Tag Archives: reader

Nine Worlds: Look Who’s Talking – Me!


UntitledI’m going to start my write-up of Nine Worlds with the presentation I made, purely because a number of people asked for a copy of my slides and I promised to put them up here. The subject was ‘Choosing your narrative technique in order to have the desired impact on your audience’. I deliberately used the word ‘audience’ rather than ‘reader’ as it’s more applicable across different media (although I forgot to take games into much account, for which I must offer particular apologies to Ian Thomas of Talespinners).

As I said last week, this is the first time I’ve done public speaking in about two decades so I was super-nervous but the audience were lovely and engaged (because this is Nine Worlds, and that’s what Nine Worlds audiences are). I also learned a couple of things in turn – like uses for 2nd POV, which I’ll be looking into more in a later blog post – so wins all around, really.

A lot of what I talked about are things I’ve covered here in the past, so what I’m actually going to post about today are the things I *forgot* to say at the weekend, or skipped over in minimal detail. To make any sense of what follows, you’ll need to look at the slides.

Slide 2: Immanent Rules

This relates to your choice of narrative structure and voice. In simple terms, what is the default structure of a particular story? How many times does it change level of narrator, and when (are flashbacks always in someone else’s voice, for example)? Is the timeline linear? Once we work those out – and usually it’s pretty instinctive – we can also spot if and when the story breaks its own rules. Then we can ask why it was done and what impact it created on the audience.

Slide 3: Dividing Narrator, Hero & Protagonist

The benefit to doing this is that it takes some of the pressure off the narrator. It makes them free to not be a hero, and for the hero not to be a narrator. That offers greater freedom to act appropriately in both places. A good example of doing this badly is Captain Kirk, who is both hero and narrator. As a result, because the audience is seeing the story through his eyes, he leaves the ship for dangerous front-line expeditions a frankly irresponsible amount for a captain. If he weren’t the narrator, he wouldn’t have to do this and would be free to act heroically in accordance with his rank. It also gives you the opportunity to have an unsympathetic hero or protagonist (Sherlock Holmes, I’m looking at you) via the softening, sympathetic narrator – something you can later subvert if you wish.

The downside to dividing the roles up is that there’s more characters to keep track of.

Slide 5: Defining the Hero

Read the introduction to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, where he talks about cultural differences in the meaning of heroism. In Australia, for example, generations of sending their youth off to fight in other people’s wars (mostly Britain) in response to heroic-themed marketing, has resulted in the word ‘hero’ carrying an overtone of stupidity. Again, this is something you can play with and subvert.

Slide 9: Giant Snails

I did say this on the day, but it isn’t on the slides so I’m going to repeat it here because it seemed to go down well.

  • Heterodiegetic – ‘Some guy down the pub told me he was attacked by giant snails.’
  • Homodiegetic – ‘I was involved in a giant snail attack.’
  • Intradiegetic – ‘I saw my friend get attacked by giant snails.’
  • Autodiegetic – ‘I was attacked by giant snails.’
  • Extradiegetic – ‘I’ll tell you a story about giant snails.’


Slide 11: Narrative Levels

For those who attended on the day, the text I used to illustrate the different levels was Read This First, which is my post-apocalyptic anthology about the curators of the last library, now available on Amazon. Minor book plug. 🙂

Slide 14: Privilege

‘Privilege’ is a technical term for the amount of information a character has access to and therefore can provide the audience. Mieke Bal is a good source to read up on this. The more narrative levels the story has to go through (focalizer, narrator, implied author, etc.), the less privilege the audience will end up with because some will be lost with every level.

A way around that is to play with opposing narrative levels that offer different ‘truths’ about the same events. A fantastic example is the film Hero. The downside of taking this approach is that the audience is aware that they are being misled in some way and therefore have to start working out who and what they believe to be reliable. This makes the story a puzzle to be considered objectively, rather than something they can fully immerse themselves into.

Slide 15: Authorial (Un)Reliability

When using changeable structure as a method of unreliability, the audience is encouraged to make false assumptions, not by the narrator but by the author. The order in which the story is presented is deliberately misleading. Arrival is a great example.

Slide 16: Twist It

Again, I did mention this on the day but remember that the twist/reveal is for the reader’s benefit, not necessarily the narrator’s. For those who don’t even realise they are unreliable – the misled, the delusional, and so on – they don’t need a moment of realisation at all. Clare Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days provides the reveal to the audience but not the narrator, and that ignorance adds to the horror of the narrator’s ultimate fate.

Twists also add to your story’s rereadability. The audience will experience the story differently a second time around because they have greater privilege than any of the characters. So if you write a twist, try to ensure you include things that will provide the breadcrumbs for people to spot when they go through again. It turns the story into more of a puzzle-experience but, speaking as a reader who does this, it’s great fun.


Slide 19: Relative Distance

I didn’t include this slide in the original talk at all, because I was tight on time. Wayne C Booth, an American lit crit writer, has a theory called aesthetic or relative distance, which is the distance between the narrator and everybody else, on any type of differentiator. Basically, you need to distinguish between your narrator, your secondary characters, your authorial voice, and your audience. Treat those four as separate entities. Now, work out what their norm is for a whole bunch of stuff, such as historical era, geography, class, fashion, speech pattern, morality, politics, etc etc etc. The distance between any of the four entities on any of the differentiators provides you with possible sources of tension.

  • Some of these tensions are good – the narrator and the secondary character have radically different politics, for example, or come from opposing socio-economic backgrounds. That drives plot.
  • Some tensions are structural – the narrator and the implied author have different biases, which implies an unreliability. Ditto the narrator and the secondary character(s). This can be good (tension drives plot) or bad – for example, the 3POV narrator of Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maughan is a working class London girl but the audience finds it difficult to really get a feel for her because the language of the book is upper-class male.
  • Some of these tensions are bad – the narrator and the audience have radically different morals, and a failure to ease the audience into this leads to disengagement.
  • Some of these tensions are unavoidable – the author and the audience come from different eras or cultures, which means there’s a certain knowledge gap that has to be bridged in order for the audience to engage.

Slide 20: Getting the right reaction

Again, because of time restraints I didn’t really go into cause and effect properly with this slide on the day. So here’s my take on it:

  • Frame: Emotional engagement to narrator and distance from story. Enjoyment and introspection.
  • Epistolary: Implied reader which means easier suspension of disbelief and engagement.
  • Unreliable: Enjoyment of structure, possibly more privilege.
  • Diegetic level: How involved is narrator? And therefore how involved is audience?
  • Narrative level: How many levels of privilege and bias does audience get story filtered through?
  • Relative distance: What sources of tension are in the story? Which do you need to make easier for audience to work around?
  • Self-consciousness: Emotional engagement with narrator, implied reader, levels of manipulation
  • Narrative complicity: Audience is drawn into story, brought on-side emotionally and intellectually
  • Authorial reliability: Manipulation of audience, either knowing or not, which creates tension but involves risk; can offer greater insight into characters and relationships
  • Privilege and bias: Is the audience able to see the whole story? If not, why not? Tension, plot, emotional engagement and manipulation
  • Plot twist: memorability and rereadability, involves risk

What Next?

As I mentioned above, I clearly have some more research to do around 2POV regarding games and Interactive Fiction, so I’ll come back to you on that in a while. I might even, if I’m very very lucky, catch Ian Thomas at a less-insanely-busy-than-usual moment and beg a guest post off him on the subject.

I also had a wonderful moment with Adrian Tchaikovsky afterwards, in which he expressed interest in the relationship between 1POV/3POV and past/present tense. Particularly, if the narrator is speaking in past tense they clearly have knowledge of the whole story (and there’s a strong indicator they’re going to survive the experience), which therefore surely impacts their account. If they’re speaking in present, how are they narrating (especially if they DON’T survive)? This conversation was the highlight of my Con. It’s not every day extremely successful SFF authors ask for my opinion on something technical. So yeah, I’ll definitely have a think about that and do a follow-up blog post.

On a more personal note, the whole public speaking experience was less terrifying than I thought it would be and I realised after the fact that I’d rather enjoyed myself. Since this is a subject I love to learn and talk about, and since in a perfect world I’d actually like to end up lecturing on this stuff, hopefully I’ll get to do it again in the future.


Here Endeth The Lesson


I really struggle with endings. Like Russian literature, I have a bad habit of pursuing consequences as far as they can possibly go, which ends up with everybody dead. There’s a place for sad endings, of course, but mostly people want to end on a high note and with a sense of closure. Bittersweet, at best. The books I reread and keep on my shelves all have happy endings. If I want my books to be reread and kept on other people’s shelves, I need to learn the art of writing an upbeat closure.

I actually asked for tips from one of my favourite authors, Joanne Harris, and she replied with this:

Joanne Harris

She spoke to me! Squee!

Unfortunately, whilst the advice is lovely it doesn’t help all that much. So, what about practical advice?

Find the Mice

Orson Scott Card said that the point at which your story ends is intrinsically linked with the type and sub-genre of story you’re telling. He called this the MICE Quotient, and I’ve talked about it before. If you’re writing a travel story, the ending is when your hero arrives at / leaves / decides not to leave a place. If you’re writing about an idea or question, the story ends when the question is answered. An event/adventure story ends when the event has taken place or the adventure is over. A character story is the trickiest to determine, but is essentially when the character accepts the change they have been resisting or achieves the change they’ve been seeking.

This is a fine theory for the broad strokes but doesn’t really help on a detailed level, particularly not if you have an ensemble cast. Look at the trouble Tolkien had wrapping up The Return of the King. That was, what, four endings? Five? There’s a trick to finding THE point of closure, and leaving some of the loose ends to the reader’s imagination.

That said, it’s important to identify which loose ends are unimportant enough to leave and which must be resolved in order to provide closure. Plots and sub-plots must be resolved; major character growth arcs must be completed. Who inherited the dead man’s tea-pot isn’t important unless the tea-pot contains the key to lost treasure or the secret code for the next apocalypse.

The Anticlimax

Epilogues are an indulgence, much like prologues. If you can afford to lose them, do so. Especially in these days of multi-platform publishing options, where you can always write a short story and put it online for those readers dedicated enough to want to hunt it down. Kelly Armstrong, writer of the Otherworld series, does this really well by releasing epilogues in a newsletter to fans who sign up for it.



Honestly, this was unnecessary and gave us nothing new.

On the flip-side of that equation, there’s the need for giving your reader a cool-down period. Especially if the finale of your story is a grand action-filled or emotional scene. Ending straight after that leaves your reader all wound up with nowhere to go. This is what the denouement tradition of older crime mysteries is for – we have the great chase or reveal of the criminal, and then the detective sitting down with his pipe and smoking jacket to explain his thought processes to the admiring friend. The reader is wound up, talked down, and goes away happy.

So when does a cool-down become an epilogue? Usually an epilogue is set some time after the main events, or told from a different character’s perspective. If the information contained within it is essential to the overall understanding of the plot, try and include it within the structure of the main story. But Resist the Urge to Explain.

Deus Ex & Twisters

Deus Ex Machina is when an unstoppable and overpowered force (not necessarily divine, despite the name) swoops in at the last minute to save the day. This feels like a cheat to the reader, unless the set-up is really good. And I mean REALLY good – like, characters-died-to-make-sure-the-heavy-cavalry-arrived level of good. They have to earn divine intervention. It has to have emotional weight. Basically, what makes a DEM is the lack of set-up. Tell it right, weave it into the story throughout, and it’s fine.

The Hulk, by way of example, is an unstoppable and overpowered force. If he just pitched up at the end of the Avengers to help out, he would totally count as a deus ex machina. But because Banner struggles with controlling the Hulk, and because he flipped out and fought the other Avengers on the helicarrier, he’s already woven into the story as an earned ally. Banner’s sudden ability at the end to release Hulk on command, and then fight with the rest of the team, is a bit deus ex-y but “I’m always angry” is such a cool line that we mostly let it slide.

Twists, a la M. Night Shyamalan, are equally tricksy beasts. If the set-up is good, the twist makes sense within your plot but doesn’t telegraph itself ahead of time, go right ahead. Readers tend to really enjoy a twist, provided it’s done well. If you can pull of a twist that makes a rereading of the story change the reader’s understanding completely, even better. That gives your book longevity.

Twists mostly come out of unreliable narrators. In fact, some authors believe it’s pointless to have an unreliable narrator without one. A twist that can be predicted, or doesn’t make sense, or is just there for sensationalism, though – that’s a not only going to annoy your readers, it’s also going to weaken the entire story. Instead of having a mediocre end, you’ll end up with a mediocre beginning and middle into the bargain. If you’re going to have a twist, you’ve got to do it right. And there are plenty of lists of films doing it wrong available on Google.


All of the above pretty much comes down to one thing: foreshadowing. The ending can’t be written in isolation. You need to know what the final point is when you write the beginning, in order to tie it in right. That said, you can (and many people have done, including Sir Terry Pratchett and if it’s good enough for him it’s good enough for me) write the first draft without a clue what the ending will be. Then you painstakingly add in the foreshadowing when you rewrite.

This doesn’t, however, solve my fundamental problem of writing positive endings. In the spirit of frankness, I find them hard to write because I don’t believe in them on some fundamental level. I guess this is one of my personal learning curves: start with tragic (Spiritus), progress to pyrrhic (Corpus), then bittersweet (London Under). Maybe the next project over the horizon will achieve happiness. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.


The Theory of Relativity: Time on Paper


Okay, some notes on the use of time and compression in story structure. A lot of this stuff might sound really self-evident (in which case, I’m doing my job of explaining it right) but it took 11 pages of my lit crit text to explain. Which really tells you more about lit crit texts than about the complexity of the subject.

Represented vs Representational Time

Represented time is the time that passes in the story or, to put it another way, the in-story time it takes for events to unfold. Also called ‘perceptible time’.

Representational time is the time it takes to tell the story. You can tell a year in a paragraph, or half an hour in a chapter. Also called ‘intellectual’ or ‘narrative’ time.

Because here’s the thing – time is malleable. Even in life our experiences of it aren’t constant, even if the passage of it is. Hours drag, days fly past, etc etc. On paper, where writers have control over how fast it’s passing, it becomes even more so. This is important because it provides the writer with a really important tool: attentional prominence.

Fluctuations in the speed of narration along with manipulations of frequency can be viewed as metrics of value or at least attentional prominence – David Herman, Time, Plot, Progression

This is pretty much the same idea as Chekhov’s Gun – if the description of a scene dwells on the gun over the mantlepiece, that gun is probably important to the plot. It’s a way of flagging it to the reader as something worth keeping track of. Similarly, if a lot of writing (representational time) is devoted to describing a short period of story (represented time) it implies that what’s going on in this scene is important. If several years of represented time are skipped over in a small amount of representational time, those years probably don’t matter so much. The writer can use the compression and extension of representational time to spotlight the points in the story that the reader should pay attention to.


Dodge this…

Genette outlines the broad categories of attentional prominence as follows:

  •     Representational time < Represented time                = Summary
  •     Representational time = 0, Represented time > 0    = Ellipse (or skip)
  •     Representational time = Represented time                = Scene
  •     Representational time > Represented time                = Stretch
  •     Representational time > 0, Represented time = 0    = Pause

This relationship between the two, in whatever balance, is called duration. So, by working out the duration, you can take a guess at how important the passage is to the overall story.

Start At The Very Beginning

I’m going to leave aside the question of what constitutes a beginning, since I already tackled that in the discussion of causal chains, and simply say that for the purposes of this conversation it’s the first chronological event in the fabula.

Narrative exposition is, according to Wikipedia’s definition, ‘the insertion of important background information within a story’, generally talking about things that occurred or exist before the events of the story that are being narrated (fabula) took place. Which, obviously, comes at the beginning, right?

Au contraire. Remember what we talked about last week on A4-B5-C1 stuff and reordering events? So the beginning doesn’t necessarily come at the beginning, and the stuff before the beginning can crop up whenever it suits your structure. You can include it in flashbacks, recounted memories, or just mucking about with sujet (the order in which events are presented).


Freytag’s Pyramid Story Structure

Some scholars seem to think this raises a question about 3-Act Structure, or Freytag’s Pyramid, or any of those basic story structures. Is it the structure of the fabula (events of the story) or the order in which those events are narrated (sujet)? But these structures are all focused around how the story is communicated – the sujet – not on the fabula. They’re calculated to control the tension levels of the reader, not the characters. So the fabula could have a very different structure and tension map than the sujet. That might be worth bearing in mind when thinking about your characters’ tension levels at any given point.

Structural Deception

The expositional information [may]… enrich, modify or even drastically change the reader’s understanding of it. ~ Meir Sternberg, ‘An Essay in Temporal Delimitation’

The most fantastic example I’ve seen of this is in the recently released film Arrival. If you haven’t seen it, skip the whole of the next paragraph because I’m about to spoiler massively.

The film opens with a fairly compressed montage of the protagonist’s daughter being born, growing into a teenager, falling ill, and dying in hospital. Then the opening credits roll. Because it was presented at the beginning, the audience naturally assumes that this is the protagonist’s background and therefore interpret all her subsequent behaviour in the light of a grieving mother. As the film unfolds, however, it gradually becomes clear through a sequence of memory flashes of that montage, that the protagonist is ‘remembering’ things that haven’t happened yet due to contact with aliens who experience circular or concurrent time, rather than linear time. That completely changes not only the understanding of the character’s actions to date, but also those of her decisions in the future – the fact she continues to act in a way that will take her into the future where her daughter dies fundamentally alters the audience’s perception of her interactions with the man she knows will become her daughter’s father.

For literary examples of fantastic non-linear literary construction, I’m going to refer you back to my old favourites: Hal Duncan’s Vellum and Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. If this is something you’re interested in playing with, it’s also worth doing some research into how different cultures view the passage of time. to get some ideas that might help you break out of linear time.


Virtual Reality: Storytelling in REAL Fantasy Worlds


A few weeks ago I had a really interesting chat with Patrick Collister, Head of Design at Google, who talked to me about the evolution of storytelling as Virtual Reality technology has progressed.

As this is primarily a writing blog, rather than a tech one, I’ll very quickly give a run-down of some key terms:

  1. VR – Virtual Reality. Creating digital spaces that you can walk around in. This is different to computer games because the space stays still even when you move the device you’re looking at it through. Imagine you’re standing in a room, looking at it through the camera on your smartphone. The room doesn’t swing around as the phone moves – it stays still and you see different bits of the room. Exactly like that, except the room is wholly digital.
  2. AR – Augmented Reality. A digital overlay on real stuff. Pokemon Go is Augmented Reality.
  3. MR – Mixed Reality. Still in development, currently. This is basically like AR, but projected directly onto the eyeball rather than viewed through a device.

Making the Reader a Protagonist

I want to talk about VR because that’s the stuff really making waves in storytelling. Google have been doing all manner of cool things with it, and Patrick pointed me towards a particular video on their VR YouTube channel which demonstrated some of what he was talking about.

See, if you’re standing in the virtual world and a story’s unfolding around you, how do you a) interact with it if it’s just a video, and b) ensure you’re looking at the right place to see the crucial plot points? Both these questions are solved in the same way. Google 360 structure the story in very short chapters. Each chapter is triggered only when the viewer is looking in a specific direction. So you don’t miss anything but, more importantly, nothing happens if you don’t look at it. You’ve got the time to look around because the next chapter will wait for your attention.

If a tree falls in a VR wood, and you aren’t looking at it, it doesn’t finish falling.

Suddenly the viewer is critical to the process. They become a protagonist, responsible for making things happen. By way of example, here’s the video Patrick showed me. You can watch it on computer, but watching it on your phone is a WAY better medium to experience this type of storytelling. Because the point is that you move around. Give it a go.

I’m not sure what impact this will have on traditional storytelling structures, if any, as far as the written word is concerned. But it’s early days and there’s no denying video is a very powerful tool to shape how people think. And the trend in digital content over the last few years has consistently been more and more about personalisation. You want to attract people to your creation? Make it personal – give them a starring role.

So far I’ve just been an interested observer, very much on the fringes of what’s going on. Ian Thomas, Director of Talespinners – writer, game designer and all-around storytelling expert – has waaaay more experience than I do. So I asked him what he thought.

Challenges in VR Storytelling – Ian Thomas

Here’s the thing: there are a few groups of people trying to leap on VR for storytelling purposes right now, and at least two of them are coming at it from an angle which isn’t a great fit, and a lot of their problems lie in a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium through trying to apply film techniques. VR is seen as a visual medium most closely related to computer games and film, and to my mind it’s far removed from either.

The first group are film-makers. As you might imagine, the natural inclination of the film-maker when approaching VR is to take a linear piece of storytelling and then to work out how to deliver it in 360 degree surround. Directors are used to having complete control of the action; editors are used to controlling pacing (not to mention being able to cut and have multiple viewpoints, both of which are limited in VR); cinematographers are used to being able to control framing. None of those skills are really of any use in VR, and a lot of lessons are having to be unlearned very swiftly – nearly all the language of cinematography goes out of the window. VR productions coming from this angle tend to be very static, tend to be confusing for the player, don’t take enough account of the player’s presence in the world (being more of a piece for the player to watch, or a ghost train-like experience), and, when they offer any interactivity at all, it’s of the ‘trigger object to continue’ variety.

The second group are game developers – and one of the problems comes specifically from game developers working at the high end. The trouble is that many such AAA developers have spent the last twenty years or so trying to make their games more like films, picking up cinematography techniques (such as ‘frame the important object’), cuts, cutscene pacing and so on. As with film-making, those things simply don’t work – you can’t constrain the player’s head to focus on a specific object, for example. The other issue is that locomotion in VR is completely different from that in most mainstream computer games – walking along a corridor is quite a different experience in VR (and can lead to motion sickness), so you need to find other tricks and techniques; a lot of gaming has been focused around an experience of ‘continuous travelling through a space’, so that needs to be rethought. Again, people are having to unlearn lots of lessons. A lot of early attempts have been experimental VR ports of existing games, which are only really working for the hardcore gamers who are willing to put up with quirks and nausea.

However, games are a better fit than cinema, and there are games companies doing excellent work in this space.  They tend to be people who’ve thrown away their preconceptions and started from scratch and spent a lot of time experimenting and getting to grips with the medium; or even to be people who have no previous background in games and are coming in fresh, with no constraints or expectations. And, in general, games companies tend to get the idea of player agency and embodiment in a way that film-makers don’t.

The fundamental storytelling issue is – a thing happens. How do you get the player to notice? Google’s answer, as you quoted, is to only trigger things when the player is looking in that direction – there are other solutions but that’s not a bad one. However, as you might imagine, pacing is therefore quite different from other media.

But there’s a deeper thing going on here, at least in this stage in the adoption of VR. You’re trying to tell a story. Perhaps an epic tale which will capture the player and sweep them up. At least that’s the intention. But behaviourally, a lot of game creators are finding that the player spends all their time just looking around the room and picking up objects, ignoring your carefully crafted dramatic content. Because that’s where they’re finding the fascination and the fun. Maybe that’s only temporary, because the experience is so new. But in any case, perhaps that should be your storytelling method – just picking things up and looking. In the games industry this is known as environmental storytelling, and existing non-VR games such as Gone Home are great exponents of this sort of experience, allowing players to piece things together at their own pace.

What I’ve found most powerful in VR so far is the sense of presence you feel when there’s another character in the scene. Even if the character isn’t modelled photorealistically, the human brain interprets them as ‘there’ in a way that I haven’t seen in any other medium – it’s absolutely uncanny. If you play through Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham VR and are nose-to-nose with the Joker… there’s no feeling like it. It’s something which took me completely by surprise, and it’s the thing I’m most interested in pursuing.

Another important thing to mention is 3D audio. Well-designed audio is hugely important in VR, and again isn’t something that film audio can adapt to very well due to the non-linear way the sounds are encountered or triggered. It’s a lot closer to game audio, but many games still treat audio as of secondary importance. In VR it’s utterly critical, as it underpins and helps define the reality of the space around you. And, where you perhaps can’t rely on camerawork in the way you could in other media, you can absolutely rely on sound and get much more out of it than in other media.

VR experiences aren’t simply translations of existing games techniques. Nor are they simply translations of film techniques. I think the closest thing we have so far is single-audience-member participatory theatre-in-the-round, but no-one’s really drawing on theatre experience yet. But at the root of it, VR is its own thing, and no-one knows quite what yet.

Ian is a games writer, designer and coder who has wrestled computers for a living for over two decades. He’s worked in interactive television, education, puppet-making, film, publishing, live events, and the games industry, where he’s helped bring to life games such as Frictional’s SOMA, The Bunker, and a wide variety of other titles from LittleBigPlanet to LEGO. He’s written action movies, children’s books about Cthulhu, interactive fiction and pulp novels. Most of his time is spent running Talespinners, a story-for-games company that helps games studios deliver their narrative. Amongst other things, he’s currently writing for a VR multiplayer RPG.

The Focalizer: I/She/They’ll Be Back


More narrative perspective theory! Yay, I hear you cry! But this stuff’s important, chaps, so buckle up. We’re going back to that whole homodiegetic stuff from the end of last year, and taking it apart in a bit more detail, courtesy of Mieke Bal and Gerard Genette.

Redefining Perspective

As discussed last week, even 1st POV stories can have multiple types of narrator involved – implied authors, reflectors, disguised narrators, etc. What you as a writer always need to be aware of is the bias used by any of these narrators. The reader’s opinion of the story is naturally affected by the lens through which the story is narrated. What the narrator sees, the reader sees, and passes judgement in the same way. Genette calls this the focalizer:

‘…the focalizer influences how the reader perceives the character seen. But our game does not stop there: we cannot determine “who sees” without taking into account the medium through which we perceive that sight: the narrating. So we must know “who speaks.”‘ – Mieke Bal, Essays in Narratology

The narrator is obviously the person who speaks – what Bal calls the “author’s delegate” – and they are the focal lens by which the reader therefore sees other characters and places. Bal doesn’t seem to draw a distinction between the bias of the actual author and the bias of the narrator, as Booth does, but it’s an important one so don’t forget it.

Bal splits it down further – the actors (characters) produce the story through their actions; the focalizer places the bias or lens on that story by which it is portrayed; the narrator recounts it in words and thus creates the narrative for the implied audience. See the diagram below for clarity:


Narrative Levels

This is where we come back to homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrators. As far as I can work out, they’re all pretty much different terms for the exact same thing:

  1. INDIRECT: observer narration, frame narration, absent narration, heterodiegtic narration
  2. DIRECT: narrator agent, present narration, homodiegetic narration

If I’m wrong about this, and there’s important differences, do please enlighten me. Because this is a subject that critical theorists seem to love throwing multiple technical terms at, which makes it occasionally tricky to decipher.

One important point to note is that the homodiegetic narrator can exist in a heterodiegetic (frame) story. The frame narrator, as he’s not present and active in the events themselves, is always heterodiegetic, but as soon as the character who is or was present takes over as a disguised narrator, relating the events, that focalizer becomes homodiegetic.

EXAMPLE (because I’m confusing myself): In the story of One Thousand & One Nights, aka Arabian Nights, the primary level narrator in 3rd POV is the ruler Shahryār. His unfortunate and brilliant wife, Scheherazade, is the focalizer and heterodiegetic narrator (she was neither present at the events of the stories she relays, nor is she the primary level narrator). Within one of her stories, for example that of Aladdin, Aladdin is the homodiegetic narrator because he is present and active in the events of his own story.

On top of all that, you also have extradiegetic narrators. This is a particular type of frame narrative, where the narrator is outside the fictional universe of a particular text. ‘The Making of “Lord of the Rings”‘ documentaries, for example, are a type of extradiegetic narrative. In the example above, Shahryār counts as an extradiegetic narrator – the primary level of the overall story – as does the grandfather in The Princess Bride.

The reason for understanding the different levels of narrators is to determine how much authority they have for recounting these events, how much reliance we as readers can place on them, and also how close their relationship to the reader is.


A heterodiegetic self-conscious narrator addressing an explicit ‘reader’

The Narrated

Genette turns the words of the story into an object, which he calls ‘the narrated’. These are the words that the narrator speaks, and are therefore ‘subordinate’ to the narrator or ‘dependent on the subject’ to exist in the form they take. Bal calls this a hyponarrative or hypodiegetic. That is to say, the dependent relationship between the story and its narrator. (I think – honestly, I started getting properly confused around this point.)

So when, in a frame story, the heterodiegetic narrator hands over to the homodiegetic narrator (i.e. the one who was actually there), the level of the hyponarrative changes. It moves from being a story seen through the frame narrator’s eyes into reported speech, or direct discourse – a story being told to that top-level narrator – and therefore the story becomes dependent on the new storyteller, or focalizer. And remember, in that scenario the story itself – the narrated – isn’t happening to the storyteller at that moment in time, so the events themselves remain a level below the homodiegetic narrator. Any characters within the reported story, however, are basically experiencing it in real time and are therefore also a level below, subordinate to the way the focalizer is telling the story and unable to respond to the bias being placed on their actions.

“Scheherazade tells that Jaafer tells that the tailor tells that the barber tells that his brother (and he has six brothers) tells that …. ” When such a change in level occurs, the reader becomes aware, if not of the presence, at least of the activity (and thus of the existence) of the narrator within the narrative… The narrated is everything located at the level immediately below the level at which the act of enunciating is located. ~ Bal

Yeah, see what I mean about lit crit essays? Headache-central.

The Focalizingfrom_my_point_of_view_king_681795

Like The Shining, but different. This relates to point of view, and has two definitions:

  1. External/perceptible focalization: what you can see or are looking at. Physical, usually tangible, things.
  2. Internal/imperceptible focalization: what can’t be ‘seen’ – dreams, feelings, personal perspective, opinion, etc.

A narrator character with limited privilege (restricted information) therefore has limited focalization – this is also called ‘restriction of field’.

The thing is, the reader doesn’t necessarily get all of a character’s focalization. A minutely detailed description of their surroundings, or the person they’re talking to, would disrupt the pace of the story (not to mention boring the reader). So what you as the reader actually get from the character’s focalization is their ‘centre of interest‘ (the things they have selected to mention, out of all the details available), plus their ‘gaze‘ (the things they actually noticed, rather than the things which are technically visible but the character just didn’t spot), plus their ‘presentation‘ (the way they put what they can see across, including bias). Combine the three and you get the narrated.

Focalization changes as narrator changes, and can also change from external to internal as the narrator shifts from telling us what they see to telling us what they think. When it comes to self-reflection, the focalizer themself becomes the object of focalization.

Narrator vs. Focalizer

A lot of the time they’re the same. Like, nearly all the time. But as you can have different levels of narration, and therefore different levels of focalization, so you can have levels of what is focalized.

Okay, so in a close 3POV story, you have the character-narrator – the homodiegetic narrator – and also the person doing the actual talking to the audience, who is presumably the implied author. With me so far? The homodiegetic narrator does a ton of focalizing, obviously. But they are simultaneously the object of focalization by the implied author. You as the reader are getting the story (and other characters) through the lens of the narrator-character, and the narrator-character through the lens of the narrator-author.

Immanent Rules

In simple terms, what is the narrative structure of a particular story? How many times does it change level of narrator? How often does it change focalizer? Who provides internal/imperceptible focalization, and does that change? Does it switch between hetero- and homodiegetic narrator? Who has the most privilege, in terms of information and insight?

Once we work those out – and usually it’s pretty instinctive – we can also spot if and when the story breaks its own rules. Then we can ask why it was done and what impact it created on the reader.

2068b8f11dda3fb1564bc67ae8074810What the hell is the point of all this complexity, I hear you cry? Believe me, guys, I’m crying too. I had to wade through this lot, unabridged. But I think it boils down to this: by identifying who is saying what to the reader, at what level, and with what information available, we can identify the bias of those words and therefore how much reliance we can place on the report. All these technical terms let us be really, really specific about that identification.

Narrative Voice: The Lit Crit Version


Conveniently following on in the same theme as last week, this university module is currently looking at the narrative voice. More specifically, the detailed differences as according to one Mr. Wayne C. Booth who, in The Rhetoric of Fiction, had an awful lot to say on the subject in not terribly clear terminology.

“…to decide on first-person narration settles only a part of one’s problem. What kind of first person? How much aware of himself as narrator? How reliable? How much confined to realistic inference; how far privileged to go beyond realism?… the sensitive author who reads the great novels finds in them a storehouse of precise examples, of how this effect, as distinct from all other possible effects, was heightened by the proper narrative choice.” – Booth

The Simple Version

You can narrate a story in one of four ways:

  1. First person perspective, which can be divided into basic (you get internal monologue) and deep (you see the entire story through their eyes – for more on this, read Kristen Lamb’s blog post).
  2. Second person perspective, where the reader is complicit in creating details of the story. Really rare, with serious technical challenges. Not for the uninitiated. The only decent example I know of is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, and frankly I’m not even a fan of that.
  3. Third person perspective, which again can be divided into distant (e.g. Jane Austen, Emma) or close (e.g. Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat).
  4. Omniscient, where you get to see a bit of everyone and all of no one. This used to be the staple of epic fantasy, but it’s falling out of fashion now.

The trouble with the simple version is that it doesn’t allow you to distinguish between very different types of, say, close first person, or between the narrator’s agenda and the author’s agenda. Or a whole host of other things. So hang onto your hats, because we’re going to take a crack at Booth’s terminology.


The Less Simple Version

Firstly, Booth points out that you don’t just have one narrative voice in any given story. It’s much broader than that. There’s the voice of the narrator, the voice of the author, and the voice of secondary characters who narrate important information to both the audience and the protagonist. He used the following terms to distinguish all these:

  • Implied author – most commonly found in omniscient or distant 3rd POV. This is where the agenda of the author is distinct from that of the character narrator, or providing information/opinions the character narrator doesn’t have.
  • Dramatized narrator – found in 1st POV and 3rd POV, where there is an obvious character agenda/bias in how the story is being told
  • Undramatized narrator – found in 3rd POV and omniscient, where there is no obvious character agenda/bias
  • Disguised narrator – found in all forms, where a secondary character relates off-screen actions. Basically, a messenger who tells a story (factual or not) within the story.
  • Reflector narrator – usually found in 1st and 3rd POV, where the narrator conjectures or flat-out relates the internal monologue of other characters because the audience isn’t granted access to that information directly. This can also apply to the narrator’s own internal monologue from a different time (e.g. Pip in Great Expectations talks about his younger self’s thoughts).
  • Observer – usually found in 1st and 3rd POV, where the narrator has no direct impact on the action of the story. Basically the same as frame narrators.
  • Narrator agent – can be any of the above. Basically, a narrator who is directly involved in the story.
  • Self-conscious narrator – 1st (or, at a stretch, close 3rd) POV, where the narrator is aware that they are either writing or speaking to an audience. Even if that audience is just themselves. They are deliberately engaging in the act of narration, which therefore impacts how they convey the story. Unconscious narrators are, obviously, the ones who don’t know they’re narrating.

A self-conscious, dramatized narrator. No, not the sheep.

Back to Unreliability

This leads me neatly back to what I was discussing last week. Self-conscious narrators are more likely to be unreliable because they have a conscious agenda. Helpfully (or, y’know, not), Booth defines reliability a bit differently. He describes reliable narrators as those that share the norms of the implied author, and the work as a whole. Unreliable narrators are not necessarily those that are being deceptive, but those who have a different agenda to that of the author/work. Any narrator that “makes stronger demands on the reader’s powers of inference” in order to work out the real path of events counts as unreliable.

That means that 1st and close 3rd POV for self-conscious dramatized narrator agents is particularly dodgy. The more we see of the internal monologue, the more we are presented with the character’s agenda and bias, and the more skewed our overall picture becomes. Which is great for getting the reader to identify with your narrator:

“Generally speaking, the deeper our plunge, the more unreliability we will accept without loss of sympathy.” – Booth

Booth reckons that the distinction between the implied author and the unreliable narrator is absolutely crucial. Once the narrator is discovered to be unreliable, the voice of the implied author enables the reader to judge that narrator. It also enables the reader to reject the narrator’s story without rejecting the work as a whole, because there is still trust in the implied author (who is distinct from the narrator). It’s a good point, but a tricky line to walk. Having an implied authorial voice can easily slip into showing red thread, which is poor technique and will turn readers off.

As discussed last week, unreliable authors aren’t just liars. Sometimes they tell the truth as they know it, which is incomplete or false. Booth calls this privilege:

“…privileged to know what could not be learned by strictly natural means or limited to realistic vision and inference. Complete privilege is what we usually call omniscience.” – Booth

So, basically, 1st and close 3rd POV characters have limited privilege which therefore gives the audience limited privilege. The more privilege you have, the more reliable your narrator.



Calculating Relative Distance

Don’t panic, I’m not going to drag you into mathematical equations (because I don’t really know any). Booth has this thing called aesthetic distance, which is the distance between the narrator and everybody else, on any type of differentiator. Basically, you need to distinguish between your narrator, your secondary characters, your authorial voice, and your reader. Treat those four as separate entities. Now, work out what their norm is for a whole bunch of stuff, such as historical era, geography, class, fashion, speech pattern, morality, politics, etc etc etc. The distance between any of the four entities on any of the differentiators provides you with possible sources of tension.

Some of these tensions are good – the narrator and the secondary character have radically different politics, for example, or come from opposing socio-economic backgrounds. That drives plot.

Some of these tensions are structural – the narrator and the implied author have different biases, which implies an unreliability. Ditto the narrator and the secondary character(s).

Some of these tensions are bad – the narrator and the reader have radically different morals, and a failure to ease the reader into this leads to disengagement.

Some of these tensions are unavoidable – the author and the reader come from different eras or cultures, which means there’s a certain knowledge gap that has to be bridged in order for the reader to engage.

What I think this all boils down to is that choosing your narrative voice has way more decisions involved than I initially realised. Frankly, until relatively recently I was largely going on instinct rather than calculation. I hope that this has provided tools with which to make a better informed choice, rather than putting you off the idea of writing altogether!

Nine Worlds: Tricking the Reader


Autolycus. Locke Lamora. The Magicians of The Prestige. Wade Wilson. Unreliable narrators are everywhere in genre fiction and the one question we always ask is why? What’s the appeal of listening to stories narrated by liars? What’s the difference between authorial mischief and shaggy dog stories? Why do we love the twist in the tale?

Genevieve Cogman, Jason Arnopp, Mark de Jager, James Smythe, Emma Trevayne, Catriona Ward

Back in December 2015 I did a very long, not very detailed blog on different angles of narration. The final panel that I attended at Nine Worlds was on a single aspect of this – the unreliable narrator. (That’s not entirely true. The actual final panel I attended was another world-building session but, as I didn’t learn anything new there and spent the whole time just building a world of my own, I won’t bother regaling you with that one.)

Types of Unreliability

The unreliable narrator isn’t confined to a single approach. There’s lots of ways your narrator can be unreliable, including:

  1. Changeable structure, such as time-travel, e.g. Everyone in Hal Duncan’s Vellum
  2. Amnesiac, e.g. Mary Jared in Jessica Richards’ Snake Ropes
  3. Naïve, e.g. David Dunn in Unbreakable
  4. Misled, e.g. Father Emilio Sandoz in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow
  5. Blinkered, e.g. Dr. John Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
  6. Delusional, e.g. The narrator in Fight Club
  7. In denial, e.g. Dr. Malcolm Crowe in Sixth Sense
  8. Speaking with an agenda, e.g. Pi in The Life of Pi
  9. Lying, e.g. Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects

The way in which your narrator is unreliable throws light on both their character and their reaction to challenges. This ties strongly into voice – the words you choose and the way in which you style them should reveal a lot about your narrator’s personality.

When the narrator isn’t deliberately misleading, their unreliability can be highlighted by other characters’ reactions to them. To use my own work as an example for a moment, in my book Spiritus the narrator is wholly unreliable in the way she frames the character of her brother because she loves him too much to see his many flaws or question his actions. Those flaws are only brought to light by a third character, who challenges the narrator’s bias. The narrator doesn’t accept it but the reader is thus made aware of her unreliability on the subject.

A quick note on changeable structure: this is where none of the characters themselves are unreliable in any way, but the order in which the story is presented is deliberately misleading. The reader is encouraged to make false assumptions, not by the narrator, but by the writer.

Reasons for Misleading

Unreliable narrators don’t have to be unlikeable. In fact, if you want your reader to keep reading, they probably shouldn’t be. A lot of it can come down to who your narrator is lying to, and why. Are they lying to the reader in particular, or to their compatriots (and therefore the reader is misled as a side effect)? Are they lying for the good of others, or for selfish reasons? If the latter, does this impact their heroic status (see previous blog on heroism)? Are they not, in fact, lying but only telling the truth as they know it (which covers all of the list above down to ‘delusional’)?


That brings us on to the question of subjectivity. All narratives are, to some extent, subjective and therefore unreliable. History itself is massively unreliable, the facts recounted by people with a heavy bias. Different country’s accounts of the same event vary wildly, depending on which side of the events they were. A lot of fun can therefore be had with opposing POVs, which narrate different ‘truths’ about the same events. A fantastic example of this is the film Hero, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The downside of taking this approach is that the audience is aware that they are being misled in some way and therefore have to start working out who and what they believe to be reliable. This makes the story a puzzle to be considered objectively, rather than something they can fully immerse themselves into.

The Big Reveal

There needs to be some kind of twist or reveal at the end, if you’re using an unreliable narrator. As one of the panellists said, “why pick that technique if you’re not going to capitalise on its power?” This can either be big or gradual, giving emotional and/or intellectual closure. But you must play fair with the reader – none of this ‘it was all a dream’ crap. That’s not satisfying and carries a strong risk of alienating your audience. Lewis Carroll only gets away with it because he was writing for a very different era.

The twist has to feel organic, rather than a deus ex machina. Something crowbarred in is also deeply unsatisfying, and this is where some detective stories walk a very thin line. Those that have a big reveal which include information not previously shown to the audience throughout the story are, frankly, cheating their readers. This is unreliability through omission and, whilst it’s a valid technique, I don’t like it.

The important thing to note is that this reveal is for the reader’s benefit, not necessarily the narrator’s. For those who don’t even realise they are unreliable – the misled, the delusional, and so on – they don’t necessarily need a moment of realisation at all. In Spiritus, the actions of the narrator’s brother trigger the downfall of an empire. The narrator never realises this, partly because she’s blinded by bias and partly because (SPOILERS!) she dies before it happens. The reader, however, had their eyes opened earlier in the book and can therefore see it coming. More officially, Clare Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days provides the reveal to the reader but not the narrator, and that ignorance adds to the horror of the narrator’s ultimate fate.


Best reveal I know. If you haven’t seen The Usual Suspects, go watch it. Go now.

To Lie or Not to Lie?

There are two main risks with using unreliable narrators. The first is that readers’ attention spans are shrinking and they might not stick around long enough for the reveal to make all the pieces fall into place. Unreliable narrators often mean apparent inconsistencies throughout the main story, which are only resolved at the end.

The second is a question of loyalty and trust. Readers will very quickly build up emotional bonds with the narrator (or at least, they should if you’re doing your job as a writer well). This means that they may not accept the narrator has been misleading them. That sense of loyalty might lead them to reject the reveal entirely. This largely depends, I think, on how organic the reveal is.

There’s a very simple workaround to both these risks. Have the narrator (or other characters) say early on that they are a liar, a la Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Then dupe the reader anyway.


Aaand that’s all, folks, from the Nine Worlds Convention 2016. Next week we are back to our regularly scheduled programme of notes from the Creative Writing MA.