Stone City by Annie Proulx Short Story Analysis

stone city

“Stone City” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1979, collected 20 years later in Heart Songs. Some of Proulx’s short stories are like compacted novels, and “Stone City” is one of those. The story of the humans is wrapped by the story of a fox, looking in from a slight distance. “Stone City” is a good example of what some literature academics call ‘delayed coding’.

For writers, “Stone City” makes a good mentor text:

  • If you’re building a story which is partly from the point of view of an animal. The fox is linked to a human character, Noreen Pineaud, who is described as like a fox. “Stone City” is therefore a good example of how to make use of animal imagery and, more importantly, how to link this imagery to the Anagnorisis part of a story.
  • For description of a setting which is a character in itself:

It was an abandoned farm vine between two ridges, no roads in or out, only a faint track choked with viburnum and alder. The property, shaped like an eye, was bordered on the back by a stream. Popple and spruce had invaded the hay fields, and the broken limbs of the apple trees hung to the ground.

The buildings were gone, collapsed into cellar holes of rotting beams. Blackberry brambles boiled out of the crumbling foundations and across a fallen blue door that half-blocked a cellar hole.

  • A storyteller narrator, who tells a story within a story, jumping back and forth in chronology, with events linked thematically rather than by time.
  • Related to the storyteller voice, in this story Proulx is especially economical with language. Instead of saying, ‘A bell tinkled and Brittany came into the field to pick [the birds] up. Banger followed close behind. Then he said  said…’ Proulx leaves out the ‘Banger followed close behind’ detail. We infer that if Banger has started talking, Banger is now on the scene.
  • Perhaps this is only noticeable because I recently read all the first and second volume of Grimm fairytales back to back, but there are subtle fairytale elements in “Stone City”. For instance, the way Banger’s dog sleeps behind the stove. This is where old people almost about to die spend their days in Grimm fairytales. Then of course there’s the Hansel and Gretel plot of finding an unexpected dwelling in the middle of the wilderness, the ‘sugarhouse’ of Banger is almost reminiscent of the gingerbread house. When Banger turns off ‘accidentally’ and takes the narrator home for dinner, was that really an accident, or on purpose? The nearby fox, circling the town, waiting for a chance to pounce/trick.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “STONE CITY”

The following provides a summary of what happens from Karen Lane Rood. I’ve emboldened the parts which give a clue as to the narration and structure:

“Stone City” examines several acts of revenge that have wider consequences than in “On the Antler,” as the narrator, a newcomer to Chopping County, gradually comes to understand the complex interrelationships of the people in the community. He learns that the abandoned farm everyone calls Stone City was once the property of the first settlers of the county — a “real old family, and a real bad family”. During the lifetimes of the current residents, old man Stone was known as the “meanest bastard” and his children shared a reputation for being wild and mean. One of those children, Floyd Stone, finally brought the wrath of the community on the whole Stone family when—after waiting for a seventy-three-car train to pass—he shot and killed the man standing on the caboose. Several hundred law men converged on Stone City and tore down a flimsy house to get Floyd and arrest him. Then the local starred and feathered the rest of the Stone men. Old man Stone retaliated by burning out Banger, one of the leaders of the mob, killing Banger’s wife and child in the process.

Floyd was eventually electrocuted, and by the time the narrator arrives in town, the Stones seem to exist only as a fearful memory. The narrator hears much of the Stones’ story from Banger, a talkative man known for his skills as a hunter. He lives alone with his much=loved hunting dog and seems to have been motivated for his part in the mob by an earlier act of violence. While hunting with the narrator in the abandoned Stone City, Banger explains that he used to hunt there as a child, and that once old man Stone chased him away “with number six birdshot. Still got the little pick scars acrost my back”.

When Banger’s dog is found dead in a trap set for foxes near Stone City, Banger blames old man Stone. In fact, the trap belongs to the son of Floyd Stone’s illegitimate son, a teenager who might have found the dog in time to save it if he had tended his trapline more diligently. After Banger moves away, the narrator discovers that Banger had bought Stone City for back taxes years earlier. Still, the narrator concludes, “The Stones owned it and they always would”. Proulx, however, suggests the vanity of any concept of human land ownership within the larger context of geological time. The story is punctuated with a series of vignettes about a fox whose range includes Stone City. Too smart to be caught in a trap, the fox survives to father another generation in a new den built under a cellar foundation in Stone City.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
NARRATION

“Stone City” is one of very few stories that Proulx has written in the first person voice. Significantly, the narrator is an outsider who cannot comprehend the complexities of the life he has adopted.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

In narratology terms, “Stone City” is a story within a story, within (or alongside) the story of the fox. Annie Proulx employs this method for other stories in this collection, including “On The Antler”, though in that case the narrator seems to be a long-time resident of Chopping County. This time she’s chosen a newcomer, which makes sense for this particular narrative. Both stories feature a storyteller character aside from the narrator storyteller themselves, but in the case of Stone City, the newcomer status of the narrator allows for realistic revelations which delve into the dark underbelly of the community. When the narrator is a newcomer to an arena, this allows the reader to sit on the shoulder of the narrator and make discoveries in a simulation of real time.

Metadiegetic (Level 1): The story of the fox who finds a new home.

Diegetic (Level 0): Without any awareness of the omniscient fox, the narrator moves to Chopping County and gradually comes to understand the complex interrelationships of the people in the community. A narrator who exists — in full or in part — on a different story level from the other characters is more commonly known as a ‘storyteller’. This narrator will tell us the story of Banger, who tells us the story of Stone City…

Hypodiegetic (Level -1): Refers to the embedded narrative in which Banger tells the narrator (and us) the history of Stone City. Any character who produces a further narrative within a narrative is a hypodiegetic narrator. Banger is the hypodiegetic narrator.

OTHER STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES

FORESHADOWING

“Stone City” is one of very few stories that Proulx has written in the first person voice. Significantly, the narrator is an outsider who cannot comprehend the complexities of the life he has adopted. As in The Shipping News, family secrets and hidden traumas emerge only gradually, so that the truth is revealed to the narrator in fragments, which he has to piece together. In that respect, the outsider may also be seen as an image of the reader, to whom Proulx assigns a great responsibility. Because these stories, as well as Proulx’s novels, do not rely on a strong plot, the reader has to be on her guard at all times, since what appears to be a descriptive passage, for example, may turn out to be the key to a mystery that unfolds as the story progresses. At the same time, the reader cannot know which of the story’s elements will turn out to be clues, nor is it certain that all mysteries will be solved by the end.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

In writing terminology, Annie Proulx is using the techniques of foreshadowing and a take on the good ole red-herring. By giving us extra descriptive information she is lulling us into enjoyment of the language. I have to read her stories at least twice before I understand what’s going on — she tricks me into enjoying the descriptions, and then I’m surprised. I have to go back and check why. This mirrors the experience of the narrator, who has come into the community, probably attracted to the landscape, and only afterwards thinks, oh hang on, something’s not right here and why did I not pick it up?

In order to get away with this you really do have to be a master of the descriptive passage. I feel this is Proulx’s greatest strength.

But scholars have pointed out that Proulx’s exact method of foreshadowing takes a specific form. They call it…

DELAYED DECODING

In Heart Songs Proulx also introduces a technique that she has used to great effect in most of her writing. She very often presents the readers with the effect long before she reveals the cause, so that various elements in each story appear inexplicable until the moment of revelation. A similar technique was used to great effect by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and following Conrad scholar Ian Watt. I will be referring to it as “delayed decoding”. Delayed decoding is a realistic narrative device to the extent that it mirrors the way in which we may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. As such, it creates both suspense and a sense of bewilderment when used in narrative. At the same time, however, it is also an indication of the fact that the author has control over her creation, and chooses to manipulate her material in such a way as to suggest that characters’ lives are unfolding in front of our eyes, when the truth is that their fate had been decided before the author began to write. Delayed decoding may assert the author’s power, but…it also allows the reader to interpret the text more freely.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

Stories employing this technique do require more work from the reader. When the reader is invited to ‘interpret the text more freely’, we are invited to participate in the creation of the story ourselves. We need to ask ourselves:

  • Whose truth is true here, in the world of this story?
  • How do I want it to end?
  • But how would it realistically end?

Annie Proulx has been called a ‘fatalistic’ writer. She gives us the impression that once a setting is set in place and peopled with characters, their lives are set in motion and there’s no changing their path. I believe this particular technique is what gives us that sense of fatalism, or at least contributes to it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “STONE CITY”

There are three different main characters in this story:

The viewpoint character, also the unnamed narrator. Most of what we know of the viewpoint character we deduce by the way they notice things — as usual (though first person narration is not usual for Proulx), we have an ambiguously gendered (though masculine sounding) character with enough world-weariness to be middle-aged or older. He likes to go hunting, though is entirely self-taught. His aim is to get a local to show him. In this regard, this could be the character of Earl in “The Unclouded Day“. (But these stories are not obviously interlinked, so I’m not arguing that, exactly.)

Banger, a local personality who tells the story of yet another character, Old Man Stone.

Banger was about fifty, a heavy man, all suet and mouth. At first I thought he was that stock character who remembered everybody’s first name, shouting “Har ya! How the hell ya doing’?” to people he’d seen only an hour before, giving them a slap on the back or a punch on the arm—swaggering gestures in school, but obnoxious in a middle-aged man. I saw him downtown, talking to anybody who would listen, while he left his hardware store to the attentions of a slouchy kid who could never find anything on the jumbled shelves.

We, along with the narrator, soon learn that Banger has a significant ghost — “His place burned down and the wife and kid was fired right up in it. He got nothing left but his dog and the goddamn hardware store his old man left him and which he was never suited to.”

Old Man Stone, the main character of the hypodiegetic level.

Next question: Who undergoes the character arc? Who get the anagnorisis? That’s who I focus on here.

SHORTCOMING

The narrator is new to the area, dependent on local knowledge and equipment (such as a dog) to help him hunt.

DESIRE

To hunt — that’s the conscious desire. Underneath — as judged by the reader given the information — he sees through pretensions of rural toughness but at the same time he is susceptible to the same himself. He wants to be part of this world. Ideally he wants a hunting companion to feel more at home in this world, but he has trouble finding a companion when he makes an out-of-sorts comment about the local hunting expert with the sorry backstory.

OPPONENT

When Banger takes the narrator to his house to eat birds it’s not clear whether Banger is an ally or an opponent.

PLAN

Narrator tries to find a companion, can’t. Goes hunting by himself. Once shot, he can’t find his bird, which puts him off that part of the woods. So he finds a new hunting area, which happens to be where the local hunting expert also hunts.

BIG STRUGGLE

There is a big struggle scene in the story-within-a-story, in which Banger describes the memory provoked by finding the knife. The state police turn up for the arrest of Floyd Stone ‘for the murder of whoever he was’. (To Banger and the story, the victim is not important.)

The narrator’s own big struggle is similar to the big struggle scene in another story from the same collection, “In The Pit” — one man goes to another man’s abode and accuses him of something he hasn’t done.

ANAGNORISIS

Even to the bastard descendants the Stones were predators. They could not help it any more than Banger, fluttering in suspicious apprehension, could help being their victims.

There’s a fatalistic outlook to that epiphany. The epiphany itself turns humans into animals — hunted and preyed, and explains why Proulx turned a human character into a fox/chicken (alternately — with a fox face and a feather stuck to her cheek). Humans live like animals out here, where everything is wild and dangerous.

NEW SITUATION

I heard that Banger moved to Florida, to Arizona, to California, all earthly paradises to Chopping County.

In the spring I sold my house to a retired couple…

There’s nothing in Chopping County for Banger now, and the narrator, having immersed himself in Banger’s narrative, feels the same.

But the story closes as it opens, with the fox. The fox has taken up residence inside Banger’s abandoned sugarhouse with the distinctive blue door. This underscores the Anagnorisis of the narrator (that humans are animals).

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Cameras In Storytelling

The invention of cameras was a boon for storytellers. Writers and film directors have this new narrative tool — in the shape of a camera — which allows them to play around with perspective, to use as a metaphor and as a way to explore death. (No kidding. Read on!)

THE CAMERA FIEND TROPE

Some characters use a camera. These characters love their camera. They’ll have the device with them everywhere they go and they’ll use it well, usually sticking it in the most unwelcome of places – they’ll take the most inane pictures they can, record everything they see or all of the above (maybe even at the risk of life or limb). Something embarrassing happens? They’ll snap a shot. Important plot event? They caught it on tape. You can always expect this character to wear their camera on their sleeve for any important or non-important moment that may arise, probably becoming uncomfortable without the object at near. It’s possible that they derive some kind of strange pleasure from watching people, though its best not to get into that.

TV Tropes

Twelve-year-old Circa Monroe has a knack for restoring old photographs. It’s a skill she learned from her dad, who loves old pictures and putting fun digital twists on them. His altered “Shopt” photos look so real that they could fool nearly anybody, and Circa treasures the fun stories he makes up to explain each creation.

One day, her father receives a strange phone call requesting an urgent delivery, and he heads out into a storm. The unimaginable happens: a tornado, then a terrible accident. Just as Circa and her mom begin to pick up the pieces, a mysterious boy shows up on their doorstep, a boy called Miles who remembers nothing about his past. The only thing he has with him is the photograph that Circa’s dad intended to deliver on the day he died.

As Circa tries to help Miles recover his identity, she begins to notice something strange about the photos she and her father retouched-the digital flourishes added to the old photos seem to exist in real life. The mysteries of the Shopt photos and Miles’s past are intertwined, and in order to solve both, Circa will have to figure out what’s real and what’s an illusion.

Why have photography hobbyists become such a popular trope, especially in young adult novels?

Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, betwween acting and being acted upon. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Death In Children’s Literature

Seelinger Trites works with the theory that death and narrative structure are linked. 

[Many YA] novels employ photographing protagonists as metaphors for the relationship between power and agency. The metaphor of the camera bestowing upon the photographer a sense of empowerment based on the communicative abilities of photographs occurs often in literature. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
Fred Irvin (American, b. 1914). The Photo Booth, Catholic Digest cover, October 1960
Fred Irvin (American, b. 1914). The Photo Booth, Catholic Digest cover, October 1960

As examples, Seelinger Trites analyses the following:

  • A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry (1977)
  • Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (1991) 
  • Spite Fences by Trudy Krisher (1994)

Now that cameras are ubiquitous, it’s no surprise photography has become increasingly common in stories for YA. More modern examples (created after Seelinger Trites wrote Disturbing The Universe):

  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the viewpoint character makes experimental short movies — Lowry’s A Summer To Die sounds like it might have been the mother of Jesse Andrews’ novel. Both are about teenagers standing nearby as another teenager dies. 
  • The Secret History Of Us by Jess Kirby — the viewpoint character has lost her memory in an accident. Photographic evidence helps her to work out the mystery of what happened to her and provokes the return of certain memories.
  • The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw — a love story about a shy photographer and a girl who is slowly turning into glass.
  • Hold Still by Nina LaCour — photography is a means of expression for Caitlin, functioning kind of like a diary
  • Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan — When Blake snaps a picture of a street person for his photography homework, he never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom. The flash is especially metaphorical: “You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her.”

Photographers as main characters aren’t limited to YA by any means — Nora Roberts likes a photographer as character. Goodreads has a list of novels with characters who love photography.

CAMERA AS AGENCY IN YA LITERATURE

Seelinger Trites explains that photography has a specific function in YA, and the pattern is repeated. The camera is a ‘metaphorical representation for achieving agency’. When you’re on the snapping side of the camera you are no longer the object. You’re in control. You’re the one doing the observing, the judging. In a photography narrative, the main character becomes more and more aware of their own agency. That’s the character change. 

Pictures are important not so much in and of themselves but for what they teach the adolescent, especially as they become repeated artifacts that allow the character to witness the same scene during several different points in her or his development.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

[The] need to recognize one’s own agency is a central pattern of adoleescent literature; we achieve adulthood more comfortably if we recognize that we have some control over the various subject positions we occupy than if we feel entirely like objects, pawns, in other people’s movements. But conversely, maturity also depends on our ability to maintain, when necessary, an object position, for we are all objects of the cultural forces that constantly shape us. Again, the relationship between subjecta nd object is a fluid one, but gaining an increased understanding of one’s power as an acting subject is inevitable during maturation.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

SUSAN SONTAG ON CAMERAS

In 1977, Susan Sontag produced a collection of essays On Photography. It’s pretty famous. Points especially relevant to YA:

  • In their ubiquity and passivity, photographs can become a source of aggression.
  • Cameras can create a sense of vicariousness that may also sanction the photographer’s nonintervention in painful issues.
  • For characters who take pictures instead of becoming involved, photography can become a source of complicity, a way to approve tacitly that which they may not otherwise be able to change.
  • Cameras serve to both empower and disempower adolescents’ agency.

CAMERAS IN MIDDLE GRADE FICTION

Until recently, regular kids didn’t have access to cameras. Now every adult carries a camera in their pocket and we give our older models to our kids. Kids take photos now. Perhaps this is part of the reason photography as a metaphor has come down into MG.

Though this novel wasn’t originally written for children, the camera plays a starring role in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, in which the town vagabond is entrusted with a camera which has been won — along with a lifetime’s supply of film — by the main character’s family. When I read this story I assumed the camera had been included for the sake of the plot, even though the setting is based on the author’s own grandparents’ farm, but as it turns out they really did win a lifetime’s supply of photos after the war, when film and development was very expensive. In Wolf Hollow Toby is a what TV Tropes refers to as a ‘camera fiend’.

The reason I assumed the camera was a plot device is because it’s a very good one. When a story is written using anything other than an omniscient viewpoint, a camera can offer insights and evidence concerning happenings outside the realm of the characters’ knowledge. In this MG novel, the camera isn’t really used as part of the main character’s change to someone with agency, but as part of the mystery plot. Mystery writers must come up with various ways their young characters can solve mysteries — talking to adults, keeping watch from the shadows and finding evidence such photos are common tricks.

CAMERA AS TRUTH-TELLER

It is generally assumed in story that the camera does not lie. While this has been true until recently, that’s changing. We’re yet to see many stories come through — at least for younger children — which make use of the fact that photos can be easily doctored by anyone with appropriate software. I predict ‘fake news’ as a huge theme in YA fiction in the coming years.

CAMERA AS SOURCE OF AGGRESSION

There are definitely camera as gun elements to Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, in which Toby is hunted as wolf while he in turn is only as dangerous as a camera, shooting nothing more than photos.

In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood also uses the camera as a stand-in for a gun. It’s handy that in English the word ‘shoot’ is used for both taking a photo and using a gun. Cameras are a recurring motif throughout Atwood’s work.

Note that when we say ‘camera as gun’ we are talking about the invasive nature of cameras. When you have a camera pushed into your face without your consent, and when the photos of you are seen by others without your consent, this is invasive.

It is a superstition of many Real Life religions and cultures that cameras and photography are harmful, with many believing that being photographed may steal their soul and taking great pains to avoid it (This is ostensibly the Soul Jar variant of the Phantom Zone Picture).

Magical Camera

FANTASY CAMERAS

Absent from classic fairy tales: Cameras. Tales as collected by Grimm are not about self-reflection. Characters don’t grow. They exist as archetypes. Fairy tales are told by an unseen omniscient narrator, avoiding the more modern narrative tricks.

But there is a fairytale camera equivalent, I believe, and that is the mirror. When Snow White’s mother asks the mirror to educate her on the fairest in the land, she knows and we know that it is telling her the truth. (Mirrors aren’t known for their diplomacy, and nor are cameras.)

In Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman creates a fantasy world with a palimpsest of our real world — Oxford, Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin. Accordingly, he includes fantasy elements which are connected to real world technologies. Early in the story we see the Scholars — with Lyra hidden in the wardrobe — showing what Pullman calls ‘photograms‘ from an expedition to the North. These photograms are in black and white, in keeping with the olde worlde feel of Oxford and the patriarchal set up depicted. Some of the photos from the expedition have been developed using the normal emulsion, but some of them have been developed using ‘special emulsion’. This reveals a different landscape altogether — the Scholars and Lyra can now see a hidden city, existing in a world separate but connected from our own.

A photogram is not something entirely made up by Pullman. It is a picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. How do you take a photo without a camera, you might ask? By placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.

Later the word ‘photogram’ was used to refer to the earliest photographs. The word has now fallen out of use.

In fantasy, a variety of tools can be used for the purpose of seeing into a parallel, magical world. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Webb invents a ‘seeing stone’ which allows the main characters to see hobgoblins in the garden.

Scene from The Spiderwick Chronicles movie

CAMERAS IN THE HORROR GENRE

How To Make Friends With A Ghost camera dusty camera lens
from How To Make Friends With A Ghost by Rebecca Green, a cosy picture book ghost story
Insidious Movie Poster

The trope in which cameras reveal what the eye cannot see is used heavily in the horror genre. The camera which can see paranormal activity is a type of magical camera, reminiscent of the fairy tale magic mirror. 

For instance, in the film Insidious, a medium and her crew come to a haunted house, and by putting different ‘magical’ filters on the camera they are able to see scary, ghostly creatures hovering behind the boy, getting closer and closer until finally they are right inside him, inhabiting his body.

In one shot we see a picture of the sympathetic father but through the lens of the camera we learn he has been possessed by this hideous creature:

Insidious The Last Key camera
Insidious The Last Key camera

Insidious is not a particularly original horror film but it does what it does very well, making an excellent job of evoking a nightmare. Once the father is in the other world — the world we’ve been shown glimpses of via the camera in the familiar world — there is no longer any need for the camera as such, but that doesn’t mean cameras are not of influence. As he wanders around the scary mansion he finds gothic and grotesque creatures who stand (almost perfectly) still, as if their photograph has been taken and now that’s all that’s left of them.

Here he examines a woman who stands completely still in the middle of ironing in a 1950s version of his living room, except when she blinks and scares the living daylights of both him and the audience.

CAMERA AS BOOKEND NARRATIVE

Though The Blair Witch Project is also a horror, it uses the camera differently. This film tells the story of characters who have been killed. We know at the beginning of the story that they are dead, which adds suspense and intrigue from the start. This lets us sit through the slightly unpleasant and somewhat boring experience of watching unedited footage as three film students pack for a hike in the woods, asking each other about film and equipment etc. The ‘unfound (and unedited) footage’ story provides the narrative reason why anyone knows what happened.

Blair Witch Evil Hides In The Woods movie poster landscape
Blair Witch Evil Hides In The Woods
The memorable Blair Witch selfie with close up of nose
The memorable Blair Witch selfie

The Blair Witch Project is the archetypal example of the In-Universe Camera trope.

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Narration and Storytelling: Focalisation vs Head Hopping

FOCALISATION

Every narratologist has their own set of terminology. It gets a bit overwhelming. Pick and choose the terms that are useful; discard the rest. Here’s one way of looking at narration in stories. Focalisation comes courtesy of French narrative theorist, Gérard Genette.

When thinking about focalisation, we consider the following:

  • Who speaks (narrative voice)
  • Who sees (focalisation)
  • Who is seen

Writers tend to think in terms of point of view, as in, “Do I write this story in first person or third person?”

Geo Ham (Georges Hamel, 1900-1972) 1928, a Bugatti in a race. Even artists make decisions about whether to draw from first or third person perspectives.
Geo Ham (Georges Hamel, 1900-1972) 1928, a Bugatti in a race. Even artists make decisions about whether to draw from first or third person perspectives.

That’s a big question and does the job, mostly. Orson Scott Card’s book on point of view is excellent (though the author himself is a renowned homophobe). Paula B’s podcast on point of view is also excellent. Listen to that and you’ll know pretty much all you have to know in order to write a story.

That said, no matter how much you school up on ‘point of view’, the concept of ‘point of view’ will never distinguish between:

  • narrative voice
  • focalisation

And ‘focalisation’ can be important.

TYPES OF FOCALISERS

Focalisation refers to who is doing the seeing. Who sees the story (in order to report back on it)?

External Focalisers
  • External focalisers exist outside the story.
  • They are also known as ‘narrator focalisers’ or, to writers, simply as ‘narrators’, because the focus of perception seems to be that of someone narrating the story.
Internal Focalisers
  • Perception of the story comes to the audience via a character in a story.
  • In narratology these are known as ‘character focalisers’.

You may have heard different terminology to describe these aspects — extradiegetic vs intradiegetic, anyone? Diegesis (vs. mimesis) has been discussed since Aristotle’s time.

Anyway, back to focalising. Let’s focus.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FOCALISER AND A NARRATOR?

  • A narrator is the character telling the story.
  • The focaliser is the character who ‘sees’ the story taking place.
  • A focaliser is not necessarily a narrator. Contemporary adult fiction is often written in ‘close third person’. That third person is not a narrator, but they are the focaliser. The narrator in a close third person story isn’t necessarily even noticed by the reader. They are most often invisible, or conflated with ‘the author’.
  • But does it work the other way around? Is a narrator always a focaliser? Nope. The narrator can choose to tell a story through a certain character’s point of view, effectively functioning in the same way as an author does.
  • Narration tends to be more fixed. Even in a book with multiple narrators, authors will usually telegraph when they’re switching narrators, e.g. by alternating chapters. But when it comes to ‘focalisation’, focalising can shift almost imperceptibly over the course of a single paragraph, moving like a camera on a dolly, first offering a wide shot, zooming closer for the long shot, in closer for a head shot. We see a character looking at a cake, then the camera zooms in on the cake. At that point, if we’re ‘seeing’ the cake from a particular character’s point of view, then they are the focalising character.
  • The Great Gatsby is often used as an example in discussions of narration. Written in first person point of view from the perspective of Nick Carraway, the story is told through his voice but his extreme focus on Gatsby means that Gatsby is the focaliser. (We might also say that Gatsby is the ‘main character‘, but that’s a little different again.) Not all the chapters in The Great Gatsby use Gatsby as the focaliser. Gatsby is the focaliser when Nick Carraway goes into his backstory.

THE HEAD HOPPING CHESTNUT OF WRITING GROUPS

One thing I’ve noticed about writing groups is the tendency to search for head-hopping, and some search for violations of point-of-view as voraciously as they hunt down spelling errors and inconsistent syntax.

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of critique – fussy ones, I mean. Genuine cases of head-hopping need to be fixed in a later draft. But I think the criticism of ‘head-hopping’ is regularly misapplied.

Consider the following passage, from Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates). April and Frank Wheeler have just decided to go to France. This is a description of the new household. We start in Frank Wheeler’s head:

…sometimes late at night when his throat had gone sore and his eyes hot from talking, when he hunched his shoulders and set his jaw and pulled his necktie loose and let it hang like a rope, [1] he could glare at the window and see the brave beginnings of a personage.

[2] It was a strange time for the children, too. [3] What exactly did going to France in the fall mean? And why did their mother keep insisting it was going to be fun, as if daring them to doubt it? For that matter, why was she so funny about a lot of things. [4] In the afternoons she would hug them and ask them questions in a rush of ebullience that suggested Christmas Eve, and then a minute later she’d be saying “Yes darling, but don’t talk quite so much, okay? Give Mommy a break.”

[5] Nor did their father’s homecoming do much to help: He might throw them high in the air and give them airplane rides around the house until they were dizzy, but only after having failed to see them altogether during the disturbingly long time it took him to greet their mother at the kitchen door. And the talking at dinner: It was hopeless for either child to try and get a word in edgewise. [6] Michael found he could jiggle in his chair, repeat baby words over and over in a shrill idiot’s monotone or stuff his mouth with mashed potato and hang his jaws open, all without any adult reproof; Jennifer would sit very straight at the table and refuse to look at him, feigning great interest in whatever her parents were saying, though afterwards, waiting for bedtime, she would sometimes go off quietly by herself and suck her thumb.

[1] Yates’ novel is about Frank — the narration is told through Frank Wheeler’s eyes. In other words, Frank is the focaliser. But if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that Sam Mendes decided to give quite a bit more air-time to the character of April. If we imagine the novel, too, as a series of camera shots, Richard Yates sometimes moves his ‘camera’ outside Frank’s head, higher in the ceiling, looking down upon a scene to capture it in a new light. At [1]  we are definitely in Frank’s head.

[2] marks the shift from close third-person to true omniscient narration. Yates is about to explore this familial experience as it was for the children. But are we actually inside their heads? No, I don’t think so. To move inside their heads, telling the story from the children’s point of view would be a true case of head-hopping. Instead, Yates simply pans out, to a scene which includes the children as well as Frank.

[3] This question is very definitely inside the children’s heads. Or is it? Is this what Frank imagines his children to be thinking? Is this what the young Frank would have thought himself, if he were in his own children’s shoes?

[4] Here we touch upon a small injustice: Even though April involves her children in her own excitement, she doesn’t want to hear them get excited. I’m sure the children would have felt this injustice — children always do — but would they have been able to articulate it? This observation — picked because of its irony — is either the observation of Frank, looking on from afar, or of an omniscient narrator.

[5] Again, even though Frank is here referred to as ‘their father’, this observation could well come from Frank himself, in the kind of hindsight that follows much reflection. Are we to take as a given that novels written in the past tense are the product of much reflection and insight, whether that be from the character or some unnamed narrator? It think this is the main benefit of writing in past-tense (as opposed to present tense), or rather, that is one limit of writing in present-tense; that the narrator does not have the benefit of hindsight, so opportunities for philosophical musing are lost.

[6] Now we are ostensibly inside Michael’s head, but this is really the observation of Frank himself (in hindsight) or of the omniscient narrator.

Yates’ scene may, upon critical inspection, seem to break the Rules of Point Of View, but no one could argue he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. The reader glides smoothly from one character to another. This adds variety to the narrative method and insight into the Wheeler’s family life. Switching from close third-person to omniscient narration is not easy to get right, but if writers timidly avoid it, these advantages are lost.

Take-home points:

  • When a writer ‘pans out’ in order to convey a wider scene, this is not a case of head-hopping. Changing focalisation is a widely used technique.
  • Deviation into the heads of minor characters is not always head-hopping. The writer may be making deliberate use of temporary omniscient narration. Perhaps we are still inside the narrator’s head, witnessing a scene in its entirely with the benefit of hindsight, even though it doesn’t seem like this at line-level (as in the dip into Michael’s head, above).
  • The rules of head-hopping are actually more pliable than many writing guides suggest. We should be wary of pouncing upon head-hopping in other writers’ drafts – as well as when editing our own – because there is really only one question to ask: Does it work?
  • Bear in mind that modern readers seem to have a much lower tolerance for switches in focalisation. Take this article for instance, in which Peter Selgin says the deadliest first page sin is when the point of view is slippery. So if we’re going to play with focalisation and would like to get published traditionally, it’s probably best we don’t do it on the very first page. I do wonder what has led to this shift, and I think it might be TV and film. Audiences are so used to ‘seeing’ stories through a camera that it affects the way we read novels. We all have these little movies playing in our heads now. This is just a theory and I have no idea if it’s true, because I don’t know how readers ‘saw’ novels 100 years ago.
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Narration and Storytelling: Diegetic Levels

diegetic levels

When discussing ‘diegetic levels’ of a story, imagine a ground floor. Level zero. All events and characters featured on this level are part of the story. Level zero is the normal, basic narrative level in a text. A story may not have any other levels, but it will at least have a ground floor. This happened, that happened, the end.

As for the other levels, think of ‘meta’ as above and ‘hypo’ as below the ground floor (level zero).

It can get even more complicated than that — in which case a story will often be called ‘experimental’. Technically a story might have a meta-metadiegetic narrator, or a hypo-hypodiegetic narrator beyond the hypodiegetic narrator etc.

Writers don’t tend to think in terms of diegetic levels. This is a set of terms scholars of literature use. It’s up to the person studying texts to decide which level is level zero. In some stories this is pretty obvious; in the experimental texts, not so much. The cycle of the Arabian Nights are famous for their narration which extends in both meta and hypo directions, in which level zero (primary) narratives are embellished with a vast variety of myths and also with historic and daily events. When discussing these texts, scholars can use these diegetic levels to help convey how the narratives (fabula) relate to each other.

When writers talk about all this, they tend to talk about ‘framing‘. A frame is any structure which puts boundaries on a story about to be told.

Metadiegetic narration refers to a secondary narrative wrapped around the primary (ground level) narrative. The secondary narrative can be a story told by a character within the main story or it can take the form of a dream, nightmare, hallucination. It can be imaginary.

This style of narration is typical of idyllic fiction. e.g. Winnie The Pooh. In the Pooh stories, there is a metafictive father telling these stories to a metafictive son over and over again. This wraps the level zero (ground level) story, set in The Hundred Acre Wood. (In general ‘metafiction’ is fiction which draws attention to the fact that it’s fiction.)

A contemporary example: George and Harold are the metadiegetic narrators (and illustrators) of the Dogman adventures by Dav Pilkey. The author has drawn attention to the fact that this story has been created, in this case by two boys who are part of the ground level story.

The story within a story is common in certain fairytales of yore. “The Wee Bunnock” (from Scotland, of course) is a variation on The Gingerbread Man and opens like this:

[LEVEL ONE STORY] “Grannie, grannie, come tell us the story o’ the wee bunnock.”
“Hout, bairns, ye’ve heard it a hunner times afore. I needna tell it owre again.”
“Ah, but, grannie, it’s sic a fine ane. Ye maun tell’t. Just ance.”
“Weel, weel, bairns, if ye’ll a’ promise to be guid, I’ll tell ye’t again.
But I’ll tell you a bonny tale about a guid aitmeal bunnock.

[LEVEL ZERO STORY] There lived an auld man and an auld wife at the side o’ a burn…

Many of the Grimm fairytales don’t open with a metadiegetic storyteller, but they do close with one, sometimes obliquely. That’s because these tales come from an oral tradition, and the ‘oralness’ of the storyteller hasn’t been one hundred percent omitted in the earliest writing-down of it:

  • Now my cat’s run home, for my tale is done.
  • But I don’t know how the two little demons were able to free themselves.
  • And whoever doesn’t believe me must give me a gold coin.

Stories with embedded stories sometimes serve to give the audience a helping hand in figuring out what the story’s about. The narrator is figuratively holding the audience’s hand. “I’m telling you a story, and I’ll also tell you how to make sense of it.” Embedded stories from the oral tradition tend to work like this because the oral tradition is good for conveying moral messages. Fairytales were big on morality, sometimes spoofed (a la Charles Perrault.

In modern children’s literature, use of various diegetic levels often points to a fairytale setting or a callback to fairytale times.

“How about a story? Spin us a yarn.”

Instantly, Phoebe Winterbottom came to mind. “I could tell you an extensively strange story,” I warned.

“Oh, good!” Gram said. “Delicious!”
And that is how I happened to tell them about Phoebe, her disappearing mother, and the lunatic.

As Sal entertains her grandparents with Phoebe’s outrageous story, her own story begins to unfold — the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother.

When I first came to this country, I felt so alone. A young immigrant girl joins her aunt and uncle in a new country that is unfamiliar to her. She struggles with loneliness, with a fierce longing for the culture and familiarity of home, until one day, her aunt takes her on a walk. As the duo strolls through their city park, the girl’s aunt begins to tell her an old myth, and a story within the story begins.

A long time ago, a group of refugees arrived on a foreign shore. The local king met them, determined to refuse their request for refuge. But there was a language barrier, so the king filled a glass with milk and pointed to it as a way of saying that the land was full and couldn’t accommodate the strangers. Then, the leader of the refugees dissolved sugar in the glass of milk. His message was clear: Like sugar in milk, our presence in your country will sweeten your lives. The king embraced the refugee, welcoming him and his people.

‘Once upon a time, in a dark city far away, there lived a boy called Walter, who had nothing but his name to call his own …’

The handwritten book, with its strangely vivid illustrations, has been hidden in the old house for a long, long time. Tonight, four kids and their teacher will find it. Tonight, at last, the haunting story of Walter and the mysterious, tragic girl called Sparrow will be read – right to the very end …

A mystery, a prophecy, a long-buried secret. And five people who will remember this night as long as they live.

But in modern stories, the interpretation of an embedded story is generally left up to the audience. A writer may offer up an embedded story to serve as a contrast for moral values. The didactic paragraph at the end will be left off, except in the case of spoofs e.g. Modern Family, SpongeBob SquarePants. These sit-coms always end with a morality wrap-up.

Stories with various levels are often called by writers Story Within A Story narration, also known as Embedded Narrative or Show Within a Show at TV Tropes.

Stories with these extra layers to them may feature an “extradiegetic” narrator who appears on a different level of the story by not in the ground level story.

Stories with levels of narrative (sometimes called fabula, to use the word of the Russian formalists) are sometimes used to create an effect of ‘mise en abyme‘, a favourite feature of Postmodernist storytellers. (Think of two mirrors facing each other in a dressing room.) Experimental stories can hypothetically extend forever in each direction: a story within a story within a story within….

Dummies for Dummies For Dummies

Examples of Stories With Various Levels

I’m sticking to obvious examples here, avoiding the complicated and experimental.

  • Anne of Green Gables is the ground level story of an orphan who finds a home with two older siblings lacking joy in their lives. Anne Shirley is a hypodiegetic narrator when she tells Marilla about, say, her visit to the concert. Anne is a character inside the ground level story when she tells this story. If Anne had written Anne of Green Gables as a memoir, say, and the story opened with, “I’m about to tell you the story of when I met Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert” then she would be a metadiegetic narrator.
  • The Ghost in the Mill by Harriet Beeecher Stowe begins with, “Come, Sam, tell us a story,” said I, as Harry and I crept to his knees, in the glow of the bright evening firelight; while Aunt Lois was busily rattling the tea-things, and grandmamma, at the other end of the fireplace, was quietly setting the heel of a blue-mixed yarn stocking.
  • The Canterbury Tales — A tells a story about B who tells a story about C and so on. (A free, open access, scholar-produced onlyne resource wyth the work of more than 30 experts: The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales)
  • The Book Of The Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison is a modern post-apocalyptic novel with a Canterbury Tales structure to it. A main character meets others on her journey and they either tell her their stories or she steals their diaries.
  • In The Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade’s stories keep the Sultan from killing her. In the end he marries her because she’s such a good storyteller. Like the Canterbury Tales, this corpus of narrative is a standout example of diegetic levels and often studied by scholars.
  • In a crime novel or courtroom drama, a surprise witness may have a tale that solves the case.
  • Any story in which a child asks an adult to tell them a story is working on (at least) two diegetic levels.
  • Mary Alice is the hypodiegetic narrator in Desperate Housewives, although when she is shown in the ground level story (in flashbacks before she had died), she is an (intra-) diegetic narrator.
  • In Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman, a father goes to the shop. That’s the ground level story. When he comes home he tells the children a tall tale. The father is the hypodiegetic narrator of this tall tale.
  • In The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse, Beatrix Potter keeps the Battle scene off the page by having one mouse character tell another about it. (It would be heinous to show a cat killing a canary.)
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Narration and Storytelling: Diegetic Terminology

NARRATOLOGY INTRODUCTION

Writers  think in terms of point of view: omniscient, third person, first person, second person. Close third person, universal first person and so on. For most purposes, point of view as a concept does fine. But it’s worth taking a brief look at terminology used by narratologists. Every narratologist comes with their own terminology. The concepts below are courtesy of Gerard Genet.

These concepts are especially worth a look if:

  • You are almost ready to start writing but can’t decide which point of view would be best for this particular story, and no amount of POV articles are helping out.
  • Or maybe you’re self-editing and you suspect your narration is patchy, e.g. too intrusive in places
  • Or if you would like to parody novels from an earlier era, in which narration was handled quite differently
  • Or if you’re writing experimental fiction
  • Or someone in your writing group keeps pointing out head-hopping, but you know it’s not head-hopping at all, but you don’t know how to explain it’s not (tl;dr: it’s probably psycho narration by an overt narrator).

THE MEANING OF DIEGESIS

Diegetic’ refers to something that occurs within a setting: ‘In-universe’.

On the other hand, ‘non-diegetic’ refers to something that has been tacked on afterwards: ‘out-of-universe’.

In a film ‘diegetic sound’ appears to originate from within the story. So music might be coming out of a car radio and the characters can supposedly hear it. Quentin Tarantino’s film soundtracks are diegetic. Gritty, real-life drama such as The Wire would never add a soundtrack in after (or if they do, it doesn’t seem like they do). Cinema verite (e.g. Meek’s Cutoff) makes use of diegetic sound because the aim is to make the audience feel this is real, we are there.

Non-diegetic sound is sound that has been edited in afterwards for the benefit of the audience. An example of non-diegetic sound would be a sad soundtrack that plays as a character walks through a forest. In this case, the audience can hear the music but the character cannot. There is no surround sound system in the forest. The music does not exist ‘in-universe’. 

'Music from Movieland' - Morris Stoloff conducting the Columbia Pictures Studio Orchestra
‘Music from Movieland’ – Morris Stoloff conducting the Columbia Pictures Studio Orchestra

In narration, diegesis describes a narrator’s involvement in the story as well as their distance from the narrative. In a separate post, I describe how these terms meld together to describe levels of narration, and in another I look at how writers create experimental fiction by blending functions.

Paddington by Michael Bond, Illustrated by R.W. Alley – Mrs Bird holds a cup of tea as the Brown family listen intently to the new arrival

DESCRIBING A NARRATOR’S INVOLVEMENT IN THE STORY

The following words explain a narrator’s involvement in the story they are telling.

Heterodiegetic Narration

A heterodiegetic narrator does not take part in the story.

Homodiegetic Narration

A homodiegetic narrator is part of their own story.

Literally means ‘identical with fiction’.

They may or may not be the main character.

Autodiegetic Narration

An autodiegetic narrator is a homodiegetic narration who is ALSO the MAIN character in his/her own story.

Think autobiography. The narrator of an autobiography is also the star of the autobiography.

Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye — because he is telling us exclusively about himself, his own feelings and thoughts.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Sometimes the narrator seems to be telling a story about someone else, but they’re actually telling the story in order to understand themselves better, or as a form of catharsis. In this case the narration can be classified as autodiegetic.

An example is Sal in Walk Two Moons (1994).

Gramps says that I am a country girl at heart, and that is true. I have lived most of my thirteen years in Bybanks, Kentucky, which is not much more than a caboodle of houses roosting in a green spot alongside the Ohio River. Just over a year ago, my father plucked me up like a weed and took me and all our belongings (no, that is not true — the did not bring the chestnut tree, the willow, the maple, the hayloft, or the swimming hole, which all belonged to me) and we drove three hundred miles straight north and stopped in front of a house in Euclid, Ohio.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Although the narration of Walk Two Moons reads quite a lot like Catcher in the Rye, take a look at the advertising copy:

“How about a story? Spin us a yarn.”
Instantly, Phoebe Winterbottom came to mind. “I could tell you an extensively strange story,” I warned.
“Oh, good!” Gram said. “Delicious!”
And that is how I happened to tell them about Phoebe, her disappearing mother, and the lunatic.

As Sal entertains her grandparents with Phoebe’s outrageous story, her own story begins to unfold — the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother.

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is another example. The narrator talks about his grandmother. We get an excellent portrait of this old woman over a series of summers. Over this time the narrator grows up, finally leaving for war. Although the novel is ostensibly about a boy describing his grandmother, he is the character who changes and comes of age.

INVOLVEMENT AND DIVERSITY

It’s never immediately apparent who a story is ‘about’ based purely on ‘point of view’. When a storyteller (focaliser) tells a story involving another character, the story could be mostly about the storyteller themselves, mostly about another character, or about both, in varying degrees of proportion.

A shorthand way of figuring out who a story is ‘about’: Who gets to star in the moral line of the story? Who gets to have the character arc, the anagnorisis?

We are obliged to think carefully about who gets to be the star of a story because storytellers who narrate other characters’ stories can mask lack of diversity.

Is Million Dollar Baby a story about a Black man because Morgan Freeman’s character narrates? Well, the Black narrator has a minor character arc owing to the story he’s telling, but the guy who gets to have the main revelation (that he was being an asshole) is the White boxing trainer. (Meanwhile, the female boxer played by Hillary Swank is little more than a sacrificial lamb. Yet this film gets compared to Rocky, in which Rocky Balboa is the genuine star of his own story.)

For more on this — in easy-to-understand filmmaking terminology — definitely take a look at a 2005 blog post by John August: The Dawn Of Character Function. A Draft Zero podcast talks about these distinctions at length.

DESCRIBING DISTANCE FROM THE NARRATIVE

The following terms describe the narrator’s distance from the narrative.

Extradiegetic Narration

An extradiegetic narrator is one who narrates a story from outside the fictional universe of a particular text.  This narrator communicates the primary narrative to an audience equally removed from the setting; this audience, then, is the extradiegetic narratee.

Extradiegetic narrators may be characters in their narratives, but at the moment of narration they are operating from without its setting.   This may happen when a character-narrator tells the story some years after the event, from another fictional level. (After some insight has been gained.)

Think of this term as: ‘Out-of-universe’. Bear in mind that the term extradiegetic does not refer to whether the narrator is a personal narrator telling about their childhood, say, or an impersonal narrator telling about some other character’s childhood. Both are extradiegetic. (Even the audience is extradiegetic.) This all-encompassing word describing anyone who is not part of the level zero setting.

I hate hate hate when the ends of chapters say things like, “I would look back on this day for years and wonder what ever happened to that cat.” You’ve just sucked me into a wonderful chapter and I’m eager to see what comes next, but with that one line you draw attention to the fact that this is a story I’m being told and it takes me right out of the immediacy of it and kills all the tension. Also, if this is a murder mystery or the character is being chased, you’ve just told me that character survives for years and so they probably live at the end of this story. What’s the point of continuing to read if the reader knows the ending?

CA Marshall, editor

In Twilight, Bella is writing her memoir from ‘the other side’ of her main story — early in the story she’s not a vampire. So in the first book of the Twilight stories she is extradiegetic.

I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

The style of narration in Monkey Grip by Helen Garner allows for much reflection. Helen Garner is an extremely reflective writer and chooses for Monkey Grip to narrate in first person with an extradiegetic narrator. From page 2:

So, afterwards, it is possible to see the beginning of things, the point at which you had already plunged in, while at the time you thought you were only testing the water with your toe.

This is a great example of the kind of reflection that can only come after much distance.

Intradiegetic Narration

Use this word to describe narrators who are part of the setting. This is a narrator who tells a story as if it is happening, without distance.

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The Influence of The Lovely Bones on Modern Literature

The Lovely Bones cover

The emphasis in the First Golden Age [of children’s literature] was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what has been termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, being ill, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I Say Goodbye, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and many more.

Amanda Craig

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones wasn’t just influential on the subgenre of YA known derisively as ‘sick-lit’, but which continues to prove super popular with the 2017 release of John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down. It has now been a full sociological decade (15 years) since The Lovely Bones was published. As Sophie Masson writes in an article in the latest edition of The Looking Glass:

In the last fifteen years, fiction set in or about the afterlife has become a popular and critically acclaimed sub-genre within contemporary speculative fiction for young adults especially, but not only, in English language publishing. These narratives, where the main characters die at the beginning of the story and find themselves in an alien world, the world beyond death, have developed into a fertile ground for imaginative and intellectual challenge and discovery, as a means both to depict the ultimate culture shock and a challenging exploration of otherness and alienation.

I highly recommend a read Sophie Masson’s article as it’s free to access. The following are my own takeaway points.

afterlife young adult paranormal fiction
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AFTERLIFE FICTION

Its roots come from:

  • Mythology
  • Religion
  • Classic literature
  • The Gothic mode
  • The Victorian Ghost Story

Writers and thinkers have always been exploring the afterlife. Afterlife stories can be divided into their own subcategories. For example, there’s a related subgenre of Grim Reaper plots. An example of the grim reaper plot is On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony. On a Pale Horse is a fantasy novel from 1983. A feckless young man is about to shoot himself when the Grim Reaper appears. He kills the Grim Reaper instead, and then has to take the Grim Reaper’s place. However, this seems quite different from the modern afterlife story kickstarted by Alice Sebold.

Here’s something to bear in mind about YA readers: these days (in Australia, at least) more young people believe in an afterlife than believe in god. Readers will happily accept it.

FEATURES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION
  • Modern YA afterlife stories are a subgenre of paranormal YA fiction, which can include vampires, fairies, trolls and so on
  • The afterlife story is kind of like a portal story
  • They are usually but not always set in a fantasy setting
  • This afterlife world is a ‘liminal’ space, not the final end point. They are not the absolute territories of Heaven/Hell, but more closely resemble Purgatory/Limbo
  • The idea of Purgatory in these novels isn’t linked to religion — it’s there for the narrative
  • There’s still much mundane detail about the real world — what characters are eating, how much money they have. However there tends to be little mention of class.
  • The afterlife world might be a ghostly copy of the real place on Earth. The landscapes and townscapes of the afterworlds are more solid than the portals but are prone to unexpected changes and reversals which makes it hard for characters to carry out their quests
  • Characters in the afterlife tend to be unable to taste food
  • The genre blend is most commonly fantasy adventure
  • Rich narrative and prose styles
  • Strong plots
  • Interesting characters
  • High sales as well as critical acclaim
  • Absence of moral judgement
  • The main characters of modern afterlife YA have either died violently or after illness, which links this genre to the wider sick-lit movement.
  • There may well be monsters to defeat. These may be supernatural beings. These monsters and beings are often transformed by their encounters with the newly dead young characters.
  • There is probably a romantic subplot.
  • There’s fancy terminology to describe narration which takes place outside the world of the story: extradiegetic. (It helps to know that ‘diegetic’ refers to something that occurs within a setting: ‘Inside-universe’.) Extradiegetic basically means ‘out-of-universe’. By making a character dead, that character is outside the main world of the story. There are other ways authors can create extradiegetic characters. For instance, they can create an elderly person looking back on an earlier part of their life. However, if you’re doing this, you’re probably not writing YA.
  • An extradiegetic character is closer to the audience than they are to the other characters within the story, because an audience (in narratology terms) is also extradiegetic. The audience exists outside the world of the story. (We are ‘extradiegetic narratees’, to be exact.) Therefore, a story with a dead narrator can achieve emotional closeness with the reader. This sounds counterintuitive at first — you’d think a dead person would be hard to relate to!
THE ADVANTAGE OF A DEAD NARRATOR
  • There’s a very good reason: The thing that marks YA out from adult fiction is its immediacy of voice. The narrator hasn’t aged much before their story is told. But when the narrator is full on dead, that character is afforded omniscience and wisdom which would otherwise feel unnatural, while maintaining the immediacy.
  • Many stories for young people are about displacement and feeling like you’re ‘the other’. That’s because you’re trying to find your place at this age. By being dead, the main character is very much The Other.
  • If there’s a romantic subplot, it’s the job of the author to keep two lovers apart for the duration of the adventure. Making one of them dead is a really efficient way to keep two characters apart. Or, they may both be dead but of vastly different Earthly ages. Or, the afterlife might be kinder to one than the other.
do you believe in life after death every time i leave this theatre muppets
OTHER EXAMPLES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION

The authors of these works are themselves from diverse backgrounds.

  • The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) — the narrator of Brazilian author Machado de Assis’ novel dedicates his memoir to “the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse.”
  • How The Dead Live by Will Self
  • My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk — published the same year as The Lovely Bones and begins, “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.”
  • Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
  • His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (sort of)
  • Everlost by Neal Shusterman and sequels
  • A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
  • More than This by Patrick Ness
  • Afterworld by Lynnette Lounsbury
  • Ferryman by Claire mcFall
  • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
  • The Afterlife by Gary Soto
  • When We Wake by Karen Healey
  • Me and Death: An Afterlife Adventure by Richard Scrimger
  • Memor: le monde d’apres by Kinga Wyrzykowska
  • The Ghost Squad by Sophie Masson
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman — First person narrator Mia dies in a car crash then follows her friends and family as a kind of ghost, watching their reaction and writing about her life before she died.
  • I Stop Somewhere by T.E. Carter was pitched as Asking For It meets The Lovely Bones. The narrative viewpoint comes from The Lovely Bones — the main character is basically wandering around telling what happened before she died.

An earlier outlier and not really connected to anything that has come since: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. In this story:

  • This is a story about brotherly love in a Narnia-like world.
  • Two brothers die at the beginning.
  • They find themselves in the afterlife world of Nangiyala, a place of campfires and sagas.
  • The brothers have no trouble fitting into the new world.
  • They are happy to be there.
  • There’s no mention of the grieving mother left behind.
  • It’s possible to die again in this afterlife world.
THE AFTERLIFE IN WIDER POP CULTURE
  • Futility by Morgan Robertson (1898) — a fictional account of the Titanic disaster which was written 14 years before the Titanic sank. Futility tells the story of the world’s biggest ocean liner and how, on its maiden voyage, on a freezing April night, it strikes an iceberg and sinks, carrying its cargo of fabulously wealthy passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. It was penned by a struggling sci-fi writer named Morgan Robertson. The name of his fictional doomed passenger ship? The Titan. 
  • Sunset Boulevard, classic film (American) — the man lying face down in a pool turns out to be none other than William Holden, whose voiceover narrates his story and who is indeed dead.
  • Lost, the mystery boxed TV series (American)
  • The Returned, a French series called Les Revants (and all the other franchises based on this storyline)
  • Resurrection (American)
  • The Glitch (Australian)
PROBLEMS WITH AFTERLIFE FICTION

It’s not hard to find people who dislike dead narrators. But why?

  • It can feel like the author cheated — ‘a little too easy, a little too glib’.
  • In Peter Selgin’s words, it requires suspension of all four laws of thermodynamics. Some readers are fans of mimesis, so this won’t suit them.
THE AFTERLIFE IN ADULT FICTION

Specialists in young adult literature have noticed over the decades that literary trends start with YA and work their way ‘up’ into adult fiction. As they expected, The Lovely Bones influenced adult fiction which is coming through now, a decade later. Take Lincoln in the Bardo for instance, an experimental novel by George Saunders. The ‘bardo’ refers to an intermediate space between life and rebirth. Though this book wins a Man Booker Prize and is hailed as ‘experimental’, it also owes a lot to less critically celebrated trends which started a decade ago in YA.

In Saunders’s conception, the “ghosts” that inhabit the bardo are “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive” and are threatened by permanent entrapment in the liminal space.[20]They are unaware that they have died, referring to the space as their “hospital-yard” and to their coffins as “sick-boxes”.

Wikipedia
RELATED TO AFTERLIFE FICTION

Might we count The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak as afterlife fiction?

This book takes the dead narrator concept a step farther, with the Grim Reaper himself narrating, though some would argue that his “Death” is nothing but Omniscience wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe.

Peter Selgin

FURTHER READING

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Unreliable Narration In Storytelling

Atkinson Grimshaw - The Trysting Tree

This post more than any other contains spoilers. Sometimes it’s a spoiler just to know that you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.

Unreliable narration is a storytelling technique which requires some work on the part of the reader, trying to work out how much of the story is true and how much is subjective, or an outright lie.

The way people recount experiences to others seems to shape the way they end up remembering those events.

The Atlantic

The most fallible, most consistently clueless narrator you could hope to meet might be Ford Madox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier (1915).

How To Read Literature Like A Professor
a famous liar from fiction

Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

THE UNRELIABLE CONTINUUM

Almost every story fits somewhere on the ‘unreliable continuum’. Let’s exclude omniscient narrators, who we should take at face value, but truly omniscient narration is rare.

I’ve always found the concept of the reliable versus the unreliable narrator peculiar, because I think all narrators are unreliable [laughs]. People tell you what they saw or what they think or what they felt, and they may be telling you the truth, but it might not at all be what someone else saw happen. Like, people always call Humbert Humbert an unreliable narrator. He’s very reliable. He’ll tell you exactly what he thought and felt in a lot of detail. And you also get a very clear sense of what Lolita is experiencing through him. But I don’t think of it as unreliable. I think more in terms, and this sounds really corny, I think more in terms of, Do I care what this narrator thinks and feels? Can he engage me? With students, the problem I see most often is that I don’t get a sense of what their narrators care about. What they want. What matters to them. That’s a bigger issue to me than whether or not they’re reliable in some way.

Mary Gaitskill

Far more common is close third person point of view. Harry Potter fans have had fun arguing about how much of his story is objectively true versus how much is subjectively conveyed owing to Harry’s own biases. For example, in The Philosopher’s Stone, Hermione is depicted as ‘annoying’ but as the series progresses, she is no longer so presumably she has undergone a character arc. But who’s to say that Hermione was ever objectively an irritant? Could it be Harry’s sexist response towards a girly swot who knew more than he did which lead readers to conclude the same?

The following explains, in part, why true omniscient narration may have gone the way of the dodo. It is no longer culturally accepted that there is any such thing as objective truth:

W.G. Sebald once said to me, “I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” Seabed continued: “If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.

For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat. But both sides of the division have been caricatured. […]

Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliably unreliable. Think of Kazoo Ishiguro’s butler in The Remains of the Day, or of Bertie Wooster, or even of Humbert Humbert. We know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator’s vulnerability. A process of authorial flagging is going on; the novel teaches us how to read its narrator.

James Wood, How Fiction Works
Charles Haigh Wood - The Tryst
Charles Haigh Wood – The Tryst

WHY USE AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR?

Unreliable narrators are useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader. Chekhov makes the most of this in his later works, in which the reader has an epiphany while the character goes on without one, unchanging.

The unreliable narrator breaks down into at least three different types:

1. The narrator that purposefully leads you astray

2. The narrator whose view of the world is so strident that by sheer force of will they are attempting to lead you astray

3. The narrator who does not attempt to lead you astray but does by dint of their youth and inexperience: Room, Catcher In The Rye

Fuse8 blog

The Importance of the ‘Ghost’

When creating an unreliable narrator the narrator has to have

1. A secret (“ghost” from their background)

2. A reason for keeping this secret/ghost from us.

Somebody else will be trying to expose that secret. Why does this other character want the secret exposed? Without these things going on in your story, you probably don’t need to make use of an unreliable narrator.

The Grandmother Genre Of Modern Unreliable Narration

Look to gothic literature.

Our modern imperilled (or seemingly imperilled) female protagonists calls to mind the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and her heirs. From Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, who is kept prisoner in an Italian castle, to the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper who is confined to a room with bad interior decorating, these women have to sort out the mysteries of their situations to find the truth. Jane Eyre has to find out who’s in the attic. The second Mrs. de Winter has to figure out what happened to her predecessor, Rebecca.

Trapped in a duplicitous world, is it any wonder that they retreat into their own versions of reality? Jane Eyre admits to opening “my inward ear to a tale that never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously.” The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper begins to see figures in the walls. The second Mrs. de Winter is so insecure (maybe because she doesn’t get a name!) she believes Mrs. Danvers’ version of the truth and misreads her husband’s feelings about his dead wife.

Bookish

Unreliable Narration And Feminism

The gothic tradition started something which has continued to this day: A gender imbalance in unreliability. When women are constantly utilised as unreliable, women become intertwined with liars. There is a long history of disbelieving women.

For centuries the testimony of women has been held up to scrutiny and frequently dismissed on the grounds that our biology makes us prone to neurosis, hysteria, irrational subjectivity, and that our judgment can’t be trusted. It’s also a favourite cliche of fiction and drama: the heroine who is repeatedly told by men that she is imagining things, until she starts to question her own sanity. McGowan has repeatedly used the word “gaslighting” of her treatment by men in the industry, a term taken from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she is going mad in order to cover up his own criminal activity.

It’s curious, then, that in our more enlightened times, when women are no longer routinely incarcerated as hysterics, that we should remain so obsessed with the idea of the female narrator who can’t be relied upon to know her own mind, or even what she saw from the window of her train or apartment. The obvious example is Paula Hawkins’s multimillion-selling The Girl on the Train, in which the narrator’s judgment was impaired by her drink problem. There’s SJ Watson’s bestseller Before I Go to Sleep, which also became a blockbuster film and features a female narrator convinced that something sinister is going on in her marriage, but who struggles to prove it because she suffers from memory loss.

Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian

When Writing An Unreliable Narrator

Avoid:

Reader cheating. Producing a result (a surprise, a deduction, an unexpected denouement) without having given the reader a fair opportunity to foresee the result. For instance, having a detective deduce the murderer based on evidence the author has willfully concealed from the reader is reader cheating. (Example: a point of view character who knows things and acts on them but lies in internal narrative so as to distract the reader.) (CSFW: James Patrick Kelly)

Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction

Examples Of Unreliable Narration In Picture Books

Dr Seuss is the standout example of a picture book author with unreliable narrators. Subversive retellings of fairytales can also ask readers to question the truth.

  • And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street
  • McElliot’s Pool
  • If I Ran The Zoo
  • If I Ran The Circus
  • The Wolf’s Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood by Toby Forward, an example of a picture book in which the pictures tell a different story.
  • The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs byJon Scieszka and Lane Smith
  • Seriously, Cinderella Is SO Annoying!: The Story of Cinderella as Told by the Wicked Stepmother by Trisha Speed Shaken — from the perspective of the stepmother and stepsisters who accuse her of being an insipid little twit
  • My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World by Giles Bachelet — the words tell a story about a cat but the pictures show that the ‘cat’ is actually an elephant.
  • Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School by Mark Teague — has two stories — the black and white imaginings of a dog narrator which match his melodramatic letters home, compared to coloured illustrations depicting ‘the truth’. (There’s a whole series of them.)
  • Poor Puppy by Nick Bruel  “Poor, poor Puppy. Poor, poor, poor, poor, poor Puppy!” The book then becomes a counting/alphabet book to demonstrate that Puppy isn’t really poor—in fact he has many playthings at his disposal
  • Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco  That adorable Emma Kate has an imaginary friend. They walk to school together every morning and sit together in class. They sleep over at each other’s houses and do their homework side by side. They even have their tonsils out and eat gallons of pink ice cream together. The twist is that the stuffed elephant is imaginary but looks to be inspired by an item in the “real” friend’s possession.
  • Green Wilma by Tedd Arnold Green Wilma is about a girl who wakes up green. Her mother is fussy because she doesn’t feel as thought a green child should go to school. When Wilma gets on the bus the ruckus begins. In art her classmates think its pretty cool to be green. And again more ruckus. She is hungry and finds that flies are what she desires the most. When she spots one on the teachers nose the chase is on. Again, more ruckus. The fly eventually leads her to Millers pond. She jumps in after it and comes face to face with a hungry fish. She immediately wakes up from her dream and relaizes that she is still a little girl and the entire dream was fantasy.
  • Olivia Saves The Circus by Ian Falconer Olivia is a wonderfully unreliable narrator, and this one is a great example in which Olivia the pig tells a tall story. When all of the performers at the circus are out sick with ear infections, it’s up to Olivia to save the day! That’s no problem for Olivia, of course, because she knows how to do everything. From lion taming to trampoline jumping, unicycling to tight-rope walking, Olivia is the ultimate performer (according to Olivia). Olivia is supposed to be telling her classmates about her holidays and spins a tale which revolves around her single-handedly substituting all artists and clowns and animal tamers of a huge circus show, because the entire performing staff suffered from an ear inflammation and – certainly – because Olivia already knew how to do these things.
  • When I Went To The Library
  • Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey — “Some of the purest examples of irony are found in children’s literature, which often needs to allow a child— or the child’s proxy, an animal — to see the world through limited eyes, while alerting the older reader to this limitation. In Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat (a boat made to look like a swan but actually powered by a pedal-pushing human pilot) passes them. Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. McCloskey falls naturally into free indirect style: “Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by. It was pushing a boat full of people, and there was a man sitting on its back. ‘Good morning,’ quacked Mr. Mallard, being polite. The big bird was too proud to answer.” Instead of telling us that Mr. Mallard could make no sense of the swan boat, McCloskey places us in Mr. Mallard’s confusion; yet the confusion is obvious enough that a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard’s confusion.

Examples Of Unreliable Narration From MG Fiction

Probably because truthful children of this age are upheld as morally better people, unreliable narrators in middle grade stories are a bit harder to find. I’m sure it’s to do with the lack of pictures, too. The ironic distance between text and pictures creates unreliable in picture books, whereas the pictures in ‘illustrated books’ serve to help reading comprehension.

  • Once by Morris Gleitzman
  • Story Of The Treasure-Seekers by E. Nesbit
  • Moominpappa’s Memoirs by Tove Jansson
  • Pale Fire
  • Diary Of A Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney Greg is an unreliable narrator as well as not a great role model. This is attractive to kids. Greg is similar to Bart Simpson or Dennis the Menace in that young readers know exactly what Greg is meant to be. They’re not going to hold him up as a role model. (That said, my daughter has tried to get away with things because Greg does them!)
  • Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis, in the Wimpy Kid tradition
  • Millicent Mee, Girl Genius — the Asian-American female version of Timmy Failure
  • Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
  • Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman a father goes out for milk. When he arrives home he spins a tall story for his children about what happened while he was out.

Examples Of Unreliable Narration From Film

  • The Usual Suspects
  • American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis Patrick Bateman is a psychopath living the high life in 1980s Manhattan. He is also a murderer who tortures and rapes. But when Bateman tries to confess to these crimes, he is told he didn’t commit any. So is he a psychopath or does he have some sort of schizophrenic disorder?
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk later adapted for film. This is one of those stories that can definitely be ruined because the reversal is massive. We eventually realize that Durden isn’t our narrator’s new best friend he’s his cooler, crazier alter-ego.
  • The Killer Inside Me directed by Michael Winterbottom was widely panned by critics for its almost unbearable violence against women. You see the main man violently abusing women, then the women would turn around and smile and seem to want it. For people who already have enough violence in their real life, this is indeed unwatchable. For those who can make it to the end of the film, it turns out to have an anti-violence message, because we learn that the violent killer has only been imagining in his own mind that the women are somehow enjoying his violence. This film is an interesting study into how much a writer can or can’t get away with when trying to write a story ‘against’ something, but for most of the story seems to be ‘for’ it.
  • Fallen
  • The Sixth Sense
  • From Goth Girl to Gone Girl: Unreliable Narrators in Literature from Bookish

Examples Of Unreliable Narration In Novels For YA And Older

  • The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James The reader doesn’t know if this is a ghost story or not. The story is the self-reported manuscript of a governess who comes to take care of two orphans, Miles and Flora, at a country house in Essex. After she arrives at the estate, the governess encounters the ghosts of two former employees who have died. She’s the only person who can see the ghosts, but she’s convinced that they’re real. Is this a ghost story or a portrait of a woman’s mental breakdown? This trick whereby the reader isn’t sure if a character is a ghost or not was used by Robert Cormier many years later in In The Middle Of The Night.
  • Here Lies Daniel Tate  Daniel is a magnetic, talented, and desperate con artist who has stumbled into the scam of a lifetime. Assuming the identity of long missing boy, Daniel Tate, he is no longer at the mercy of the foster care system, and gains the security of a home and a family that loves him. But he soon discovers his new home is more sinister than it seemed on the surface…and the Daniel he has replaced might not be missing at all.
  • Lolita Can make the reader feel empathy for a pedophile, which makes us examine how much of Humbert Humbert is inside us, and also makes us realise that even badly behaved people are not all bad. People who do bad things are not monsters they walk among us.
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel Is Pi adrift on a lifeboat with those animals or is he stranded with other humans, with the animals being allegory?
  • The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin the female narrator has PTSD after a car accident that killed all her friends.
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier it’s right there in the title.
  • The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan Briony Tallis is unreliable because she is only 13 years old and doesn’t understand how the world works.
  • Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
  • If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Dead To You by Lisa McMann
  • Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn Amy and Nick Dunne is an example of not one but two unreliable narrators. The stand out example of modern unreliable narration.
  • The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins the other standout adult psychological suspense novel of our time.
  • In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
  • The Woman In Cabin 10, also by Ruth Ware
  • The Widow’s House by Clare Goodman   a couple moves into a deteriorating estate in the Hudson Valley, hoping to revitalize their marriage and careers. However, shortly after moving in, the wife, Clare, begins having visions of strangers walking their property and she starts to hear wailing. Could the house be haunted, or is it all in Clare’s mind?
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz  Oscar De León  is an overweight, sci-fi loving Dominican kid growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. But the narrator is his best friend, Yunior de las Casas. Yunior acts as an omniscient narrator, populating the story with details that he couldn’t have known and admitting that he changed some names between “drafts.”
  • Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller Barbara Covett is a lonely history teacher who jumps at the chance to be friends with Sheba, the new art teacher at her school. Barbara falls in love with Sheba but Sheba is heterosexual and not interested. Feeling rejected, this affects Barbara’s ability to remove herself from the situation and report reliably. Barbara paints Sheba as manipulative, but we eventually realise Barbara is her equal in that characteristic.
  • The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro Stevens is the head butler of Darlington Hall. He is loyal, precise and hard-working but his blindness to the world is a brilliant example of dramatic irony. He can’t see the slow demise of the great house where he works. Nor can he acknowledge his feelings for a fellow servant.
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters The story would have been easier to tell from third person point of view, so why does Sarah Waters choose to write it from the point of view of the family doctor? I believe it’s because he’s the murderer, writing the story down to try and absolve himself.

50 Must-read Books With Unreliable Narrators from BookRiot

FURTHER READING

Unreliable Narrators: Pros and Cons from Jami Gold

A guide to the art of personal writing, by the author ofFierce Attachments andThe End of the Novel of Love All narrative writing must pull from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver a bit of wisdom. In a story or a novel the “I” who tells this tale can be, and often is, an unreliable narrator but in nonfiction the reader must always be persuaded that the narrator is speaking truth. How does one pull from one’s own boring, agitated self the truth-speaker who will tell the story a personal narrative needs to tell? That is the questionThe Situation and the Story asks–and answers. Taking us on a reading tour of some of the best memoirs and essays of the past hundred years, Gornick traces the changing idea of self that has dominated the century, and demonstrates the enduring truth-speaker to be found in the work of writers as diverse as Edmund Gosse, Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, or Marguerite Duras. This book, which grew out of fifteen years teaching in MFA programs, is itself a model of the lucid inteligence that has made Gornick one of our most admired writers of ninfiction. In it, she teaches us to write by teaching us how to read: how to recognize truth when we hear it in the writing of others and in our own.

marketing copy for The situation and the story : the art of personal narrative by Vivian Gornick New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002.
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Header painting: Atkinson Grimshaw The Trysting Tree

Stream of Consciousness and Interior Monologue

Stream of consciousness and interior monologue are two modes of narration. They are similar, and in fact, both might be used within a single work.

What prompted these new modes of narration? Psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung described the conscious ego as depending upon subconscious processes. Artists started to think pretty hard about this, and writers explored these new ideas via their fiction.

Interior Monologue

Interior monologue is a stylised way of thinking out loud. (Thinking ‘on the page’.)

Some people call it ‘internal’ monologue. This is the same thing.

Unlike stream-of-consciousness, an interior monologue can be integrated into a third-person narrative. The viewpoint character’s thoughts are woven into description, using the author’s own language.

This is the essential difference between interior monologue and straight narrative:

Straight Narrative

The narrator talking (You know ‘the narrator’ — that made-up character who sounds like the author — but please don’t mistake authors for narrators — not all authors are crazy axe-wielding, mentally unstable murderers, unlike many of their narrators.)

Interior Monologue

A character talking or thinking, using words specific to that character, making assumptions, mistaken judgements, conclusions RIGHT FOR THAT CHARACTER.

If interior monologue is done well, you won’t even notice it’s happening.

JAMES JOYCE’S NARRATION

First thing to know: focalisation is when the storyteller keeps narrative camera right next to the focal character’s head. Narration will mimic that character’s language and also their points of view.

James Joyce pioneered an original mode of narration, which we now describe as stream-of-consciousness. Joyce’s narration is basically a combination of focalisation and free indirect discourse (a.k.a. reported interior monologue) followed by a shift from third-person to first-person anrrative.

Ulysses is written using both stream of consciousness and interior monologue.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

Virginia Woolf is another author whose work is commonly described as ‘stream of consciousness’.

Woolf’s mode of narration is distinctive because her representation of the mind interweaves past and present. The following quotation describes how Virginia Woolf thought of time:

What is meant by “reality”? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable – now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun… But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent, that is, what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality.

from A Room of One’s Own

In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf gives us an object and then lets the reader see it via the viewpoints of several different characters. This achieves what we might call literary parallax. Each character sees the object according to their own past experiences and the past is modified by their current state of mind. This is absolutely typical of Modernist writers, of which Virginia Woolf is the ‘purist’ example.

For an example of a work which starts off stream of consciousness then shifts to interior monologue, see Woolf’s The Waves. This novel comprises six polyphonous (many-voiced) sections of interrelated discourse.


Two Men Contemplating The Moon by Caspar David Friedrich makes me think one of them is telling the other a solioquy, or some other old-fashioned narrative device.
Two Men Contemplating The Moon by Caspar David Friedrich makes me think one of them is telling the other a solioquy, or some other old-fashioned narrative device.

Stream of Consciousness

Like interior monologue, stream-of-consciousness is another stylised way of thinking out loud.

It is the 19th and early 20th century version of what has become ‘free indirect style/speech’. (A style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.)

Stream-of-consciousness tends to read more like a pure soliloquy. (A famous soliloquy is Shakespeare’s To be or not to be.)

There’s a lot of interior monologue in stream-of-consciousness but the difference is, there’s no punctuation to mark it out as such.

The terms ‘stream-of-consciousness’ and ‘interior monologue’ are used interchangeably by some — but stream-of-consciousness refers more often to a first person narrative which mimics the jumble of thoughts, emotions and memories passing through a character’s mind. (That said, interior monologue is not necessarily written in first person.)

Stream-of-consciousness tends to be less ordered than interior monologue. That’s because consciousness has no beginning and no end — thoughts flit quite randomly from one thing to another.

Stream of consciousness is a regular feature of The Psychological Novel.

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Why children’s stories have to be dual audience now

William Holyoake - Front Row at the Opera

Modern children’s books — picture books in particular — are required to appeal to adults as well as to children. This is known as a ‘dual audience’ story.

Some commentators have no problem with dual audience children’s stories.

One of the best kept secrets for adults is if you want to learn something new, read a kid’s book on the subject.

Vicki Cobb, on reading  non-fiction

[When today’s parents were kids] […] we’d watch old cartoons like Looney Tunes or Mighty Mouse that our parents had enjoyed as children; we’d read books before bed like The Famous Five or adaptations of books like Great Expectations that they’d read; and on Sunday afternoons, we’d all gather round the telly to watch old Elvis movies and Abbott and Costello movies that our parents loved at our age.

And the rest of the time, we’d have to watch whatever they wanted to watch.

But today, the tables have turned, and it feels as if we spend most of our time having to watch what our kids watch.

Why Do Parents Have To Forgo Adult TV And Watch Children’s Shows? Sunil Badami

Others don’t like it at all.

What narks me tremendously is people who pretend they’re writing for young children and they’re really writing to get laughs from adults. There are too many of those about. I refuse to believe that Carroll wrote Alice for that little girl. It’s much too complex for that.

Roald Dahl, writer

I think there’s a horrendous movement of people who think there’s a formula: “let’s draw everybody in party hats”, but really they’re appealing to adults while the children are actually bored.

John Burningham, illustrator

Why the change? I believe the demand for children’s stories that appeal equally to adult co-readers comes from the cultural expectation that good parents read to their kids. Parents are told time and again that children who are read to have a vocabulary thousands of words larger than deprived children, who have no books in the house. And so parents are reading three picture books before bedtime each night — which is a joy, and sometimes an obligation.

screen shot from Room (2015)

The story Room by Emma Donaghue, adapted for film in 2015, features a mother and son locked in an underground room — a metaphor for the imprisonment of early parenthood in general.

Books feature heavily in this story — the mother has access to the same few picture books and is faced with the mind-numbing task of reading them over and over to her son, who was born in this tiny world.

When I think of modern picture books, with their dual audiences, I think of this mother and I’m actually kinda grateful for the trend.

IS AN IMPLIED ADULT READER A PROBLEM FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?

It is certainly proving problem for YAL. With less and less space given to YAL and children’s literature in newspapers and mainstream publications, consumers rely increasingly on other consumer reviews. It’s a problem when adults come to a young adult story complaining that the main characters are behaving like young adults, especially when these reviewers give books not meant for them low starred reviews.

THE DUAL AUDIENCE IS NOT NEW

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking an implied dual audience readership began with tentpole animated film. Let’s take Charlotte’s Web as an example. This book definitely found a readership among adults, and some argue the themes are more for adults than for kids. I’d argue that Charlotte’s Web is an outstanding example of a dual readership book. I enjoyed it as a kid and differently as an adult.

What makes Charlotte Web dual audience?

‘IRONICAL DOUBLE VISION’

In The Annotated Charlotte’s Web Peter Neumeyer describes Charlotte’s Web’s narrative technique by saying, ‘White employs an ironical double vision both of child and of adult.’

What does this phrase mean? It’s subtle. Here’s the example passage from Charlotte’s Web:

[Fern] closed the carton carefully. First she kissed her father, then she kissed her mother. Then she opened the lid again, lifted the pig out, and held it against her cheek. At this moment her brother Avery came into the room. Avery was ten. He was heavily armed an air rifle in one hand, a wooden dagger in the other.

Neumeyer’s commentary:

Since an air rifle and a wooden dagger do not amount to heavy armaments, White has assumed an adult voice that articulates ten-year-old Avery’s perception which, however, the ten-year-old could not have articulated.

Thus, by way of a complex narrative strategy, White is actually commenting wryly on events.

In other words, White created an ironic gap by inserting distance between how the narrator views a situation and how the child character views a situation. If the child reader understands this, or gets it at a gut level, they must make a decision: To laugh alongside the narrator, or to side entirely with the child.

It’s not clear when children first start to pick up irony. Earlier research suggested it happened in (neurotypical) children around the age of eight, but a newer study says age four. I’m sure it depends heavily on culture, as well. Some cultures (and families) are more heavily ironic than others.

Whenever it happens, understanding irony is a slow process of understanding more and more over time. When children’s writers make use of certain types of irony, they are often addressing adult co-readers.

The Irony Typical of Picture Books

Picture books also contain a lot of ironic distance between words and picture. The child reader is expected to understand this from a very young age. Rosie’s Walk is the standout example of irony in picture books. Even very young readers will see that the words and the pictures tell completely different stories: A hen’s nice walk versus a hen’s perilous escape from a hungry fox.

Picture books must always contain ironical double vision. It’s impossible that a toddler would understand the nuances of an illustration to the same degree as an adult.

Take the example of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, one of my favourite picture books. It’s no accident this is one of my favourite picture books. It appeals to the adult reader by design.

Lack of Double Vision in Young Adult Literature

Young adult literature is different again because half of its readership are teenagers, half are adults. Young adult novels are largely read alone, not as family read-alouds, nor as class read-alouds. Developmentally, the young adult-aged reader has a keen radar for condescension, and will understand if an unseen narrator is poking gentle fun at a young adult character, however subtly.

Here is an interesting paper about ironic double vision (or lack thereof) in contemporary young adult literature, which is mostly written in first person and creates a bit of a problem for authors. Here it is called ‘double voiced discourse’.

In a double-voiced text the author is the creator of “not voiceless slaves…, but free people, capable of standing alongside their creator, capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him.

Bakhtin

Two or more ideological positions share the text without any one being
in obvious control. Though the reader may come to some decisions about the “rightness” of a particular perspective, the text has not clearly argued for that position and has provided other complete positions to consider. In a single-voiced text there is one dominant and didactic voice with no representation of a legitimate alternative position.

Mike Cadden

All ironic texts, including parodies, require some kind of double narrative. Audience understanding requires they recognise two implicit meanings.

Another example in Charlotte’s Web is when Mr Zuckerman sees Wilbur eating heartily and says he’ll “make a good pig”. Wilbur feels proud of himself in a childlike way for being a good pig. But the older reader will understand that Mr Zuckerman wants Wilbur to get nice and fat before slaughter or sale.

Another way of achieving more than one narrative viewpoint is to tell a story from various viewpoints, perhaps alternating character by chapter. When different characters recall the same temporal event, offering their own take on it, this has been called narrative parallax. The literary Impressionists loved it because it lined up with their worldview that there’s no such thing as The Truth, only different takes on it.

The double-ness of narration in Charlotte’s Web is a lot more subtle than the above techniques, and I perhaps wouldn’t have noticed it had Peter Neumeyer not pointed it out.

Other trends concern me more:

It is not seldom that writers misjudge their audience. Writers may declare that they write for boys and girls between ten and twelve, while the implied readers of the novels may have to be slightly older and more mature to understand the character, or the character’s experiences will only appeal to girls, or the particular settings and events of the novel presuppose a certain knowledge of the British public school system in the nineteenth century, or the intertextual links address reader with substantial reading habits. All this does not necessarily prevent real readers from enjoying a text that postulates a different implied reader.

Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

However we feel about stories with a dual audience, when adult and child read the ‘same’ story, it can never be the same story.

To watch again children’s films in adulthood lets us travel self-consciously to somewhere now closed off from us, because the audience is changed, because we have changed

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge, 2012, quoting a film critic
Do people truly believe that adults don’t watch “kids shows?” Have they never been high? Do they not have kids? These are the two main drives that got me to watch kids shows, @fangirlJeanne

The Technique of Ticking Clocks in Storytelling

Being late, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)

The very first episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast is about a plot device which helps to amp up the tension in a story: Sometimes it even comes with a ticking clock sound effect — more often it doesn’t — and it describes a story which has time as a pressing issue. If there’s a bomb in the story you have an especially clear example of a Ticking Clock Plot Device e.g. the movie Speed.

The Cat In The Hat Comes Back by Dr Seuss
The Cat In The Hat Comes Back by Dr Seuss

(Here are many more tropes associated with Cat In The Hat, though ‘race against the clock’ isn’t one of them.)

Watchin The Clock by Gus Kahn and Seymour Simons, Art by Helen Van Doorn Morgan

A Trick Older Than The Hills

The ticking clock device has been used in storytelling to increase narrative drive for many generations. It is used in Cinderella, who must escape from the ball before midnight, before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Often, the device is implied rather than stated outright. In Hansel and Gretel, we know the witch will eventually eat the children. That could happen at any moment, though she’s waiting for them to fatten up.

I haven't much time left, True Life Library No 475
I haven’t much time left, True Life Library No 475

Other Examples Of Ticking Clocks In Movies

  • Die Hard 2 — a plane running out of fuel
  • Speed — a bomb is set to go off if the bus goes under 50 miles per hour
  • Se7en — a cop must stop a serial killer before he kills his next victim
  • The Fugitive — an innocent man must prove his innocence before being caught again
  • Dumplin — Performances always give a story narrative drive because they provide a ticking clock. Without that, Dumplin would’ve been in great danger of losing momentum.
The Coach Draws Near (cover), Robert McGinnis, 1972
The Coach Draws Near (cover), Robert McGinnis, 1972

Ticking Clocks In Picture Books

Hilda Bewildered stars a petrified young princess, charged with the task of delivering a speech to open winter. As the live broadcast draws near, the princess concocts a story in her head to help her through the task.

TV Tropes refers to this as ‘Race Against The Clock’ and offers plenty of examples.

Variations of the ticking clock device can be found in a wide variety of genres — not just in thrillers — such as in Little Miss Sunshine (a road trip with a beauty pageant as deadline) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which a man wants to make it home in time for Thanksgiving with his family in his warm, cosy house.

On the podcast, Cheryl’s first example of this device happens to be a children’s book: The Cat In The Hat, in which an unwelcome visitor makes a mess of the place, which must be cleaned up again by the time the mother gets home.

In picture books with ticking clocks, it is often the parent(s) who have made some rule, and it is universally understood that if the rule is broken there will be terrible consequences.

Aside from our own Hilda Bewildered, another picturebook that combines ticking-clock and the snowy, dreamy atmosphere of a mood piece is Home By Five, by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur, illustrated by Mark Graham.

Home By Five cover

This is a gentle, dreamy book, beautifully illustrated in pastels.

But to contrast with the dreamy mood (and the dreamy Rosie), here on the first page a ticking-clock urgency is set up, as Papa instructs Rosie to be home by a certain time. He helps her to get ready for her ice-skating session. This is a handsome, nurturing dad who we don’t want to disappoint.

Home By Five setup
Home by Five setup2

So we get a little antsy when we see Rosie dilly-dally along the way home, despite her best intentions. She stops to swing around the poll and to look inside the bakery window, and all the time the reader can see she’s not hurrying. But it’s a little frustrating because we aren’t given access to the time, either. This book sets out to be a mood piece, with evocation descriptions of the wintry landscape. But there’s that confounded ticking clock, ruining it for us as it’s ruined for Rosie…

Rosie dilly-dallies

We don’t know what time it is until Rosie arrives home. The clock tells us she’s pretty late. Her parents discuss what to do.

Home By Five clock

On the final page we see their decision: The 1992 option is to buy their daughter a wristwatch.

In two of our story apps I make use of the ticking clock device: In Midnight Feast we have Roya’s excitement of the lead up to Midnight, though I invert this device by drawing her evening out.

midnight feast ticking clocks

Jeff Kinney also makes use of the ticking clock in several of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul gags.

Header illustration: Being late, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)

Lemon girl young adult novella

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