Character as storyteller is a narrative technique used by many writers. There are do’s and don’ts for making use of this narrative technique.
ADVANTAGES OF CHARACTER AS STORYTELLER
- A storyteller can radically change the way you sequence a plot. The storyteller has just as much effect on your depiction of character as the plot itself.
- The vast majority of popular stories (movies/novels/plays) don’t use a recognizable storyteller but an omniscient narrator. The audience doesn’t see who is telling the story, and we don’t care.
- A storyteller is someone who recounts a character’s actions, either in the first person or third. If your storyteller is recognizable you are afforded greater complexity and subtlety: You can present both the actions of the MC and commentary on those actions.
- If you identify the storyteller the audience will ask why they are telling it. And why does this story need a teller. A storyteller calls attention to herself and can distance the audience from the story. That gives the writer the benefit of detachment.
- This storyteller may not be telling the entire truth. The storyteller blurs/destroys the line between reality and illusion.
- If the storyteller is identified the audience knows that this is someone’s memory — cue feelings of loss, sadness and ‘might-have-been-ness’. We know that the storyteller will be retelling the story with a touch more wisdom, since a measure of time has elapsed since the ending of the story and the retelling of it.
- A storyteller can heighten the issue of truth. When a storyteller speaks personally to an audience the storyteller in effect is saying ‘I was there so you can trust me on this’. This is a tacit invitation to the audience not to trust this storyteller, and to explore the issue of truth as the story unfolds.
- Who’s The Greatest Unreliable Narrator? (From Publishers Weekly)
- Helps the writer establish an intimate connection between character and audience.
- Makes characterization more subtle and helps writers distinguish one character from another.
- Signals a shift from a hero who acts — usually a fighter — to a hero who creates — an artist. The act of storytelling now becomes the main focus, so the path to ‘immortality’ shifts from a hero taking glorious action to a storyteller who tells it. This will give a story a more ‘feminine’ feel (compared to the classic adventure story, which is masculine in its structure and sensibility, largely free from reflecting upon one’s own emotions).
- You can leave chronology behind because the actions of the plot are framed by someone’s memories. You can now sequence the action in whatever way makes the most structural sense.
- This helps string together events and actions that occur over great stretches of time. A storyteller affords greater unity and huge gaps between story events seem to disappear. This is a good narrative choice for intergenerational stories.
- Don’t use a storyteller as a simple frame. “I’d like to begin by telling you a story… That’s what happened. It was an amazing story.” This calls attention to the storyteller for no reason and fails to take advantage of the strengths of including a storyteller. Still, you will sometimes see this in older classics. Using it today must be a deliberate attempt at recreating a retro feel, but use it at the expense of reader interest.
- The storyteller should not be all-knowing at the beginning. An all-knowing storyteller has no dramatic interest in the present.
- In film, at least, don’t end the storytelling frame at the end of the story, but rather about three-quarters of the way in. If you put it right at the end the act of remembering and telling the story can have no dramatic or structural impact on the present. You need to leave some room in the story for the act of recounting the change to the storyteller herself.
- Don’t promote the fallacy that a character’s death allows the full and true story to be told. It’s overdone for a storyteller to state that the character’s death finally made it possible to tell the truth about her. The deathbed scene and final words often provide ‘the truth’. This is never true in real life and not true in stories either — rather, it’s acting as if you’ll die that creates meaning by motivating you to make choices now. Finding meaning is an ongoing process of living. (A character’s death may give the appearance that the full story can now be told, but the true meaning comes in looking back on events.) A storyteller knows ‘a meaning’ but never ‘the meaning’ of a story.
- Be wary of too many storytellers. One cost of a storyteller is that she can drain some emotion from a story. The more storytellers you have, the more this will happen. The audience will end up looking at the story from a cold and clinical position.
- Don’t dish out information in dribs and drabs. From Matt Bird on his website: “The hero wants to hear the truth, and someone else is willing to tell him or her the truth, but for some reason it takes several scenes over several days for the truth to come out. Readers have little patience for this.” If you want to dish the story out in dribs and drabs, have a reason for it.
GENERAL WRITING TIPS
A lot of agents, publishers and readers don’t like this form of narration. Some can’t articulate why, but the following points offer some clues. Bear in mind that for children’s literature, third person, off-the-page narrator is the default voice — the unmarked choice of narration.
- Realize your storyteller is probably your true main character.
- Introduce the storyteller in a dramatic situation.
- Find a good trigger to cause her to tell the story.
- Jeff Kinney says this of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series: “The reason that Greg keeps a diary as established in the first few pages of the first book is that Greg thinks that he’s going to be famous. And I think a lot of kids in America think that they’re going to grow up to be the president. You know, I certainly did. But that he’s going to be so famous that he needs to start documenting this. And so I think that’s the whole, you know, the pretence of the book or the conceit of the book is that Greg is recording his own future greatness although there’s no evidence of it in the books.”
- In another MG illustrated novel, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, the two main characters are writing everything down as a way to emulate the popular girls with the aim of eventually becoming popular themselves.
- Ellie McDoodle (by Ruth McNally Barshaw) is stuck with intolerable relatives so she decides to make the most of her ordeal by recording everything in her sketchbook (the one you, the reader, are reading) and getting some time away from the craziness.
- In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the letter writer R. Walton writes to his sister Margaret because he feels isolated: “But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy; and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil. I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavor to sustain me in dejection. I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feelings.” Gothic readers had a high tolerance for stories within stories. When Mr Walton meets the man at sea, Mary Shelley gives us a reason for the man to recount his story to Walton: “Yesterday the stranger said to me, “You may easily perceive, Captain Walton that I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes. I had determined, at one time, that the memory of these evils should die with me; but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been. I do not know that the relation of my disasters will be useful to you; yet, when I reflect that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale; and console you in case of failure. Prepare to hear of occurrences which are usually deemed marvellous.”
- S/he should have a great weakness that will be solved by telling the story.
- Try to find a unique structure for telling the tale instead of simple chronology. (Otherwise the storyteller is just a frame and you don’t need it.)
- The act of telling the story should lead the storyteller to a self-revelation.
- Consider having the storyteller explore how the act of telling the story can be immoral or destructive, to herself or others.
- The act of telling the story should cause a final dramatic event.
- The deeper theme should be concerned with the truth and beauty of creativity, not heroic action. The storytelling itself is the greatest accomplishment, not the action which has been recounted.
Notes from John Truby, Anatomy of Story
In short, there should be a reason for the character as storyteller narration.