Friday, April 1, 2022

Narrative Perspectives--Which Will Serve Your Story Best?

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 best? And if both will, how do you move back and forth between them, weaving 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 of retrospective narration is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, a story told by Scout, as an adult, looking back on her life as a young girl. You can tell immediately the narrative point of view in Lee's first pages. Scout says something like "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.

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.

Real time narration is harder, more in-your-face as a reader. I have long admired the effect of this narrative choice in Emma Donahue's first novel, Room. It's about a woman who gets kidnapped and held hostage, but Donahue chose to tell the story from the viewpoint of the five-year-old boy who is born to the woman in captivity.

To achieve this, she used only age-appropriate language and concepts. We are really inside the boy's head and heart, each moment. We can only see and understand what he witnesses.

Which made the horror more intense.

Retrospective narration is often easier on the reader and writer, both. It's easier to write, in my opinion, because you have the ability to move around in time, to show the young person via their dialogue and action choices, tempered by the older person looking back and retrospectively considering what happened.

It's a useful decision to think about, play with, as you develop your fiction or nonfiction. For instance, if you are writing difficult memories for a memoir piece, using retrospective narration--your viewpoint from now, rather than then--can help you successfully negotiate with an internal critic who is reluctant to let bad memories surface. Retrospective also allows in the "triad of healing writing" that Louse DeSalvo speaks of in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing: 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 might serve your story best?

This week, experiment with a scene or chapter told in both. See what excites you as writer and reader.

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