Narrating a story presents many choices. How will you bring time and place into your story? Whose POV will you tell the story from? How will you show characters’ pasts? Here are 5 examples of narrative from great novels that teach us how to write narrative with different purposes:
1: Narrating time and place: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Love in the Time of Cholera
The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a master of narration. Marquez moves effortlessly between the lives and histories of his characters and their environment. In Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), the third person narrator describes the unnamed seaside city in the Carribbean where much of the novel takes place. Marquez narrates the passage through the eyes of Dr. Urbino, one of the city’s most distinguished doctors:
The city, his city, stood unchanging on the edge of time: the same burning dry city of his nocturnal terrors and the solitary pleasures of puberty, where flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow aging among whithered laurels and putrefying swamps. In winter sudden devastating downpours flooded the latrines and turned the streets into sickening bogs. (p. 16-17)
In the space of a paragraph, Marquez shows how the city changes (or doesn’t change) over centuries. This makes Marquez’s setting more vivid and real. The narration passes from showing the city’s history to its citizens’ current ways of life. The narrator proceeds to describe the lives of poor inhabitants:
During the weekend they danced without mercy, drank themselves blind on home-brewed alcohol, made wild love among the icaco plants, and on Sunday at midnight they broke up their own party with bloody free-for-alls. (p. 17)
Over the course of two pages, Marquez masterfully shows the city’s history independent of its inhabitants. His narration then zooms in closer on people’s lives. The multiple time-scales combine to give a rich sense of time and place.
2: Narration, characterization and POV: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway
Point of view or POV is a core element of narration (read about different types of POV here and a definition of narration here). One function of POV is to let us see events through a character’s perspective. We might interpret events the way they do, because we don’t have a different viewpoint for comparison.
Virginia Woolf is a master of filtering using POV. She often switches between multiple characters’ viewpoints within a single page. This lets her reveal characters’ different preoccupations and personalities.
Take, for example, this scene in Mrs Dalloway (1925). Septimus Smith is a World War I veteran whose mental health is crumbling. His Italian wife Rezia feels unease and longs for her home country. Woolf switches from paragraph to paragraph between Septimus and Rezia’s viewpoints, in third person:
Human nature, in short, was on him – the repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils. Holmes was on him. Dr. Holmes came quite regularly every day. Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on the back of a postcard, human nature is on you. Holmes is on you. Their only chance was to escape, without letting Holmes know; to Italy – anywhere, anywhere, away from Dr. Holmes.
But Rezia could not understand him. Dr. Holmes was such a kind man. He was so interested in Septimus. He only wanted to help them, she said. (p. 81)
Woolf’s gift for narration means that she can show multiple character’s personalities, fears and obsessions within a single page without breaking the flow of narration. Woolf reports Rezia’s words within narration, instead of using dialogue. This allows Woolf’s narration (and changes of viewpoint) to flow without interruption.
3: Revealing character through backstory: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things (1997), about tragedies that strike twin siblings born in Ayemenem in India and their family, is full of rich narration. Roy reveals the unusual, individualistic nature of one twin, Rahel, by telling the reader Rahel’s schooling background:
Rahel was first blacklisted in Nazareth Convent at the age of eleven, when she was caught outside her Housemistress’s garden gate decorating a knob of fresh cowdung with small flowers. At Assembly the next morning, she was made to look up depravity in the Oxford Dictionary and read aloud its meaning. (p. 16)
Roy proceeds to narrate Rahel’s expulsion, revealing Rahel’s inquisitive mind in the process. Roy builds this characteristic throughout the novel:
Six months later she was expelled after repeated complaints from senior girls. She was accused (quite rightly) of hiding behind doors and deliberately colliding with her seniors. When she was questioned by the Principal about her behaviour (cajoled, caned, starved), she eventually admitted that she had done it to find out whether breasts hurt. (p.16)
Through narrating events in the past, in Rahel’s schooling, Roy fleshes out a sense of her character. She shows her inquiring, rule-breaking nature while also showing the strict social backdrop that conflicts with it. By narrating this backstory, Roy sets up expectations for future conflicts between Rahel’s individualism and society’s expectations.
4: Using narration to build story direction: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History
All great narrative has a purpose, whether it’s adding immersive historical and geographical context (like Marquez) or showing the reader character traits that will prove significant in the story (like Roy).
Whether or not you write in this genre yourself, mystery authors can show you a lot about writing narration with direction and significance. Secrecy and the promise of revelation require a taut plot.
Donna Tartt’s prologue to The Secret History (1992) is a masterful piece of narration. Within the first page, we know there’s been a murder and the first person narrator is somehow complicit. Tartt’s opening paragraph reveals a lot but still builds anticipation:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston. (p. 1)
The scale of the manhunt implies that there is great resolve to find Bunny’s killers. Because the narrator Richard Papen admits involvement later on the same page, we want to know in what way he was complicit and the outcome of the investigation. Thus even though Tartt gives away a lot in her prologue’s narrative, there is still anticipation.
5: Creating tension with narration and tense: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell’s genre-bending Cloud Atlas (2004) spans multiple settings and characters. The section of the book, titled ‘Half-Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery’ is written as a mystery/thriller. Luisa Rey is a young journalist who becomes a target of powerful people when she investigates health and safety failings at a nuclear power plant.
Mitchell creates suspense and tension by placing Luisa’s narration in third person and the present tense. The present tense creates a sense of unfolding action. Mitchell also creates tension by separating Rey’s inner monologue from events happening around her:
Luisa Rey hears a clunk from the neighbouring balcony. ‘Hello?’ Nobody. Her stomach warns her to set down her tonic water. It was the bathroom you needed, not fresh air, but she can’t face weaving back through the party and, anyway, there’s no time – down the side of the building she heaves: once, twice, a vision of greasy chicken, and a third time. (p. 90)
Because Mitchell places the parts of the narration that are Luisa’s personal thoughts in italics, he creates multiple levels of tension. The reader has to process both external sources of alarm and Luisa’s fragmented internal psychological state and unease, simultaneously.
Use examples of narrative to improve your own narration
Read through the examples of narrative above and try exercises based on these authors’ narrative styles and techniques:
1. Write a paragraph describing a character’s home city and how it has changed over the years. In the next paragraph, describe how a character or section of the population spends a typical weekend in the city, showcasing more of the city’s unique details.
2. Write a scene showing two characters preoccupied with different worries, in the third person. Write the scene entirely in narration. Any speech must be reported speech and not dialogue. For example: ‘He told her that he was tired of the city and was thinking about moving abroad.’ In the first half, filter narration through the first character’s thoughts, but then switch to the other character’s point of view. How do they see things differently?
For the remaining narration examples quoted above, create your own exercise applying the author’s narration technique to your own creative ideas.
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