Narrative strategy is how we choose to tell our tale, the method of conveyance and who is involved. It embodies primarily two elements: point of view, and framing.
- Point of view — Who is telling the story?
- Framing — How is the story conveyed?
Point of View
Your choice of narrator for the story has a powerful impact. Think about any story you know, and consider it from the perspective of a different character. The omniscient disembodied narrator may be the most common point of view. Imagine Gone with the Wind told as the story of Rhett Butler, even from his first person point of view. Different story, I’d say. In fact, the movie version leans toward him, making us more sympathetic to those Scarlett uses, where the book clearly defines her heroic stance, the only one who really understands what’s important.
Orson Scott Card took this concept to an extreme (and initially fascinating) length in his two books Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. First, the story in third person omniscient, focusing on Andrew “Ender” Wiggins. Then, another book tells the entire story from the point of view of Ender’s closest ally Bean, but in first person. Parallels. Same story, but monumentally different feeling.
Once you know the story you’re going to write, consider who should tell it. I’ve gotten into a pattern of first person point of view, and so far it’s been right for my Chandleresque cozies. Limit what my readers see to what my hero sees, and color their experience with his feelings and attitudes.
I started a coming of age novel a few years ago, and it fell naturally into third person, focusing on the son of the family it’s about. My children’s book about a ship captain’s cat is third person omniscient, focusing on Ginger, the cat. A book told about (or by) the captain would have a very different feel, and probably be less interesting to young children.
Know who should tell your story. It’s partly stylistic, partly methodical, giving you control over what information your readers are given, and how it’s delivered.
Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan books are all third person omniscient, jumping from one character to another as disparate threads gradually tighten the story to its climax.
But his Carson Napier of Venus series opens, in the first book, with Napier proving to our fictional narrator that he, Napier, can project his thoughts to the narrator’s mind over any distance. The framing of the story is that we are being told Carson Napier’s story in first person, as it happens to him on the planet Venus, and as recorded by the narrator who disappears into the background. It feels as if this framing trick were used to let us pretend that we’re reading something real, otherwise, how would we know what ever happened to a guy who flew a space ship to Venus and stayed there?
Some stories open with a first person narrator explaining why they’re telling the story; why now, what tell it at all, who it’s for and why they’re the one to tell it. Some simply begin the story, under the implicit assumption that when we pick up a book and begin reading, we expect to be told a story, and will discover what it’s about and why it was written as we go.
If the simplest framing works for your story, go with it. Don’t get all fancy and psychological just because it’s possible.
But if your story works well as a conversation between two bedouin at a campfire or a round-robin story cycle amongst the riders on a train bound for doom, don’t be afraid to put a giant frame around your image. Frames are art, too.
It’s a Wrap
Tough experience, explaining these 12 concepts simply enough that a casual reader will get the gist. Forced me to revisit both books, Story Engineering and Story Physics, and get a better understanding of all 12 of these elements:
From Story Engineering:
From Story Physics:
- Compelling Premise
- Dramatic Tension
- Optimal Pacing
- Hero Empathy
- Vicarious Experience
- Narrative Strategy
Here’s hoping you and I both get them right next time out.