Thursday, February 6, 2014

Who Can Best Tell Your Tale?

You have two basic choices for narrating your tale: in the first-person or third-person. 

Writers have used both to tell great stories; which is best for your short story or novel? 

First-Person Narrator
In first-person narration, one character (usually the protagonist) tells the whole story in her own voice, “I.” The reader perceives and understands everything through this single storyteller’s personality, memories, attitudes, expectations and motives.

First-person narration is often the choice of novice writers, because it’s the everyday mode in which we talk about our lives. It has the advantage of immediacy and intensity, because the reader is always inside the storyteller’s head and heart, living each scene directly as that character.

If you choose to narrate your romance using the first-person, you must ask: Why is this particular character telling the story? Who is her audience? Is she talking to friends, a lover, a therapist, a judge, a diary?
The biggest snag with writing first-person narration is that the narrator must be physically present for every key plot event. If your storyteller merely reports hearsay about an important scene that she did not experience firsthand, the dramatic power is lost.

Another drawback is that your first-person narrator can only guess at another character’s inner life and can never directly know what’s going on in any other character’s experience—unless she’s telepathic! Also, because readers will deduce from the outset that the narrator does not die, any scene in which the narrator’s life is threatened will be less suspenseful. (To be sure, writers sometimes betray this presumption with a shocker ending.) Of course the fact that the narrator does not die doesn’t mean irrevocable things—sweet or painful—cannot happen to her. And some tales thrive on the inverted dramatic tension of knowing the end from the beginning (How did such fierce enemies become adoring newlyweds?).

Third-Person Narrator
Third-person storytelling comes in two types, “omniscient” and “limited.” In the omniscient third-person, the narrator is a disembodied witness who hovers over the characters and their actions, telling the reader exactly what’s going on externally and also inside each character’s head. Thoughts, memories, fantasies—any moment of the past or future—are all available to the narrator’s godlike view. The writer is free to jump to any character’s viewpoint within a scene; for example, if two couples are arguing, you can reveal the interior experience of each of the four people. As the all-knowing author you can write a scene in which none of your characters is aware of an important secret that you have disclosed to your readers.

By contrast, limited third-person narration tells the story through only one viewpoint character at a time; the reader experiences and knows only what the current viewpoint character experiences and knows. The writer can switch among viewpoint characters but must provide a clear transition—a scene or chapter break—and make it instantly clear which new viewpoint the reader is now inhabiting. Limited third-person narration gives the reader intimacy with multiple characters, and unlike omniscient third-person narration, it avoids the sense of a remote intelligence that is outside looking in.

How to make up your mind?
The most common choice in bestselling novels is the third-person limited narrator, followed by first person. Third-person omniscient narration is far less common. (There is also second-person narration, but it is rare. It addresses the reader like this: You are not the kind of girl who would normally be at a place like this at 3 a.m. yet here you are, talking to a woman with a tattooed head.)

If you feel confident that your story is compelling, but you’re less sure that your prose is original and dazzling, you may want to tell your story in limited-third person, the form in which the writer is least visible. But if you think your chief talent is a clever or lyrical way with words, you might prefer to tell your story in the omniscient third person, which offers the best showcase for the author’s own musings. And if your main character is such a dynamic, unique personality she absolutely must tell her own story, then let her have her voice in first person.

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