In the many years of writing fiction, I have discovered about twenty ways to narrate a story, most of them huge mistakes for the flow of the story I am trying to tell. Since landing an agent, I found out that there are also some narrator types or mistakes that are off-putting to modern readers and mostly to literary agents.
Here is the list:
Obvious Narrator – Mostly, this is the type of narrator that is overbearing. I am not writing here about first person narrators who are intentionally inserting their own thoughts into the narrative, but third person narrators who are doing something like what the Wizard of Oz does to Dorothy when Toto pulls the curtain away to reveal that he is really pulling the strings on the huge alien head hologram. This type of narrator inserts themselves into the story too much by heavy use of “he said/she said”, writing about events or background that does not move the story along, and by generally fading out of character to discuss a past plot point.
Oblivious Narrator – This is when the writer doesn’t keep track of the color of eyes, past events, things said earlier in the story, and so on. I have downloaded some .99 cent novels that were very long but that were also a little discombobulated. When you are an indie writer, you usually have to either hire an editor or do it yourself, but unfortunately many of the indies I’ve read have been doing the work themselves…and it shows. I do my own work, but I have an English degree and have developed tricks over the years to catch my errors, but I also have a host of friends who are excellent at pointing out problems.
Should-Have-Been Narrator – Have you ever read a story and thought that it should have been in third person or first person? I spend a heap of time thinking carefully about what point of view from which I tell my stories. It is not uncommon for me to write seven chapters of a novel before changing the point of view. This Broken Earth was written in first person from one character’s perspective until I found it to be too limiting. I then experimented with first person omniscient, and that is what it ended up becoming. This was only after I had tried it out on a few guinea pigs (writer’s group, friends, my mother). Usually if mom doesn’t think it’s too weird, I go with it. Think carefully about your narrator. It is indeed the portal by which your reader enters the world you have created.
Un-Necessary Narrator – This is merely a comment on writers who spend chapter after chapter not really driving the action of the novel forward. Look through your text and find any chapters that could be eliminated but which would not take away from the action of the story and you will find yourself creating a much more streamlined and reader friendly text. I eliminated all of the angelic/demonic beings from the first section of This Broken Earth because they tended to re-state the action of the story from their point of view and thereby slowed down the action.
One thing should be said about unreliable narrators. Sometimes this is a good thing, and in This Broken Earth it paid off for readers royally, but this type of narrator can become tiresome and unnecessary for some readers if it is not handled well. Think carefully about the unreliable narrator and decide if he/she/it is a necessary piece to the overall story and what would be better/worse if they were more reliable.
If you can think of any other problems with narration, post them here…especially if you do not have a writer’s group. Bounce ideas off of us. I’m sure my more experienced readers will respond.