I earned an MFA from Wayne State University in Detroit. I've published over a dozen short stories in various magazines and e-zines. My novel, "The Dragons of Hazlett", is now out, and I have two new novels which will be published by Mundania Press, LLC this year and in 2011.
Many years ago, I had a professor ask me this question. At the time, I had no idea what he meant. Who's my narrator? Sure, I understood that story or novel written in first person had a narrator. But what about one written in third person?
Consider the following example:
I didn't wasn't planning to steal anything when I went into the store. But when I stood in the checkout line, my hand darted out of my pocket, and my fingers closed around a pack of gum. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, my hand was safely back in my pocket again, the gum tucked away like it had a right to be there. And when the checkout girl didn't notice, I understood that this was a game. Just like my mother had always said.
This bit was written in first person (that is, from the point of view of the shoplifter). Here, the narrator is easy to identify. Who's telling the story? The woman, of course. But take a look at this example:
Carol wasn't planning on stealing anything when she went into the store. But when she stood in the checkout line, her hand darted out ofher pocket, and her fingers closed around a pack of gum. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, her hand was safely back in her pocket again, the gum tucked away like it had a right to be there. And when the checkout girl didn't notice, Carol understood that this was a game. Just like her mother had always said.
This was written in third person. So who is telling the story? Who is making the reader understand that Carol wasn't consciously thinking of shoplifting? Who is giving that little glimpse into Carol's mind when she thinks of this as a game? Again, it's the narrator.
Even if your story is not written in first person, there is a narrator. There is that invisible person who is describing the scene, giving insight into the characters' minds, and putting a spin on the entire story.
Yes, a spin. In the previous bit, the narrator might have added some incendiary comment ("Just like her mother, the thief, had always said.") Or perhaps some words to make Carol a more sympathetic person ("Carol understood this was a game. And, after what she'd gone through, who could blame her?")
The narrator decides what will be said. She (or he) will determine what details the reader is meant to notice. She will be the one who looks into the character's minds and records what he sees. In any story, understanding your narrator is extremely important.
A few years ago, long after I first heard about the narrator, I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by children's author, Gary Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt said that he always asks his students to consider their narrator when they begin to write. It was his belief that, until a writer knows who the narrator is, the book will lack focus. I have to agree with him; understanding your narrator is as important as understanding your characters.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from a forum post written by an editor of a small magazine. She was discussing her slush pile and said that if she had to read another story that took place in a kitchen, she just might have to tear her hair out. "Do writers know how many stories begin in kitchens?" she asked, clearly annoyed. "And do those writers realize how boring that is?" (I truly wish I knew who said this because I 'd love to give her credit for the terrific insight; however, I don't even remember which forum it was.)
After reading that post, I went through all of my stories and - much to my chagrin - 90% of them took place in kitchens. Or living rooms. Or they began in a bedroom with the main character waking up (which, according to this same forum post, was even worse than beginning a story in a kitchen).
So what's wrong with writing about a kitchen. After all, interesting things can happen in a kitchen, can't they? Well, yes and no. Consider the following scenario:
Greg and Kate are having an arguement. They've been married for a year, but Greg thinks that the shine has already come off their relationship because Kate is so focused on her goal to have a baby that she's scheduled thier love making, thus taking all the fun and sponteniety out of their intimacy.
Okay, now take this scenario and put it into one of the following settings:
a) a 50th anniversary party for Greg's parents which is being held in an exclusive country club
b) a kitchen
Which of the settings makes the story more interesting?
If you are writing this argument in a kitchen in which the only two characters present are Greg and Kate, you are missing some opportunities to create tension. At the party, Greg and Kate are in a public place. Now their flaring tempers are put under even more pressure because they will probably want to remain civil to one another in order to not embarrass the family or themselves. Maybe one or both of them has been drinking too much. Maybe they have begun to argue in the cloakroom only to be interrupted by great aunt Myrtle or cousin Fred...
So you see, just by changing the setting, you are able to rachet the tension up and make the argument much more interesting.
I'm sad to say that, many times, I still opt for the safety of a kitchen or living room setting. I think this is because I am a lazy writer at heart. Kitchens are much easier to write about than restaurants. The kitchen is a very confined space; you don't have to think about the placement of the doors and tables or worry about describing the other customers or the waitstaff. It's much easier to write about a kitchen. But it is, as the editor rightly noted, it is also much more boring.