The narration is (arguably) the most important part of a story. The plot, the characters, and the setting are all important, of course, but the narrative is how you execute those elements, tie them together, and craft your story. So, how do you make your narrative as strong as it can be? The key to that is in revision, in knowing and making deliberate revisions to bring the reader closer to the action at certain moments and to make the story come alive.
Keeping in mind that different people have different writing styles, here are some things to consider while revising to strengthen your narrative.
That Old Nut: Show, Don't Tell
Most writers are probably familiar with the adage "Show, Don't Tell," which advises writers to concentrate more on writing scenes that are rooted in action, dialogue, and character-rich description rather than on info-dumping backstory, characterization, and world-building, or painting with a single brush stroke. These scenic moments are the parts of the story that show beauty isn't just skin deep and make the reader understand why the hero falls in love with the compassionate (and beautiful) princess and not her equally beautiful cousin.
But show, don't tell is about more than not braining readers with details that can be interwoven through the narration and dialogue, it's about building the world and characters and it relies very heavily on—you guessed it—the narration.
One of the most effective ways to add details to your world is to let your narrating character deliver those details in his or her own voice. The way a character describes something can tell the reader about more than sensory details. The words a character chooses to describe something can tell the reader about the character, how the character relates to other people, or the character's mood.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins offers some very obvious opportunities to illustrate this since Katniss often has a very different take on experiences than other characters around her (and she graciously reflects on it).
Prim named [the cat] Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower.
—The Hunger Games, page 3
Without other descriptions of Buttercup, in this sentence we have the dissonance of Katniss seeing a "muddy yellow coat" and Prim seeing a bright buttercup, shedding light on both of their feelings towards the cat (Katniss finds him a nuisance and Prim loves him).
I have to raise my head out of the required respect and cannot avoid seeing that every screen is now dominated by a shot of Peeta and me, separated by a few feet that in the viewer's heads can never be breached. Poor tragic us.
But I know better.
—The Hunger Games, page 134
Again Katniss has a completely different reaction than other characters—a Capitol viewer would see tragedy in these star-crossed lovers, but Katniss "knows better" and doesn't see love, only a ploy to win favor in the Games. It's easy to see here that Katniss is more jaded than the average person in the Capitol and unlikely to be swayed by love.
Description can also tell you a lot about a character's backstory. For instance, Daniel Jackson might be more inclined to notice someone's accent and deduce where they're from, but Jack O'Neill would more likely notice their body build and determine if they know hand-to-hand combat. And if Jack were having a particularly bad day, he might be more inclined to note Daniel's "annoying habit of wanting to placate the natives," instead of calling it a "diplomatic asset."
Choosing these characterization-rich descriptive words for your narrator can sometimes be a tricky thing. I often stumble, knowing that Daniel would probably have a handy analogy to an ancient civilization, but since I don't have a doctorate in archaeology or in anthropology, I'm left wincing at a spot that just says "EGYPT SOMETHING."
The first step is identifying the moments where you can add richness to your story and characterization by tweaking your descriptions. lady_ganesh offers some suggestions for Choosing the Right Words, and I'm going to emphasize here that you think about your character. Consider what you've already revealed, what you haven't revealed, and what characteristics are relevant to the story. If your character walks into an unfamiliar room, think about what she would notice (for example, Katniss describes the dishes in the Capitol as "highly breakable") or a specific way he might describe something (Jack might identify the way in which an unfamiliar object looks like a weapon—or he might just say “doohickey”; it is Jack after all). If you want a character to describe something or make an analogy to something you're unfamiliar with (we all need a little EGYPT SOMETHING in our stories), get an idea of what you want and then make research your best friend (I recommend reading Researching to Add Richness by chomiji to help in that search).
The important thing to keep in mind is to describe details and characteristics that are relevant to the story and the characters and that will add richness. While it may be true that the color of the grass reminds Snape of Lily's eyes, if the story isn't about his friendship with Lily or his promise to keep Harry safe, it might be more prudent to just note it as "grass." Likewise with moments you might research, EGYPT SOMETHING should be relevant either to showing a necessary bit of characterization or relate to the plot. Remember, you're trying to make the narrative stronger, so keep the story at the center of your thoughts as you revise. If a description or researched comment doesn't move the plot along or build the world or character in a relevant way, it might be better to cut it. momebie speaks to some suggestions for cutting back narration in the feature Tips for Betas, Part 2 and fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss just posted an excellent blog on the same topic.
Who's Looking Through the Window
One semester all my stories from a writing professor came back with a mysterious "SRL" written next to sentences. SRL was her abbreviation for something she called self-referential language. Self-referential language is language that refers back to the character, rather than just carrying through the action.
Teal'c looked through the observation window to see Dr. Fraiser calmly question each new personality that emerged from Daniel Jackson.
Harry saw the hippogriff approaching, and reached out his hand as Hagrid instructed.
Those sentences sound just fine on their own, don't they? My professor didn't think so and it took this analogy to make me understand why she thought these sentences were weak.
Think of your narration as a movie camera; what is described in the sentence is what the reader sees. In the Teal'c example, the reader sees Teal'c looking through a window. A movie camera would capture that like this screencap from the Stargate: SG-1 epsiode "Lifeboat". Watching the story unfold from "behind" the narrator can get kind of dull, especially if you can just show what the narrator is seeing.
The Daniel Jackson in the isolation room below was not the Daniel Jackson Teal'c knew. His behavior had grown more erratic as personality after personality emerged; Dr. Fraiser calmly questioned each one.
Cutting straight to the action lets the story build, gives the writer a chance for more detailed description, and allows the reader to sit closer to the action. Instead of watching things unfold from over Teal'c's shoulder, we're looking through his eyes and into the room where the action is taking place.
As for Harry, you might liven up the narration like this:
Harry reached his hand towards the approaching hippogriff, trusting that Hagrid wouldn't put him in too much danger.
That places the reader in the position of doing the seeing, rather than letting "the camera" rest on Harry. It's the difference between watching Harry see the hippogriff approach and watching it yourself.
This doesn't mean that you should eradicate every instance of "Teal'c looked" or "Harry saw." Sometimes you need a simple sentence like that to break up the more heavily-described moments—or sometimes you want to distance the reader from the action, and place them behind the shoulder of the narrator. When I find these phrases in my own writing I ask myself if it benefits the story in that moment or if a more scenic moment would be better. If a scenic moment makes more sense, I revise; if not, I move on to the next one. (For the record, 9 times out of 10 I wind up revising the sentence.)
Distance From the Character
Narration helps you define how close the reader will be to the story. Making the story more scenic and allowing the reader to see through the eyes of the narrator brings the reader deeper into the mind of the character and into the story, but how close your reader gets to your story can be determined by the POV. Testing who's looking through the window works best when your narrator is a POV character within the story—usually first-person or third-person limited (when the reader is right inside the narrator's thoughts). These POVs bring the action directly to the reader, making it a very personal story. Other POVs create more distance between the reader and the story or even the character and the story, as is the case with second person. melayneseahawk discusses the various distances and strengths of all five types of POV in Is Present Tense More Desperate? Just keep in mind that when you choose and revise your POV, you're not only making a decision about who is telling the story, but about how the reader will experience the story.
Everyone Can't Be Professor X: Eliminating Telepathic POV
chiroho has previously explained What Is POV Switching? Why Is It Bad? which offers some suggestions for how to deal with a story which contains multiple POVs. But for third-person limited POV, a slip in POV can cause reader confusion. (It can also be fairly discombobulating in first-person POV.)
A beta is your best bet for catching a slip in POV, but I usually like to make a pass for these things myself, before shipping my story to a beta. After all, the more things I fix, the more the beta can focus on more nitpicky things.
When I check for POV slips, I look for sentences that revolve around another character or for dialogue tags. These are usually the places where I may have mentioned something my POV character wouldn't be able to report.
Harry pulled off his cloak, finally revealing he'd been listening the whole time.
"Harry! You've got to stop doing that, mate," Ron said, astonished that Harry's invisibility cloak still surprised him.
Harry can observe that Ron sounds surprised or astonished, or he could note Ron's physical reaction (wide eyes, a hitch in Ron's voice), but he can't know what Ron is thinking about Harry and the cloak. (Well, assuming Harry isn't doing legilimency or hasn't developed other powers of telepathy.) From Harry's point of view the tag would read something more like this:
"Harry! You've got to stop doing that, mate," Ron said, the surprise evident in his voice.
"Harry! You've got to stop doing that, mate." Ron's voice hitched the same way it did every time Harry sneaked up on him in the cloak.
Just pay attention as you read over your work, and pause to consider if your character has suddenly developed telepathy or not.
The narrative of a story is obviously more than just the point of view, so here are some past articles that will assist with other revisions for your narrative.
- What’s So Bad About the Passive Voice, Anyway? tackles passive voice and how to eliminate it. (If you have a foggy understanding of passive voice, I highly recommend reading this one.)
- An important part of writing is knowing when to stop, or when to explain something in less-complicated ways. Style Options for Long, Wordy, Repetitive Sentences is geared towards streamlining your sentences to move your narration along. And How Do You Eliminate and Replace Extraneous Adverbs? can help you find stronger verbs to make your descriptions more effective.
- mombie’s two-part feature on Tips for Betas—part 1 and part 2 uses a broad brush to enumerate things betas should look for, but writers might also find it useful for revising their own work.
A Stronger Narrative
Crafting a stronger narrative takes time and careful reading—whether you're implementing these suggestions and tricks or not! Even if you're not writing a limited POV (whether first person or third-person), you should still be mindful while you revise and make conscious decisions about the words you choose for descriptions. For those limited POVs, though, as you revise, ask yourself: is that the way the character would describe it? who's looking through the window? is the character making an observation or has he developed telepathy? Looking at your narration objectively will help you make strategic revisions and you'll be crafting stronger narratives in no time.