Multiple Narrative Forms

Writer’ Digest has an article by Liz Keller Whitehurst, dated 9 November 2012, in which she describes the advantages of using multiple narrative forms, including first and third person narratives, interview transcripts, letters, posts, and journal entries.

Ms Whitehurst is the author of her debut novel, Messenger, and her short stories have appeared in many literary magazines and journals. She earned master’s degree in English from The University of Virginia. In addition to fiction writing, Liz has spent her professional life writing and teaching.  She lives with her husband in Richmond, Virginia.

Liz Keller Whitehurst

Ms Whitehurst says, “My novel tells the story of Messenger, a mysterious older woman who delivers life-changing messages to seemingly random people all over New York City; and Alana, the young journalist who longs to tell Messenger’s story. The use of multiple narrative forms embodies Alana’s journey as she, a sort of detective, seeks to gather information and first-person accounts, to search for clues. Her goal is to track Messenger down, meet and get to know her, then hopefully unravel her mysterious messages and to determine if this story is the big break that will make Alana’s career.

“Being a writer, it’s natural that Alana would keep a journal and would ask Messenger to write down her own thoughts, to explain her process, and to reveal more about herself. The posts Alana receives from people whose lives were changed by Messenger’s messages also works naturally, as do the interview transcripts. And the quick rhythm of switching back and forth between forms mirrors the fast-paced life of one of the other main characters of the novel—New York City.

“Using multiple forms with multiple characters and thus, dividing the novel into shorter sections or bites is a means of addressing readers’ short attention span and the way we tend to read on our computer and phones these days. Just as short stories have seen a new resurgence, these shorter pieces encompass the clarity of that life-changing moment like flash fiction, and can be read in a short period of time and still satisfy.

“I love it when I, the reader, know more than the characters I’m reading about. It’s delicious, builds tension, and moves the dramatic arc along with verve. Creating dramatic irony is another plus of using multiple narrative forms. In my novel, I wanted the reader to know much more about Messenger and the Watchers than Alana has any idea of, both through the action but also through what Messenger reveals in Messenger’s Composition Book. Through Messenger’s entries, the reader gets a glimpse of the greater aim behind Messenger and Alana’s journey together, far beyond the book Alana thinks she’s writing. 

“The editor, publisher, and I had fun choosing just the right fonts for each of the narrative forms, so that Alana’s Journal, Messenger’s Composition Book, the posts, and the traditional narrative chapters each had its own particular font to distinguish them from one another. Using different fonts makes the book more visually appealing and easier to follow as it shifts forms.”

I would add that using multiple narrative forms with multiple characters gives the writer the advantage of several sources of information to develop each individual. One can use different sources offering divergent view of a character, so that the reader gets an in-depth view of a complex person.

Turning Reality into Fiction

Writer’s Online has a piece on December 10 this year written by Lori Ann Stevens about how to capture a real, frightening event in prose. It’s not easy. It can seem dry, exaggerated, stilted or difficult to believe. But Ms Stevens has some tips on how to make the terrible event real for the reader.

Lori Ann Stevens

Ms Stevens is the author of Blue Running, published by Moonflower Books. She said, “My sister’s boyfriend was fourteen years old when he accidentally shot himself in the stomach while cleaning his hunting rifle. He was alone, and the wound was fatal. His sudden death left everyone shaken and horrified. I hoped that the school counsellors would help my little sister heal from the trauma. I’d recently had a baby, so I acknowledged and then buried the image as quickly as possible. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized how profoundly this boy’s death had settled into my consciousness. In Blue Running, my new novel set in Texas, a similar accident occurs. I relived the accident as I typed the scene, watching quite helplessly as this girl – filled with dreams and imagination – bled out on the floor. In spite of her friend’s screams for help, in spite of a desperate race to find a phone, to flag down a car, the girl dies. Her best friend could only witness the horror, hold the girl in her arms, feel every moment. Like me, the writer who was finally reckoning with the memory.

“It was my imagination that had made the real event so long ago unbearable: what had gone through his head as he lost his grip on consciousness? To die violently and alone – I can’t imagine a more terrifying event. It’s this capacity for imagination, and the willingness to step through those doors, that makes us empathetic humans… and makes writers create believable scenes for their readers.

“But it’s not easy, writing out terrifying, real-life events. Robin Hemley in Turning Life into Fiction, puts it this way: “‘But it really happened!’ is such a lame defense for a story you’ve written. If it doesn’t seem believable, forget it.” It doesn’t matter that a scene is based on real events if the narrative choices aren’t authentic. Here are a couple of tips to make these terrifying scenes credible in fiction. Rather than describing the blind flight of adrenaline blurred by mayhem, try to capture the crystal clear moments that imprint on the brain in the midst of the event.

“It probably won’t come as a surprise that slowing the pacing of the story allows the reader to experience the event, moment by moment. On the one hand, it’s counterintuitive, because terrifying events are often experienced as a blur – a rush of adrenaline sending you into survival mode. On the other hand, it’s also the exact inverse: a slowing of time and space. Who’s been in a car wreck and doesn’t have a terrifying, slow-motion memory imprinted on the backs of their eyelids? The car fishtailing on the icy road, the classic music on the radio echoing like a phantom, your tight grip on the steering wheel, the car jumping the curb like a fledgling bird and plummeting down the frost-covered grassy knoll.

“In this ironic slowing of time, my characters notice things we don’t register in our everyday lives. Their frame or focus might be more limited in a frightening situation as they  fixate on one thing and store it in their memory: the buzz of a fly on the windowsill or the odd swish of an overcoat. Sensorial details like the cold tip of your nose, the sand grabbing onto your feet, or the smell of burnt hair. If your character is frightened and alone, forget the heartbeat racing and focus on the sound of his breath whistling, giving his hiding spot away. One benefit of staying in the moment like this instead of rushing the narrative is that your sentences might stretch out, compound the images, keep the readers moving from detail to detail, phrase to phrase. Or use shorter sentences.”

I tend to agree with Ms Stevens that it is most effective to use short, graphic, incoherent details in brief sentences to convey the feelings of a frightening event. Trying to capture the event in all its horror comes across as false. We need a sense of time moving quickly, of snapshots of consciousness. Short sentences and phrases pick up the pace. Onomatopoeia can be useful. For example, if sliding is the issue, using many words with an ‘S’ sound can convey the feeling. Effective horror scenes tend to show, rather than tell. It is often more powerful not to deal directly with the central horror threat. For instance, rather than describing the site of a broken bone, show that the limb seems to be at an odd angle.

Cancel Culture Hits Publishing

There is an article in the Daily Telegraph two days ago written by Ella Whelan titled ‘Twitter is the last place writers should go if they want a debate’. The article centres on Kate Clanchy and her 2019 award-winning book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. The author used the phrases ‘chocolate-coloured skin’, ‘almond-shaped eyes’, a ‘fine Ashkenazi nose’, a ‘narrow skull’ for an Ethiopian boy, and ‘flirty hijabs’ for Muslin girls. Clanchy also described one of her students as “African Jonathon” and another being “so small and square and Afghan with his big nose and premature moustache”. Two autistic children were described as “unselfconsciously odd” and “jarring company”. 

In a separate article, The Guardian said, “Clanchy has taught in state schools for more than 30 years. In 2018, she published an anthology of pupils’ poetry and was awarded an MBE for services to literature. In 2020, a panel of independent Orwell prize judges described her memoir as “moving, funny and full of life”, offering “sparkling insights into modern British society”, and awarded the book the prize for political writing.

Kate Clanchy
Kate Clanchy

This summer, reviewers on Goodreads pointed out the ‘unsavoury descriptions’ and critics in the world of publishing raised the alarm not only about the book, but what is said about the world of publishing that such passages would go uncut.

Ella Whelan said, “Anyone who knows the industry will tell you that it is elitist and exclusive. A recent survey revealed that 90 percent of the publishing world is white. On top of that, it is also a profit-driven market, in which social media trends are consulted more often that artistic judgements about which stories or writers deserve to enter print.”

Three writers, Monisha Rajesh, Sunny Singh, Chimene Suleyman, the Society of Authors,, Philip Gwyn Jones (a Picador publisher), Picador, Pan Macmillan (Picador’s owner), and Kate Clanchy went on Twitter to express their various views that:

  • British publishing must do better
  • preventing authors writing about people different to themselves would be a death knell to literature
  • vigorously condemn online bullying
  • appalled by the suffering experienced
  • welcome the chance to write better, more lovingly

My reaction to this bruhaha is that first of all, British publishing must do better in selecting books and authors more on artistic value and less on what the loudest British culture does or doesn’t want to hear. Given its white elitist nature, British publishing needs to be more sensitive to the feelings of minorities. Fighting culture wars on the Internet with personal condemnations is unethical and counter-productive.

What bothers me more about some of the descriptions in Ms Clanchy’s book is not the alleged racism. (What’s pejorative about the adjectives ‘chocolate-coloured’ or ‘almond-shaped’ or ‘flirty’? In fact, ‘flirty hajib’ is a playful description. Are we not permitted to identify a character as a member of a minority group except by writing ‘black’ and ‘Asian’ and ‘Muslim’?) I am more concerned about Ms Clanchy’s apparent unease as a teacher with the disabilities of her pupils.

The 27 Best Opening Lines

Ellie Harrison has an article on this subject in the 17 October 2019 issue of the Independent. She said,

“The first sentence of any piece of writing is arguably the most important – both in terms of hooking the reader in and of doing justice to the body of work that it is introducing. Our attempt, here, is perhaps a little on-the-nose and definitely overestimates the quality of the copy that follows but, hey, it caught your attention and demonstrated our point.”

Ellie Harrison

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” – Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” – The Secret History by Donna Tartt

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” – I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” – The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“It was love at first sight.” – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” – High-Rise by JG Ballard

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

“Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” – The Stranger by Albert Camus

“124 was spiteful.” – Beloved by Toni Morrison

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

“All this happened, more or less.” – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

“All children, except one, grow up.” – Peter Pan by JM Barrie

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” – A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – The Go-Between by LP Hartley

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” – The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” – Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” – Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – The Crow Road by Iain Banks

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” – Murphy by Samuel Beckett

While I agree with Ms Harrison that the role of a first line is to capture the reader’s attention and to introduce the story which is to come, I don’t feel that some of these opening lines do the job. Some seem annoying and untruthful, like the exploding grandmother and writing in the sink. But others, like the first line of David Copperfield, are quite catchy.

Well, here’s my latest first line: “I’m not sure I should have accepted this assignment.” Granduncle Bertie will be out early next year.

Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

This novel was first published in 2018, but I don’t remember hearing about it at the time. The title caught my attention, particularly when the cover says it is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov.

The author is Heather Morris, a New Zealander now living in Australia. While working in a large hospital in Melbourne, she studied and wrote screenplays. She was introduced to Lale Sokolov in 2003, and she originally wrote Lale’s story as a screenplay before reshaping it into her debut novel.

Heather Morris

Lale was born Ludwig Eisenberg in 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia. He was Jewish and was transported to Auschwitz in April 1942, where he was tattooed with the number 32407. Lale’s parents were transported to Auschwitz in March 1942, while Lale was still in Prague. They were murdered on arrival in Auschwitz. In early 1945, Lale is herded on a train which takes him to Austria where he is made to work as a pimp in a German officers’ quarters. In April he escapes and boards a train to Bratislava, where, eventually he meets Gita, proposes and they marry. Lale changes his name to Sokolov. In 1949 they move to Australia, where Gita became a dress designer and Lale was in the textile trade. Their son, Gary, was born in 1961. Gita died in 2003 and Lale in 2006.

Most of the novel concerns Lale’s experiences in Auschwitz, where he was selected to be a tattooist, placing the required numbers on the arms of new arrivals. As a tattooist, he had an improved living status, and access to staff working in the office, as well as to the female barracks, where he meets and falls in love with Gita. His female friends provide him with jewellery, which has been confiscated from the arriving Jews, in exchange for additional food, and in Gita’s case live saving medication. Lale is able to exchange the jewels for food and medicine with Polish workmen in Auschwitz. Lale meets the infamous Dr Mengele, and is tortured when his cache of jewellery is discovered.

The novel faces a difficult task balancing the unethical work which Lale performs as a tattooist and a pimp against his good deeds of providing extra food and medicine with the additional weight of necessary survival. While the book is presented as a novel, it is really a biography of Ludwig Eisenberg, and, as such it is a powerful, well-told story. I felt that sometimes there was not sufficient clarity in the contrast between Lale’s dedicated optimism and the grim pessimism which must have prevailed throughout the camp. Sometimes, the dialogue does not ring true, in the sense that it is tasked with carrying the story further rather than expressing the emotions of the characters.

Overall, a very good read.