Necessary Narration

Narration—a part of writing no one discusses, tries to teach, or dares to craft. All writers are left to their own devices when it comes to narration.

What is narration?” It can be identified as internal conflict, passive thought, recollection of the past and prediction of the future. This is where telling sneaks in, and that is why most teachers, mentors, editors, and fellow writers overlook this. The rule is “show—don’t tell”, but everyone knows this secret sin where telling lurks embedded in the story structure.

Consider this example taken from our discussion of Movement in Description:

He didn’t care to get up and turn on the news. The car chase he barely escaped was bound to be on every channel, and Rex didn’t want to see how close the CIA came to catching him. He only had enough time to close his eyes, catch a nap, and then head out again―hopefully leaving town for good.

This is telling. The contraction ‘didn’t’ is used as well as the verb ‘was’ and ‘had’. This paragraph is important to get into Rex’s mind and understand his situation. It’s not descriptive because it doesn’t show anything, and there is no movement or physical action. It’s not dialogue because no one speaks. It’s narration.

So what’s the big deal about narration if everyone does it?” The ‘big deal’ is the simple fact that if the narration—much like description—is written wrong, it bores the reader, and they will skip the chucks of paragraphs. You never want this to happen!

All right, so how do we write so the reader doesn’t skip?” Excellent question, but the answer is elusive. I have no answer—no formula for you to follow, but I’m going to introduce an idea: permission to tell.

Show—don’t tell: I’ve been saying this repeatedly in everything I’ve written, but this is the exception! Go ahead. Use contractions, use helping verbs, passive voice, poetic flare, but most importantly channel emotion into the words.

When you’re writing a death scene, the narration is the most important part of the scene! There isn’t going to be a lot of dialogue. There won’t be a lot of action. However, there will be a massive amount of emotion, and this is the place for a downpour of emotion. If you’ve ever been in that situation, reach back into your memory and remember what it felt like. Take those memories and apply them to the scene. Here’s an example:

Luther shook his head and immediately began pumping on Caden’s chest to keep the blood circulating. “Come on, Caden. Don’t you dare die on me.” He pressed over and over again.

True, once upon a time, Luther had been jealous of his younger brother’s unique ability to switch places with people, but he never wanted him to die. Luther knew he had been stupid calling Caden in on this mission. He knew no one had located the shooter, so how could he have expected Caden to switch places with the unseen individual? Caden realized this, and he took the only course of action possible in this situation―the only action no one considered because they had hoped for an alternative.

Frustrated tears slid down Luther’s face as he tried again and again to keep life in his brother’s body.

That middle paragraph is telling. It has the helping verb ‘had’ in it multiple times. This is a window into the character’s mind, his thought process, his reasoning, and as a result we can feel his emotions—his grief, frustration, fear, and regret. If I left that paragraph out, here is how it would read:

Luther shook his head and immediately began pumping on Caden’s chest to keep the blood circulating. “Come on, Caden. Don’t you dare die on me.” He pressed over and over again.

Frustrated tears slid down Luther’s face as he tried again and again to keep life in his brother’s body.

Sure, it might show the emotions but not at the depth as the first version did. You can’t relate to the character, but you feel like you’re standing at a distance just watching—not experiencing it. This is why these narration sections are important. Several times I’ve co-written with fellow writers but more in a roleplaying manner where each of us have our individual characters who interact with one another. Oftentimes as they wrote, they only included the physical actions of the characters, and finally I had to bluntly tell them, “Listen, I don’t like your characters. They’re flat. There’s nothing connecting me to them—no reason for me to care whether or not they fail. I need to get inside their head, need to feel what they’re feeling. Once I’ve done that, then I’ll be able to care and not want to let them go.” What I meant was the narration part of writing was lacking, and once they realized that, they started writing it and instantly depth was add. This is why narration is a fundamental part of writing.

However, there is a proper place, time, and way to use narration. My mother gave me a book to read from a bestselling author, whose books have become movies. She pointed out one section and asked me to read it. I tried, but I hit the brick block of narration and couldn’t continue. It was too formal, too dry, dull and lifeless. I felt like the narrator was telling me what was happening as if the narrator and I were standing at a distance observing the character rather than the characters feeling and thinking.

Narrators should be invisible. Often these paragraphs are seen as necessary, but they frustrate the editors because they break the ‘show—don’t tell’ rule. The editors know the narration tells, and the information in the paragraph is important, and there’s no other way to share it. Since it is a necessary evil, the editors do what they do best—edit it to its bare bones; all that’s left is a lifeless shell that had its soul sucked out of it. Leave only the important details—almost like journalism.

This breaks the rhythm of the story, drains any color, stops the scene like pausing a movie to explain what’s going on, and yanks the reader out of the story.

The worst part is authors allow editors to do this because they think the editors are supposed to be omniscient in all things writing. Thinking this way excuses the author of his true responsibility to the story, and the editors apply their formula to every story, and out comes a well-baked traditional apple pie.

Put it this way: Authors, if you’re writing for the sake of sharing the story with the world rather than writing for wealth or fame or a place in history, then you know how difficult your characters can be. If they don’t want to do something you planned, they won’t budge. They’ll give you Writer’s Block before they do anything. And if you do make them do what they didn’t want to do or say, then they’ll kick and scream through the rest of the story, and you’ll feel exhausted and discontent with the story. It’ll feel like a waste of time and a waste of words for you.

If our characters—nonexistent people in our heads—can be so influential when it comes to the story, why do we authors—living, breathing individuals—just go with the flow of traditional publishing and allow anyone to change anything any way they want? Your story was written the way it was because it demanded to be written that way! If anyone suggests a change, you need to be ready and willing to put up a fight—of course, consider what is being said and weigh whether it’s worth a fight. It might be a matter of miscommunication where your editor and you are saying the exact some thing but can’t understand one another.

To recap, narration is important. Listen clearly to the characters during these parts, and let them write it. When it’s time for the editors to take a look, you need to know why you wrote what you did the way you did and be ready to defend it while being open to suggestions.

In the end, the decision should be yours.

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3 comments on “Necessary Narration

  1. Really nice post! I find myself struggling with this in editing. While I try to keep the action “tight,” I also have to take moments to dig into the psychology of the characters, the deep motivating factors that inform the choices they make. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to achieve.

    • Kellannetta says:

      It is a difficult balance, and there may never be perfection or mastery of it. The more you experience in your own life, the more you bring into your stories and characters on a psychology level, and elements are constantly changing. The most important part of editing is knowing when you’ve edited enough and just stop and trust your work. You can do it! 🙂

  2. […] 13: Necessary Narration – ‘Narration’ can be another word for ‘telling’, and because of this, a […]

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