Narrative Technique in Short Fiction
In short fiction, as in creative writing generally, the point of view or narrative technique has been seen as particularly important in how readers might engage with a story. Why might an author use a particular narrative technique? Select three stories from the Reader that demonstrate a particular narrative technique, or that demonstrate several different narrative techniques, and discuss and compare the effect of this in these stories. Narrative technique and point of view play an important part in how a reader can engage with a short story.
Depending upon how the technique is used, the reader can either feel included or alienated1, even in the most inclusive form of narrative, that of the first person singular perspective. I will be referring to three stories from the reader, all written with a first person perspective, and discussing how this narrative technique, partnered with other aspects of the story, engage the reader in it.
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Heather M. Steffen defines First Person perspective as a narrative style indicated by the use of the pronouns “I” (for the singular form) and “we” (plural form).
The events of the story are being told by someone who is or did experience them. One of its downfalls is that the reader is only able to view a single characters emotions thought and experiences within the story, but this perspective can make the story seem more immediate, thus generally more engaging for the reader, without being intrusive (as a second person perspective can often do). 2 The three stories I will be using are also all connected by a recurring theme, that of death and injury, chosen so that the contrast between them is all the more clear.
Beginning with Aquifer, by Tim Winton, the first person perspective here is that of a man who is returning to his childhood home, due to a grisly discovery in the swamp at the end of his street3. Winton begins the story in the present, with the narrator seeing a news report regarding the discovery of human bones near his childhood home. This triggers a memory of long ago, and we are taken on a metaphorical and physical journey, back to when the narrator was a child growing up in a new development outside of Perth.
This journey through time is occurring concurrently with the narrator making the drive back to the area, and we learn not only about the death of one of his neighbours in the swamp, but also of the eventual death of much of the swamp itself, as it is shaped and formed to the needs of the growing community. As readers, we are drawn into the story by a yearning to learn more about this man, and why he feels the need to return to this place, that he had long since abandoned.
We feel for this man, coming to terms with the way his old home has changed, because we too as readers find ourselves looking back on our childhood homes, and finding that they are completely different to how we remember them, whether through actual change, or just a distortion of memory. In complete opposition to this feeling is that which one feels when faced with Malky, the narrator and viewpoint character of Irvine Welsh’s A Fault on the Line. 4 Malky is a brash and seemingly uncaring man, whose language and manner can be a huge turn off to the reader.
This is something of a pattern for Welsh, as noted by Robert Morace: ‘… rovides an arresting portrait of the pathological Scot as a [young] urban male, graphic [not only] in its language and depiction of violence… ’5 This is all well and good for a reader coming from a similar background, who can relate to the character of Malky (who is less of an urban young male and more of a working class rough man), on some sort of basic level (though not necessarily the sort of person who would blame their own wife for getting her legs chopped off), but for the average reader, if there is such a thing, it is a far more difficult task to engage with the viewpoint character of Malky, as he is so different from many readers.
Of course, yet another level of narrative technique within this story is the fact that not only are we looking through Malky’s eyes, we are looking through his brain and his thoughts, in such a way that the reader can find themselves trying a lot harder to engage with the story, because of the struggle of trying to understand the language barrier from regular English, to the Scottish brogue that A Fault on the Line is written in.
This is perhaps the effect Welsh was attempting to achieve, in writing a story that would usually alienate many people, he has instead drawn readers nto a world that would normally just pass them by, thanks to the challenges it poses in language, tone and content. Welsh’s story is proof that even the most seemingly off-putting of characters can become an important literary device, who at first glance can seem to disengage the reader from the story, but upon further investigation (as this person has discovered), is used in a very powerful way to engage the reader in a way that is not immediately visible or thought possible.
Moving on, from Scotland to Ireland, and we come to look at Anne Enright’s short story Until the Girl Died. This story does not use the same literary device of accented writing that A Fault on the Line does, yet much like Welsh, Enright is usually famed for her writing on Irish life, especially that of relationships between men and women. 7 Enright’s stories are narrated with a sort of black humour, and humour has always been a good way to engage a reader, even the kind of humour that is a woman discussing her husband’s marital transgressions (‘lapses’, as the narrator calls them).
This story is markedly different from the other two examples I have used in that the narrator is not the focal point of the story. Kevin, the woman’s husband, is the focal point of this story, thus this story is an example of where the narrator and viewpoint character are not the same person, as is the case in Aquifer and A Fault on the Line. The reason I say this is because we learn far more about the husband than we ever do about the wife. Most of the story is Emily talking about her husband, and how the death of Samantha (the titular girl) has affected Kevin, rather than herself.
Whether this was intentional on the behalf of Enright as a literary device, the division of narrator and viewpoint character, or as a character building device, showing that Emily is more concerned about her husband than herself, it works as an engagement device. The reader is drawn in, wondering why it is that Emily is so easily able to forgive her husband for his lapses, and all the while she is almost angry at Samantha for dying, leading the reader to begin to feel the same way.
This is the true art of the short story, to make the reader feel sympathy for someone who falls in a morally grey area, that of Kevin, the philanderer. Enright doesn’t force the reader into this belief, but gently prods us towards it, until we are right there alongside Emily, when at the end of the story she is feeling guilt over her acerbic attitude towards Samantha, after seeing how her death has affected Kevin and her relationship with him.
Her visit to the girls grave is a powerful image, and it is at this point that she becomes the viewpoint character, and we see her in a different light, rather than a woman who will get angry at the girl who is fooled into a relationship with her husband, as a woman who will go to any lengths to get back the husband she has loved this whole time. This story is so true to life, it is easy to imagine that this is happening somewhere nearby, perhaps to someone the reader knows. Domestic unrest is portrayed so much in literature and media in these times, it is hard not to engage in a story that involves marital dramatics.
A strong sense of reality is a powerful device in reader engagement, even in first person perspective. Readers can see themselves in that situation, wondering what they would do if they were Emily, or even if they were Kevin. Enright has definitely succeeded in using narrative technique to engage the reader in her story. Narrative technique and focalisation/point of view are and will remain important literary devices in short fiction for many years to come. Being able to engage the reader is the job of the author, and narration technique is one of the many ways that this is done.
It is of special importance in the short story, where the author and narrator need to grab the attention of the reader very quickly, while still being able to move the story forward swiftly. There is a limited space to get the essence of the story across to the reader, so authors must apply every device available to them to ensure that the reader does not get bored 100 words in. Narrative technique and focalisation are a small but important part of this, because if the reader cannot engage with the narrator and characters, then all hope is lost for the story, and it might as well not be written.
First person perspective, being a very common form of narrative technique, has probably the least trouble in engaging readers, as they are so used to seeing it (unlike that of the second person perspective, which can be confronting and uncomfortable for some readers). It is other aspects within the story that can affect the effectiveness of this narrative technique (as demonstrated with Malky’s harsh language), but more often than not this easy to read form of narrative is able to overcome any other accidental obstacles he writer may have placed in the way of their story.
To conclude, in researching and looking closely at three very different stories, all using the singular form of first person perspective, this author has found herself engaging once again with these three stories on different levels, being given more knowledge into how these stories have been written, and how these devices are used to show the reader different sides of the viewpoint character and narrator. This is truly a deep engagement with the story.