Narrative Positioning

I was going to do part 2 of world building today, but I got sidetracked — and I want to do more than a half-assed job of it.

Rather than go a Friday without an update, though, I thought I’d share a little tidbit of writing miscellany. In our Fiction workshop today, Steven Galloway ran the workshop while our regular professor was away. He did a little impromptu lesson about narrative positioning.

Rather than talk about the sort of standard “Third Person Omniscient” or “Third Person Limited” or “First –” etc. etc., he put it in terms of whether a particular sentence is being told to the reader by the narrator or by a character.

Ryan stepped into the sun. It was a bright, warm day, and he hoped Jason would be home.

This is told to us by the narrator. It’s a fact. This is what Ryan did, this is what Ryan hoped.

Ryan stepped into the sun. Jason better be home today, or they’d never get that game in.

The first sentence is narrator. But the second is in the head of Ryan.

As a writer, it’s a) important to get into the heads of at least one of the characters — and sometimes several. Without getting into people’s heads, the reader can’t become emotionally connected to the character — we would just see everything objectively, see actions without hearing the mind of the people making them. Ever. And it’s also b) important not to get into people’s heads wantonly. If the reader is forced to switch from one character’s head to another several times within a scene, he’s going to get lost, confused, and overwhelmed. Furthermore, if we get into a character’s head, we’re going to want something from that character — we don’t want to get into the heads of any Joe in the story.

Galloway said, “If you go into someone’s head, you’re now obliged to give them an arc and have them do stuff.” Seems simple, but it’s true. If the reader gets inside someone’s head, they’re now a character the reader will care about — and thus they will need their own story within the story.

It’s hard, too, because characters need to be unique from each other, and that includes what they sound like when we’re in their heads. “Make their brains sound different.”

And I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to the sounds they make when you dissect them.

1 comment on this post.
  1. Karen Shklanka:

    Great that you shared this. You explained it well. Steven told our workshop group that he originally heard this idea of narrative positioning from Keith Maillard. He used Keith’s novel “Gloria” to illustrate the point.

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