Having too much narration in your story is a lot like keeping a rotary phone in your house; both are heavy, slow, and no longer practical for their original use. But unlike narration rotary phones can still come in handy, like if you want to beat a home invader to death (assuming you could lift it…
… which you can’t because that’s impossible).
See, kind of like the rotary phone narration was once an all purpose tool. It allowed anybody to write, and write well. But like other terrible ideas; racism, sexism, and murdering a rabbit as a pregnancy test, narration is no longer socially acceptable. Audiences have become more savvy. They expect better. Now we need to manipulate their emotions to bring them personally into our tales, and the only way to do that is with action and dialogue.
I know I beat those two drums a lot, but it’s a fact. And for those of us who want to write full length novels it’s vital. Because when you narrate you tell, and with action/dialogue you show. Which is as stark as the difference between hearing about how fun a concert was, and actually going to it. So I’m going to give you two examples, the first complex and the second simple, but both will show, not tell, why narration when overused is poison to your pen.
Mary entered the room and everyone in the place stopped speaking. Some were perplexed, others amazed, but nobody knew who she was. Each group of people she passed whispered among themselves about this mysterious, beautiful stranger.
You see what just happened there. I told you about the moment. I summarized it. Which basically meant I stood between you and the occurrence and reported it to you. Not a lot of fun. Now let’s see what happens when we create the same scene with dialogue and action…
Mary entered the room and the partygoers went silent. She descended the staircase, and as she passed the groups of people they began to whisper among themselves.
“Who is she?” one woman said.
“Her?” a gentleman said. “I hear she’s the heiress to a German baron, but had to leave Hamburg because of a scandal involving the Prime Minister.”
“No,” another lady said. “She’s the president’s secret illegitimate daughter.”
“Not daughter.” Another partygoer shook her head. “She’s the president’s mistress. My tennis coach’s masseuse knows her driver’s girlfriend.”
Mary heard the last one and smiled. Not even close.
Can you spot the difference? In the second example it’s like we’re at the party with Mary. We’re walking along side her as the rumors swirl. We don’t need to be told she’s mysterious because the people’s reactions clearly show us that. And we’re just as perplexed as they are. We feel the same way.
And this is why narration is such a dead fish, and why three hundred pages of it is like an ambien overdose. It not only severs all emotional ties between reader and story, but stops all forward momentum (your book’s pace) like Freedom Force’s Stonewall.
High fives to the three people who got that reference
But if you’re still not convinced about how awful narration is let’s apply it not to fiction, but to a simple joke…
A priest runs into a member of his church, and says, “John, I haven’t seen you in months!”
John says, “Sorry Father, I stopped going to church. It’s just so full of hypocrites.”
“Yeah,” the priest says, shaking his head, “but we can always find room for one more!”
Funny right? Let’s see if narrating the joke makes it better or worse…
A priest ran into a former churchgoer and they exchange a few, humorous words.
Ahhh, good stuff! But seriously, if you can avoid narration in your writing, do it. Everyone will thank you.
Narrate that again, I dare you, I double dare you motherf%@ker, narrate that one more God damn time!