Writing Excuses 13.45: Next Level Narration
Key points: Leveling UP your narrative. Get the standard narrator, a character much like yourself, with similar experiences, solid first. Then try things like unreliable narrators. Study writers who have done something similar before you experiment with narration and form. Try breaking the fourth wall, making your reader aware that they are reading something, suspicious of the person who is talking. With unreliable narrators, at some point, the story reveals that they are unreliable. Figure out how the character sees the world, what their defaults are, and how that affects what they tell the reader. Try multiple witnesses, narrators who have their own angle on what is happening. Older, younger, different life experience. Brains wired differently. Try to understand and represent their reactions. Make them rounded, with one aspect that is different. Use forums, YouTube, listening to people to help you. Be cautious of carrying defaults from one work to the next.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 45.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Next Level Narration.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Brandon] We are getting near the end of this year on character, and we wanted to spend… Oh, you’re giving me the pouty lip…
[Amal] Sad face. I’m so sad.
[Amal] I am. It’s been so fun.
[Brandon] But we want to talk about kind of leveling up your narrative. When we were talking about this earlier, Mary said, “One of the things we want to focus on is you want to get really good at telling maybe a more standard narrative first.” Standard’s probably the wrong phrase for that.
[Mary] So, when you’re writing as a narrator, one of the things we’ve talked about multiple seasons is that there is a lot of different techniques and skills. A lot of times, what you want to do is, you want to start and solidify a technique on kind of the easy setting. Which is, by writing a narrator who is very much like yourself, who’s lived very similar experiences. Then there is the stuff that’s harder. Some of those things are things like unreliable narrators. This is much harder to write than a narrator who is reliable.
[Brandon] Yeah. Let’s talk about that. I want to point out before we do that, when we say on easy setting, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to make a worse book. We talk about this a lot. Taking the thing that is in some ways… particularly with a writing technique, natural for you and comfortable for you. Starting with a first person or a third person limited, the kind of standard viewpoints, is a good place to begin before you try something with a really strange omniscient viewpoint. It’s not that your book’s going to be worse, it’s just mastering a skill before you level it up. One of these things that you can try is, as Mary said, an unreliable narrator. Have any of you guys written an unreliable narrator before?
[Brandon] Let’s talk about it. What did you do, how did you do it, what pitfalls were there, and what advantages were there?
[Maurice] Well. This next level writing is hard.
[Maurice] So, what happened? How did this come about? So, I love writing short stories. One of the main reasons I love writing short stories is I get to experiment with different forms. So I get… It’s like failing in the privacy of your own home. So recently I’ve tried this unreliable narrator. I’ve only tried this… like within the last couple months has been me trying this. So the story’s about this woman who’s experienced some trauma, and it’s kind of fractured her psyche. So she is trying to progress through her current day… I mean, trying to push through her day, while both simultaneously reliving the trauma and healing from it at the same time. So the story plays with time and how she’s perceiving it and just events. So, like the events are happening out of order, but the order is happening in which she’s experiencing her healing. So she’s experiencing the story in the terms she needs to in order to be healed. It’s… It was a tricky thing… And it’s one of those things… I’d gone over… I’d been studying Kelly Link. I read like a lot of Kelly Link stories. Just to sort of… All right, it’s time to level up, who do I need to read? So she was one of the people I was studying at the time to experiment with narration, experiment with form. That’s why I just dove into it that way.
[Brandon] And it worked out?
[Maurice] So far, so good. I… My writers’ group were a little mixed on it. Because they were just… One lady said, “This story is on the verge of making sense.”
[Maurice] Which has been my favorite criticism ever. But I know I’m one draft away from having something I think might be really special.
[Amal] I love that. So, the ways in which I’ve tended to write unreliable narrators is absolutely informed by the fact that I’ve been in academia for way too long. So I try to approach them from this idea of… Almost like breaking the fourth wall in theater, where you make your reader aware of the fact that they’re reading something as opposed to… So that it rises to their minds like, “Where is this information coming from?” You want to make… Like I want them to eventually become suspicious of the person who’s talking to them. In a couple of cases, I’ve… In which I’ve done it… in one of them, I wrote a story called The Lonely Sea in the Sky, which is about a planetary geologist who’s been working on Triton, specifically looking at the diamond ocean, which, for real, exists on Neptune. There’s like an ocean of diamond on Neptune. It’s like diamond in a liquid state.
[Mary] I am totally googling this when we’re out of the studio.
[Amal] It is so cool. It is so cool. Articles about this started coming out in 2000… Anyway, so I won’t go there. Point is, so she has succumbed to this illness that is being… That is still being figured out. It’s just being called Meisner Syndrome for want of… They don’t know whether it’s… Like, what the nature of this is. It’s a set of symptoms that some people… A very, very, very small percentage of the population succumbs to, and it seems to have to do with interacting with the diamond ocean on Neptune material. She is being encouraged to write a journal about her experiences. But she is… She’s arguing that she’s not succumbing to this, when she clearly is succumbing to this. So you’re having her… You’re experiencing her stuff. My… The line that I was trying to walk here was that I want you to be sympathetic with this character… I want you to sympathize rather with this character. I want you to believe everything that she says, but I also want you to see how that is changing over time, and to walk that line of not distrusting her necessarily, but understanding that she is impaired where her own reality is concerned.
[Brandon] Right. I think that this is kind of vital to the idea behind an unreliable narrator, is that at some point, it’s going to be a part of the story that they are unreliable. Though, in another way of talking about it, it feels like every character is going to be slightly unreliable. This is one of the reasons why we put things in a character voice is they’re going to describe things in a specific way. You need to be able to get across to the reader that this is the way the character sees the world. That’s going to make them attached to the character. That’s what they’re going to like about the character. In some cases, like when I’ve done it, I’ve been very kind of almost ham-fisted with the this character is funny because they just describe things the opposite of what you would expect this description to be. They will sometimes break the fourth wall and just be like, “Yeah, I’m not going to tell you about that story yet.” And these sorts of things. Sometimes you do it very subtly, which is the character who over time, as you’re writing the scenes, the reader starts to realize, “Oh, they see the world in a certain way, and there are just certain things they don’t see as I would.”
[Mary] That’s one of the things when we were talking previously in an earlier episode about defaults, that your characters are going to have their own default settings. If you can figure out what these are… the thing about an unreliable narrator that can be frustrating for a reader is when the narrator is inconsistent in ways that break kind of that character’s world. So when you can figure out what their defaults are, that’s going to tell you the places that they’re going to lie, the reasons that they’re going to lie, the ways those lies are going to take shape. They’re not even necessarily lies. They are ways that the character is reporting things that may be honest and true to them, but that are not representing the way another person would experience that.
[Maurice] So, a story I had a huge amount of fun writing. It was called At the Village Vanguard. It was for Mothership Zeta. It was the first of my Afro-future stories. So it was about this place nicknamed Blacktopia. Cause I’m subtle like that.
[Mary] So they… Do they dare say, “By my blackness?”
[Maurice] I missed out on that opportunity.
[Mary] I just want you to add that to something in the future, please?
[Maurice] It’s done. But the way I chose to tell the story, because it’s kind of an origin story, but the way I chose the story… The way I chose to tell it was as an oral history. So I actually have… I believe I have seven narrators of this story. It’s kind of…
[Maurice] Like… One of those… The reliability of eyewitness testimony, we have seven eyewitnesses who roughly tell… Can tell the same story. But they’re all telling their version of the story. Determined by what they saw, or actually buy their own personal biases about what this story now means to them. So that was another way for me to just experiment with form and the whole unreliability of each individual storyteller. You have several witnesses, all who have different angles on it trying to tell one story.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Because didn’t you just have a book come out?
[Maurice] I did. I did. It’s The Usual Suspects. It’s my first foray into middle grade detective novels. It’s all about these middle school students who, whenever anything goes wrong in the middle school, they round up this group of middle school students and like, “We know one of y’all did it.” That was actually the first… My first time… Speaking of interesting narrators, was using narrators who are much younger than I am. So, it is all told first person through the eyes and mentality of who is essentially on unreliable middle grader. That’s almost redundant, but…
[Brandon] Let’s ask about that. How do you write from someone who’s much younger or much older, has much more life experience than you have?
[Maurice] Well, in this case, at the time, I had two middle grade students. So, this is going to sound a little weird, but actually I record a lot. So, like, there’s times when I will just randomly record like my kids’ conversations, and… With the caveat that anything I hear, you can’t be punished for. So there’s always that that I throw out there. But I literally… I’m studying how they speak to one another, how they speak to their friends. So, like, I can like just really get into their headspace. Being a middle school teacher helps, because I just hear students speak all the time to one another and how they interact and everything like that. So I’m… That has helped me a lot in terms of staying in their heads and sticking with their mentalities and the way they see the world. But on the flipside though, like I said, this is a narrator who as I… I didn’t even realize this when I was plotting out the character, but part of him being so intelligent, he has like a streak of paranoia to him. So now… So he’s still making observations about the world, but you realize, “You know, this student’s a little paranoid.” Little things like that.
[Brandon] Well, that brings us into another topic I want to talk about. Writing people whose brains are wired differently than your own.
[Mary] Yeah. So, I just wound up doing that in the Lady Astronaut books. Elma is… Has anxiety. She specifically has social anxiety disorder. So she gets really… Like being the center of attention in a large group makes her really uncomfortable. I am clearly not wired that way. I love being in front of a large group. Hi, podcast listeners.
[Mary] But I do know what it is like to be anxious about something. I have had anxiety and panic attacks. The ones that I was having were because I had been sexually harassed by my boss for three years. So it’s a totally different circumstance. But the physical symptoms are very similar. So what you… What I wound up doing was extrapolating from what I knew. I did a lot of reading about what the disorder was like, and then the symptoms that people were listing, I thought about the times that I had had those physical symptoms. Also, then, I had to think about ways in which… I had to make sure that I was being cognizant of the fact that her default setting about the way she would react to a crowd was different than mine. I would have to go and adjust that. But I also… I know what it is like to mask when you’re afraid or upset about something. So again, that’s one of the things that often goes with that disorder, is that often people will seem very calm. Really, super calm and chill, because they are masking so hard. So making sure that I was also representing that. That a lot of people around her didn’t know that she suffered from this.
[Amal] I wrote a story called The Singing Fish for the… It’s called The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. It was a story that I was solicited for at very, very short notice. It was one of those. It was a huge break for me. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer invited me to this, and I think I had something like two weeks in which to turn around a story. This was an ekphrastic collection, like they had a piece of art that they wanted me to write a story for that was appearing in this book. It was literally of like a fish standing on its tail and singing while a very puzzled man looks at it and stuff. So I ended up writing a story that was about critics and art. But… I can’t remember now how this even came about. The… One of the characters in this story… It’s basically a story that’s a bit of a biography of a woman I made up who is an artist who drew this painting… Drew this painting? Drew this pencil and ink sketch.
[Mary] You do underdrawing before you paint.
[Amal] There you go. Yes. So I wanted to make a story about the artist who did this. I genuinely cannot remember… It was just… I fell down a wiki hole. Must’ve been what it was. I gave her Alice in Wonderland syndrome. Which is a thing where… I think people are not quite sure why it happens. I think there’s… I think it might be a physiological thing that comes from having pressure on the brain, but your perceptions get fundamentally altered so that the shapes and sizes of things relative to each other shift drastically. So things that are… Things might seem very, very, very small or very, very, very big. All I had to go on was the Wikipedia description, because I was in a huge time crunch and I wanted to just turn this story in. I felt really uncomfortable about the fact that I was doing this. But for whatever reason that I cannot now remember, it still seemed like a good idea. Partly because I was fascinated by the fact that this existed. I’d never heard of it before. So I just… I tried very hard to imagine what it would be like, and ended up writing it into the story. But wrote it also from… What I tried to do to make up for the fact that I didn’t actually know what this was like was to have it ironically be in first person… Be like have her write diary sections where it was her voice. So that I could at least have a whole rounded character who had a voice and this was just something that happened to her sometimes, that she experienced. To try and compensate for that lack of knowledge. As it turns out, one of my closest friends has Alice in Wonderland syndrome.
[Amal] Which I only learned years after having written this story. I like knuckle bitingly asked, “So what is it like, and what about this story?” Because he totally read the story. He was like, “No, no, you totally got it right. That’s what it’s like.” Like, I can’t recommend this…
[Amal] As a method. But I think that it was partly just treating that difference as just one facet of the character that I imagined everything else about. Because I’d gotten the rest of that tissue there, it made it that much easier to imagine well, what would it be like if this were happening to me, given this description.
[Brandon] One of the tools I love is just going to forums. The Internet is wonderful for this, and see forums where people collectively together and gripe about their life. Those forums are like gold for a writer, because if people are sharing their gripes, you learn so much. Just being a fly on the wall and listening. How… What do you get frustrated when you are… You have this certain way of seeing the world and everybody else sees it differently from you, and they compl… You complain about what they don’t see. Those things… When you guys are doing that on forums, know that you are helping us out as writers.
[Maurice] Well, there’s another thing. Because when I was writing Buffalo Soldier, one of the early edit notes that I got back was, “Well, you have this child, he’s neuro- atypical, but we’d like to hear more from that character.” I was a little nervous because I was just like, “Well, how am I going to do that?” I’m obsessive about dialogue. So I was like, “Well, how am I going to get this dialogue right?” YouTube is an un… I mean, YouTube is like the writer’s best friend. It gets underutilized as far as I’m concerned. Because I googled… Just randomly “conversation with autistic children.” There are tons of videos of mothers who just upload conversations with their autistic children so they can show other mothers. Because everyone thinks that they’re isolated and alone. This is a good way for people to just go, “Hey, you know what, we’re all in the same boat. Here’s what we’re going through. What are you going through?” It was a good way to just observe conversations and study those conversations, so I could very much just get the conversations right.
[Mary] I’m going to throw in one cautionary thing, which is that once you figured out how a character is going to behave, it’s very easy to take those characteristics and carry them forward to your next work as a default. So don’t… Like if you got a character who has anxiety, say… I did. She was a mathematician. One of the ways she calm herself down was counting things. Specifically, she would do primes and she would do the numbers of pi. I was working on another story and my character was on the autism spectrum and also had problems with crowds, but very different reasons. Right? One of them is all about sensory input, the other is about attention. It’s two different things. I looked at the story after I’d finished, and I’m like, “I have her counting things! This character would not do that.” I have made that my default for how a character with anxiety behaves. So you do have to be aware of the defaults that you can… When you’re going to this next level narration. It’s like, “Oh, a character who lies behaves like this.” Be aware of the defaults that you are carrying forward from your own stuff, in addition to the things that you’ve absorbed around you.
[Brandon] Now, you had also some homework for us?
[Mary] I do. So we’re going to harken back to some homework that you have already done, which is in April, when in character voice, we had you do three different points of view. 80 years old, 12, and from a different country. At the time, we were having you think about character. So this time, you’re going to do next level narration. Which is that each of these characters are experiencing the same scene differently. So this is the Rashomon effect, that some of them are telling you information that the others are not telling you because they’re lying. So at this point, you’re dealing with two different aspects of narration. One is that these characters are different from each other, so we need to be able to tell that. The other is with their default settings and what is important to them, some of them are lying. Figure out which pieces they’re lying about and why.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.