Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Give Me a Good Ol' Narrator

Three sentences:

The old tractor climbed the hill and disappeared down the other side.

I saw ol’ Bob on that old tractor of his, just as he was going over the hill at the Abernathy place.

Didn’t you see it too, when that tractor went over the hill?

We talk a lot about Point of View (POV). From a technical standpoint, all three sentences have a different POV. The first sentence is Third Person POV. The second sentence is First Person POV. The third sentence is Second Person POV. But let’s ignore the technical meaning of Point of View and consider the scene and the camera angle. In each case, it wouldn’t be hard for us to imagine that the speaker stood on a hill over looking a valley, looked out and saw Bob driving his tractor over a hill on the other side. Neither the scene nor the camera angle have changed and yet the three sentences sound completely different.

Lest we think Point of View is the only thing at work here, let’s add two more first person sentences:

When I saw Bob last, he was out plowing the field we leased from Roy James.

I watched an old tractor plowing a field until it disappeared over the hill and then I got in my car to drive back to St. Louis.

Notice the differences between the three examples of first person. POV is the same, the scene is the same and the camera angle is the same, but they sound very different. The difference is the narrator. In the first example, the narrator may be Bob’s neighbor, in the Second, his wife and in the third a city slicker from St. Louis.

The narrator is a topic that seems very much ignored by the publishing industry these days. The idea seems to be that as long as an author writes in limited omniscience third person all of the ills concerning the narrator will be solved and perhaps they would, if more writers could do the limited POV well, but most of us do it poorly. (And yes, I must include myself in that group.) Our natural tendency is to give the narrator our own voice. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many good stories can be told in our own voice, but in the quest for excellence we need our books to stand out. The character with the most power to make a book memorable is the narrator. The tone the narrator uses and the intelligence level of the narrator greatly influence the reader’s perception. The narrator shouldn’t just relay cold hard facts, but should have an opinion concerning the events he relays. We can even give the narrator an opinion that differs from our own and what the story infers.

Sadly, many of the books published today have boring narrators. If it weren’t for the strength of the story itself, there would be no reason to read the book. We can do better.