Writers on Writing: Process Narration

by Sherwood Smith

At a workshop last fall, a bunch of writers were talking about varieties of narrative voice. We were observing that there are actually many varieties of the seemingly straight-foward third person. Limited, omniscient, stream-of-consciousness, camera-eye . . . there are as many names as representations, and of course a writer can vary these narrative approaches within a work.

I made an observation that we need to watch out for process or authorial narration just as we need to watch out for scaffolding in our prose. Someone asked for more on what I mean by process narration, so I thought I may as well type it up.

Process narration is when the author is (sometimes unconsciously) is writing their own experience of writing fiction into the text. The most obvious example is the character who sits alone in a room, tells herself her entire life history, and then tries to figure out what she’s going to do next, perhaps as she takes sips from her coffee. But process narration can also clutter up a scene with some action as the writer tries to feel her way into the story.

Kitty dashed into her kitchen to check the cupboards for her recipe box. She’d had the kitchen rebuilt by her cousin Tom. Would it have been cheaper if she’d gotten another contractor? Would a stranger have felt okay about calling her to rearrange a later date every time another job came along? Is it always this way when relatives work for relatives?

So she kept looking through the cupboards of her kitchen that should have been done months before her sister’s wedding, and after a moment the phone rang. Kitty raced to pick it up. Could it be her sister? But Missy should be at a fitting of that wedding dress that cost nearly seven grand.  Kitty thought about how Missy was renting the gown and insisted she was just as happy to have it in pictures as having a huge box to lug around, containing a dress she’d never wear again.

Kitty paused to take a sip of water as she tried to remember where the recipe box was, then she picked up the phone, reflecting on how it did not match the kitchen. A moment later she heard Missy’s unhappy voice. After a teary moment, Missy said that she was going to postpone her wedding. . . .

If we try to cut the author talking to herself through Kitty, and all the prose scaffolding (‘after a moment,’ etc) we get something like this:

Kitty dashed into her new kitchen and began yanking open the still-sticky cupboards. Her cousin Tom had used the family connection as an excuse to delay construction into Wedding Chaos, adding to the stress. She began pulling and slamming the drawers.

When the phone rang, she tucked it up under her chin and continued to hunt as she said, “Hello? Who is it?”

“Missy! Kitty, I’m postponing my wedding.”

Thump! Kitty’s butt hit the floor, as Missy began to sob. Kitty shifted the phone to her other ear, the recipe box forgotten. “Oh no! What happened?”

We can make feel more immediate by shifting the tense:

Kitty dashes into her new kitchen and begins yanking open the still-sticky cupboards. She pulls and slams the drawers as she seeks where she might have put her recipe box when she unpacked.

Then the phone rings. “Hello. Who is it?”

“Missy. Your sister!” And when Kitty did not immediately, reply, “What’s wrong with you, Kitty?”. . .

The immediacy seems forced, because we are kept outside Kitty’s head. We’re watching her from a distance; the detached view gradually works against the implied urgency and intimacy of present tense. Virginia Woolf made the detached narrative distance work for her, as did later writers like Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway, as they were masters at the revealing detail, but for some of us it just keeps the reader at a seemingly unnecessary distance. Especially if we employ present tense.

So we add what she’s thinking:

Kitty dashes into her new kitchen and begins yanking open the still-sticky cupboards. She pulls and slams the drawers, angry with her cousin Tom, who’d used the family connection as an excuse to turn a week job into two months. She is even more irritated when she is interrupted by the phone.”Hello. Who is it?”

“Missy. Your sister!”

Kitty is too astonished to speak.

“What’s wrong with you, Kitty?”. . .

But the beta readers fret, asking us who is making this judgment about Tom? Who is telling us she’s irritated and interrupted? Though the beta readers aren’t always uniform in their reactions, one thing seems clear: the narrative voice is getting between us and the story.

So we try to avoid the narrative voice and dig directly into Kitty’s thoughts:

Kitty rushed into her kitchen and began opening and closing doors and cabinets. She couldn’t believe that she’d done it again. Day-planners, Ipaqs, they were all frickin’ useless if you never looked at them after you wrote something down—where did she put it? Ugh, the cabinets were all sticky–totally Cousin Tom’s fault, for using the F-bomb (“family”) as his excuse to drag a week’s job into two months.

There was the phone, like she needed that! “Hello. Who is it?”

“Missy. Your sister!”

Kitty’s already pounding heart crowded right into her throat when she recognized Missy’s voice; wasn’t she supposed to be at a fitting?

“Kitty, I’m postponing the wedding.”. . .

That could be either deep third or first person POV. I rushed into my new kitchen, my fingers sticking to the cabinets as I threw them open . . . Shock tingled through me when I recognized my sister’s voice…

I’ll stop here (I know this is already rather long) but the point is, Kitty’s thoughts, reactions, and sensory details would be reported in more or less detail, and what we’re cutting out would the author trying to figure out where the story is going by having Kitty tell herself things she already knows, then ask herself questions she can’t answer.

Some authors can get away with that—Robin McKinley’s latest books are full of process narration, and her readers love her—but it’s always good to be aware of what we’re doing. That enables us to vary narrative tricks and tropes to illuminate character, mood, and pacing.

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe

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Writers on Writing: Process Narration — 12 Comments

  1. Is this kind of narration a more or less natural part of the story telling process? I can see where a writer would forget to revise it out or maybe not know it should be revised out if the writer is inexperienced. ??

  2. I think it’s a natural part of writing for some writers, as they feel their way into the story. If we don’t know where it’s going, our own efforts to write the story can creep into the narrative, or so is my theory.

    Thus we get the scenes of data fed to the reader by a character sitting alone in a room thinking, or sipping a beverage from time to time (just as the writer is doing).

    Unless there is tremendous velocity before it, requiring a breathing period, such scenes can kill the tension line dead, especially if it feels like cerebration–a lot of asking oneself rhetorical questions, spinning out what ifs, remembering long summaries of past doings, etc.

    Or so is my theory, anyway! 🙂

  3. It seems that I sometimes see something like process narration used deliberately in mystery stories, where the author is trying to make the reader focus on what’s known and what questions remain, though even there I can get really tired of it if done too often. But some mysteries seem to benefit–or is that just my imagination?

  4. Mysteries (or a mystery) in a novel can definitely employ process narration–in that situation the character is working through a process.

    This particular thing seems to work against a novel when the process gets in the way of the story, as if the narrator and the author are working against one another.

    Again, I am not saying it is wrong, only pointing out that it is a thing to be aware of — and either use or be on the watch for, depending on the story’s needs.

    Back to mysteries, and speaking as a reader, I tend tend to skip long segments of figure-out-the puzzle cerebration, as I am not a puzzle person. But if the puzzle is interwoven with character stuff, I am totally on board.

  5. Ooo, good one! I’ll be sending the mentees to this as needed.

    What you’re describing, I call “murbling” and “internal monologue.” It often accompanies avoidance of direct narration: the whole story happens offstage, then characters sit and talk or murble about it. Writing in negative space. What’s there belongs offstage, and vice versa.

  6. Yes–negative space, and the author’s own process mixed in.

    Some writers have made that entertaining–like Frederic Marryat, in the middle of one of his sea yarns, begins a chapter with sitting in his cabin waiting for the watch bell to ring, and counting how many drinks he’s had as he tries to figure out where his story is going next. It’s a charming bit of meta.

    But most of the time, I think we can scrutinize it and see if we really want it there.

  7. Writing in negative space. What’s there belongs offstage, and vice versa.

    That’s an interesting thought.

    At the moment, my mental model is that the narrative is a connect-the-dots thing: it’s my job to provide the actions and details that a reader can build the right picture from. If I tell them ‘that’s a drawing of a duck’ there’s no incentive for them to read on. It also means trusting the reader to follow developments – put in points along the line, but leave gaps.

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  9. Something I didn’t expect before I started working on a full-length novel project was just how difficult it is to find one’s way to the outside of the story from the inside of the story— to negotiate the balance between what you know and what your reader should know, and when. It seems so easy when you’re reading a wonderful book, or even thinking through your own plot in abstract!

    I love the image of “writing in negative space.” I”ve only just started to see a connection between the places I’m tempted to do it and the spots where a story’s insides and outsides are out of sync. When I look more closely, I’ve gotten ahead of the reader or behind the flow of my plot— which I can almost always be fixed by finding the missing scene or story element that will show the reader the same things in a more action-oriented way.

    Action requires so much more research/knowledge/engagement, though— which can be daunting when the story is still forming. Writing in negative space at its best might be like attempting a sketch study before an oil painting— exploring the emotional line drawing before filling in the details.

  10. Winter Fodder, I, too, like that phrase. And it is a necessary one for so many writers–we have to get something down before we can look at it and start working with it.

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