What is reading if not a mostly self-indulgent activity... after school that is. I've just been interested in aspects of stories that seem to set the reader in slightly different relationship with the material that they are reading.

Anonymous said...

I've not given this subject much active you force me to do so..Dern ya!!

Okay.... I (after a bit of cogitation) seem to have no true preference as to the "telling" of a tale.. I can deal with any form of narration(1st-3rd)and not be put off in the least if I find the work engaging...and at this point things become highly subjective.

Allow me to list a few of my favorite pieces of fiction and see if, by example, I can draw a picture ofof the types of "telling" I ultimately find myself drawn to...

1. Wheel of Time in all it's descriptive rolling grandiose minutiae.
2. Any work by Charles Dickens.
3. Erikson's Epic sprawl that is Malazan Tales of the Fallen.
4. Phillip Jose Farmer's precise prose.
5.Collen McCullough's time drenched tomes(and this word does indeed apply to her thick volumes)Masters of Rome.
6. Eddding's simple yet fun Belgariad/Mallorean
7. The many chnaging viewpoints in Weber's Honor Harringtonseries simply makes me focus on all that is occurring.
8. Chesterton's total delight in alliteration and word play.
9. The information dumping that Chaucer does in The Canterbury Tales.
10. The wondrous writhing monstrosity that is Hugo's Les Miserables ...
11. Faulkner's placement of the reader squarely in the minds of his characters(but, such only works in the hands of a true storytelling master).....

The things I do not find as pulls...most of the time..

1. Hemingway's is a very big detraction for me...

2. Book's like The Scar bore me.

3. Luridity for the sake of luridity..

4. Style and technique over plot and execution..

So..does that give you enough of an idea to open a discussion...from my viewpoint?

I love to fall deeply into the characters and feel things are happening to me...but I also love to view the events fro "on High" ..I guess I have a rather schizophrenic method to my reading.

Jacob said...

Brad, you've listed a very broad spectrum on narrative styles that enjoy, which is great. Truly, I enjoy a great many narrative styles as well as they are truly a tool for authors. A skilled author and storyteller will find the perspective and narrative style to tell their story... and I'm probably going to enjoy it.

Recently, though, I've been captivated by this style that I'm calling "Telling"... it's almost a narrative style or aspect that creates a story within the story feel. This creates a more obviously filtered perspective of the story, but it also requires us to put it together a little, after a fashion at least.

Brad, you're a reader, and you find joy, entertainment and engagement in the words, in the pages, through the story. All that really matters is the story and style touching something inside of you, sparking your interest... that is what reading is all about. ;)

Lsrry said...

Nice article Jake and about damn time you posted it here! ;)

Just thought I'd note something that came to mind as I was reading your article: the lyricism of the tellings. For me, the power of historia is that it envokes an emotional ebb and flow that can drift or carry us from point to point, often subconsciously, to those vistas that we just seem to have met in some other time or place but can't recall when or how.

Speaking of Caitlin's work (oh, and I emailed her the link to the article, which she liked), there's an interesting discussion of her first book over at SFF World. Thought you might want to check it out in the near future.

And here's hoping that there'll be more articles from you and others in the near future! I hope to be posting a review either tomorrow or Sunday of a fine YA fantasy by Alison Croggon, and there are elements of what you describe in her work as well, albeit in a different way. But that's for another article, yes? ;)

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