Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the twenty-second chapter, “A Strong Narrator Can Help You Weave a Spell of Protection”. You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Section V: How to Use Writerly Tricks to Gain Unstoppable Powers
A Strong Narrator Can Help You Weave a Spell of Protection
Narration is the most magical part of creative writing—in fact, it’s also the part that most closely resembles casting an actual spell. Say you’re trapped in a dark wood, with a few drops of oil left in your lamp and slime-goblins closing in on all sides. You’ll try to say the exact phrases, in the right order, that weave a whole reality around you, to ward off evil.
And a strong narrator, with control over point of view, tone, and imagery, can have an incredible amount of mojo. As a reader, I usually fall in love with a story because I can tell that there’s a Storyteller, who is not necessarily the same person as the author, guiding me forward from the very first line. That sense that I’m in safe hands—like someone is literally scooping me up and carrying me along, perhaps placing me in their shirt pocket like a tiny mouse.
Every story has one or more narrators. This is true no matter whose point of view the story is being told from, or how it’s being told. Different viewpoints make the narrator more or less apparent to the reader, and there’s a spectrum, with “obnoxiously chatty” at one end and “barely there” at the end. A “tight” third person narrator, who sticks closely to the perceptions and thoughts of one character, may be almost invisible. But there’s always someone there, serving up events and images and dialogue in an artful fashion.
In previous essays, we’ve talked about losing yourself in your plots, in your characters, in your worlds, and in big ideas and themes. But there is a special power in taking control over your narration, because you can give yourself that same mouse-in-a-shirt-pocket feeling that makes reading such a unique pleasure.
Your narration style sets the expectation for what kind of book we’re going to be reading. Is this book going to be scary? Is it going to be funny? Am I going to cry a whole lot? All of the above? Every narrative includes tons of little clues that help the reader sense what they’re getting themself into. And yes, you can absolutely set an expectation that this’ll be a cute comedy of manners and then unleash the nastiest hell on page 49, but that requires a certain amount of skill and delicacy (and foreshadowing) to avoid the feeling that you just lost control over the narrative.
And really, it’s all about control—both having control, and letting the reader know that you are in control, so the reader trusts that they won’t fall out of this book and go splat.
Two of the main strings that let you puppeteer your narrator are point of view (POV), and tone.
It all depends who’s telling the story, and how
The way I think about it is, POV is who’s telling the story, and the tone is how they’re telling it. There are many different types of narrator, and they have different levels of intimacy and immediacy. The decisions you make about both POV and tone shape how close the reader gets to be to the events of the story.
A first-person narrator is literally telling you their own story as they experience(d) it, and I’ve found through trial and error that first-person narration feels much more immediate in present tense than in past tense. In present tense, a first-person narrator is telling you what’s happening in the moment, as it happens: “I am being eaten by a sentient blob of nano glue, send help.” Whereas in past tense, this “I” is telling you a story of something they already lived through—we know they (probably) came out okay, but they also have a certain amount of distance from the events they’re describing. A lot of situations might seem intense and scary in the moment, but are funny when you think about them later.
And meanwhile, a third-person past-tense narrator might have less immediacy than first-person present tense—and yet more than first-person, past tense. The third-person narrator is telling you the facts of what happened, without the gloss of “at the time, I was really scared.” (Think of the difference between, “I couldn’t breathe and my stomach was clenching,” and “She couldn’t breathe. Her stomach clenched.”) Meanwhile, a third-person, present tense narrator always feels a bit breathless and noir to me, maybe because that’s where I’ve mostly encountered it.
I have to confess I haven’t experimented much with second-person narration, but N.K. Jemisin uses it to great effect in The Fifth Season.
Tone, meanwhile, encompasses stuff like humor, drama, emotion, scariness, and other kinds of feelings and moods that the prose might evoke. Your tone constrains the type of things that can happen in the story, and how they’re described, and how we’re going to feel about them.
Another way to think of it as setting a mood: excitement, sadness, mourning, bracing for the worst, picking up the pieces, etc. A strong sense of tone will enable you to shift from one mood to another without it feeling jarring, and this can be a powerful tool—you can go from the thrills of the battle scene to the sombre aftermath. Or jump from the giddy POV of someone who’s in love and ready for her first dance with her beloved to the miserable viewpoint of someone who’s just lost everything.
Your tone can encompass a lot of different moods, as long as the transitions are seamless and the storytelling feels like it’s all of a piece. Aang, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, can discover the burnt corpses of his fellow airbenders in one scene, and then be frolicking and joking around a few scenes later, because the show never loses that sense of childlike innocence and playfulness and fun, even when things get really dark.
In television, one of the things that happens before an episode gets filmed is the “tone meeting,” where the director gets together with a bunch of creative people to go through the script page by page. What is each scene about? What is the emotional content of the scene, and what stuff from previous episodes is lurking in the subtext? All of these things help to influence how the scene is shot and how lines are read. The tone, basically.
POV and tone shape each other
POV and tone are closely linked. Like, try to imagine if Arthur Dent was narrating the events of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the first person—the humor would land very differently, and you wouldn’t get all of those funny asides from the Guide. Either Arthur would need to have a lot more self-awareness and irony, or his endless complaining might get on your nerves after a while.
And I recently read an old interview with Ray Bradbury, where he described himself as sort of a movie director. He wrote as if he had a camera in his head, and he was showing you the story, shot by shot, and he encouraged Hollywood to use his stories almost as film scripts. And obviously, this approach works way better with an omniscient third-person narrator, who can see from any “camera angle.”
On the other hand, The Hunger Games would lose a lot of its power if it was told in the third person. Just read that opening paragraph, and you’re immediately steeped in Katniss’ sense of dread as the reaping day approaches. And this is true for a lot of other young adult novels that use first person and present tense to put you right in the skin of someone who’s being swept up in the flow of events as they happen.
But also, the personality of the narrator shapes the tone, inevitably. A cheery, wise-cracking narrator (either third person or first person) will mean a lighter tone. A grim, tense narrator inevitably means a darker feel overall. Both POV and tone both come out in the images the narrator uses, and the way that things get described. A narrator who lingers on the cobwebs and grime all over a castle will create a different feeling than one who obsesses about all the lovely antique furniture strewn about the place. Your choice of metaphors, the style of the dialogue, and the descriptions of different actions all help to show the narrator’s attitude. It’s the difference between, “rain spattered onto the filthy windowpane as she braced for another slash of lightning” and “the murmur of rainfall soothed me as I lay in bed.”
At the same time, the events of the story will shape the tone—and vice versa. It’s easy to think about the tone as just a decorative glaze that goes over the surface, without affecting the actual bones of the story. But see above: the tone sets your expectations, and each incident also clarifies the tone. A cute, whimsical romance can’t necessarily incorporate a blood-spattering chainsaw rampage, any more than you’d expect a Busby Berkeley dance number in the middle of Game of Thrones.
One of my big challenges as a storyteller is to have humor and irony and weirdness, without those things overwhelming the emotion and the character stuff. And tone is where that particular challenge comes together. With All the Birds in the Sky, I wanted a whimsical tone that never quite spilled over into the sort of quirkiness that might require pizzicato violin music.
And the opening of All the Birds in the Sky was a huge challenge. My original opening line was, “Once upon a time, there was a girl named Patricia.” Then I switched to, “Two little girls lived in an old spice mill in the woods.” Then, “When Patricia was six years old, she found a wounded bird in the forest, and it broke her heart.” Which is close to the final version. I kept hearing from my beta readers that the overtly fairytale tone of the earlier openings made for a jarring lurch when the characters got older and the story grew more complex.
So I dialed back the “fairytale” feel of the opening, while trying to find subtle ways to telegraph that the story was going to get darker and more grown-up. And also, that even if we were starting out in Patricia’s head, the third-person narrator would occasionally become somewhat omniscient. I hoped that, as long as the tone remained whimsical-with-feels, people could hang on as I took some sharp turns.
Most stories have a cluster of tones, rather than one
It might be helpful to think of tone as kind of a Venn diagram. Unless you’re writing a really simple kind of story, you’re going to have multiple moods or feelings in the story, and your tone is really the intersection between those things. Your story could be “scary,” “romantic,” “funny” and “sad,” with more emphasis on each of those things at different times.
The “Venn diagram” thing is useful, because the intersection between those different feelings is where your story really lives. And often, the more you keep reverting to the middle, the intersection of those different feels, the stronger your sense of tone can be. If most of the time, your tone is a little bit scary and a little bit funny, or a little bit romantic and a little bit sad, then you can more easily go all the way into full-on scariness or romance.
Since you can’t be sure of what your tone needs to be until you have the events of the story set in stone, you’ll probably have to adjust the tone in revision. In fact, I frequently will go back and change a story or novel from first person to third person, or vice versa, once I have a complete draft. (It’s a pain in the butt, and there are always bits where I missed a stray “I” in a story that’s morphed into third-person.)
In fact, it’s natural for your tone to wobble or even stray wildly, in your first or even second draft. This is part of the fun! You’re figuring good out what’s going to work, and what kind of story you’re telling, and it could be a mistake to commit to one tone too quickly. Once you’ve got a finished draft, you’ll probably be able to tell which moments go way too far into satire or horror, and fall outside the tone that you’ve decided to set.
I’ll often find that my earlier drafts go so wrong, in terms of tone, that it’s pushed the story into a direction that I didn’t really intend for it to go. A scene that should have been tender was spiky and angry, or a dramatic confrontation fell flat, and this meant that every scene that came afterward was heading in the wrong direction. All too often, when a story has gone off the rails, it’s nothing to do with plot problems or character problems, per se—it’s that I’ve veered off into a tone that doesn’t serve the story I’m trying to tell.
And once I start getting a handle on my tone, usually in my second or third draft, I can use it to signpost not only what’s happening, but what’s going on beneath the surface. Little notes of description or scene-setting, or the transitions from one mood to another, can help to show the characters’ subtext as well as all the thematic stuff that’s lurking in the background. You can sometimes show a character’s internal monologue without showing it—instead of having the character think, “I’m really pissed about what’s happening,” just show the scene through their
eyes, and describe everything in a sarcastic, or grouchy way.
Tone can include irony, satire, disruption, satire, sadness, love, and all of the other modes of storytelling that let you tell a story that is defiantly real (or wonderfully surreal). Narrative tricks can help you to surprise and baffle and amaze, but they can also let you land an emotional gut punch. The greater control you have over that Venn diagram, the more easily you can pull the rug out from under your reader, without losing their pocket-mouse trust in you.
Figuring out the personality of your narrator won’t just help you get swept up in your own story, when the “real” world is an endless river of sewage. It’s also your best chance to be subversive, or sincere, or both—which, in turn, allows you to tell the stories that might help us all dig our way out of our collective mess.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.