There is a trick to creating great narrative. Well, not just one trick. There are lots of them. But one in particular deserves serious thought.
Here i is. Narration only works when the reader believes that the story being told is more interesting than anything else he or she can think of at the moment. It is either better or it is boring. If i is better, the reader or listener tunes out everything else (cognitive noise) and focuses on the story. And he or she enter the story as if they are living it. If it is not better, the noise grows, and the power of the narrative is lost. Soon the reader is off doing the dishes, watering the flowers or perhaps just snoozing.
So what makes narrative better than cognitive noise? The narrator has two choices in trying to achieve that special effect. One choice is to impress the reader by how smart, clever, cool, interesting, etc. the narrator is. If that impression can be sustained, the reader feels privileged to give his or her attention. Like sitting at the feet of the master.
The second choice is making the story itself bettter. The narrator may confess to being just average, but the story or characters (and preferably both) have something amazing about them. The narrator doesn’t have to try to hard to be amazing, bu he has to be very selective about what happens in the story.
Truly great writers cleverly create both impressions. Let’s think this through in light of some well known writers.
Let’s pick the second narrative style first. How about Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes? Dr.. Watson narrates, and is just a normal Joe. But his main character is a wizard – the master! How can that not work? Conan Doyle turned this i into a formula, and he couldn’t miss.
And how about Ian Flemming and James Bond? Bond is so interesting and the plots so wild, that Flemming did not have to work very hard to keep our interest. Again, it became a formula that turned into one of the most successful film series of all time.
Perhaps one of he greatest at this was Dickens. When you read Dickens, you don’t feel the narrator’s presence, but the characters and the plots are incredible. You get pulled in — even through 500 pages.
How about the first category? I think that Hemingway fits this one pretty well. As you read his prose, you are always reminded in subtle ways that it is being told by someone who lives life on the edge. He was in Paris as a young man. He ran with the bulls. He went on safari. He went to war and covered war stories as a journalist. He fished for the great catches off Cuba. And you might notice that the narrator — Hemingway sit in — often puts down other characters. Like Robert Cohen in “The Sun Also Rises”. In fact, at the end of the book, Jake Barnes — Hemingway stand in — is the only character you can really relate to.
The thing about this first narrative style is that the text has to be convincing. That is why Hemingway took such trouble over his writing. He had to eliminate anything that would detract from his focus — and his focus at the end of the day was himself.
And the combo trick? Well, there are not many people who are able to ensnare you both by being an amazing narrator and by grabbing you with amazing characters. Mark Twain comes to mind. As a narrator, Twin doesn’t have to persuade you that he is smarter, cooler, etc. than you are. He is just funnier. And his humor opens the door to see his characters in all their glory. Huck Finn, in that sense is not a stand in for Twain (as he has no sense of humor). But how can you not like him as the story unfolds? Ditto for Jim.
Brilliant And so brilliant that I would say that Twain is the starting point for studying American lit. In that, Hemingway was right on.