Saturday, March 14, 2015

Knowing Your Narrator & Audience

Storytelling at its finest.

Storytelling is a visual concept for me. The image it evokes typically includes one person telling a story to another, gesticulating, leaning in, furrowing their brow, and widening their eyes at exciting moments. Often, I envision the tradition of telling ghost stories around a fire, where the restless setting of dim, flickering light, strangely illuminated faces, and limited vision are as important to the mood of the story as the speaker's presence.

In this scenario, the speaker's success depends on combining genre and audience, and coordinating the story to best suit those elements.

Framing the Story

Every story is told in context(s). Most books are told from the author to the reader directly, wherein the voice of the narrator is the voice of the author, and the addressee (the "second person" or person referred to as "you") is the reader. This is almost always true of nonfiction. Look at a biography or any article from Wired magazine and you'll see the author is writing directly to the reader.

One of the many intriguing aspects of fiction, however, is the way authors often add another layer to this setup. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, Nick Carraway is the storyteller, not F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is the speaker, not Herman Melville (even if this distinction is questionable at a few points in the book). Stylistically, maintaining narrative consistency is a sign of competent writing.

In John Dies at the End, author David Wong adds some extra framing to the story by telling it through one character (also named David Wong) to another character (Arnie) via multiple, smaller stories.

Completing the Character List

Using one character as the narrator and another character as the audience is a great way to keep narration in perspective, or at least to have the two well defined. But defining them is key. If your characters aren't the ones telling and listening to the story, who are? Is your story being told by another "person," maybe someone who doesn't make much of an appearance in it, like a witness or bystander? or by an amused god who saw everything that happened to everyone and heard all their thoughts? Is your story being told to an inquisitive journalist? or maybe to a bewildered first date? or a frustrated airplane passenger trapped against the window and not particularly thrilled to be listening to their loquacious new neighbor?

Policing Tone

Even if your book is just being directly related from you (the writer) to the reader who bought it, it's important to understand this relationship and how it forms a foundational block of storytelling. In this situation, you will need to consider your tone and level of (in)formality, along with who your ideal readers are — because you won't succeed in writing to everyone.

The relationship between storyteller and audience is crucial to remember. You want to keep your audience interested. They came for a reason, and they'll leave if they're not getting what they want. Be sure you know who the audience is — on every level — and what they want to hear.

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