The Voice Of The Storyteller

The inspector sorted through the piles of printouts on his desk, still looking for a way to put all of the evidence together, to find some way to make sense of the mass of paper.  The data dump from the elevator showed that it reached the 14th floor at 21:43 and the camera inside the cab showed a single figure, someone who knew where the tiny camera was mounted and kept his back to it.  But the other shooter was already on the floor, because gunshots were heard on the recording of the phone call the tenant downstairs had made at 21:33.  The alarm on the fire door from the basement was tripped at 21:52, though–the alarm company logs had confirmed it.  The elevator hadn’t gone back down until 22:17, and none of the stairwell cameras had picked up anyone.  That meant…

The inspector sat back in his chair, looking not at any single piece of evidence but at the confused mass, trying to see the whole picture, all at once.  Of course!  From the beginning he had been assuming that there were two shooters, because the parking structure camera had caught the stolen Ford with two figures in the front seat.  But he’d been looking at it all wrong.  There had been three strangers in the building that night, not two.

The whole case now hinged on one question:  The identity of that mysterious third person…

Who is the Third Person?  It’s not an idle question. In my little example posted above, who is telling the story? It’s someone who is sympathetic to the inspector, maybe another police detective?  That would make sense, right, because it has to be somebody who could guess the thought processes of the inspector, and who was familiar with all the details of the case, someone who was comfortable using a 24 hour clock.

Wait, you say, that’s silly–the third person isn’t a real person, it’s a literary technique. Yeah, well, Mr. Second Person Guy, you’re a literary technique, too–don’t let the fourth wall hit you on the way out.

Seriously, though, a story told in the Third Person has to be told by somebody. In some older stories the narrator actually introduces himself at the beginning (or the end, or sometimes both) of the story.

“I am relating this story to you just as it was told to me, many years ago by an old sea captain…”


“I first became aware of these events when I was researching a subject quite unrelated to the eerie incidents that I will now relate…”

These days that technique isn’t used much, although Michael Crichton, for example, uses a very similar technique in many of his novels, using a prologue that explains that the story was pieced together from these documents or that government report. A while back I listened to the audiobook of The Andromeda Strain read by the  character actor David Morse, who inevitably plays a cop or military man of some kind, and I could see him in my head as he read the book, in a clean but cheap suit, sitting stiffly in a chair in some anonymous office, with neat stacks of files in front of him.  It made the story so real for me. (In fact I am sure that my habit of doing my pleasure reading via audiobooks has a lot to do with my thoughts on this matter.)

The most famous Third Person of American letters is probably Diedrich Knickerbocker, Washington Irvine’s pre-internet viral creation. (Seriously, how many literary techniques have a basketball team named after them? Take that, Anton Chekhov!)  The voice of Knickerbocker is central to the feel of The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow–the story was being told by somebody who was intimately familiar with the old Dutch communities of New York and who claimed to have learned to shoot squirrels, in fact, just down the road from the churchyard that figures so prominently in the story.

Even when the Third Person remains entirely out of the frame of the narrative, though, the voice comes through. You can’t have a story told by nobody. There are a million choices to make when telling a story–how to describe a character, what to explain and what to assume the reader already understands, which scenes to include, when to quote dialogue directly, so on and so forth.  Who is telling the story determines how the story is told.

The reader forms a mental image of the narrator and that conception is all the more powerful for never being explicitly visualized.  When the reader “hears” the story told by  an inconsistent or unpleasant mental narrator, the story starts to feel like being trapped at a party by a drunk who won’t shut up about some guy he knows.  Mentally the reader looks at his watch and says, “This is all very interesting, but I have a bus to catch…”

This problem tends to show up a lot with fiction written to ape a particular period or style.  Writers who sprinkle “hardboiled” slang into their descriptive prose in attempt capture the feel of Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane can end up alienating their readers if the attitudes expressed in the text are at odds with the language. The story doesn’t feel like it’s being told by nobody, it feels like it’s being told by a poser who can’t be trusted, who’s making up some tough talk without really knowing what he’s talking about.

In the same way an intrusive figure of speech in a Fantasy or Science Fiction work can undermine the reader’s confidence in the Storyteller. (“Hang on–you’re telling me the Orc looks like a football linebacker–how do you know about football?”)  These kinds of glitches often pass under the reader’s radar–he may not know why the story feels false to him, it just doesn’t ring true.

All of this is a very subtle business. It’s a matter of images and impressions, attitudes picked up from things like the author’s choice to describe a character’s clothing in detail but not mention the make and model of that character’s car. When the narrator is essentially the author, as in modern, realistic fiction, the author can usually just tell the story as himself.  Particularly when describing a profession that the author knows well (Dick Francis and jockeys, John Grisham and lawyers, Joseph Wambaugh and cops).

When telling a story in Third Person that is outside of the author’s own experiences, however, the question will come up–who is telling this story, and how does that viewpoint change the way in which the story is told?  Does the narrator explain the workings of some high tech gizmo in one scene and then describe another as a “mysterious black box” a few pages later? If the narrator knows how the criminal underworld operates are his attitudes those of a cop or a criminal? Are those attitudes consistent or do they change depending on which character is being followed? What moral viewpoint comes across in the prose–if an attack is described as “vicious” or “beastial” in one scene what differentiates that act of violence from another one lauded as being “brave” or “heroic”?

Things to think about.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, pulp revival and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Voice Of The Storyteller

  1. m2foster says:

    I think what you’re running into here is the problem of mixing techniques. You start with “The inspector sorted…” which right away tells me the VPC (viewpoint character) is not the inspector, so I’m expecting a distant outside-in perspective like from an omni narrator. But then you add “Of course!” in italics, which is a technique for direct internal dialogue, which is a third person close narrative distance technique, not an omni narrator. An omni narrator would write “The inspector thought, Of course!”

  2. feralplum says:

    I hadn’t thought of it that way. I remember when James Llileks said that all the Bertie Wooster stories were tales the protagonist told the boys down at the Drones Club. It floored me because it was so probable, and it had never occurred to me.

  3. Mary says:

    Third-person limited, however, lets you get away with a lot less notice to the narrator than either first person or omniscient.

  4. I find I write better in Third-person. I’ve tried first, still trying, but I haven’t quite figured out how to make it from other characters POV without it getting confusing, or switching POV. Third, to me, is so much easier.

  5. Pingback: The Invisible Character | mishaburnett

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