“Say what happened, and let the reader know when it happened and what caused it and what the consequences were, and tell me where the characters were and who else was present – and while you’re at it, I’d like to know what they looked like and whether it was raining.”
– Philip Pullman
The above quote is taken from a Guardian article in which Pullman argues against over-use of the first-person present tense narrative voice, and makes a case for simplicity in writing.
The article raises the interesting question: on the spectrum between convention and innovation, where should we fall? Is there a point along the line where too much innovation causes the relationship between the author and the reader to break down, and the reader to give up on the book? When it comes to innovation in fiction, how much is too much?
A good starting point is to understand that every novel can be divided into two components: the story (or the message), and the way in which the story is presented (the medium). Both of these components have a wealth of historical conventions behind them.
In the case of the message (the story) we could refer to the three-act structure, protagonist and antagonist, quests, tension and resolution, and many more. In the case of the medium (the style and the writing), we could talk about chapters, paragraphs, sentence structure, narrative voice, and even the physical medium itself (traditionally, pigment on paper). These conventions stem from a vast body of work stretching back for years — sometimes decades, sometimes centuries, and in a few cases even millennia.
A new author is advised to study these conventions and abide by them. Strictly. The reason for this is that they work — they have been tested by time and a thousand different minds, and their benefits and effects are well known. This applies to conventions of the message and conventions of the medium in equal measure.
The three-act structure, for example, is a sure-fire way to ensure that a story is well-rounded and satisfying; this structure can be further unpacked and studied, and various methods followed for various different effects — but the overall theory is the same. A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end — whatever form they take, and in whatever order they come.
Similarly, some form of paragraphing should be used in order to break up the page and give a sense of rhythm to the physical act of reading; sentences should definitely be used, and they should be varied in order to enhance the pace and flow. These are conventions, and in using them the author does a courtesy to the reader, and demonstrates that they are aware of the rules of their craft.
The controversy begins when an author considers moving away from convention and towards innovation. Consider this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’:
At the top of the hill they stood in the cold and the wind, getting their breath. He looked at the boy. I’m all right, the boy said. The man put his hand on his shoulder and nodded toward the open country below them. He got the binoculars out of the cart and stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste. Nothing to see. No smoke. Can I see? the boy said. Yes. Of course you can. The boy leaned on the cart and adjusted the wheel. What do you see? the man said. Nothing. He lowered the glasses. It’s raining. Yes, the man said. I know.
‘The Road’, Cormac McCarthy (2006)
In this paragraph McCarthy breaks several ‘rules’ — or else he ignores the conventions:
- He does not use quotation marks to denote speech.
- He does not begin a new paragraph for every new speaker.
- He uses a sentence with several clauses without punctuating with commas.
Many people consider this to be poor writing. Others consider it to be genius. Which is right?
The answer is, of course, that McCarthy is welcome to do as he pleases with the conventions of writing, because he fully understands the effect he is going for. ‘The Road’ is a bleak, post-apocalyptic vision of America, a barren world without life or beauty. McCarthy has pared down his prose in order to reflect this, taking it back to something almost primitive, as if the niceties of punctuation have been stripped away by whatever disaster ravaged the face of the earth.
It is a stylistic choice, and McCarthy has earned the right to make such a choice. Over the course of many years and on the back of enormous critical and public acclaim. Not everyone will enjoy his stylistic choices, but he is free to make them. It is not that he is ignorant of the conventions — he is chosing to ignore them for a very specific reason.
‘The Road’ is a good example, because for many casual readers its style is a step too far in the direction of innovation, blurring the lines between prose and poetry and veering towards the oral storytelling tradition of ancient Mesopotamia or Northern Europe. But it is a step consciously taken by the author, with a purpose in mind — so does this make it right?
I would say ‘yes’. Conventions are not hard-and-fast rules, and authors are not bound to abide by them; they can be obeyed, or they can be ignored. However, an author departs from convention at their own risk. Conventions are a scaffold on which to hang a story — they signpost the reader, and help them feel at ease — and too much tinkering can break the unspoken contract between the reader and the writer, which is nicely summed up in the quote from Pullman that heads this article. The contract, roughly, is that the reader will buy and consume the author’s work, and the author will present the work in an accessible way; the author has a duty to be clear and concise, and to take care to to confuse or mislead the reader.
Conventions help to maintain this balance: the reader has certain expectations, and the author is well-advised to meet those expectations. Not off of them, of course: the reader also expects to be surprised and delighted, and the author has permission to mislead to an extent, as long as they make the eventual reveal and whip the mask off the villain — but to completely ignore the rules is, in effect, to cheat at the game. And no-one likes a cheat.
This discussion could be extended for any length of time, comparing the conventions of different genres and the extent to which the readers of those genres are willing to be forgiving — writers of literary fiction generally have far more leeway than writers of commercial genre fiction, for example — but for now I’ll limit myself to writers of genre fiction (which probably has the strongest set of conventions behind it) and specifically first-time or unknown writers.
In an increasingly crowded marketplace, and an increasingly competitive submissions bullpen, the temptation is to make one’s work stand out by innovating. The idea is, I think, that if the work looks different enough it will stand out from the rest of the slush pile and grab an agent’s attention. Innovation can come in many forms, some intriguing and most grotesque. Occasionally the innovation reaches the mainstream and enjoys a brief period in the sun (one example that springs to mind is the recent fashion for absurd re-workings of classic fiction, including ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’; such a sub-genre, I am sure, has its fans, but it has proved — mercifully — to lack staying power), but with a few notable exceptions it burns out before it can do too much damage to the landscape of popular culture.
One exception is the fashion for playing around with narrative voice and viewpoint. The convention that seems to have settled over the development of the novel is the third-person past-tense narrative; although I have to insert a giant caveat that, of course, there are myriad novels written in the first person, many of them classics, and that the vast majority are excellent. But let’s take it that for the most part genre fiction has been largely written in third-person past-tense.
Recently, however, we have seen an explosion (particularly, to my view, in teen fiction) for writing in the first-person present-tense:
We’re walking across the wild fields south-east of town, those ones that slope down to the river and head on towards the swamp. Ben’s sent me to pick him some swamp apples and he’s made me take Manchee with me, even tho we all know Cillian only bought him to stay on Mayor Prentiss’s good side and so suddenly here’s this brand new dog as a present for my birthday last year when I never said I wanted any dog, that what I said I wanted was for Cillian to finally fix the fissionbike so I wouldn’t have to walk every forsaken place in this stupid town, but oh, no, happy birthday, Todd, here’s a brand new puppy, Todd, and even tho you don’t want him, even tho you never asked for him, guess who has to feed him and train him and wash him and take him for walks and listen to him jabber now he’s got old enough for the talking germ to set his mouth moving? Guess who?
‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’, Patrick Ness (2008)
The immediate and most obvious effect of this shift is to make the narrative more urgent and kinetic, as well as more accurately conveying the interior thought-life of the narrator and immersing the reader in their experience. The idea is that when something dramatic happens the reader will be immediately invested in the outcome, as they are sitting right inside the narrator’s head without the comfort of the backwards-looking view to assure us that the narrator makes it through to tell the story.
This is all very well if this is the effect the author is going for — however, I suspect there has been a rash of novels written and submitted to agents and publishers (as well as being published online) in which the author has decided to use first-person present-tense because … well, everyone else is doing it, and they got published, so it must work, right?
This is where the problem lies: when authors innovate for any reason other than that the story demands it. When authors begin to innovate based on likelihood of publication, or in an effort to boost sales, rather than because it is the best way to tell their story, the innovation will be counter-productive to the purpose of writing the story in the first place: to immerse the reader in a believable, relatable narrative. The reader might not always be able to articulate their discomfort, because not every reader is au fait with literary conventions — what will likely happen is that the reader will simply put down the book and fail to pick it up again, or else the agent of publisher will go on to the next manuscript in the pile.
For the first-time author, convention is a friend. Innovation should be used sparingly and for the right reasons.
In my own novel, ‘Momentum’, I took the decision late in the day to ditch a traditional chapter-based approach for something closer to a TV or streaming serial: a series of ‘parts’ (similar to epsiodes) divided into ‘scenes’. The reason for this was because the story naturally lent itself to this kind of sub-division; the chapters felt artificial, the pace of the story demanding fewer hard breaks and more soft breaks, and each ‘part’ having its own momentum (ha!) that felt interrupted by the chapter breaks.
In my case, the innovation grew out of the telling of the story, and I started by sticking to the convention until the convention no longer served the narrative. Time will tell whether the innovation was successful (by all means, let me know), but at least I can rest assured that I have a justification for it.
What innovation should never be used for is, firstly, to try to make a narrative more commercially attractive (this will usually fail), and, secondly, to create artificial drama — much like dutch angles are over-used in cheap TV and film productions to hammer into the audience a sense of unreality or heighten suspense.
This isn’t to say that authors should never innovate; used sparingly, drastic literary techniques and deliberate breaches of convention can have a strong impact. But for the first-time author, or the author looking to break into the market, my advice would be to exercise caution, and to know and follow the conventions in the first instance. Allow your character work, plotting and tension to speak for themselves, and leave the daring experiments for another time.