Editing Tips #3: Who’s Telling the Story?

Before I can edit I story, I have to know a few things. I have to read it over to get a sense of the author’s voice (editing means making the story better, but that doesn’t include making it not yours anymore). I also need to know where the plot ends, so that I can shepherd the opening and middle bits along to their conclusion in a logical way*. But the most important part that I need to know, that I have to be absolutely clear on, is who’s telling this story.

That isn’t the same as identifying the main character, or even the narrator. Think of it this way: in order for you to be reading the story, someone from that world has be telling it to you. Ignore the author; unless it’s an autobiography, the author is just the vehicle. They’re the medium allowing the ghost of your dead husband to inhabit their body in order to tell you where he hid the family valuables. The storyteller is going to be the character that gets the story to the writer.** This is the character who lives all the way the through to end, sees everything that happened, or gathers the information from everyone else.

Sometimes they’re easy to find. A story that begins in the first person, and doesn’t end with the narrator’s death, is probably told by that narrator. A story which features more than one perspective can be harder to reconcile, so you need to read carefully to find the common thread. The person who was there in each scene, or the one who could have talked to everyone else, and gotten their stories.

Sure, not all tales have a single teller. They should, but it’s so much easier to go the “third person omniscient” route, and make your narrator God. Sees all, knows all, lazy fucking storytelling. Yeah, people do it. (But not you, right?)

Say I have a story where a single narrator is travelling through the jungle. It’s first person, narrator uses “I”. I know whose story it is, and it doesn’t change. Now what? Knowing that this is Bob’s tale means that I know where certain things should happen in the plot, because that’s how it would happen to him. When he’s talking about going through the jungle and discovering a camp, he’s describing the trip, the weather, the beat-up road… what comes next? It should be his view of the camp as they come up on it. If it’s anything else, a piece of the later story, and then the narrator goes back to describe the setting, it’s going to feel out of place.

When Helen walks into the room and sees a crime in progress, there are a million ways to describe that. The easiest, and worst, is to tell us things she couldn’t possibly know.

Helen saw her friend Mary, hands tied, kneeling on the floor, obviously afraid that the masked man was about to kill her.

How exactly is that obvious? Helen can’t know what Mary is thinking, and there’s no description of the other woman’s face, body language, or anything else that would tell us. She could be afraid that the masked man will steal her jewels, rape her, torture her to get the location of the Maltese Falcon, or even be obsessing about the fact that her new carpet is getting dirty. But the author knows what Mary is afraid of, so let’s rewrite it to say that:

Helen saw her friend Mary, hands tied, kneeling on the floor. As tears rolled down her face, a masked man stood a foot away, his gun pointed at her head. Helen wanted to cry out, but was afraid the man would kill them both.

We still have the same characters, we get a little more description (because we’re seeing what Helen is seeing), and we have the threat of death. You can even take out that last line and leave it ambiguous; the audience will certain pick up on the fear and tension here. Depending on the rest of the story, the death threat could have already been expressed, or left as implied. But this way, you’ve removed a place where someone might wonder, “How does she know?” You cut out a chance for the readers to lose their interest in the story. Instead, you keep them in the moment, in that room with Helen and Mary, wondering what’s going to happen next.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our readers look for that storyteller. We pick up a book and we expect it to be told to us. This goes back to our childhood experiences of being read to before we read ourselves, and further back to our cultural experiences of oral storytelling. We exist in a society that encourages active telling of tales (through music, tv, plays, movies and other performances). It’s even in the way we describe how we take in a show: we read a story, not “a story was read by us”. We consume entertainment; we create advertising to portray it as energetic, in your face (or your ears), actively trying to push an experience on you.

We bring that perspective to reading, and find the teller in the story. If you know that ahead of time, you can make sure you’re choosing who that narrator is, and how they transfer their tale to the reader. You can make sure that it flows smoothly, the voice is consistent, and there’s no place where the reader wonders, “How would they know that?” without finding out by the end. You can make clear the path from teller to reader, so nothing stands in the way of them enjoying your story.

Or you can hire an editor to help you with that.

* Logical doesn’t mean straightforward. It means that it has to fit whatever rules you’ve decided apply to your story. There’s always rules, a framework, the physics of the thing. We’ll talk about that another time.

** I don’t mean in a metaphysical way, whether you ascribe to pantheistic multi-ego solipsism (aka “World as Myth“) or not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *