Friday, October 16, 2015

Story Told from Then, Story Told from Now--Getting Clear about Your Narrative Point of View

Deciding who is telling your story--that's a big moment in writing a book.  But even more important is deciding where your narrator will be standing, as he or she tells the tale.  Is the narrator speaking in real time, as the story is happening?  Or from what's called the "retrospective" point of view, looking back from the distance of years?

Which narrative point of view will best serve your story?  Can you move back and forth between them?  And if so, how do you weave them together to make a cohesive book?



Power of Then versus Power of Now--Real Time versus Retrospective Narration We always have the choice, when telling an imagined or real experience from the past, to relate it from then or from now. 

Real time narration, which takes place as the event is happening, is the best choice if you want the most electricity on the page.  Telling the story of a train accident that happened years ago, from the retrospective view of now, is less intense than putting us into it as it's happening.  But retrospective narration can lend perspective to such events, and many memoir writers use it. 

Many novelists too.  One classic example is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which is written by Scout, as an adult looking back.  You can tell immediately the narrative point of view in Lee's first pages.  Scout relates those were the years when they were told they had nothing to fear but fear itself.  We're not hearing that slogan as it comes across the radio airwaves; we getting it in summary as a description of that era.   

Retrospective narration has many benefits.  It allows a bigger perspective.  Scout, at eight, wouldn't understand the deeper meaning and irony of that slogan, so in real time narration, she couldn't use it as Lee does in her opening pages. 

Retrospective, or looking back, gives us a more sophisticated vocabulary, too, with bigger concepts, that our younger narrator might not know.

Showing Real-Time via Action and Dialogue
This is the cool thing:  Within retrospective narration, the writer can still show the young girl of eight.  How?  By making her dialogue and action age-appropriate.  Anytime Scout appears in a scene, she is doing and saying things that an eight-year-old girl would do, not a forty-year-old adult.

But the writing will be more electric, more emotionally charged, if we choose to write from real time.  Remember the effect of the five-year-old narrator in Emma Donahue's novel, Room, about a woman who gets kidnapped and held hostage?  Donahue chose to tell the story from the viewpoint of the child who is born to the woman in captivity, and she used age-appropriate language and concepts, which made the horror more intense.

A memoir writer who is struggling to bring forth difficult memories, and write about them, can make use of the retrospective self to negotiate with the Inner Critic, who is loath to let the bad memories surface.  Retrospective allows in the "triad of healing writing" that Louse DeSalvo speaks of in her books:  how we feel now, as well as how we felt then and what happened.

Think about your book.  Do you want to tell your story with a narrator voice in real time, telling the story as it happened, or with a retrospective voice, telling the story from now, looking back. 

Which serves your story best?