Experimenting With Limited Narrative
Hello again! I am back for the final term of uni, and my god, hasn't the last few months been a train wreck? A cliché metaphor, to use the imagery of a train wreck to describe a particularly shitty period of time, but an accurate one. And while I could pour out a load of self-pity, I find it very therapeutic to get back into this regime of blogging. And this term, my focus is going to be writing reflective commentary on my dissertation process and progress. So let's start with pairing this lovely train-wreck metaphor with
the struggle of choosing a type of narration.
Imagine this, you're going on a holiday. A week away in some beachy hidey-hole where you will spend the majority of the time drinking cocktails named after 70's popstars and waiting for the day to reach peak temperature so you can go for a swim to the sea. Yes, you know what you want and maybe it isn't a perfect plan - not something you'd expect other people to desire, but it's your plan, and you own it. You enjoy the comfort you feel knowing you're going to be fulfilling that little expectation.
Now, you know how to drive, you know how to cook and how to pour a drink. But just this once, you want to rely on the world for a little while. You don't want the stress of driving and configuring routes on the sat-nav. You don't want the hassle of grocery s
hopping - don't want to feel the guilt of giving in to a cheap McDonald's. You want to allow someone else to do all that for you. You feel you deserve that.
So when you finally book those train tickets and a room in a B&B, you finally feel some element of freedom. Your plan is to just roll with whatever comes along. You can breathe and think just a little clearer than before.
You step onto the train, allowing the driver, the weather, the journey, the railway services to become the factors responsible for you.
There are only a few other people on board, but they keep to themselves and you can happily lose yourself in daydream.
Next thing you know, one of the other passengers has suddenly got up and started banging on the sides of the train. He is screaming, yelling incomprehensively. He picks up someone's suitcase and with some sort of unfathomable strength, begins to hit the electric panels on the walls.
The lights in your compartment begin to flick, and the train lurches. Your heart jolts but it seems unlikely that man's actions is actually enough to rock the train back and forth. Perhaps there was just a bump in the tracks.
You watch the man, wondering if you should perhaps call someone. But you don't know who to call. Then you notice how the rest of the people in your compartment have disappeared. The man continues to hit things and you try to stand up. A wave of nausea hits you, and you slump to the seat again.
Now the man has seen you and has become more animate in their ramblings. He begins to smash the windows and glass shatters everywhere. Wind fights it's way through the train. It screeches through the gaps in the seats, races down the aisle. The train seems to be getting faster and there's so much turbulence that your body is thrown side to side. You duck down into a corner covering your head with your hands. Glass is hurled about like a hurricane and you feel the biting shards on your bare arms. You peek through your fingers, and there is suitcases, laptops, clothes, and holiday gear everywhere.
The man has finally quietened down, and you risk looking around to see what has happened to him. But he has gone.
The train becomes increasingly faster. So fast that the curtains are torn away from their rails. The material on the sheets is ripped away from the seats, and everything that had been in the compartment has been pushed onto the back door. You see the strain of the weight that is being pushed against it.
You bend down and crawl under the seat, and meet several pairs of terrified eyes - the other passengers. They had crawled beneath the seats long before you thought of it.
The train suddenly reels out of control, and you feel a weightlessness. For a moment there is silence. Then the train crashes.
You wake. And you cough blood. You scream but no sound comes out. Or maybe there's no sound because your ears aren't working. You hold up your hands, and they are unrecognisable. They are cut. The skin is peeled like ribbon. Blisters and swellings disfigure your arms. You try to take a breath, but your chest is a vacuum bag. You cough and more blood spatters out.
You try to move, but it feels like your body is no longer yours. You have transformed. You have been broken into a new shape. You feel hot, cold. You smell blood, you smell smoke. You feel blood and urine soaking into your clothes. You feel the piercing of something sharp cutting into your waist beneath you.
You know you need to move. So you open your eyes.
But the horror you see around you is enough to make you want to close your eyes again.
You are still in the train compartment. As are other people. Yet, the train stands on it side so that some passengers are hanging or dangling from the poles that attach the seats. The top of the train has been torn away and the side has bent outward. Your hearing is slowly returning and you can hear a hissing noise. You turn to see that the electricals in the train have burst from the walls. Black smudges surround fizzing orange wires. You see smoke easing it's way from gaps in the panels.
Black sludge has pooled below you. It could be fuel. It could be blood. It seeps through the smashed windows and mixes into the ground. You know you are somewhere in the countryside because the sludge is absorbed by scorched soil. Shafts of hot, dusty sunlight filter through the broken windows. You scream again, and this time your voice works. As a reply, the wreckage around you groans. Something falls from above you and hits the ground with a thud. You stop screaming, afraid that what remains of the train will crash down on top of you like an avalanche.
And you ask yourself all the 'What ifs?' and the 'How?' 'What?' and 'Why?'. You wonder where the man went - if he were really responsible. You question whether this had been some sort of cruel karma or a completely random event. Had the man deliberately caused the crash? Had he known what he was doing? Had it been an outside factor that had caused it?
This is an example of limited narrative. Not only is it told from a single perspective but it is invasive. It is also personal and claustrophobic - preventing the reader from making decisions as the character in the story. The questions at the end of the story are an example of how a complication in a story could be solved depending on what narrative voice we used.
Although I am now confident in what narrative voice I want to use for my dissertation, it was a little difficult to make a decision.
The first three chapters of my novel LED's and Cherry Trees were told from a first person perspective by a character that follows the actions of the protagonist. Although unintentional, it was a little similar to Watson's voice and narration in the Sherlock Holmes series.
After leaving the novel for a couple of months to work on another project, I went back to it and it almost seemed alien to me. I do not often use the first person in writing and because I had used a voice so unlike my own as a first person voice in my story, I had disengaged from it.
At first, I saw this as a problem and I immediately drew up a mental list of all the reasons why writers often avoid this type of narrative voice. One of those reasons was the limited narrative.
Having a limited narrative often means that the reader is only given the story from one person's point of view. It sometimes means that the worldbuilding can't be as developed as well as it could be from a third person perspective and limits how many characters we can follow as the reader.
Writing a science fiction novel meant to me that I had to work a lot on worldbuilding. It meant that characters arcs had to be concrete and that the plot must be well established. This is why my initial decision for the dissertation was to tell the story with the eyes of three different characters.
My plan was to switch characters on every new chapter. I thought this would help move the plot along when one character became immobile or unaware of the events happening around them.
However, I wasn't completely sure that I wanted to make the novel too busy. While it is nice to have an action packed story, it is not always an easy read. My experiences with action packed and busy stories has often left me either skipping massive sections or just not focusing because of all the complexities the writer has tried to invest in.
So I decided to experiment a little with my three main characters. I wrote a chapter - the same chapter - in three different voices. And then I wrote it once more in the third person.
Originally, I wrote from the perspective of a sixteen year old boy (Charlie) who, arguably, shares the role of protagonist with his grandfather, who is the subject of the story. The other character that I considered as a narrative voice was the younger sister.
When it came to reading these chapters back to myself, however, I found that the characteristics of both the grandfather and the younger sister were a little muted. It seemed that, as the reader, I couldn't imagine them the way Charlie saw them. This conflicted with one of the main themes of my story - identity.
The theme of identity in my story is an important role as it drives the characters to doubt one another. So when reading from the Grandfather and sister's perspective, it felt a little false and unnecessary. It left little mystery and gave out too much information which - as revealed in the first three chapters - had only been drip fed to the reader up until that moment.
As an experiment, I felt that the trial chapters helped me in deciding what information was needed. It also indicated to me what action, interaction, and dialogue was needed from the other characters.
So while limited narrative can be a little restricting, it can be used to manipulate and drive stories with certain themes forward. If anyone has similar struggles with deciding on narrative or POV, I would strongly suggest taking a little time writing a chapter or short section from every point of view, perspective and maybe even try experimenting with tenses. Eventually, you'll find a voice you're comfortable with and even find ways to get across information that you thought may have been a little limited before.