One of my highlights from Nine Worlds was seeing my friend A C Macklin talk about narrative techniques. She did an excellent job of getting into the technical nitty gritty of things I’ve seldom even considered, but that are important in shaping a story.
You can read the slides and Macklin’s commentary on the talk here and I heartily recommend reading it. But here are a few things I picked out during the talk, useful points to consider as a writer.
Firstly, storytelling is about getting a particular reaction. You can get different reactions by varying:
- narrative structure
- level of emotional engagement
- level of self-awareness
- level of deceit.
Building an emotional bond between the narrator and the audience is important. People instinctively want to bond with other people and things, and this is a powerful tool.
Some types of narrator to consider:
- Dramatized narrator – they’re deep in the action.
- Reflector narrator – the sort who speculates on the perspectives of other characters instead of just showing their own.
- Observer/frame narrator – someone entirely outside the story.
- Self-conscious narrator – someone telling you the story with a reason or agenda.
Each of these will draw different emotional reactions from readers and give you different narrative tools.
Unreliable narrators should generally be reserved for when you want to feature a particular twist. They can be unreliable for a bunch of different reasons:
- in denial
- speaking with an agenda
- outright lying.
I never realised there were so many options for unreliability until this talk. Now I half want to invent a bunch of stories just to try them all.
And perhaps the most useful overall lesson I took from this – consider the balance between the audience’s bond with the narrator and the space they need to reflect on what’s happening. The bond is useful and powerful, but that doesn’t mean it should always dominate. It depends upon the sort of story you want to tell.
I love it when stories have strong narrator voices. The way the story is told gives you a sense of the narrator’s character without describing them directly. It can make for a really interesting read.
This year, I’ve encountered two Cthulhu mythos stories that do this well, and that make the mythos accessible to someone like me who doesn’t know it well.
First up is “My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy, Aged 7” by David Tallerman. It’s told from the point of view of a 7-year-old girl. She’s describing her friend, nicknamed Fishfinger, who is nice but unusual. Her parents worship a strange god and they’re going to take Daisy on holiday with them. From the child’s point of view, it’s incredibly sweet. As an adult reading the story, it’s obvious what’s amiss, and Cthulhu fans will doubtless know exactly what it refers to. The contrast between the strong character perspective and the reader’s understanding creates a wonderful strand of dark humour, as well as telling us a lot about the characters involved.
Then there’s “Donald” by Adrian Tchaikovsky. An academic, responding to some unnamed investigator, tells the story of his encounters with a man named Donald Toomey. Again, there are the ironies that creep in through the gaps between reader and narrator understanding. There’s also a great pleasure to be taken in the narrator’s voice. His opinions, biases, and assumptions flavour the text like tasty spices. There’s a certain amount of belligerence and bloody-mindedness. There’s also a tendency to assume that the world works a certain way, a set of academic assumptions that are carefully shown rather than crudely explained. It makes the storytelling subtle and the voice authentic.
I love this sort of storytelling and have set myself the challenge of trying it in the next few weeks. In the meantime, you can find “My Friend Fishfinger” in David’s collection The Sign in the Moonlight. “Donald” is in The Private Lives of Elder Things. And if you’re after more supernatural horror then check out the latest issue of 9Tales Told in the Dark, featuring my story “Cold Flesh”.