Using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, August 2015, I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. This is event #3678. The link is provided below…
Narrative Structure and Expectation
How do we enter stories? By what techniques do narratives pull us in? How do the expectations we have influence how we respond? I’ll break down some narrative techniques used in openings, and then go on to discuss how openings that match expectations can encourage us to keep reading while expectations that aren’t fulfilled can sometimes cause us to stop reading. How big a part does familiarity play in how well we can understand and adjust to a story? Finally, how do the things that we think we know but may be wrong about (as in history) make it easier or harder to be drawn into a book if our beliefs aren’t met? Kate Elliott
Author of plenty of books – though they all appear to be fantasy, which most of you know isn’t one of my favorite genres (I HAVE read the requisite classics by Lewis, Tolkien, LeGuin, Brooks, Card, Donaldson, Stroud, Clarke, Bull, Wynne Jones, and Nix) – it’s obvious that Elliot must have a clear grasp of writing technique. In fact, looking at the questions above, I can’t imagine that she would have been able to cover more than ONE of them in the time apparently allotted for the session.
In another fact, I don’t know if you could ever definitively answer these…
As I’m approaching the end of the Sasquan Program Book, I think I’ll stretch it out a bit and jump off from each one of the questions posed by the programmers and look at what it means to me and possibly how I would answer it.
So: By what techniques do narratives pull us in?
I suppose the first one that comes to mind is point of view and/or tense that the story is written in.
First Person: “I asked Sam to help me with my Happy New Year mailing, and we somehow got the project done early during the last week of December in spite of our packed schedules. I’m quite proud of us and ended up calling the project ours instead of mine.”*
Second Person: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.” (Opening lines of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984))
Third Person: “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested”. [“He” is in the singular third-person masculine subjective case.]; “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” [“She” is in the singular third-person feminine subjective case.] “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” [“It” is in the singular third-person neuter subjective case.]*
*See more at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/first-second-and-third-person#sthash.hHYKZdLW.dpuf
There are arguments for every one of these points of view making the story seem more “immediate”. I could probably find arguments that would take down each POV as being clumsy and ineffective.
For ME however, I prefer third person. I’ll read first person, but the writer has to refrain from bending the rules. First person is SUPPOSED to be from the point of view of the narrator, so unless the narrator is on one of the moons of Saturn, they can’t know what’s going on there. This is the POV of how we live our own lives and frankly, I read to get away from this life.
Another technique is word choice – not in the sense that you have to pick the right words, that’s a “duh” statement – where the author chooses to write elaborately or simply.
Elaborate writing: “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable.”
Simple: “The last gleaming sliver of Komarr’s true-sun melted out of sight behind the low hills on the western horizon. Lagging behind it in the vault of the heavens, the reflected fire of the solar mirror spring out in brilliant contrast to the darkening, purple-tinged blue. When Ekaterin had first viewed the hexagonal soletta-array from downside on Komarr’s surface, she’d immediately imagined it as a grand Winterfair ornament, hung in the sky like a snowflake made of stars, benign and consoling.”
Both paragraphs advance their story; both set up the world in which the story takes place.
But I’m drawn to one and *sigh* know that I “should” read the other. I even do the same with contemporary SF, one of my most recent “shoulds” begins this way: “We are barely past the orbit of Mars when Matjek figures out the truth about Narnia and helps me find Mieli’s trail.
"‘That can’t be the end!’ he says, holding up a book. It is a big, battered purple volume, with a circular window-like cover image that shows clashing armies. He has to lift it with both of his four-year-old hands. He struggles with its weight and finally slams it down onto the table in front of me.
"The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis, I note with a sigh. That means difficult questions.
"For the past few subjective days, the tiny main vir of our ship, the Wardrobe, has been a calm place. I created it based on a dream Matjek told me about. It is an incense-scented labyrinth of high bookshelves full of haphazardly stacked books of all sizes and colours. Matjek and I usually sit at a rough wooden table in the small café area in the front, brightly lit by diffuse sunlight through the display windows.”
Aside from the fact that I tried to start the trilogy with the last book, I was instantly confused by the introduction of three characters: Matjek, Mieli, and the narrator. Then the author throws in a meaningless word without definition: “vir”.
And there I am: lost. I DID finish it, but it was as beyond the me of today, as JG Ballard’s book, VERMILLION SANDS was beyond me in 1972 when I was fourteen…
The lesson to myself:
1) Write in third person; it’s the tense I most enjoy and easiest to follow.
2) Write simply; it’s easier to follow the story line when you cut away the excess words.
3) Keep the point of view simple to begin with. I can add other POVs later, but to begin with, start with third person and a simple description.