I received a critique on a book in my mystery series the other day that blew my mind. Normally I don’t comment on advice and critiques that I don’t agree with. I consider them all, because if one person thought something as they were reading my stuff, then a percentage of other people who read it are going to think the same thing.
The first thing I consider is, are they obviously correct? Nine times out of ten, they are.
There’s not one of us that gets everything right the first time around. Actually, there’s not one of us that gets everything right the second or third time around. That’s why we have critique groups, beta readers, and editors.
If I decide they’re wrong, whether it’s for technical or stylistic reasons, I move on to the second thing. How many other people are going to see things they way they do? Because even if I absolutely know I’m right, whatever the issue is, it tripped the person up and drew them out of the story, and that’s the last thing I want to happen to a reader. So, even if they are dead wrong, I may still have to make changes.
But, every now and then, someone’s advice is so dead wrong that it’s almost shocking. That leads me to the subject of matching narration to the mood and genre of the story.
Right Narration for the Setting and Genre
A few months ago, a new person joined my group. I usually ask people to attend a couple of meetings and get a feel for things before they submit any writing so they can get used to the format and have a better idea what they’re in for. Not everyone follows this advice and their work shows up in our Google Drive folder before we’ve even met them. This guy did that.
The language was antiquated, so my first thought was, “Cool. A period piece. Nobody else in the group is writing one of those. This should be interesting.” There was no dialogue for the first three pages, so his story about the horse races had already evoked pictures of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. The narration was wordy, formal, and languid like it had been written a hundred years ago. Though it needed some cleaning up, I was intrigued… then everything fell apart.
When the narration kicked in, the characters were dropping f-bombs. Now, I’m no prude. I curse like a teamster and have been around the block so many times that I’ve worn a groove in the sidewalk. But, it just didn’t fit with the time period he’d invoked. Then thinks got worse.
It wasn’t a period piece. It was a contemporary story taking place at Suffolk Downs, a track just down the street from my house. I was thrown.
Then, in the meeting, he told me that it was a contemporary murder mystery. I mentioned the issue with the narration and asked him what murder mysteries he’d read recently. None. Not only had he not read any recently—he’d never read one. He thought they were all contrived and formulaic (despite having never read one, mind you) and only read “classic literature.” He’d never even read the grande dame of murder, Agatha Christy, and didn’t want to. I didn’t tell him, but that book will never see the light of day.
Right Narration for the Character
In third person this is less of an issue because the narrator is set back from the action and could be just about anyone, but it still needs to be taken into consideration. In first person, it’s a big freaking deal.
I’m also a member of an online critique group. The online group moves faster than my face-to-face group, and since I try to churn out at least 30,000 words a week (because I write under three different names and need the content), I need feedback as quickly as I can get it. That’s where I got the insane critique.
A guy is working on a story about an ex-government agent who still fights bad guys. He shoots a lot, blows stuff up, all the stuff you would expect from someone trying to emulate a Reacher-type character. (Shout out to Lee Child—love your books).
It’s written in first person POV, which means that the narration—every single word of the book that isn’t directly coming out of another person’s mouth—is coming from either the character’s brain or his mouth.
In the narration, the tough talking ex-agent used words and phrases like “heretofore,” “as to,” “within,” etc. Things that no native English speaker would ever think and has no place outside of Downton Abbey fanfic. It was incongruous and jarring.
When I asked him about it, he ignored my question. I shrugged and went about my business. It’s not my book and all I can do is raise the question. Then I found out why he ignored me.
I’m writing a series about an emotionally destroyed P.I. who’s trying to claw his way back up. Cliched? Absolutely. But, it’s a genre I still love reading, so I figure there have to be a few other people out there who do too.
My character’s inner (narration) and outer dialogue have the same feel. He’s quick witted, sarcastic, and at this point in the story arc, a little self-doubting (which he does reserve for the inner stuff).
The guy left a comment on my story, chastising me for using slang in the narration. He said that slang should never be used in narration “especially in first person point of view.” This isn’t just a little wrong, it’s the exact opposite of the truth.
Please keep in mind that if you are writing in first person, you need to treat it like the other person is sitting in a chair across from you, telling you the story. What language would they use? It’s unlikely they will be stiff and formal.
Keep this in mind for third person as well, because unless it’s from omniscient third, it’s still from a specific character’s POV. Just this morning I was reading a short story that was told in third person from a less-than-scholastic high school football player’s POV. I rolled my eyes a few times because of narration like this:
“He wasn’t the small fry any longer and wouldn’t be treated as such.”
“As such”? Please. I’m not buying to for a second, and worst of all, it throws me out of the story.
Watch the formal language; this isn’t a thesis for your professor. Get inside your character’s head and just tell the story. Don’t try to impress your reader with how smart you are. I won’t be impressed, I’ll just be annoyed. I’ve heard authors say that they like using ten-dollar words so their readers will learn new vocabulary. That’s the same thing. The story isn’t about the writer, and that’s just douchebaggery and an inflated ego—and a post for another day.