Series A Part 3: The Components of Narrative Storytelling
Introduction to the Levels of 'Show
Components of Narrative Storytelling
Narrative Type Part 1: Dialogue
Narrative Type Part 2: Dramatic Action
Narrative Type Part 3: Exposition
Narrative Type Part 4: Pacing & Rhythm
The next part of our series on Show vs. Tell is the second level of Show:
The Components of Fiction, or more accurately, narrative storytelling of any kind.
Once you've nailed your POV, it’s time to start thinking about how you are going to write your scenes. You have hopefully structured and outlined your story and now you’ve begun writing the scenes you planned.
As your writing them, whether you are aware of it or not, you are constantly making decisions about the components of narrative storytelling—namely whether to write in immediate scene, narrative summary, or description.
So lets break down the definitions of these 3 components.
What is a component of fiction?
The components of fiction are not to be confused with the elements of fiction often described in books and blogs. The elements of fiction (depending on who you ask) are usually 5-7 aspects of a story such as character, plot, setting, and so on. That’s what is in a story.
The components of fiction involve how a narrative is formed. For instance, if we were discussing poetry these might be rhythm, sound, or density. In fiction, and on the most basic level, these are Immediate Scene, Narrative Summary, and Description.
Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing (a great resource for any writer), explains immediate scene as what happens “on stage.” We are moved along through the story with the characters.
Since the advent of movies and television, readers want to be able to “see” what is happening before their eyes. Writers usually can’t get away with writing stories how the greats used to and manage to keep their reader's attention. Immediate scene at this level is always show (though you can wreck it later on higher levels). Sometimes immediate scene is referred to simply as “narrative” though I find this distinction confusing because technically narrative is just a story, a telling of connected events and includes all three components.
Your story should be 90 percent immediate scene. However, that is less of a rule than a modern preference. One of these days someone will write a story that is 99.9 percent narrative summary and blow us all away….but that time has not come yet, and i’m sorry to say, that person probably isn’t you.
Writers back in the day used to love narrative summary. It's a style akin to essay, but more personal. It was used frequently for telling stories with heavy morals such as Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tales...or the more commonly known example....the Bible.
Nowadays we think of narrative summary as the parts of our stories that happen “offstage”—to continue with our metaphor. The line “He told her that he loved her and kissed her goodbye before she left that morning” is an example of narrative summary. It gets to the point without having to go through the scene of said her leaving the house and getting kissed goodbye.
Narrative summary on it's own is always telling at this stage, however, in the levels above you can still show in your narrative summary and make it beautiful narrative. (Remember that for our purposes Show=Strong Image and Tell=Weak Image)
If you find narrative summary getting out of hand, chances are you are trying to put in more information than the reader needs. If it is relevant to the story, it can 9/10 times fit into immediate scene. Writers have a tendency to add more information than needed because they think the readers won’t grasp something, or they are merely so excited about the worlds they have created that they just want to include every little detail. Unfortunately, it becomes boring to the reader and quick.
I call it the Tom Bombadil effect. I don’t know if you have read Lord of the Rings, but if you have, you will most likely remember the huge chunk of the first book dedicated to Tom Bambadil and his wife—characters that never again grace the pages and have zero effect on the overall plot. But Tolkien was so obsessed with the world he’d built that he didn’t care if his book was filled with superfluous storylines. That’s an extreme example, but readers will not put up with it at all nowadays.
If Immediate scene is what happens on stage, and narrative summary is the summation of what happens off stage, then description is the set and props. They should always be seen but rarely talked about….unless being used directly by the actors, or are necessary to the story. You can’t get away with not using description in your story, but you should also not overdo it.
That is called an info-dump, and readers hate it.
It takes some skill to incorporate your descriptions seamlessly into your narrative, but it can almost always be done in conjunction with immediate scene to soften the landing of information.
What affects the decision to use either component?
A big factor in making these decisions will be the POV you chose to use (level one). What mood you are going for, and how each component will lend or detract from the emotion you are trying to convey.
In the last post, I used the example of mood in a mystery:
... does the POV keep them at a distance and make them merely "watch" a murder unfold, creating a sense of foreboding and ominousness—a technique that is so common in the genre.
Here, immediate scene is a must. To create a sense of suspense, the reader should be going along for the ride with the characters. However, in the historical mystery, No Straight Thing, by F. Nelson Smith, the emotion is strengthened in a passage near the beginning by using narrative summary to lead us down a path toward a bad omen and then the inciting event.
Take a look:
The second Tuesday in August started out as expected that summer of 1936, hot and airless. As the day wore on, the heat radiating off roads and sidewalks dissolved into watery illusions. The occasional breeze wafted heat-laden air against people and buildings as if to suck out the last bit of moisture. Near four o’clock in the afternoon, a few wilting citizens remarked on the large ring around the sun, but experienced people sprang into action. Proprietors shut up stores, housewives slammed windows closed, and stuffed rags or mats around thresholds. Mothers with shrill voices urged children into shelter while whipping the washing off clotheslines.
In the distance along the horizon to the east, a huge black cloud, roiling in on itself, tossed in silent fury as it moved toward the city. It covered the entire width of the horizon, growing larger with frightening speed. Sound arrived first, like the moan of a distant train, then small swirls of dirt, tumbleweeds, and other debris danced along the streets.
The wall of dirt hit the city twisting and blowing the ground from under feet, stealing breath and loose items away, roaring against everything in its path. In minutes, the tall, dense cloud covered the sky, and day became night.
On the edge of town, the whine of the storm smothered the sound of cracking glass in the rows of greenhouses. Sucking winds scooped up loose wheat and detritus around the flour mills, firing the missiles against the warehouses. Fine grit found its way into every nook and cranny, affecting rich and poor alike, on both sides of the tracks. In the downtown business core, drivers blinded by the black clouds parked helter-skelter on the street. Shoppers caught outside groped their way to the doors of Eaton’s, Woolworth, or any handy hiding place.
Fergus Muir later remarked to his father, Malcolm, if these storms kept on any longer, the whole of Saskatchewan would pass through Cypress Landing. Years later, people remembered the lamenting howl and grime of a black blizzard, the worst they’d seen.
When it was over, folk came out of their houses and did as they had done before; scraped away the drifts from the doors and windows, hosed down the vegetable gardens, and inspected the remains of the bounty that was to keep them in food during the winter. Housewives or servants swept, cleaned, and polished inside. City crews were out doing the same maintenance on the streets, parks, and boulevards. Industry owners inspected inventory in the open, awaiting shipment.
And early the next morning, a pottery worker approached a kiln scheduled for the first load of pottery. Grumbling to himself, he would first have to sweep up the usual detritus left by transients who had sheltered inside. What he didn’t expect to find when he opened the door was a body.
2. Style. Your style will be an influence on what choices you make at this level. Some styles call for more of a narrative summary approach or immediate scene or a balance of both.
3. Audience. Some audiences will prefer stories with more immediate scene and others are more forgiving of larger chunks of narrative summary and description, such as historical fiction readers and older demographics.
4. Purpose of writing. Why are you writing your story? If you are writing to entertain, then immediate scene is your friend and you will probably want to keep narrative summary to a minimum. If your purpose is to educate or shed light on some issue than perhaps a bit more narrative summary is alright.
Showing on the 2nd level
Showing through the components of narrative storytelling is not an exact science (gosh I say that a lot, but nothing in fiction writing is) all three of the components can lend to showing your story, but the art is in what you choose at what time, and what you build on top of it. I really just want you to be aware of the decisions you're making and when you are using each of the components in your writing, rather than just doing it without a thought as most of us do.
We will get into this further in the next few posts when we discuss Narrative Types. This will be where things start to get complicated and varied. If the components of fiction are the macro choices you make about how to tell your story, then narrative type refers to the micro choices you will make.
For instance, if you choose to write a paragraph in immediate scene, you also have a choice in how you will be doing that. You can choose dialogue, internal dialogue, dramatic action, or exposition.
Narrative summary is almost always told through exposition, and that is what makes it so horribly boring, but there are ways to take narrative summary and force it into immediacy by bringing in dialogue or dramatic action, in which case it will become more flashback or story within a story. Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicles, is amazing at doing this. He has stories within stories within stories. An even better example is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (my all-time favorite book).
Playing with narrative summary in this way is best done through 1st person and omniscient POV’s although it can be done in 3rd person limited as well. But more often than not 3rd person ends up getting the expository treatment. Meaning those writers need to be extra careful of having their narrative summaries drone on too long.
Let me know what you think of this level and how those choices affect your writing? How much do you think your style dictates those choices?