Narrators, Visible and Not

This blog has developed a running theme: I like science fiction and fantasy, so why do I have trouble finding novels in those genres I want to read? I’ve complained several times that I find many of the worlds imagined by SF even less pleasant than the one in which a large number of people are willing to vote for Donald Trump, but this is not in fact my biggest issue. It’s prose. Quite simply, very little 21st century SF is written in a style I find engaging.

I started writing an essay to figure out what, exactly, is bothering me. It turned out to be, like, really long, and I’m not done yet. So I’m turning it into a series. Given my (lack of) writing speed it may appear once a week. I might collect it all in one place when I’m done; if I get feedback in the meantime that would strengthen my arguments, I’ll edit the final piece.

I’m coming to recognize a particular style that’s got me bored. It’s common in genre novels. (All genres, though I encounter it most in SF.) I can’t define it precisely. These blog posts will be me talking out loud to myself, figuring out something that’s been in the back of my mind, rather than staking out a firm thesis. Also, it’s important to note that the stylistic quirks I’m going to talk about are tendencies, not hard rules. Most novels that tend toward this style don’t stick to it all the way through, or lack one or two of the characteristics I’ll identify. But I can make generalizations:

  1. This style is written almost entirely in the close third person point of view. The narrative doesn’t necessarily stick to a single character’s point of view, but it rarely uses omniscient techniques. Instead it shifts directly from one close POV to another at section or chapter breaks.
  2. This style is written in transparent prose.
  3. Stories in this style privilege action over dialogue, ideas, or psychological observation. This is the key to how this style works: it focuses on what’s happening in the present moment; the characters’ immediate reactions, short-term goals, and surface thoughts. It’s reluctant to draw back and take a wider view of the world, or include anything that might read like an essay or a broader character study. This style tends to conform to an extreme interpretation of “show, don’t tell” more suited to movies, a medium in which telling is impractical.
  4. These stories are influenced by Hollywood movies. They may even be structured according to the principles laid out in screenwriting books like Story and Save the Cat. The climax is often an action set piece or fighty confrontation with the big villain. The central conflict is resolved more by doing than talking.
  5. On the other hand, if a book is part of a series the plot may not be so tightly constructed. It may run in place for chapters at a time, like a TV series drawing out its story arcs every time it’s renewed for another season.
  6. This style often works like visual media even on the level of the prose. For example, breaks in the narrative often define “scenes” in ways that parallel the editing of a movie. Stories often end chapters or sections with cliffhangers. Section breaks may be used for pacing like movies use cuts, increasing (and leading to shorter “shots”) as the action picks up.
  7. The pace of the action is usually steady. Time scales usually hew close to those of movies or television seasons–hours, days, at most weeks. This can have different effects depending on whether the book follows the “self-contained movie” or the “soap opera” model. Self-contained stories often try to strip away any detail, incident, or line of dialogue that isn’t absolutely functional. On the other hand, volumes in ongoing sagas may seem to plod, as though unwilling to skip over anything no matter how irrelevant.

By themselves most of these stylistic choices are not problems, but I’m tired of what happens when they come together. When I read a novel in this style it feels like reading the novelization of a nonexistent movie. For the purposes of these posts I’ll call this style Novelization Style.

Points of View

The first characteristic of Novelization Style is the close third person point of view. Novelization Style stays in one character’s head at a time, narrating nothing but that character’s thoughts and experiences. This may not sound like much of a characteristic inasmuch as close third person is the most common POV in fiction. What’s important is that Novelization Style sticks to close third person wherever possible, and usually for the entire story.

I’ll explain what I mean with a contrast. Here’s the first paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

These are not the thoughts of any specific character. The Haunting of Hill House spends most of its time in the mind of Eleanor Vance, but it’s bookended by an omniscient narrator who introduces us to Hill House and its impending inhabitants. Unlike most of the novel, Eleanor’s introduction isn’t close to Eleanor. It knows things she doesn’t. This omniscient narrator is very present–it isn’t just a narrative point of view, it admits that it has a point of view. (When it says Dr. Montague “thought of himself as careful and conscientious,” you can tell it’s using the words thought of himself advisedly.)

Even after switching to Eleanor’s POV Hill House varies its distance. Sometimes it tells us what Eleanor experiences and thinks. Sometimes it backs away, narrating what other characters say and do in Eleanor’s presence but not how Eleanor feels about them. Sometimes it creeps in to peer over her shoulder, feeding us her unfiltered stream of consciousness.

Now let’s look at James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan’s Wake, because Leviathan’s Wake is the world’s most perfect example of a much-hyped, well-loved SF novel that bored the will to live out of me. (I gave up halfway through; when I discuss structure later on, I’ll refer to a book I actually finished.) Also the publisher conveniently provides us with an online sample chapter, so, hey, no retyping. Here’s an early bit:

If you asked OPA recruiters when they were drunk and feeling expansive, they might say there were a hundred million in the Belt. Ask an inner planet census taker, it was nearer to fifty million. Any way you looked, the population was huge and needed a lot of water.

So now the Canterbury and her dozens of sister ships in the Pur’n’Kleen Water Company made the loop from Saturn’s generous rings to the Belt and back hauling glaciers, and would until the ships aged into salvage wrecks.

So as with Hill House a narrator is setting the scene, getting us situated in the novel’s world before pulling in closer to a character’s head.[1] What’s interesting is how it pulls in–this is the very next line:

Jim Holden saw some poetry in that.

Jim Holden is the protagonist of Leviathan Wakes. He’s been looking out a window, thinking about the history of his ship and his job, and everything we’ve read has been inside his point of view. This is true of this entire chapter. The novel orients us to its world by walking Holden through a routine morning on his spaceship and having him notice or contemplate everything it wants us to understand: “Seven years in Earth’s navy, five years working in space with civilians, and he’d never gotten used to the long, thin, improbable bones of Belters.” All facts are things Holden would know and all opinions are his.

Leviathan Wakes sticks to Holden’s heels like a nervous puppy. The narrative distance is constant, the narrator self-effacing and the narrative locked into the point of view character’s head. The effect is that there doesn’t appear to be a narrator, as though this is a direct telepathic transmission from a fictional character’s brain. The narrator is invisible. A while back I read a blog post arguing that a lot of first-person SF could be rewritten in the third person without changing very much. For Leviathan Wakes, and other Novelization Style books, the opposite is true. It would take hardly any rewriting to switch these books to first person.

This post is the first in a series, not a complete argument. So, again, I want to make it clear that just the point of view is not enough to classify a book as Novelization Style. Close third person is a standard style in fiction. I didn’t give up on Leviathan Wakes because it was written in close third person point of view. The problem was the way that narrative choice combined with other characteristics of the text, one of the most important being its prose, which is usually the kind of thing that gets described as “transparent.” In the next post I’ll discuss transparent prose and what happens when it’s combined with the strict close third person point of view.

Next: The Amazing Transparent Narrator

  1. Unlike the Hill House excerpt, this isn’t the very beginning of the novel. There’s a prologue that isn’t part of the sample.  ↩

5 thoughts on “Narrators, Visible and Not

  1. Thanks for articulating my dissatisfaction better than I could! The only thing I can think of to add is the common idea of “raising the stakes” halfway through the novel. Again, not bad in and of itself, but quite regrettable when it turns something fascinating and atmospheric into a plot machine. The first unfortunate examples that come to mind are The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad and Bone.

  2. Yeah, when I get around to talking about story structure I should definitely take a look at what the SF genre thinks constitutes “stakes.” Often it seems to be a synonym for “more action bits.” I’m planning to cite Lois McMaster Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen as a book I enjoyed, and one reason is that it sets up a modest human-level situation in the first chapter and keeps it interesting for over 200 pages without blowing everything up into a disaster movie or a conspiracy thriller.

  3. Fantastic post, thank you. Lots to think about. I also enjoy reading in-depth idea-writing, including pages of essay-like disquisition!

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