347 – Narrative Premise
Telling a story is one thing, but how you tell it is another. Sometimes your protagonist is narrating their thoughts in real time, sometimes a godly narrator is looking down from above, and sometimes you pretend the whole thing is an exchange of letters. Each approach has its pros and cons, which is our topic for the week. We’ll talk about how to choose your premise, why certain premises are more difficult than others, and why some random guy probably doesn’t know what other people are thinking.
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is Oren and Wes. And I know that you think that there’s some people who are just talking to you behind a microphone, but actually, this podcast comes from some ancient unearthed documents that are then interpreted by a computer and given different voices. This is why we never have a mailbag episode. Think about it. When have we on this podcast ever directly responded to you and your feedback? Maybe it’s because we’re just not really here. We’re long dead, hundreds of years ago.
Oren: Oh, but that means that they know we’re not going to die, no matter what happens to the podcast. It’s already all prerecorded. So everything’s fine.
Chris: That could be a problem. Maybe attention to this podcast will go down ‘cause we’re not about to die.
Wes: That’s true.
Oren: Hang on. Hang on. Actually, hang on a minute. In a written epistolary story that’s generally pretty true, because if someone is writing something down, that probably means they’re not getting eaten by a monster right now. But in an audio narration, it would be much easier, if for some reason someone was walking around narrating what was happening to them, to get jumped and eaten as they were doing that.
Chris: Okay. To correct this, I would say that when we get into it, with epistolary writing, you can actually have multiple entries.
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: It’s actually the first person retelling, the character retelling, where that gets real tricky. But you know, it could be a ghost talking to you.
Wes: Could be a ghost.
Chris: It could always be a ghost. Okay, so, we’re talking about something that I call narrative premise. One of the many words in my collection that I have invented for things.
Wes: We need words for things!
Chris: We need words for things. In this case, it’s part of what we would call perspective, or point of view, or narrative style. It surprised me that when I read a lot of books on this, they usually condense everything down to first person or third person, and then maybe omniscient thrown in. It’s a surprisingly simplistic way to look at a huge variety of things that are going on when you choose your story’s perspective.
And I’ve already previously, I think years ago, talked about the fact that narrative distance is a separate factor from whether you choose first or third person. It’s correlated, but it’s not the same thing. So choosing first person doesn’t automatically make you close, and choosing third person, doesn’t automatically make you distant.
Oren: Well, you’re not going to be as close with someone you picked third. I mean, come on.
Chris: So your narrative premise is another factor that comes into play with something that is correlated, but still separate, and that is the explanation for how the story is being told to the reader. Sometimes it’s just implied; it doesn’t have to be explicitly stated. It encompasses the entire work. And the problem is, even if you don’t think about it and you don’t know it, but you still violate it, that’s going to be alienating and disorienting to readers and feel unnatural, and be responsible for people not liking a story.
Viewpoint changes, like changing between first and third person for instance, this violation of that narrative premise is why people don’t like it. Basically, as long as you follow the rules of your narrative premise, you can actually change up the perspective quite a bit, but each narrative premise works differently that way.
Oren: Well, I would just like to point out that I knew nothing about this topic, but then I discovered a post called Making the Most of your Narrative Premise by Chris Winkle, and it was very helpful in figuring out what was going on here. [Chris laughs] Basically all of my notes are just reading that post. So there we go.
Chris: I will say that it’s one of those things where, when it’s done well, it’s usually invisible. Nobody thinks about it. It’s only when it’s done poorly that it starts to become disruptive and people take note of what it is.
Oren: A weird thing is that every once in a while on Writing Twitter, someone will make a tweet about how actually omniscient is a perfectly legitimate narration style, and it’s not just head hopping and you’re all wrong or whatever. You know, like they’re making an unpopular opinion tweet. Sometimes they even say, “unpopular opinion”. And I’m like, is this a thing?
Chris: I think outside of speculative fiction, it is.
Oren: Is it? Maybe.
Chris: Yes. Yeah. It’s weird to us because we’re, you know, speculative fiction specialists, but outside of speculative fiction, yeah. There’s a lot of people who are like, why would you use omniscient? It’s so dated.
Oren: Huh. Okay. Is that where that’s coming from?
Chris: Yeah, well, they don’t have whole worlds to explain. [laughs] And also obviously speculative fiction has a lot of really classic works, like Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy Discworld, …
Oren: Lord of the Rings.
Chris: … and Lord of the Rings, that were all written in omniscient. There’s also, I think, a little bit more harkening back to folk tales and fairy tales that were all told in omniscient. So I think we just have a much stronger tradition of omniscient than other genres do.
Oren: Yeah, and omniscient does have both strengths and weaknesses, like every narrative premise. It’s much easier to have a narrative voice that is distinct from the characters, and it allows you to make commentary, employ dramatic irony, and craft hidden plans more easily, since you’re not in any single character’s head. And this tends to be very useful for humor, but not exclusively. That’s why Hitchhiker’s Guide and Discworld are so well-known for it, because it’s a great way to make jokes. So it has a lot of strengths.
Chris: So since we’re talking about narrative premise specifically, I think it would be worth clarifying that omniscient is the one that pretty much has a one-to-one correlation with a specific narrative premise, while the other perspectives generally don’t. If you’re in omniscient narration, the narrative premise is that you have an all-knowing storyteller who is outside the story, but is the ultimate authority on everything that happens there.
So that is the specific narrative premise that happens for omniscient. And some omniscient narrators will actually use first person. Lemony Snicket is an example where we actually have a name for this narrator. Otherwise they’ll use second person, like the Narnia series will slip into second person to refer to the children who are being read to. It really feels like it’s addressing children who are the audience for the Narnia books.
But again, the assumption is that the narrator is not in the story, is not participating in the story, but is a real-world person who is telling you a fictional story, essentially. We don’t necessarily think about it in that terms, but that’s essentially what it means. The narrator and the story ne’er do mix. They are apart, but the narrator knows everything.
Oren: And when they do mix is usually baaaad.
Wes: Yes, very bad.
Oren: The omniscient narrator who knew everything turned out to be some guy… It’s like, how do you know all of this? Specifically I’m referring to the novel Eifelheim, which I really liked half of. It is set in the 1300s and is about a priest who finds some aliens, that part’s great. And then the other half is this weird present day thing where some archaeologists are digging up the remains of the town where the medieval part happens.
First of all, I already know what they’re going to dig up. It’s aliens. I heard it in the other part of the book. Second, it’s told in an omniscient narration, but with an “I” first-person pronoun. I’m wondering for this whole story, who is this “I”? And it turns out to be some guy who was on the research team.
Wes: And there’s no way anyone’s going to believe you if you try to gloss over it by saying, “How do I know this? Well, the main character told it all to me.” I was like, no one believes you.
Chris: Their intimate thoughts in real time, they told you all of that?
Oren: Their extremely personal thoughts about their falling-apart marriage, they told you that, specifically? Really? Hmmm.
Chris: Storytellers love this idea. “Oh, I have this omniscient narrator, and then you’ll find out it’s an actual person in the story! It’s a clever twist! Aren’t I clever?” – but it is a violation of the narrative premise and so a lot of readers are just gonna find it really unsatisfying. Because in almost all cases, you can’t explain why this person is omniscient. With an exception, probably, for The Book Thief, which has a narrator who is Death. But for the most part, the idea is that the narrator is outside of the story.
Wes: Right. What about Chuck from Supernatural? He’s writing the story as it’s happening, but he doesn’t know, but he’s also maybe God…
Oren: Well, I mean, fortunately he’s a TV show character.
Wes: Yeah, it’s a visual medium, so it’s definitely different.
Oren: I mean, I don’t know what the narrative premise of the Supernatural books in the show is. ‘Cause in the show, Chuck writes Supernatural books, which contain the adventures of Sam and Dean. And I don’t really think we know much about how they’re written.
Chris: We don’t know if they’re written in omniscient or if they’re written in third… I think they’re written in third person. We know that, but we don’t know if they’re just unfolding action, or omniscient.
Oren: I mean, they’re urban fantasy books, and urban fantasy is most often told using the unfolding action style. So I would assume, unless we find a reason to think otherwise, that they use the unfolding action style.
Wes: Since Chuck himself says that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, things just kind of come to him, suggest maybe it is.
Chris: Right. And at the beginning, when he needs them, he thinks that they’re fictional. So certainly, if he was to write in omniscient, it would be with the idea that he’s real and they’re fictional. It would still be the all-knowing storyteller narrative premise.
This might be a good time to talk about – since we were discussing issues with having a first person reveal, “oh, I was really in the story” – the actual narrative premise for that is the character retelling, where a character who was in the events, who was part of the story, is retelling that to the audience. That’s the narrative premise. And it’s going to be the main character so that they can be in the center of events.
They do have some omniscient-like characteristics. They do know the future of what they’re telling, and they can kind of stick in extra commentary, just like an omniscient narrator. But they’re not truly omniscient because they only know what they as a person in the story would know, and not everything.
Wes: So, Chris, what happens with a narrative premise that is ostensibly like a retelling, but it’s set up as a frame? You know, like, here’s the retelling part. And now we’re going to hop into unfolding action with no retelling commentary on it.
Chris: You can do that with omniscient, you can actually zoom in to unfolding as well. The issue is that it mostly goes in one direction until you have a break point. I think it’s difficult to go back again, but you could go back at the start of a chapter, for instance. So some stories do start in omniscient and then come to close third, like unfolding.
Basically the narrator just kind of slowly fades away, and the camera slowly zooms in. You have to transition slowly: You describe the bird’s-eye view of the situation, then you introduce the character, then you get closer into what the character is doing. Finally, you start narrating the characters thoughts, and the narrator just fades away. That actually does work pretty well. And some writers like it because it allows them to have more personality in their opening, or put in more information in their opening, but then still later get the immersive feel of a closer perspective.
I’m not going to say it’s impossible to zoom back out again. I’m not sure that I’ve seen it done very well, but it would certainly be trickier. Usually if you do that, you might, for instance, go back to omniscient at the start of the next chapter, and do the same thing. But it’s the same with a character retelling, where a lot of times it’s very common for your first person narrator to talk about the previous self and then fade away. You can go back to the first person retelling, but it starts to become tricky because you have to clearly mark it and set expectations.
It can become confusing whether it’s the future character or the past character, who’s telling you things or thinking things in the story, and that can become disorienting. So usually if you’re going to fade back into first person unfolding at some point in time, you need to signal that you’re going back to the future character again.
Oren: Yeah. And if the only thing you’re doing with the retelling premise is a framing device, where you start with them being like, “I’m going to tell you the story about what happened to me”, and then the rest of the story is effectively just unfolding – then you might as well not do that. It’s the same thing with epistolary. People love to put in epistolary framing devices.
Like The Name of the Wind. Technically the whole story is Kvothe telling his story to Chronicler, who’s writing it down. That’s technically epistolary, but it doesn’t matter. It has no effect on the story. You can completely remove the framing devices and everything is the same. Except for, I think, there’s still a point somewhere in the narration where Kvothe mentions that he has the best words, and how you won’t change his words. So that’s probably still in there somewhere.
Chris: I would say that there are some smaller-level reasons to use it. A framing device assumes that it’s something that you’re making a big deal out of. And storytellers tend to put in framing devices because they are like, “Oh, see, isn’t it clever to have this framing device? Aren’t I so fancy?” That’s usually the warning sign that it’s just superfluous, and there because you wanted to add flash.
But a brief opening that starts more distant and then kind of zooms in towards unfolding can, again, do things like make it easier to introduce the information that’s important in the opening. ‘Cause openings always have a lot of information management to do. And if you know the future, you can also do some tension-inducing foreshadowing that’s compelling and interesting. So it has its reasons. But, yeah, if you make it like Name of the Wind where we have like 50 pages before Kvothe finally starts telling the story – it’s definitely much more of an elaborate framing device. That’s definitely useless.
Oren: Right. Or even if it’s small, if it’s not really adding anything… Like at the end of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, there’s a reveal that this whole thing has been a book the protagonist is writing for her friend. And that isn’t really adding anything to the story.
Chris: No, it’s not. You’re a liar, January. [laughter] It’s absolutely not!
Oren: It raises a lot of questions, because epistolary comes with limitations. There are limits to things that people write down, and people don’t actually remember, typically speaking, the blow by blow of a battle and the exact thoughts they were thinking at any one time.
So when you’re doing epistolary you should adhere to those limits, otherwise what’s the point of making it epistolary? At that point, it’s like, just take that out. It doesn’t add anything. It’s just like a weird,”Oh, okay. I guess. If you say so.”
Wes: That’s just what I was wondering with the retelling stuff. Even if it is an older narrator telling you what the story was about, you’re more likely than not going to just zoom in, like you were saying, Chris, rather than the narrative saying, “I remember this is what they said”. It’s like – do you really? In exact detail? It would break my suspension of disbelief.
But otherwise you’d kind of have to keep inserting yourself, you know, just be like, “the way you’re remembering things…” I don’t know, maybe I’m overthinking that, but it seems omniscient is better for that situation. Because if you’re doing a retelling, you’re probably gonna make them go omniscient – it’s hard not to. So they’re going to zoom in instead.
Oren: Well, I would say that, yes, technically speaking, a retelling might have the same problem with the ‘whoever’s retelling the story isn’t going to remember exactly what they were thinking’, but retelling is easier to obscure as just a narrative conceit, rather than a literal thing that’s happening. So it’s easier to accept that either because of, you know, narrative magic, the protagonist does remember all of those things. Or maybe they’re just making that up for the purposes of the story. And it’s fine either way.
Whereas epistolary is much more concrete. The only reason to use epistolary is to get the benefits of having your story feel like a collection of documents. And if you’re not doing that, then there’s not really a reason to use epistolary. And the requirements are much higher.
Chris: I would also say that it seems like what tends to happen is, the more unusual and novel the premise or the devices, the more readers expect it to be rigorous. And the character retelling is just so common that I think that it’s less remarkable, and people expect it less strictly to tell you what a person actually would.
I also think another advantage of that one is that when we do tell stories a lot, we tend to elaborate on them. Whereas with any kind of epistolary story, that’s much more unusual, and definitely stands out a lot more. There are some readers who will not notice if you write a letter and then you start writing things that definitely would not appear in a letter to someone, but a lot of people will because it just stands out more. They expect it to be more authentic and will get frustrated if it’s not. So I think that’s one of the reasons for that difference.
But, Wes, I think you might be overthinking the character retelling a little bit. There are a lot of character retellings where the first person, the future character is still there, just kind of on a more subtle basis.
Right. We were talking about Ten Thousand Doors of January. That’s what I assumed the whole story was, because it doesn’t show any signs of being an epistolary story. It just didn’t, in any way. It just feels like a character retelling, and January will frequently say things like, “Well, you’d think in this situation I would do this thing, but actually I did this thing” – and I found it very annoying, but that’s beside the point. It was that kind of commentary that somebody does not do in the moment, but somebody recalling their past actions would. And it can be sprinkled throughout, it doesn’t necessarily completely disappear or intrude.
But I do think that if you’re going to have it fade all the way into the background, so it feels like what we’re calling unfolding action – which is basically the idea that the narration is like going to the cinema and you’re directly experiencing it, we’re just going to forget that there’s even words on a page there – then usually that premise will come back at a transition point. It might come back when we’re zapping forward in time a little bit, or summarizing until we get to the next scene or something.
Oren: I love epistolary, but it’s so hard to do epistolary right. You really have to commit.
Wes: I think most of us are just kind of in love with the idea of epistolary stories, but the execution is just like, urgh, how do I do this?
Chris: Yeah, I think it works much better for short stories, like a lot of other really labor intensive choices. Imagine if you were to make your entire story rhyme, how long do you want that story to be? That’s very intense. So I have a couple of short stories that are written in that way, and I do not regret a thing, but certainly carrying a whole novel that way is difficult. And I think the number one thing, again, to remember if you want it to be authentic – and that’s kind of the point, right? You want that authenticity and credibility of mimicking an actual document of some kind – is that you’ve got to role play that one character writing to another character, and this is their audience, and this is what they would say to that person.
So if it’s letters, who are they writing to, what would they actually say to that person? If they’re writing a police report, what would they actually put in that police report? Are they really going to dump a bunch of their personal feelings in their police report? I mean, their boss is gonna read this. So it’s almost like having your entire story in dialogue.
Wes: Yeah, I think that’s why The Martian is good, ‘cause it’s basically that one voice. I think Dracula is good, but Dracula is weird because it’s epistolary, but it’s by far and large journal entries that some omniscient narrator has pieced together.
Chris: Yeah. So there’s a couple of things that Weir does in The Martian to make that work better and be more practical. First of all, journal entries tend to be more forgiving because they don’t have an audience. The character is just writing for themselves, so they can put in whatever they feel like.
In the case of The Martian, Weir actually specifies in the beginning that his main character doesn’t know who he’s writing to, and it could be somebody who’s even a hundred years in the future. Because he’s like, “Oh, I’m going to die on Mars. Who knows who will even find this?” So therefore he has a broad audience instead of an audience of a specific person. And the ‘it could be a hundred years in the future’ gives him an excuse to expose about things that people in his world would know, but that real readers of the story would not. It was a pretty clever way of framing, that and the fact that journal entries tend to be more forgiving.
I think it’s partly because people are more used to stories being told as journal entries. There’s a big tradition of that stemming from travel logs. And again, the less the rest of the narrative premise stands out the less you have to strictly adhere to its rules. So I think that definitely journal writing is the easiest way to do epistolary narration if you want to do it, but it also has some of the least novelty.
Oren: Yeah. So this reminds me of a story that I really like called Maplecroft. And I like Maplecroft despite some of its point of view problems. In the case of Dracula – I’m not saying Dracula is a bad book, it might make perfect sense that you like it – but it might not make the best use of its premise. And that does happen with Maplecroft.
Maplecroft is a group of characters who are dealing with, effectively, a Cthulhu outbreak in their town, and they are making journal entries as they’re investigating. And it works pretty well, but it starts to fall apart around the time when it starts describing the fight that Lizzie has with this Cthulhu monster in really specific detail, like it was unfolding. And the thing is, I don’t think it had to do that. When I think about it, I’m like, what would have been lost if we hadn’t had that fight in high detail?
I honestly think it might even have made the story creepier, because a big part of cosmic horror is not knowing what the bad guy is, and not knowing precisely how it can be defeated. So if that fight had happened off screen and we heard about it from Mary, who was one of the other characters who didn’t see the whole thing, then I think that would have actually preserved some of the threat better.
I think the reason why it didn’t do that is because the author really wanted to have this special relationship between Lizzie and her axe, because this is like Lizzie Borden versus Cthulhu. And it would be kind of hard to do that without going into detail on the fights. But I don’t think that was necessary, personally. To me, that felt weird. Because to us, Lizzie’s axe is a cultural icon; I’m not convinced it would be to her in this context. In the context of the story, the axe was just a tool she happened to grab because it was nearby to defend her and her sister against the Cthulhu monsters that her parents had become. She doesn’t have the century of cultural tropes built up around Lizzie taking an axe and giving her father forty whacks. Or her mother, I forget which one she whacks first, but, you know.
[Chris and Wes laugh]
Chris: I will say that I do think Maplecroft does surprisingly well with an epistolary premise for quite a while. Again, it does start to break down, like in my police report example, there’s a police report… For quite a while it works great. And then suddenly it’s like, “No, sorry, I don’t want to stick to the police report anymore.”
Wes [chuckling]: “I’m tired of this.”
Chris: So it is, I think still one of the better implementations, but yeah, after a while… it doesn’t last forever. I think probably a more practical usage of epistolary text in a novel is how some people like to put little newspaper clippings at the beginning of chapters, or something like that. I mean, again, keep them short. Don’t use them as an excuse for exposition dumps about your world. They should be relevant to the story. But if you do it a little bit, it is a lot more practical than trying to do a whole novel in it.
Oren: Okay, then we will go ahead and close this point of view, his letter, we are sending to our listeners, this audio recording that they have dug up from an ancient ruin, because we are at our time and we’ve gotten done what we wanted to get done.
But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com.
Now think about it. If this were actually a recording, would we have bothered to include our sponsors? Is that something you put in a recording? Hmm!
We’ll talk to you next week.