The Amazing Transparent Narrator

This post is the second part of an ongoing series on a writing style I’m calling Novelization Style. It’s not complete in itself and if you haven’t yet read the first part you should go take a look before starting part two.


Novelization Style, like omniscient narration, usually spends time with multiple POV characters, some of whom might have the point of view for only a few paragraphs.[1] Unlike omniscient, Novelization Style tends not to vary its distance from the characters or step outside their points of view. It switches from one character’s close point of view straight to the next. And those points of view all sound pretty much the same.

Novels with varied points of view often vary their voices to match them. Sometimes that involves subtle changes in prose. Take a random book I grabbed off my shelf, Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station. The main characters are a CIA agent and a 120-year-old Civil War veteran. Chapters set in the agent’s office are written conventionally for mid–20th century SF: snappy with lots of dialog. The veteran’s chapters have less dialog, longer sentences, less contemporary phrasing, and more repetition.

More often it’s not the prose that changes. It’s what subjects a point of view chooses to focus on, and what it will or won’t say about them. The Haunting of Hill House’s style doesn’t change radically between the framing passages and Eleanor’s point of view. There are more striking stylistic differences between the conventional close third person narration and Eleanor’s stream of consciousness. Still, the bookending narrator is distinct from Eleanor: it doesn’t just know more than she does, it’s more knowing.

In Novelization Style the stylistic differences between the characters’ points of view, if any, are so subtle they might as well not be there. In Leviathan Wakes Holden’s point of view sounds just like the POV of its other protagonist, Detective Miller, and also just like the POV of the character in the prologue. Leviathan Wakes does not narrate the insides of these characters’ heads differently.[2]

This is because Novelization Style tends to be written in transparent prose. I’ve complained before about this great literary ideal of SF fandom. The idea is that transparent prose vanishes while you’re reading it, like you’re watching the novel through a window. It uploads pure unmediated story directly to your brain. Which doesn’t entirely make sense inasmuch as the novel is in fact made of prose. It’s like pretending a brick wall doesn’t contain bricks. To me “transparent prose” means the flattened style you get when you’re trying not to have a style, like a cinematographer who points a camera straight at the set and walks away.

Genre Shouldn’t Mean Generic

I prefer prose that isn’t going for transparency. Not necessarily prose that’s poetic, baroque, or drowning in obscure adjectives. Look at Philip K. Dick’s prose–it’s plain, but it’s got personality. I just mean prose that’s willing to be idiosyncratic or original. That pays attention to sound and rhythm and imagery and knows that if the audience is occasionally aware of the artifice, that’s okay.

Here’s the thing: if it’s done at all well this kind of prose actually communicates more than transparent prose. Let’s turn back to the first three sentences of The Haunting of Hill House, which is straightforward and easy to read but not, y’know, transparent.

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.

A more obvious way to begin the first sentence might be “Nothing living.” “No live organism” is not the phrasing that would come first to most people’s minds. But it’s absolutely right. This sentence doesn’t just say that to stay sane every living thing needs dreams. (Stated baldly and without irony, the sentiment is banal and entirely un-Shirley Jacksonish.) The word choice implies extra levels of meaning: “No live organism” sets a tone of scholarly detachment, indicates the narrator’s other-end-of-the-microscope perspective, and distinguishes the narrator from Eleanor’s less worldly point of view. “Even larks and katydids” is also a specific choice of words; “pigeons and beetles” or “owls and wasps” would have had different associations. A lesser writer might have just gone for “even insects.”

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.

You’re reading about living creatures but the next sentence is about a house, and it’s described as “not sane” as though this house has a mind to not be sane with. This is standard gothic imagery, nothing new, but even so it sparks your imagination in a way “The dark old house stood in the hills” wouldn’t. What’s more interesting is how even an unexpected possessive pronoun can make a big difference: Hill House stands against its hills where most writers would say the hills. Which immediately tells you what kind of house it is and what kind of people once lived there.

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.

So Hill House is not insane in the conventional way. Jackson doesn’t describe it with any of the usual clichés: crazy angles, broken windows, rotting floorboards. Hill House is neat, firm, and sensible. Respectable, but mad.

Three sentences, the first not even mentioning the house. And even if you’ve never read the book or seen the movie[3], even without knowing Hill House’s location or architectural style, you probably have a pretty good idea what kind of house Hill House is.

Now–and I realize I’m being horribly unfair here–let’s look at Leviathan Wakes.

Let’s admit it: Leviathan Wakes is boring. There’s nothing wrong with it, exactly. The writing is perfectly competent…but it’s competent the way an encyclopedia entry is competent. It conveys the story with minimal fuss but it doesn’t have… well, I guess you could say it doesn’t have hooks, in the pop song sense. Rhythm, rhetorical devices, anything to hold your attention. Descriptions and word choices are unsurprising; that “improbable bones” line I quoted above is as good as it gets. All very functional, but bland. In places it’s downright awkward:

If the Canterbury sensed an anomaly, it would alert her. If a system errored, it would alert her. If Captain McDowell left the command and control deck, it would alert her so she could turn the music off and look busy when he arrived.

For the first two sentences that’s a good attempt at parallelism, but the way the third sentence carries on past “it would alert her” is the prose equivalent of a power chord interrupted by a droopy slide whistle noise.

Style aside, what’s striking is how little sense we get of what being on the Canterbury is like. Not that I want blueprints and infodumps. Nothing kills a novel like over-describing everything. What I’m missing are a certain kind of detail–interesting word choices and unexpected images. The kind that can, for example, tell you what sort of house you’re dealing with in just three sentences. The Canterbury is a stock set, a Default Spaceship. All we learn that isn’t a standard spaceship tropes is that it lacks the usual giant viewscreen, and that the medical officer debrides wounds with maggots.[4] Without contradicting anything in this chapter the Canterbury might resemble the Enterprise or the Nostromo or the Serenity or even the TARDIS–environments that not only look different but would feel different to exist inside, the way your home feels different from a library or a supermarket.

Different settings feel samey in transparent prose for the same reason different points of view sound similar. Transparent prose is trying not to feel or sound like anything. Characters have voices and personalities. Paradoxically, transparent prose wants to convey those voices and personalities while effacing any sign of voice or personality in itself.

In the next post, a little bit more on what Novelization Style’s close third person/transparent prose pairing does to a story. After that I’ll (finally) start detailing the content and story structure I see in this style.

  1. Horror stories looking to generate cheap pathos often spend a few paragraphs in the POV of an extra about to be killed by the monster.  ↩

  2. When I read novels in this style frequent switches between characters often throw me out of the book. There are several reasons for this, but sometimes part of the problem is that it’s hard to tell right away whose point of view I’m in. For a split second my brain has to spend metaphorical processor cycles working out who and where the novel just jumped to.  ↩

  3. No, there was no remake. It was all a bad dream. Put it out of your head.  ↩

  4. Oh, and the computer screens give users “an odd greenish cast.” Because apparently this starship is fitted out with Commodore PETs.  ↩

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