Monday, February 16, 2009

Narrative Summary

And so, the door at Walker and Daughter was open a little bit late and eventually a little bit later than that. Soon enough, at the end of the long workweek, a few regular customers took to popping in with their knitting -- sweaters and scarves and cell-phone socks -- and asking questions about all the mistakes they'd made while commuting on the subway.

"I just can't get the buttonhole right!"

"Why do I keep dropping stitches?"

"Do you think I can finish it by Christmas?"

Without ever putting up one sign or announcing the creation of a knitting club, these women began regularly appearing in the evenings and, well, loitering. Chatting with one another, talking to Anita, gathering around the large round table in the center of the room, picking up where they had left things the week before. And then, one Friday last fall, it became official. Well, sort of.

~~ The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

If you've ever wondered what good narrative summary looks like, that's it right there, baby. Narrative summary (sometimes also called narrative compression, condensed narrative, summation, transition, etc., etc.) is a variety of exposition that takes events occurring within the story's real time and condenses them into a tight, focused summary.

The events are not narrated in real time. There is no scene in the sense of a singular event presented moment by moment in the order of occurrence. There are characters, but who are they? There is dialogue, but who speaks it? There is a point of view, but no viewpoint character allowing us to experience the events through her perspective.

Instead, a mash of Fridays after work are presented as a circumstance -- not an event -- giving rise to a conclusion. After many (indistinguishable, lumped-together) Fridays at the knitting shop, a club of knitters was created. Not scene and sequel, but situation and result.

A friend gave me this book to read because she was taken by the unusual narrative style and wanted me to see it. (Hi, A! *waves*) I can see why she had the reaction she did. Almost the entire book is presented in some form of exposition, and we just don't see that much these days. Beautifully written, engaging, entertaining exposition. Just when you thought it was buried forever next to the dinosaurs, here it comes back, full of life and breathing fire.

Even though we've been clinging to deep, intimate points of view for a while -- and by "we," I mean readers and authors and industry folk alike -- there have been signs that objectivity was making a comeback. If you've been listening, you've heard those signs right along with me. A reviewer complaining about being bored with first person stories. Two friends at the bookstore, picking up and dropping title after title before agreeing that they all "sound" the same. A book lover raving about a romance, and then adding almost wistfully, "But I kind of wish we'd known more about the parson's wife," or some other character who played a pivotal non-pov role.

Prose has been cozy and intimate for so long that objectivity feels like something totally new. Remember Sherry Thomas's first book, Private Arrangements? Remember how it started with that almost Victorian passage about the definition of a good marriage? Talk about deft writing. That book came out just shortly after Friday Night Knitting Club. And I'm sure if you think about it, you'll quickly identify other stories, or other places in stories, where the viewpoint character isn't immediately identifiable. Or maybe there was a viewpoint from outside the story, as in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or The Crimson Petal and the White, two stories on the more literary end of the spectrum that created narrative distance not through pure objectivity, but through the eyes of a disinterested external narrator.

I'm only on page 80 or so of Friday Night Knitting Club, so it's far too soon to draw any conclusions about the text as a whole. But the text up until this point has been heavy on narrative summary, light on intimacy. There are bits which are firmly rooted in the pov of this or that character, and given the popularity of this book, it seems as though readers are having no trouble connecting to the characters. I am certainly engaged by the text.

Does that seem like an oxymoron? Have we spent so many years flogging the deep pov/show don't tell horse that we've forgotten about other methods to become transported into the narrative?

Don't get me wrong. A solidly crafted limited-subjective third person pov is always going to be an important tool in the writer's kit. It might even be in the top five. But narrative trends come and go, and if the trend is moving toward broader perspectives, then expository writing might just find itself becoming a more important tool.



Julie Harrington said...

I don't mind any strong narrative voice in a story -- be it technically labeled deep POV of one particular character or another or a more broadened "unknown" narrative -- and narrative summary is, I think, always necessary at some point. But for me there's a distinction in my mind between narrative and show, don't tell. I guess what it really comes down to (as in all things in writing) when what the author is doing starts to bore or annoy me. That means something isn't working in style or execution and you have to take a second look at it. But when I critique in my writing group, I don't think I've ever said, "Hey, this engages me and I love the way it sounds, but it breaks the XYZ deep POV or its this or that, so you can't do it." I read both as a reader and a writer and if it tickles me on both levels... bring it on! :)


Edittorrent said...

I keep reminding writers-- "deep POV is not the only or even the best approach." It works for some stories, but not others, and I'm very glad that the old-fashioned omniscient is coming back even in character-centered women's fiction.

In some genres, omniscient never was marginalized. Hey, if it was good enough for Trollope....

Wes said...

I had the great pleasure of recently attending a reading and lecture by David Wroblewski, author of THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE. (He spoke at a benefit for a local library where he had done much of his research for his novel.) I wasn't familiar with his book, but since he had written a debut novel that became a NYT bestseller and made Oprah's list, I wanted to hear what he had to say. He opened by reading much of his first chapter, and it gradually dawned on me that this passage was nearly all exposition with an omniscient POV. Amazing, I thought, he's breaking all the rules. But it worked in creating a tidy little world. I supposed it was narrative summary.

BTW, he was a fabulous speaker on the process of writing. If you have a chance to hear him, do so.

Anonymous said...

That's great news about objectivity coming back. I'm so sick of reading books in first person--they all sound alike!

Maybe that'll be good news in the submitting process. My WIP is in omniscient, but I've had so many writers make dire predictions about it. I'm getting a little tired of "Are you sure you can't write it in third?" or "You'll never get published with that viewpoint."

Edittorrent said...

Nothing ever comes back exactly as it was before, though. There's an edginess, an almost forced informality, in the omni pov stuff I've seen lately. Take another look at the excerpt I quoted in the post, and note all the ways she injects contemporary notes into the text.

I think people still associate omniscient pov with an old-fashioned book. The knitting club book gets around that with slang.


Anonymous said...

1. The Book Thief. Talk about an intruiging style. Loved it. Loved the book.

2. The point about 'showing' narrative is a good one. I've recently critiqued a piece where the writer did an info dump, but I'm not sure he realised it. The facts were interesting background about the area, but weren't woven into the story to make it contextually meaningful.

3. I'm reading World Without End right now. I have had to allow myself to stop criticising the non-conformance and just enjoy the story. And I can say that I am. It's much more omni than the recent trend, but not exactly Ayn Rand's Fountainhead, a book I recently finished and had to work hard to do so.

4. I think there are going to be genre and non-genre differences, too, with crossover and hybrid by those who like to 'play' with writing, a good thing.

Thanks for this. Oh, and what about that split infinitive in the piece above? Good thing or bad thing? ;-)

Riley Murphy said...

Theresa, this is a great post and a timely one for me. I’ve lived long enough to know that everything comes back around - with a new twist. I am speaking as it pertains to writing (and not the freaking skinny jeans they are making for a disappearing sideways race nowadays, that have sizes like double zero - what the hell is that?! I was probably the only one who was relieved when twiggy retired and now?) Um, I’m not going to think about that and remain focused. To get back to my point, I have noticed the books that my grown kids are reading are delving more into the narrative summary style. It’s refreshing when we discuss the stories and what they liked about them. It’s not something necessarily new, cause we’ve seen it before but, the ‘today’ style has more of an edge to it and maybe that comes down to the present day slang that we can all relate to. Who knows? I think the most important thing to take away from what you said here is: ‘narrative trends come and go,’. It’s what works for a story and the voice that is telling it, that should always be the constant - not the ‘trend’ of the day, right?

Edittorrent said...

jwhit, I think a split infinitive is acceptable in casual communications. Others may disagree. It all comes back to that chicken and egg question: should written grammar bend to spoken English, or should spoken English conform to written grammar? (The correct answer to that question is yes. ;)

Murphy, it's not always a good idea to buck a trend. And I don't think that pov choices are necessarily a matter of voice. A little bit, yes, but -- well, to be honest, the reason I'm hedging is that I've seen too many writers defend bad writing by claiming that it's their voice. There is such a thing as bad voice. So if the voice is bad, it's not a defense. Do you understand what I'm getting at? It's late and I stopped making sense hours ago.


Jody W. and Meankitty said...

What Alicia said -- I don't think omni went out in some genres, but it definitely fell out of favor in romance and urban fantasy! I remember quite a bit of omni in the Regencies I used to devour in the 80's. More author intrusion and such, too, which is way, way out of favor. While I do think prose styles are as cyclical as art and fashion, I wonder if the current upward tic is enhanced by all the attention being paid to Austen's work right now, all the joy readers are finding in it and the remakes of it?

Julie Harrington said...

And I don't think that pov choices are necessarily a matter of voice. A little bit, yes, but -- well, to be honest, the reason I'm hedging is that I've seen too many writers defend bad writing by claiming that it's their voice. There is such a thing as bad voice. So if the voice is bad, it's not a defense.
- Theresa

I think I mentioned something like this in the entry regarding POV shifts (which lead to POV vs. head-hopping). I've run into more writers who -- when given a critique about headhopping/POV issues or any such aspect, simply ignore it and try to get around having to learn how to fix it by saying "It's my style" or "It's my voice" and "There are no 'rules' in writing... so I don't have to listen to you." I still don't know how you get around getting through on that. Ack!


Riley Murphy said...

A writer trying to defend bad writing - by claiming it’s their voice? Where did ‘bad writing’ vs.‘bad voice’ come from? I thought I was talking about trends. But now that you mention the ‘voice ‘ issue I’d like to clarify my opinion about this rather touchy subject (cause there is nothing I like better than picking a bone - and I never choose the chicken one:)). You may call me naive, if you wish, but I would like to think that if a writer has a bad voice or writes badly -- she wouldn’t be published (I um, also believe in unicorns and leprechauns). But and this is a big BUT, if she does get published, I would think it had more to do with satisfying a ‘trend’ in the market and filling a slot, rather than an attempt to reward an author who has a ‘bad voice’ or writes badly. At least I would hope that this is the case.

And, to get to my previous point. If there are, as you say, ‘bad voices,’ well, it only stands to reason that there are ‘good voices’ too - you can’t have one without the other, right? And it is the writer with the ‘good voice’ that I believe should be looking at consistency over trend - I have read a number of books from authors I cherished, who buckled under the need to write a new book in the styling of the ‘trend of the day’ - and it fell flat. Why? Because a ‘good voice’ is natural and going against it - to write in a different narrative voice to satisfy a trend, can trip up the best of them - that was my point. (maybe next time I bring up the matter of 'voice' I will further qualify it by saying that it is a proven 'good voice', first);)

And, JT said: I've run into more writers who -- when given a critique about headhopping/POV issues or any such aspect simply ignore it and try to get around having to learn how to fix it by saying "It's my style" or "It's my voice" and "There are no 'rules' in writing... so I don't have to listen to you."

...If I heard these things from a fellow writer I was trying to help - I would simply stop talking after um, I asked them one question: “Great, how’s that working for ya?”