Talking Shop I.2 July 2005

In this Issue...
The Author's Intent: Lesson 1
Shock Treatment
Can You Feel It?



Feature: The Author's Intent, Lesson 1

Staying true to the author’s intent means being able to figure out the author’s intent. Simple enough sounding, but in reality involves using a critical eye to understand some of the literary structures authors use to tell their stories.


Identifying the narrative focus or point of view is one of the first clues to how a story gets told, how the setting, events, characters and dialogue are presented. Point of view determines the position of the narrator and his/her access to a range of details, both of actions & events and characters’ consciousness. The vast majority of both fiction and non-fiction are presented in either the 1st person or 3rd person point of view.


A 1st person narrative is designated by the use of “I” and can be a 1st person participant (telling their own story or one in which he/she participates) or 1st person observer/witness (telling a story they have seen). The 1st person narrator is limited to what they know, experience, see, overhear, extrapolate or surmise.  The observer/witness is often more objective, viewing people and events from the periphery, not from the “thick of things” as would a central participant.


A 3rd person narrative places the narrator somewhere outside the story proper (not locatable) and uses “he,” “she,” “it” and “they” to refer to characters. With the omniscient point of view (used for most 3rd person fiction), the narrator tells the story with complete freedom to relate events, report characters’ unconscious thought, feelings, motives, speech and actions, even to move at will backward and forward in time and shift from character to character.  Within this mode, you may find the intrusive narrator who comments on the action, makes value judgments, and expresses their own moral views.  Or, the objective narrator who is more impersonal and tends to describe, report or relate what is happening.

Each of these modes provides clues to the level of distance in the narration. For instance, the 1st person story is usually more personalized.  Events and people provoke a reaction or comment from the narrator. It may be ironic or blatant. An objective or impersonal narrator acts a bit like a camera, recording and playing back (with little or no comment and no personal reaction of their own) so that we can absorb it without being cued in or led to a reaction. Some 3rd person narrators may actually begin to express emotion for a character, and switch back to objectivity paragraphs later. Moving between levels of distance requires sensitivity to the writing style and an ability to switch cleanly back and forth, without the ego getting in the way.


What are we really looking for in all this? The answer is tone, in short, the narrator’s attitude toward and conception of 1) the things we talk about, and 2) the person addressed (the listener).  Keep an eye out for a) why this person needs to tell his/her story, or b) what the author is trying to say or present (Is the story an allegory, does it have a moral, does it comment on a political system or ideology, what does it attempt to present?).  How much psychic/emotional distance do they have from the events? How do they feel about the characters they quote and relate? Behind your narrator, the author has something important s/he wants to say.  A good author will put it there in the writing for you to discover. The mediocre or just pain bad ones will force you to creatively fill in the gaps (or chasms, as it were). Be prepared, either way.

{Look for more on Tone in upcoming issues}
July 1, 2005
Volume I,  Issue 2
Copyright 2005 by Robin Miles