One of the writing rules I learned from my first publisher during a seminar was: Kill the Narrator. He wanted smooth prose that disappeared into the story instead of prose that sounded like Aesop’s Fables. I dutifully scanned through my manuscript and sucked the life out of my narrator. Honestly, it was one of the best things I could have done. Taking the focus off my narrator forced me to focus on my characters.
Why publishers, agents, and editors have this rule: When someone reads a story, a mental movie of sorts begins playing in his or her head. Our job as writers, is to keep that movie flowing and feed it yummy bits of details, conflict, and characters. When we let our prose become a narrator who tells the story instead of letting our characters actions show the story, we rob our readers of the optimum “mental movie” experience. (More on “show, don’t tell” in future blogs.) And let’s be honest, most novels geared toward adults rarely use a showcased narrator.
Rowling breaks this rule with panache, and I love her for it. Her narrator is alive and well. Simply her first paragraph is an example:
- “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
These fabulous opening lines captivated the entire world—including me. They are also perfect examples of not killing your narrator. The “thank you very much” and “you’d” are considered writing no-no’s. Rowling also uses pure narration for 4 full pages of text before introducing a bit of dialogue. Most agents and editors I've heard speak would tell you that manuscript would be in the trash immediately.
Why breaking this rule worked: Rowling gets away with using a narrator with more personality than many publishers and agents usually allow for three reasons:
- Her audience was once just 11. Hard to believe, gauging the size and age level of her audience now, but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stoneis a children’s book. Children love listening to people read to them, and they love fairy tales. Rowling breaks the Kill the Narrator rule based on the age of her audience.
- Rowling’s writing has voice. All good writers have voice. Voice is impossible to describe, but easy to illustrate. You can pick up a book and know the author is Stephen King verses John Grisham just by reading the first paragraph because they both have voice. Rowling’s writing has voice, too, and that voice makes her story deliciously yummy for those of us who crave a good fantasy about good and evil.
- Despite giving life to her narrator, Rowling still shows the story instead of tells it.The Kill the Narrator rule exists because writers often make their poor narrator do all the telling. Rowling keeps focus on the characters. Her narrator doesn’t tell us, “Something very strange happened in London.” Rowling shows us by having Mr. Dursley see odd people walking around. Her narrator doesn’t tell us, “Harry Potter is special.” Rowling lets the conversation between Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall show us.
What this tells us about the craft of writing:
- Always keep your audience in mind. Children (and those of us who are still children at heart) like living narrators. Rowling makes us feel as though she is telling us a super-secret, special, snuggle-under-the-covers story, and the world loved it so much we bought a bunch of her books!
- Always remember to show instead of tell. If you want to make your narrator alive, fine. Just make sure your narrator stays out of the way of your story.
Stay tuned to tomorrow’s blog about passive voice!
This post is part of a little mini-series of posts. Click below to read previous posts in the series.
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason, which is being adapted into a graphic novel series by Wandering Sage Publications, Inc. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.