Writing Club: Who is Telling the Story?

Photo 2013-10-04 11 48 57 AM

Here we are in our new home at the library, the smaller, cozier Teen Room.

5-minute Prompt: BLUE

(5-minute, stream-of-consciousness exercise, write whatever pops into your brain on the topic. Don’t bother with sentences, paragraphs, or punctuation. Just write.)

This got us thinking about all the different names for blue – baby blue, robin’s egg, azure, cyan, teal, aquamarine… A very useful addition to your vocabulary would be to collect ‘colour words’.

Who is Telling the Story? – The First-Person Narrator

One of your biggest decisions when sitting down to write a story is this – who will be telling your story?

If the narrator is someone who is actually in the story, your story will be in the First Person. (Here’s a more detailed explanation of First Person.)

A first person narrator doesn’t have to be the main character, they could be a minor character, just someone-who-was-there-and-saw-what-happened. As in the case of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, the narrator could be the best friend or ally of the main character.

The most obvious example of the First Person Narrator would be the diary novel.

20 Diary_of_a_wimpy_kid ImageProxy Dork-Diaries-3-dork-diaries-19083242-316-454

Why do you think these books are so popular? What is so appealing about a first-person diary? For one thing the tone is more casual, like a friend talking to you, telling you about their crappy day. None of these series are actually written by kids of course, but by an author writing in the voice of a kid. Do you think they do a good job?

When you are adopting the voice of another person to write in, you must be careful to speak as they would speak, and think as they would think. What your narrator chooses to say, and how he/she says it, can say a lot about their personality. Here’s a great example, the opening from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.

In just two sentences you get zero biographical information (other than that he has parents), but loads of personality and attitude. Which is hopefully enough to pique your interest and make you want to find out more.

Sometimes the first person narrator can lie or mislead you, or they might misinterpret the events of the story, getting everything wrong. This kind of storyteller is known as the Unreliable Narrator. This is a tricky way to write – you have to write in the voice of your character, but at the same time give the reader clues that the narrator is wrong about what’s really going on. If the narrator is lying, you can string the reader along until you reveal the lie, or hint at it along the way. (I read a murder mystery once in which at the end you find out that the narrator committed the crime!)

the-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time1Another example: in E. Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers the narrator is a young boy. At one point he tells about how he and his siblings were digging in the back yard for treasure when a kindly neighbour came over to watch and suddenly reached down to pull a shiny coin from the dirt. The narrator expresses surprise that they hadn’t seen the coin themselves, deciding that the neighbour has very good eyesight. It’s obvious to the reader, if not to the boy, that the neighbour just pretended to find the coin.

An Unreliable Narrator can give readers an inside look at very unique points of view. The novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is told by a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, who perceives the world in an extremely unique way, and this colours his reaction to the events of the story. (Highly recommended – this is a great book.)

Rashomon_1950_6357You don’t need to be limited to just one narrator either, you can change narrators from chapter to chapter. An old Japanese movie did this the most famously – in Rashomon the story of a crime is retold over and over, each time from a different viewpoint. This film technique is sometimes known as the Rashomon effect today.

Okay, I’ve gone on long enough on this topic. The bottom line is that you’ve got to decide if a first person narrator is the best choice for your story, and if it is, you’ve got to really know your narrator and speak with her/his voice.

New Words

Here’s what the two groups brought in the way of new and/or unusual words:

egregious: 1. outstandingly bad; shocking; 2. remarkably good

This word is used more often in the first sense than the second, as in: Personal items continued to disappear, but the installation of security cameras halted the most egregious cases of theft at the school.

obesity – a condition characterized by the excessive accumulation and storage of fat in the body

statistics – a collection of quantitative data

HaruspexandPullaabsurd – having no rational or orderly relationship to human life; fantastic, crazy, bizarre, fanciful, foolish

entrails – bowels, viscera;  internal parts (ie. a nice word for “guts”)

An interesting side note here… in ancient Rome predictions of future events would sometimes be based on an examination of the entrails of a sacrificial animal. (Quite a bit messier than reading tea leaves!)

excruciating – causing great pain or anguish

inferno – a place or a state that resembles or suggests hell; also :  an intense fire

Who remembers the song Disco Inferno? Anyone? Anyone? (Am I dating myself here?)


omniscient – having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight;  possessed of universal or complete knowledge

Sai_19.5_Round_Black_2_GTTD432caboodle – collection, lot

sai (pronounced “sigh”) – a traditional weapon used in the Okinawan martial arts; a pointed, prong shaped metal baton, with two curved prongs

japotte (sp?) – Malaysian word for hurry

15-Minute Springboard Prompt

Here’s the first line, you write what comes next. Note that it is in the first person. See what you can reveal about the narrator as you write.

Rosmer had never made a birthday cake before, and since he refused to follow a recipe, his birthday cake for me went wrong in about a dozen different ways.

That’s all for now!

(Stay tuned: tomorrow I’ll post some more writing contests.)

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