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Saturday, 7 July 2012

I’ve spoken at writing conferences about what I call the Parameters of Narrative Voice, one of the most important being Point of View. Does a story follow one character closely, or take a wider view? Is the narrator omniscient or limited? What signals (if any) a shift in narration?

I think that an author is best served by establishing the parameters of narrative voice early so that any later changes don’t throw off readers. That said, some novels I like a lot—Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer—shift points of view midstream, to greater or lesser effect.

I brought up that aspect of storytelling in my ongoing Q&A with James Treadwell, author of Advent.

Most of the first part of Advent sticks closely to Gavin’s point of view as he travels from London to Cornwall and meets people. Then we start to follow some other characters as well: Horace, the Chinese-British boy; the minister; and so on. Meanwhile, there are interstitial chapters tracing the story of Dr. John Fiste backwards through time. How did you develop that narrative strategy? What challenges did it bring?



But seriously … As far as I can remember, I had the idea of a double narrative in mind from the start. At one stage I think I conceived of it fairly schematically: shorter, more lyrical, more ornate chapters would relate to the more explicitly fantastical material, while longer, plainer sections would tell the story of the present-day characters. It wouldn’t stay as neatly organised as that, but once it was underway it felt roughly right: two apparently very different strands of plot converging on a kind of hinge moment.

Some of the shifts in perspective and narrative voice just arrived out of nowhere, though. It’s that odd experience of ventriloquism which a lot of writers must experience: suddenly it feels like another voice’s moment to start speaking.

The challenges. Mainly, I suppose, it’s trying to get the pace right: the flow from one kind of narrative or point of view to another, the rhythm of suspense, the proportions of the plot. I wish I could say I get this right all the time but I know very well I don’t. It’s one of the aspects where I depend most on my (marvellously helpful) agent and editors to tell me when things aren’t working.

The other big challenge of this rather non-linear and intricate way of fitting a story together is, if I’m honest, the challenge to the reader. In the absence of a single consistent more-or-less omniscient narrator who goes through the plot from beginning to middle to end, there’s no doubt that it’s harder for the reader to be certain of what’s going on.

I’m all right with that, though.

MONDAY: Teenagers as fantastical beings.


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