Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Third-First Narrative Style

This style was pervasive in the last century and continues still to deform most fiction in the twenty-first. Narrative is artifice. I bow to that. But my enjoyment diminishes when I become aware of it. I become aware of it immediately when the story-teller is the character, yet the character’s voice is in the third person.

Gal dang it, she’d done it again, but he could never help himself. No. Couldn’t. Got him in trouble, all the time, even back in Tennessee, long before he learned to play the guitar. He always had to stick around—even though he’d been called “Slick” as long back as he could remember, long before that good-for-nothing drunk of a father of his left for California, and good riddance too.

The conventional name of this style is “third person limited.” “Third-first” is my name for it. It’s first person narrative without using “I”—and lacking the temporal distance from the events related that good narrative ought to have. A variant is to use several characters to tell the story, each using the third-first voice; the artifice then, of course, is compounded. So what’s wrong with it? Ordinary stream of consciousness does not produce a monologue. And natural thought will not yield exposition. To make it do so produces odd overtones. The convention is based on the premise that the reader must be grabbed by force, by sensory participation—lest he or she swoon into boredom. Identification with the character must be built in. We dare not let it happen spontaneously. As readers we’re supposed to feel that we’re the person, right here, right now.

The big downside here is that the essence of real narrative—events, actions, feelings, and thoughts recollected in tranquility—has been banished. The fiction becomes, instead, an attempt to make the reader experience something directly. But if an unexamined life is not worth living, a tale without a teller isn’t worth reading.

But storytelling is a familiar and natural phenomenon. Its components emerge spontaneously. Young writers are told: Show, don’t tell. Like any rule related to the high, this one too must be “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.” A good story teller knows exactly when to tell and when to show, and these two elements in fiction are akin to light and shade, the artful use of both is what makes stories live. We need detail, we need panorama—in the right spots, to the right intensity. We need to feel, sometimes to see the red thread that gives meaning to the whole. In modern fiction, half the time, especially where the third-first is heavily used, there isn’t any theme at all. No sovereign eye watches the scene. The fictional universe is thus as godless as the big one that the author thinks he mirrors. (Women know better—they tend to use the first person by preference: personal, intimate.)

Third-person omniscient—meaning that a story teller is always present, however muted the voice—is the right use of “the third.”

All this came to mind because, in the library, I chanced across Royal Highness by Thomas Mann, a book I’d never read. I opened it and started reading the first paragraph. Ah, delight! The voice of a true story teller. I went and checked it out…

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I will pay more attention to who is telling the story from now on, try and observe more carefully how this character colors the story itself.


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