Tag Archives: narrator

How to Figure Out Who Is Telling Your Story

14 Nov

Juli Berwald’s book about jellyfish, Spineless, has received glowing reviews and been called “revelatory” and “thoroughly delightful and entertaining.”

One of the most basic elements that writers must figure out is who should—or is—telling their story. This means point of view: first person, second person, third person, omniscient, and all the shades of each. The possibilities can be overwhelming, and if you start asking yourself, “Is this really the right POV for my novel/story/memoir/nonfiction,” you can drive yourself crazy and never write anything. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask it, but sometimes the better approach is to forget the jargon and consider these simpler questions: Who is telling this story? What is the nature of that person? Why are they telling it?

A great example of a book whose answer to that question is tied inextricably to the way it is written is July Berwald’s captivating new book about jellyfish, Spineless. You can read the opening pages of the book here.

How the Book Works

The book is two things: a scientific report about jellyfish and argument about how they ought to be viewed by the public and studied by researchers and also Berwald’s personal story about the circumstances that led her to become interested in jellyfish. In terms of POV, the question becomes this: “What sort of person can tell both parts of that story?” It’s an aesthetic question but also a practical one. After all, readers could easily become confused if the scientific text they’re reading suddenly becomes a memoir.

As you might expect, Berwald sets out these different parts of her book right away. She begins with the personal: being in Hiroshima and seeing wild jellyfish. After a few pages and a space break, she breaks into the scientific: “The technical name for the stage of a jellyfish’s life when it swims freely in the seas is medusa…” It’s a line that could fit into a textbook or article in Nature. But if the book were to simply move back and forth between science/personal, a lot of readers would begin to skim one in favor of the other. The book wouldn’t work. So, what Berwald must do is figure out how the person telling the story—her—would talk about jellyfish. In short, what is the POV for the scientific sections. What is the voice of the narrator?

Here is the rest of the passage that follows that initial scientific line. Watch how it answers the question:

The technical name for the stage of a jellyfish’s life when it swims freely in the seas is medusa, a moniker shared with the Ancient Greek mythological monster. Medusa is famous for her horrible face, which could turn a man to stone, and her wild locks of hissing snakes. It’s not hard to see the similarities. A swimming medusa could look like a floating head with a wayward mane of terrifying stinging tentacles.

But dig a little deeper into the story of Medusa, and what you find is not at all a monster, but a victim whose story has been misunderstood. Medusa was born to two ancient marine deities and, according to Ovid, was stunningly gorgeous. She served the goddess Athena in her temple. Others say Poseidon couldn’t control himself. As in too many cases like this, it depends who’s telling the story. Since I am: He raped her, right there in Athena’s temple.

The passage goes on to finish the story about Medusa and its connection to jellyfish. This is something that Berwald does throughout the book: convey factual information (in-depth, scientific, scholarly, contextual) in this engaging, personal voice. It makes the book a beautiful, captivating read even if you thought you didn’t care at all about jellyfish.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s figure out who is telling your story, using Spineless by Juli Berwald as a model:

  1.  Identify the parts of the story. I don’t mean the beginning, middle, end, setting, plot, etc. Instead, the parts of the story are the types of information that are conveyed. You see this a lot in novels that include characters with expertise in certain subjects, like Tom Clancy’s experts in warfare and weapons. In his novels, there is the story and also the vast amount of technical information that the characters know and talk about. Most fiction contains some version of this. Science fiction and fantasy has worldbuilding and lore that must be conveyed to the readers. So does historical fiction. In your book—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—what is the area of expertise for the characters. What are they obsessed with? If you’re writing nonfiction like Berwald and focusing on that expertise or obsession, what is the story around it (yours or other people’s)? Who are the individuals involved?
  2. Decide which part will be dominant (or which part will lead the way). In Spineless, Berwald leads with the personal. If I had to guess at a ratio, I’d guess that more than half of the book is actually scientific and factual, but she uses the personal to lead us into the science. In your story, think about both measures. What is the dominant information in your story? What does it focus on most of the time? And, what part of the story most often serves as the hook for the reader? What part leads the reader into a chapter or section?
  3. Weaves the parts together. Berwald starts with the personal and then pivots to the science. But when she does, it’s not a screeching change in direction. Instead, she uses the personal (which led us to the science) to comment upon the science and shape how we learn about it. She does this by overlapping types of information. So, in the passage above, she overlaps science with mythology, which provides an opportunity for explanation. In your story, you can do the same thing. Give your narrator (whoever and whatever POV it is) multiple kinds of information to talk about at once, which usually leads to explanation. She also personalizes the information, moving from a general perspective (“It’s not hard to see the similarities”) to a particular one (“it depends on who’s telling the story. Since I am:”). I don’t know if Berwald has taught university classes, but this technique is what often distinguishes the most popular professors in any field: their ability to convey factual information in an entertaining, engaging, and often personal way. It’s the difference between “Here is what is” and “Let me tell you what is.”
  4. Explore the nature of that speaker. In your story, who is the me that navigates between the different parts of the story? Try using Berwald’s sentence about Medusa as a literal model: “It depends on who’s telling the story. Since I am…” How would the of your story talk about the information in it. This works for third-person and omniscient POVs as well. They often have an attitude. Becoming more aware of it can help you fine tune your story’s voice to make it as engaging as possible.

The goal is to find the voice and perspective that allows you to weave together the different parts of your story as effectively as possible.

Good luck.

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Show the Narrator’s Evolution

12 Mar
Nina McConigley's story "White Wedding" was first published in Memorius and will be included in her forthcoming debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

Nina McConigley’s story “White Wedding” was first published in Memorious and is included in her debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

If someone asks, “What happens in the story?” the answer can tell you a lot. Maybe it’s a series of actions: guy gets killed in the Louvre, and so another guy interviews people, solves puzzles, meets Jesus’ great-great-etc granddaughter, and together they catch the killer. The main character probably doesn’t have much of an interior life. All changes are plot changes.

But what if the answer is “It’s about this guy, and at first he felt this way, but then he realized he felt this way?” The story is in his head. A story like this can present a problem: if the character’s interior life is the story, how do you show any of it? Most of us want to avoid writing this sentence: “Now he felt different.” But how?

Nina McConigley solves this problem masterfully in “White Wedding.” The story is included in her debut collection from Five Chapter Books, but you can read it here at Memorious.

How the Story Works

The narrator, Lakshmi, lives (and has chosen to live) in Casper, Wyoming, a city and state with an almost-entirely white population. She claims to be comfortable with standing out, but by the story’s end, she has perhaps decided to leave, in part because of her feelings about identity and place. As a result, the reader can gauge Lakshmi’s movement toward “the speed of [her] own escape” by how she feels about Casper.

Here are a few examples of her evolution:

  • The first paragraph ends with this statement: “We were used to white people.”
  • Halfway through the story, the narrator remembers her dying mother’s wish not to be “buried in Western clothes.” Instead, her mother asks to be buried in a sari. The problem is that the “people in the funeral home won’t know how.” But neither does the narrator. As she practices putting on the sari, her mother tells her Lakshmi that she should wear one more often. The narrator remembers thinking, “I would like to wear them more often. But where? To the Wonder Bar? To work?” Suddenly, the narrator isn’t so certain about her relationship to the place’s whiteness.
  • By the day of the wedding, the narrator has learned to dress someone in a sari. But that ability does not give her a connection to her Indian identity. When asked how she feels about being bi-racial, the narrator has usually answered, “It’s the best of two worlds! I get to be American, and Indian. I have two cultures to choose from!” But she’s learned that “the halves did not make a whole.” She is satisfied with neither white Casper nor her Indian heritage. As a result, she perhaps decides to strike out and find her own place and identity.

Notice how McConigley invests the narrator’s feelings about ethnicity in a specific object: a sari. The writing is never vague. The first paragraph even gives a statistic about the whiteness of Casper. The lesson, then, is to give the narrator an existential concern—Who am I? What am I doing?—and embody that concern in a particular place, object, or person.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Pick a character. You can invent one from scratch or choose an existing character from a story draft. 
  2. Find an existential problem. Answer this question: When the character can’t sleep at night, what does he/she think or obsess about? Write the answer as a general statement (Carl wonders if he’ll ever find love.)
  3. Locate that problem in something concrete. Embody your answer in a place, object, or person. For example, my character Carl might be really ugly, and so he obsesses about a particular feature of his face or body. Or perhaps he lives in a place where no one shares his interests (canning, video games, musicals).
  4. Change the character’s attitude toward the problem. Brainstorm how the character’s feelings toward that place, object, or person change over the course of time. So, Carl might become less self-conscious about his looks. Or he might decide to move somewhere that has people like him. Or he might change his views on the requirements of love—maybe people don’t need to share interests. Maybe there’s something else that can attract lovers. Once you find the change that will occur, you can create a story (obstacles for the character to encounter) that will allow them to take place.

It’s possible that this exercise will feel too didactic, as though you’re telling the reader too much. Keep in mind that these notes are for you. If you know how your character feels (and evolves), it will be easier to keep the story moving in the right direction.

Good luck!

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