mostly fiction, sometimes fact

Tag: writingsmog

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


Zoo Station – some lessons in historical fiction

by Aaron Cox

I’ve been reading David Downing’s Zoo Station. On the book’s cover, C J Sansom describes it as “an extraordinary evocation of Nazi Germany on the eve of war…” He’s right. Downing has done a tremendous amount of research to create a vivid and dare I say it realistic picture of Berlin in the months leading up to the Second World War.

For me, it offers a few lessons on how to sew historical fact into fiction, an important aspect of any “naturalist” fiction, which assimilates facts and details about the world to create the artifice of being cut from reality.

I am currently working on a novel set during the financial crisis and often have to wrestle with the research. Facts can sometimes appear so extraordinary as to crowd out the story that I am trying to tell. And I get frustrated. The story becomes a retelling of history rather than characters set in history. The narrative invariably becomes clunky, overburdened by detail and opinions from outside the novel. Falling in love with research can turn the whole project into an essay, telling takes over from showing, characters become pawns.

Reading Zoo Station has reminded me about a few things to do with my project. History (I’d include the present and the imagined future) needs to be used with some purpose to carry the story along and to be framed by events and match the point of view of the character (in the sense the literary sense of who is seeing and his/her bent on what is being seen).

In Zoo Station (and I am aware I could use numerous historical novels, Birdsong, Winter in Madrid), historical information becomes something of a character itself within which human characters interact. It plays a supporting role. Getting it right requires finesse and a clear head about the book you are trying to write.

What got me thinking about all of this was a small event in the middle of the book when Russell, the protagonist, buys the Daily Mail. It is worth getting to know a little more about Russell to understand why this is significant. Russell is an English journalist who lives in Berlin. After agreeing to write a series of propaganda articles for a Russian magazine, he finds himself caught in maze of deceit between the Russians, Germans and Americans. His profession as a journalist is important as it gives him a certain lens for viewing details and events in the lead up to war. It also means he read’s the Daily Mail in a particular way. It therefore makes sense when he contrasts the reportage of the German and English press.

He is also a father of Paul, who is German born and a member of the Hitler Youth, a group Russell has deep suspicions about but is forced to tolerate because of his relationship with his son. In addition to his career as a journalist, Russell teaches English to two Jewish teenage girls whose parents hope to send to England. He is therefore a complex and rich character forced to negotiate competing sympathies and we see events from his perspective.

So when his picks up a copy of the Daily Mail (the fact it is available in Berlin at this time is interesting in itself) he reads it not for the headlines, but for what might be interesting to the people in his life.

“This [the Daily Mail] had an article on young English girls collecting stamps, which he knew would interest Ruth and Marthe, and a big piece on the recent loss of the Empire Flying Boat Cavalier, complete with map and diagram, which Paul would love. He saved the best, however, for the very end of the girls’ lesson – a report of a tongue-twister competition on the BBC. Trying to say ‘should such a shapeless sash such shabby stiches show’ soon had Ruth giggling so hard she really was in stitches, and Marthe fared little better with ‘the flesh of freshly fired flying fish.’”*

Rather than focusing on war news, he pulls out normal details, which are poignantly juxtaposed against the horrors to come. It is deftly done. I only wish I could do it so well in my own writing.

Facts or fictions?

Of course, I don’t have that copy of the Daily Mail to validate whether these details are actually correct. And I do wonder how much poetic license Downing took when incorporating these details. I guess doubts about historical accuracy are always going to be part and parcel with a genre called historical fiction, despite the reputation of the author as a specialist on his subject. While the detail may seem plausible, readers can never be absolutely certain of their accuracy. In fact, some argue that the artificial devices for creating fiction (being selective with information, embellishing detail to fit the story, and being limited by the particular point of view of characters within the story) combine to play down its own narrative limitations. The fiction is made to seem too real.

This has been a preoccupation of many 20th century writers – fabulists who have trod the shaky grounds where fact meets fiction. Metaphorical writers who dwell on the subject of how views and perceptions are manufactured through the writing and re-writing of history. Laurent Binet’s HHhH comes to mind. While telling the story of Reinhard Heydrich, he tells the story of how difficult it is to write historical fact without using fiction. Milan Kundera’s books are other examples. Kundera doesn’t mind incorporating essay into his novels and is upfront about the fact his characters are fabricated. Despite this they never seem derivative or pawn-like. Robert Coover’s tome Public Burning fuses real conversations, historical documents, archetypes and caricatures to present the events leading up to the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1952 in a way that screams out that this story is so horrifically fantastical, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Fact and fiction are indivisible. The styles of these writers don’t match my own. But each stylist is brilliant and worthy of a blog at another time.

*Page 122

UCL Centre for Applied Linguistics

Research and consultancy in the broad field of applied linguistics

Words & Actions

A podcast about how language matters in business, politics and beyond.

The Cedar Lounge Revolution

for lefties too stubborn to quit

The Earthbound Report

Good lives on our one planet

Watts Up With That?

The world's most viewed site on global warming and climate change

Stroppy Editor

Minding other people’s language. A lot.

Bridging the Unbridgeable

A project on English usage guides

The T Party

A group for UK writers of genre fiction