Introduction to Writing Fiction: Lesson 1 – Narrative Voice and Structure

October has come way sooner than I was ready for, but nevermind, because my evening classes to Introduction to Writing Fiction at the University of Southampton started last week! As mentioned previously elsewhere on this site, I plan on blogging about what I learn, share advice received on writing tips, and chart my writing attempts produced in the 2-hour classes.

The classes started on Tuesday 6th October (so I am already behind on blogging..) – the class apparently is the biggest they’ve had since they started running the course and it is a real eclectic mix of people, from complete beginners to those who have aimlessly written since their teens (including myself in that category), to those who are serious about getting published. The teacher who leads the class, Jen, is a confident combination of sci-fi and steam-punk. She sports a turquoise floppy Mohawk over the left side of her face, all black attire and has a background/Masters in writing. The class began with initial introductions (naturally) about our writing background and what we were hoping to get from the course. As usual, I was chosen to speak first (stupidly having sat at the front). I ended up rambling about my life story: wanting to get published, having worked in a publishing company, having met a literary agent at the London Book Fair in March 2015; having written fantasy short stories throughout my angsty teenage years, struggling to complete stuff I start, structuring my thoughts on paper; my life and woes, hopes for world domination blah blah blah. At some point I stopped and was surprised to find later that others in the class had managed to remember my name amongst all my rambling, and in fact, identified with many of my struggles. Us writers eh – we all in da same boat.

By the end of the 8–week course, our aim is to complete a project of our choice: a short story or the first few chapters of a novel. I have decided on the latter – I may as well make a move on that book that I’ve wanted to write since I was 13 if I ever want to get published by the time I’m 30.

Brain, where art thou?
Brain, where art thou?

Tips & Advice

I found this first lesson immensely useful. There are many rules to writing and standard conventions that exist and although I may use them on a subconscious level, I wasn’t fully aware of their extent. Jen made the pertinent point that good writing techniques and conventions exist, and a writer needs to be aware of these in order to enhance their writing by using them or breaking them. To do the latter effectively however, one needs to be aware of them and the benefits they can provide before moving beyond them.

Narrative Viewpoint

This is the perspective or lens through which the story is told. The first decision that needs to be considered is what is the most effective way of telling your story? Things to consider are:

  • Narrative voice: this is the format through which the story is told e.g. first person (the voice that young writers tend to adopt a lot), second person (rather rare and can be a very detached and jarring experience for the reader from my experience) and third person (basically an anonymous voice; I have outlined the benefits below of using this narrative voice). There are also variations to narrative voice, such as when an author inserts himself or herself into the story (as in Life of Pi), having an unreliable narrator i.e. psychopaths, drunk etc. (e.g. The Girl on the Train – this is like the WORST BOOK EVER BTW) and having multiple narrators e.g. Game of Thrones.
  • Narrative time: the time frame. The most common is naturally the past tense. Present tense is less common; an example of a book that used this is the The Hunger Games. And finally, the use of the future tense, which is very rare and tends to have a prophetic overtone – this can be found sometimes in sci-fi fiction. The only example that really comes to mind is The Starlight Crystal by Christopher Pike. I read this many years ago in my teens and it was about a character travelling in a spaceship and they were light years ahead of Earth time. I can’t remember if this used a future tense however or if it was simply based in the future…
  • Narrative distance: proximity/distance of reader to character’s thoughts and the use of the personal or omnipotent voice can be taken here. The consideration that needs to be made here is whether you want your relationship to the main protagonist in the story to be a close-up narrative, mid-narrative or long-distance narrative. A close-up narrative means that you are really involved with the character and their thoughts; mid-narrative means that you have key insights to the character’s thoughts but some surmising on part of the reader is required, and with long-distance narrative you only see the character from a distance / have a birds-eye view of them.

Benefits of Third Person Narrative

It’s so easy to fall into first person narrative because you want to be involved with the character and sometimes it’s hard to distance yourself from the main protagonist; I can imagine that it’s very common that the main protagonist is a personification, perfected or better version of writers themselves. It’s just easy to write ‘I this’ and ‘I did that blah blah’. The limitations of first person narrative is that you can only see the world through that one character’s eyes (unless you have multiple narrators – but this would be used by more experienced writers I would say). I complained about the first person narrative in my review of The Hunger Games trilogy a bit. It’s rather limiting as a narrative voice and you don’t get to flesh out other characters and their personalities/growth as much (or objectively at least), or see the full scope of events that take place.

With third person narrative however, not only do you have the scope to flesh out a story from a holistic and objective perspective (unless you want to be a biased narrator), you also have the ability to write the story in real-time as well as inner-time. Real time covers the plot events that keep the story moving forward and inner-time allows the narrator to move backwards or forwards in the character’s mind – thoughts, memories, dreams, hopes and fears etc. This is particularly advantageous: as a writer, you have the ability to move backwards or forwards in time, and this can essentially span across decades. You essentially have the ability to access the whole timeline of your character and enrich the narrative by revealing pieces of information about them as and when it would be most effective. For my project for this course (writing the first few chapters of my novel), I will be writing in third person because it’s so great.

The Gift from Jen

I needed this.

Structuring a story is something that I personally struggle with. The 8-point structure that Jen bestowed upon us in this first lesson is truly a godsend. I can guarantee that it will help all writers, new and old, structure their scenes/chapters. This 8-point structure can be used in a cyclical fashion and works best when using third person narration.

  1. Start by writing about the setting/place
  2. Insert a character
  3. Action (character does something)
  4. Subjective shot (when character sees something/ notices something/ hears something etc.)
  5. Inner-time / inner-life (zoom into character’s thoughts of self-reflection/judgement/prejudice/memory etc. can flash forward or they can remember something from the past)
  6. Action (move back to real-time)
  7. Dialogue (interaction with the world around them in real-time)
  8. End on inner-time (a reaction, hope, fear, a thought etc.)

Writing Session

In each lesson we have to do writing tasks for about 10-15 minutes. Seriously, I haven’t held a pen in so long my hand was actually working against me. My handwriting currently is worse than a doctor’s. In this lesson we were instructed to write something – whatever really – using this 8-point structure. It’s worth bearing in mind that we weren’t given these instructions all together, but one after another as we were writing. I share with you below my work in it’s first and clunky draft.

  1. Setting/place There’s a large house made out of yellow bricks. Its most distinguishing feature is its red door. It’s not the type of red you would expect to see on a door. Rather, a red that you tend to avoid. It’s hideously bright, stark, glaring – shouting out for attention. It’s the type of red you would be embarrassed by. The roof is grey and triangular, like something a child might draw and outside in the front of the house sits several pots of dying orchids.
  2. Insert a character A woman opens the red door and runs out, knocking a pot of orchids as she passes. She doesn’t stop to put it upright again. Sheila, that’s her name, is in a hurry and is making this fact loudly known to her neighbours.
  3. Action Sheila jams her keys into her car door and climbs in noisily, slamming her door shut whilst looking about the street frantically to see if anyone is watching.
  4. Subject shot Sheila stops moving around when she notices the door of the house next to hers open slightly. She watches as a thin girl with dark hair and a flimsy dress squeezes herself out the door and tip-toe across the front law and then frantically down the street, gaining momentum as she goes.
  5. Inner-time Sheila felt gutted. She remembered with a pang when she used to be the girl leaving Tom’s house in the early hours of the morning.
  6. Action (back to real-time) There was no time for self-pity. Sheila put her foot down, reversed out of her driveway, and instead of turning left down the road to go to work, she turned right and drove down the street in the direction the thin girl had hurried down.
  7. Dialogue “Hey!” Sheila shouted. The girl stopped and turned around slowly. “You should know that he’s not a good guy. He’s not…” Sheila faltered. The girl looked up from her feet. She looked even thinner close up, and much younger than Sheila had initially thought. “I know,” the girl said quietly. “But I like that.”
  8. End on inner-time Oh no, Sheila thought as she watched the girl walk away from her. This is going to end badly. Sheila wished she could help her, this girl that she hardly knew anything about. Maybe she could help her. After all, she lived next door to Tom. The girl would certainly be back, and this time Sheila would be ready.

As simple as my story is, it provides a clear and straightforward example of how quickly this 8-point structure can be adopted and used to improve your writing. This structure can be applied to longer or shorter stories and you can really make it work for you. It’s great as it allows you to move the story forward as well as develop your character. This is a true gift for story structure and I can’t wait to start using it on my first chapter! Jen kept saying: I HEREBY GIVE YOU THE GIFT PEOPLE, THE GIFT. Me: THANK YOU JEN, THANK YOOOU.

Prep for lesson next week

  • Start writing diary, noting down what I write and when to discover my optimal writing habits
  • Start writing first chapter using this structure
  • Take food so I do not turn up late to lesson due to looking for food
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