In my local, real-life, face-to-face critique group, I found myself staring at a short story that just wasn't gelling, and I couldn't figure out why. The whole time I was reading, it felt as if I were handling the story with rubber gloves, and I couldn't feel a thing.
Eventually I nailed it: a subtler version of show-don't-tell. The author was showing everything just fine, but we weren't actually in the scene. I'm going to call that "straight narration."
Here's an example (not that writer's story):
I went into the coffee shop, a dilapidated afterthought wedged between the hardware store and the shoe repair shop. I ordered my usual coffee and made small talk until it was time to hand over my ninety-five cents. It hadn't yet begun to rain.
It's okay. There's no telling, and you're pretty clear on what's happening, but…well, yeah. Now we're going to try the same scene in what I call "scene-building" as opposed to straight narration:
The door creaked like a ninety-year-old man's knees as I made my way into the coffee shop. "Hey, Henry." The owner didn't even look up, just started pouring coffee into a paper cup, no sugar, extra cream.
I said, "I want a soy hazelnut decaf latte with a shot of strawberry sauce."
Henry snorted. "Of course you do." He popped the lid on the cup, and I handed him ninety-five cents, then shoved a buck in the tip jar. "You got an umbrella?" Henry said. "Don't water down my damn coffee."
I made my way back up the narrow aisle between the counter and the wall. "It's not going to rain," I said. "Not for a couple hours."
It takes up a larger footprint (and please note that I killed a darling in transition,) but once you've got the actual dialogue and the action motions, suddenly the characters begin revealing themselves. The characters start making word choices, decisions about their motions, and they relate to each other. Oh -- now there's something interesting. Because if the POV character had walked in and said, "Give me a black coffee, medium!" then you've got a different character from a POV character who walks in and says, "Um, excuse me, Henry? Would it be okay if I had a coffee with two sugars and one cream please?"
The characters choose what to tell the reader and then the characters reveal themselves piecemeal in the details of the way they behave. Think about it: that's how you live your life, piecing together information about everyone you meet from their micro-choices about how to speak, how to act, how to move.
The writer is in control in the straight narration -- yes, even though it's first person. The writer has chosen what to tell you and when to say it and inserted her opinion about the surroundings. In scene building, the characters are in control and the writer fades into nothing. Which, arguably, is what we want in the current climate.
But overall, a story composed entirely of straight narration will leave readers feeling as if we're handling the text with rubber gloves. It's all right there, and there's nothing wrong with it, but we can't feel a thing.
That's not to say you should never use straight narration techniques, but use them consciously. When you want to create a sense of numbness, that's an excellent method. But even more, check out this moment, from Jane Austen:
Elizabeth was much too embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, “You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.The narrator has been all up in everyone's business for at least 250 pages. Why, then, at this point, does she omit Elizabeth's response to Darcy's proposal? Instead of the actual dialogue, Elizabeth "gave him to understand"that she loves him and accepts his proposal. In this case, I'm convinced it's respect: Austen has shown us these characters at their best and worst and most human, and now she's doing the equivalent of closing the door and letting us imagine Elizabeth's "giving him to understand" in whatever way we want. Moreover, she's giving us a sense of Elizabeth's joyfully incoherence and loss of her capacity for words.
Do that. Take your narrative distance and leverage it as one of the many tools in your writing arsenal. Make it work for your story. Get close to your characters. Get further away from your characters. Carry your readers along with you, and your story will love you for it.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or crocheting inappropriate objects. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.