If you’ve ever taken a crack at storytelling, you know a story can be told in different ways. It can be told by a narrator, by a character, or by several characters. It can be told in first-person narration, or second, or third.
I went downstairs, where my brother was waiting. He never trusted me to take care of these things on my own. He always checked up, held my hand, guided me like I was a child. It was infuriating. He said, “Are you ready?”
First person narration, signaled by the use of “I” in narration, leaves no question who we are experiencing the story with. A person (“I”) relates events as they happen; we go on a journey with the first-person narrator. The story is “limited” to what the narrator thinks, feels, and experiences.
Keep that idea of limiting a story to a single perspective in mind.
Second-person narration, on the other hand, replaces “I” with “you.” The storyteller is addressing the reader throughout. (Second-person narration is an infrequent style, oversimplified here, so feel free to follow this link to learn more.)
You went downstairs, where your brother was waiting. He never trusted you to take care of these things on your own. He always checked up, held your hand, guided you like you were a child. It infuriated you. He said, “Are you ready?”
Third-person narration replaces the “I” with “she,” “he,” or “they.” This style can be limited as above, although it does not need to (see more on that, below.). The feel of third-person narration tends to be less intimate than first-person and less direct than second-person:
She went downstairs, where her brother was waiting. He never trusted her to take care of these things on her own. He always checked up, held her hand, guided her like she was a child. It infuriated her. He said, “Are you ready?”
It’s still clear that we’re experiencing the story with the woman in the scene, and that the brother is something of an “other” character.
Now, take a moment and ask where the “story camera” is in each of those three examples, and what that is camera pointing at. I’d say that the camera is anchored, firmly, in each of those three examples; it’s bolted down within the head of “I” (pointing at the experiences of “I”), or in the head of some disembodied speaker (and pointing at the reader), or in the head of “she” (pointing at “she.”) For all three, let’s call this a stationary camera.
Another style, the journalistic style sometimes called fly-on-the-wall narration, can also use a stationary camera. It tells stories as an observer would see them. The camera is outside all the characters, like a fly sitting on a wall. Stationary.
She went downstairs, where her brother was waiting. He said, “Are you ready?”
That fly-on-the-wall version has all the emotion stripped away. We see events, but we don’t know how to evaluate them, because emotions are not being shared. Conveying thoughts and feelings from a fly-on-the-wall’s perspective requires using outwardly visible cues.
She stomped downstairs, where her brother was waiting. She glared at him. He tapped his watch and said brusquely, “Are you ready?”
Emotions can be inferred from the word choices, but “she” and “he” remain observed from an outside (anchored, stationary) camera. We aren’t on the journey with a character—we are a fly on the wall.
Another type of storytelling, which gets to the focus of this post, is something Ursula LeGuin called the involved author. This style brings in a narrator, someone who is not part of the story, but who is free to tell us about the story. Like Lemony Snicket, in A Series of Unfortunate Events. The narrator does not need to be so overt as Lemony Snicket—the narrator can be nearly invisible, as was done in Station Eleven.
With the involved author style, the camera moves within a scene—it is a fluid camera. The camera can go into a character’s head to reveal private thoughts and feelings, or out to the wall to observe everything in a neutral way, or even to another place or time.
She started downstairs, where her brother was waiting. She hated that he never trusted her to take care of these things on her own. It was infuriating, more and more as time went on. Why must he always hand-hold like this?
But she wasn’t the only one out of sorts. At the bottom of the staircase, he was waiting, impatient. He knew his sister. He knew she despised his interference, and yet she couldn’t be trusted. He tapped his watch and said, “Are you ready?”
The involved author style is flexible, because the author is free to reveal anything from any character. On the other hand, the style risks leaving readers unsure about who to sympathize with. If not done carefully, it can be jarring to a reader to feel as though they are being bounced around (like a bouncy camera). An anchored fly-on-the-wall camera never runs this risk of jarring the reader, but neither does that approach allow for immersive thoughts from the characters.
An involved author must lead the reader smoothly and carefully, so they don’t feel yanked about a scene.
With this style, the overriding concern (in my opinion) is controlling the fluid camera. We must use cues to convey smooth camera movement, as the story travels around a single scene, from one person to another or elsewhere altogether. This style may require some writers to unlearn certain rules they’ve picked up using the more commonly practiced first-person or third-person limited narrative styles. But again, the involved author style provides a flexible voice (the camera goes wherever it is most effective), and thus may be worth a little practice.
Here are a few tricks.
(1) First, practice being a fly on a wall. Make your camera external to all the characters, and only report what can be observed externally. This is a powerful way both to convey an overview of a scene and to signal to readers that this story will not be in a close limited perspective.
(2) An advantage to using the fly-on-the-wall approach (avoiding immersion into a character’s viewpoint), is that the camera is free to zip into another room or point in time, so long as the camera moves in a clear and controlled way. Two short examples:
She went downstairs, where her brother was waiting. He said, “Are you ready?” In the next house over, the neighbor was opening her bible.
She went downstairs, where her brother was waiting. He said, “Are you ready?” It wouldn’t always be so tense between them. By this time next year, both would have good jobs.
This high-level story view through space and time can be powerful—because the narrator is free convey an entire world and its history to the reader.
(3) But the involved author can also immerse the camera into a character’s viewpoint, or even move that camera from one viewpoint to another within a single scene. To move between characters, the involved author can use physical objects (“narrative batons”) that link the characters. The object helps the camera slide over to a new character’s perspective. Imagine two characters on a landline phone. The landline is the object, a narrative baton that facilitates camera movement.
Carrie was excited to be invited to serve on the advisory committee. On the other end of the line, Jen knew she’d made the right choice.
(4) Involved authors are free to refer to the thoughts or feelings of multiple characters at once.
Both paramedics knew time was short. The EMT applied the strap, fervently wishing for another option, even as the firefighter thought a tourniquet was a bad idea.
There’s no single viewpoint there; it’s a report of what two characters are thinking. Neither character is named.
Likewise, an involved author can refer to what none of the characters know, think or feel.
Both paramedics knew time was short. The EMT applied the strap, fervently wishing for another option, even as the firefighter thought a tourniquet was a bad idea. Unbeknownst to either, an artillery shell was hurtling directly toward them.
Referring to the thoughts and feeling of multiple characters (or none) is fair game in this style.
(5) “Filter phrases” are no-no’s writers are taught to avoid, because these phrases create distance between the reader and the viewpoint character. However, with the involved author style, these phrases become useful precisely because of that distance.
Understanding camera placement is key to controlling it. Deep immersion into a character’s viewpoint is possible with the involved author, but shallow immersion is just as useful, and external fly-on-the-wall is likewise useful. The involved author can use shallow immersion (as signaled through filter phrases and other tricks) to help move the camera smoothly from immersed to external placement. She thought the sandwich tasted off is not as deeply immersed as The sandwich tasted off. “She thought” is the filter phrase. With the involved author voice, inserting filter phrases at key points, as the camera moves into or out of viewpoint, can make transition smoother.
(6) Progressive verb forms are common from the involved author. (You can learn more about verb forms at this link.) The narrator knows what everyone in a scene “is doing” at any moment: She was eating her sandwich, and he was ordering another espresso. Progressive verb forms signal a camera filming multiple events underway.
Shifting to immediate verb form constructions such as He ordered an espresso can help move the camera a little closer to a single character.
(7) Just as fly-on-the-wall is one tool for the involved author, so is a limited narration. But when moving the camera into a single character’s head (limiting the viewpoint to that character’s experience), it’s wise to stay there for a while. Frequent changes in perspective can be disorienting to the reader. Chapter One of Station Eleven, which uses an involved author style, opens in fly-on-the-wall. After a few pages of this external view, the camera is moved smoothly into Jeevan’s head. Once there, the chapter remains limited in Jeevan’s perspective for the next 2000 words. The author does not flip into other viewpoints.
An alternative to going deep in one viewpoint is to stay shallow in multiple character heads. Any glancing moments of viewpoint should be filtered, and perhaps flanked with fly-on-the-wall narration. Chapter Two of Station Eleven moves the camera wide in this way.
(8) When moving into or out of a character’s perspective, keep narrative batons and smooth camera movement in mind to more effectively telegraph how the camera is moving. Unfiltered thoughts and feelings are the deepest immersion, filtered thoughts and feelings are not as deep, and a basic visual report of events underway equates to an external camera placement. Here’s a quick example from Station Eleven. The camera is moving from Jeevan’s viewpoint outward, to an external camera placement:
Jeevan felt extravagantly, guiltily alive. The unfairness of it, his heart pumping faultlessly while somewhere Arthur lay cold and still. (Immersed.) He walked north up Yonge Street with his hands deep in the pockets of his coat and snow stinging his face. (The rawness of sentence one turns into observable action; the camera is moving out of viewpoint.) Jeevan lived in Cabbagetown, north and east of the theater. (this is external journalistic reporting, high-level information.)
If the author wants to go into a different viewpoint, they might continue in this fashion and then reverse the sequence of tools to signal moving into a new viewpoint.
(9) Another fun trick is to use objects to carry the camera to a different part of a scene. This is not the same as a narrative baton, but it’s similar.
Rebecca swatted at the bee, but not quickly enough, and it flew up and away, buzzing toward the hallway, then the bathroom, where the window had been left open. The bee flew out to the lavender and thyme, both of which were more to its liking than the sour recriminations within. ‘People,’ the bee thought. ‘How silly they are.’ He buzzed away, while inside that home, Rebecca said, “You never listen, do you Richard?”
It’s easy for the reader to follow without feeling jarred, because the camera is carried in an obvious way.
(10) A final tool: Once the reader knows a sequence of events from one part of a story, those events can subsequently be referred to. This ties portions of the story together and conveys that involved authorial voice, which can aid consistency in style across the length of a story.
And while Rebecca was busy accusing her husband of such loutish behavior, a plane was landing. The dignitaries aboard had no idea that Richard would arrive at the summit more preoccupied with his failing marriage than oil futures.
So, that’s ten tips and tricks to play with, for anyone who wants to try a new style of narration. Take a look at Station Eleven or some other recent novel told in this style. Ask yourself if the camera is bolted down or fluid through the scene. Ask who the narrator is and what they bring to the story. See if you can spot more tricks than those listed here.
The involved author can be a powerful style of storytelling. Have fun!