mostly fiction, sometimes fact

Tag: Narratology

Breaking the narrative circuit

In today’s blog I am going to briefly discuss the relationship between narrator and character by looking again at Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows. Taking a structuralist view of fiction, it is possible to identify key narrative levels (author/reader, narrator/narrate, characters) that create narrative circuits. Pulling apart a story into its various narratological components can provide some really useful analysis of how a story hangs together. In particular it can help you identify and understand moments of transgression between narrative levels, whether intended or not, and what effects they might have.

Today, I am going to look at the relationship between the third person (external) narrator and the direct speech of a character. Of course this division is a fabrication. The narrator (arguably, as a proxy of the author) provides the situations and events and the architecture of the world in which a character speaks. However, it is a line that shouldn’t be crossed if the suspension of disbelief is to succeed and therefore the narrative is to be believed as a realist text.


If this separation of narrative levels is transgresses, you can inadvertently destroy the illusion of reality and draw attention to the story as artifice. It can lose its sense of plausibility.

Direct speech should seem to be the words uttered by the character. If it isn’t the character speaking, the risk is that it may seem that the character is not embedded inside the text but is rather saying what the narrator wants him or her to say. As such, the character can seem like a reader of the story he or she is meant to be part of with a kind of meta-awareness of the narrative itself.

That’s all well and good if you are interested in Brecht’s A-effect or plan to write meta-fiction that messes about with how a story is framed, but it can otherwise make a realist story seem contrived.

As discussed in my last blog, Favel Parrett uses close third person narration in Past the Shallows to great effect, splitting the narrator’s gaze between two key characters, Harry and Miles. Although this form of narration sees the world pretty much through the eyes of one character (or in the case of Parrett’s book, one character at a time), when it comes to direct speech it is still important that the division between the narrator and the characters’ voices remains clear. Direct speech is the purest expression of a character’s voice, thoughts, attitudes, point of view etc.

In the opening scene of the book, Harry is at the beach with his two older brothers Miles and Joe. While the others are out surfing, Harry forages and has an epiphany that I find quite jarring because it seemed like an observation of a much older character and seems heavily laden with an ideological point of view from outside the story.

Harry picked up an abalone shell, the edges loose and dusty in his hands. And every cell in his body stopped. Felt it. This place. Felt the people who had been here before, breathing and standing alive where he stood. People who were long dead now. Long gone. And Harry understood, right down in his guts, that time ran on forever and that one day he would die.[1]

A few moments later he tells Joe: “This place is old.”[2]

On the one hand, this could be read as a boy feeling a sense of his own mortality. Death is present in his world. We learn that his mother has died, for example. However, there is more to this revelation than that. He seems to feel as though he is an interloper, made other by the history of landscape. It seems to me unlikely that picking up a shell would trigger such an observation in a boy of his age (I assume he is younger than ten, possibly as young as seven).

He seems to perceive something bigger in a kind of spiritual sense of place that is more akin to indigenous mythology than the musing of a young boy on a beach. Although not overt, there does seem to be a nod here towards the Aboriginal Dreamtime, a place beyond time and space accessed during dreaming and altered states of consciousness.[3] When reading this scene I wondered if Parrett was in some sense working within a particularly Australian canonical tradition which obliges writers to create a sense of place that confirms something about the Australian identity and how a sense of Australianess is conveyed in literary and artistic works. This in turn confirms the book as “Australian” satisfying a desire for cultural confirmation that seems to prevail among local publishers and readers and seeks to actively resist outside influences.

Looking at this scene in the context of events to come, I am also concerned that he seems to foreshadowing his own death, which makes the epiphany seem especially contrived and offers that sense I mentioned earlier about a character being a reader of the story itself. Again, it seems to show overt intervention rather than something earned or borne out of the story organically.

Is this short scene an example of authorial intervention? Is this an example of indigenous Australian culture being appropriated by the mainstream? There were enough of these qualities on the page to make me step back and wonder about these things. Rather than coming organically from the story, the sense of place and its inherent cultural identity seem somewhat forced upon Harry. But I am aware that my reading is just that, my reading. Others may beg to differ. I am an interloper here too, reading the book through my own lens.

I guess it hits home to me that when writing, maintaining a sense of authenticity about a character’s perspective, no matter how artificial, can be very challenging and there are lots of paper-thin walls that you can inadvertently pass through.

[1] Favel Parrett, past the shallows, published by John Murray, 2011, pg. 4

[2] Ibid., pg.5

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreamtime


What Barthelme told me about time…

I’ve become a little obsessed by narrative time lately and have revisited a few writers to work out its function and ways it can be manipulated.

I guess the default understanding of story time, as taught through children’s stories, is that events happen chronologically. This happened and then this happened and then this happened then we got to here and this happened, etc. – laid out with an overtly obvious causal structure. There might be variations in pace, long sections of description (of say a painting or a room) where not much seems to happen and the time on the page (or fabula time as narratologists tend to call it) seems to stretch out far longer than the story time that the imaginary characters might experience. Then on the flipside: a phrase like “five years later” might indicate a massive jump in time, an ellipsis, or “five years later, she had learned to play the piano and was preparing for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall” might be considered a summary where time on the page moves much faster than experienced by our piano player.

I recommend Mieke Bal’s discussion of time in her book Narratology (I believe this book can offer a great deal to writers and artists searching for different ways of understanding their craft). At one point she talks about how time appears slow in Madame Bovary to express Emma Bovary’s boredom. Even when describing her affairs, scenes have a slow pace, seemingly to underscore her dissatisfaction and entrapment. This is at the expense of pivotal scenes (which in film language are called plot points), which are summarized and thus given less fabula time.

I find that following a strict chronology without a clear purpose can be a little boring for readers. They don’t get to do much of the work, rooting around in the elisions for hidden depths and meanings. Being too faithful to time can also result in a lot of excess baggage that readers may feel compelled to skim over. And I know that in my writing I tend to struggle when it comes to deciding which events only require a brief sentence and those that warrant a couple of pages.

When thinking about time, I tend to go back to short stories for inspiration. This is a form where economy and time are acutely important and it has been a great place for experimentation over the years.

So this morning I picked up Donald Barthelme’s anthology 40 Stories. As can be expected from Barthelme, I was immediately dazzled by all that he brings to the page. He takes readers on quite a journey, one that is both familiar and surreal. In only a few pages, characters cover vast physical, emotion and philosophical territory.

I could pick out many stories from the collection to discuss time, but one that strikes me most is his story ‘On the Deck.’ It runs to just less than three pages.

For the first page and a half Barthelme describes an eclectic mix of characters on the deck of a boat: a lion, a Christian motorcycle gang, a man in a car named Mitch who leaves the motor running, a man with a nosebleed, a steel basin under his chin, a tree between his legs, the captain, a young woman, a dog named Scotty, the boat owner and her boyfriend and a man with a bucket full of liver for the lion. These characters are introduced as though the writer is scanning a picture and has an odd circularity, starting with the lion and ending with the man looking after his food. Apart from the swaying of the boat, there is minimal movement; conversation is brief and rich in non sequiturs. It’s a claustrophobic scene of great tension and there seems an interesting symbolism in the way all the other characters appear to be between the lion and its food, even if this is only a trick of the narrator’s eye. Is it a metaphor for urban life? Primacy versus cosmopolitanism? Who knows? In a classic surrealist twist, a postman arrives and they all get mail: “Everyone likes mail, except those who are afraid of it.”

Then time speeds up dramatically and the seasons pass in two lines:

“Winter on deck. All of the above covered with snow. Christmas music.

Then, spring. A weak sun, then a stronger sun.”

On one level, you could say that like in Madame Bovary, this leap in time shows characters in stasis, trapped by circumstance. On another, it seems like a great trick on the reader to show just how artificial narrative time really is.

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