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When does narration work in writing?

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AndyDibble
(@andydibble)
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This is something I've been thinking more deeply about because my stories typically have a lot of worldbuilding and philosophical/theological ideas (often too many!), but it's a question that every fiction writer deals with. It's related to the show vs. tell question, but not the same because telling can happen in, e.g., dialog. And depending upon how showing is defined, narration can be showing (e.g. if showing involves implying information, "Betty kissed Bill. John was sad." is both narration and showing because we learn about John's romantic attachment to Betty or Bill even though that's unsaid).

When a story is written in first person or close third PoV (ie most every contemporary story--90+%), narration and introspection are very close (introspection is just a kind of narration focused on the character's own mental state), so I think many of the same conclusions that can be drawn about narration apply to introspection.

Here are my ideas for when it works:

1. When it's brief. Most any reader will not get bored by 1-3 sentences of narration. 

2. If it's transitions between scenes. Transitions are often where boring stuff happens (gaps in time or space where nothing interesting happened), and just telling the reader where/when the character is works well.

3. If it's witty, funny, or written in a strong voice. Readers are more apt to like long narrative passages if the voice is fun or interesting.

4. If emotion builds in the narration (ie more and more emotional engagement from the character, until is bursts likely in some kind of action or dialog)

5. When it increases immersion in the world. If setting is important to your story and your setting is interesting, longer narration about setting can keep reader interest.

6. When it's in response to a specific happening or detail in the world (i.e. something another character says, something in the setting, etc. triggers reflection on the part of the character).

What ideas do others have?

 

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Posted : September 6, 2021 8:02 am
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David Hankins
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@andydibble, as a reader, I definitely prefer narration that is engaging (witty/funny/etc) and builds to a purpose for the plot.

World building is all well and good, and it might be interesting that the tree has purple bark, but how does that relate to my protagonist’s struggle?

It’s a fine line to walk, finding the right information to narrate and determining the best way to present it. 

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Posted : September 6, 2021 9:50 am
Disgruntled Peony
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I've been experimenting with first person in stories of late, and I've found it can be useful to alternate between the main story and in-character monologues when writing in first person, which gives an interesting way to experiment with the narration question.

In one of the stories I wrote recently, the narrative fragments were short and essentially symbolized the down-time between when the viewpoint character, a construct, 'died' and 'came back to life'.

In another, I had a ton of background info I needed the reader to have, so I'd show the reader a scene and then provide a few paragraphs of narration during transitions from one scene to the next. There were hooks at the end of every scene, so it filled the reader in while (hopefully) adding to the suspense.

It's harder for me to weave narration into stories using third person, but it's still doable. (And I definitely agree that narration and introspection function similarly, in this way. I might actually have been describing introspection above. It's been a very busy day, so I'm not operating at 100% right now.)

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Posted : September 7, 2021 7:52 pm
David Hankins
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I’m listening to the audiobook of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams right now and this conversation made me take note of his narration style. He writes in third person universal and has a LOT of narration. Basically he drops an info dump every time he introduces something new, which is pretty often. But he writes it in such an entertaining way that I don’t mind just coming along for the ride, which goes to @andydibble ‘s third point. Writing in such an entertaining way let him get away with info dumps.

There’s a reason this book is a cult classic among SF/F fans.

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Posted : September 8, 2021 3:48 am
Disgruntled Peony
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Posted by: @lost_bard

I’m listening to the audiobook of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams right now and this conversation made me take note of his narration style. He writes in third person universal and has a LOT of narration. Basically he drops an info dump every time he introduces something new, which is pretty often. But he writes it in such an entertaining way that I don’t mind just coming along for the ride, which goes to @andydibble ‘s third point. Writing in such an entertaining way let him get away with info dumps.

There’s a reason this book is a cult classic among SF/F fans.

Douglas Adams was a master of this kind of thing, most definitely. smiley  

If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn't expecting it. ~ H.G. Wells
If a person offend you, and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick. ~ Mark Twain
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Posted : September 8, 2021 7:23 am
Shriya S
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@lost_bard I read a story that my friend wrote that had a wonderful fairy-tale type feel. I asked them how could I add that, because tbh it was quite charming. Then I started working on my own project for this competition, and I learnt that the right kind of narration will give the story a wonderful, fairy-tale feel.

 
Posted : September 8, 2021 7:24 pm
czing
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Posted by: @surhut_the_samwise

@lost_bard I read a story that my friend wrote that had a wonderful fairy-tale type feel. I asked them how could I add that, because tbh it was quite charming. Then I started working on my own project for this competition, and I learnt that the right kind of narration will give the story a wonderful, fairy-tale feel.

My experience with reading something that was also fairy-tale like for someone was that a more distant viewpoint seems to really fit for that (at least as a reader I found it very effective). I think this recent 'demand' for closer POVs misses out on some things and in my opinion this is one of them - getting that fairy-tale feeling right with a close POV would be incredibly hard I think.

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Posted : September 13, 2021 10:53 am
Shriya S
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@czing Yes, exactly! Close POVs are good for some genres, no denying that, but distant POVs where the narration is heavy are needed to take us out of this world sometimes

 
Posted : September 13, 2021 10:51 pm
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