1. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Element of surprise in a first-person narrative?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by OurJud, Sep 10, 2016.

    Let's say you have a depressed character, and later on during a conversation with an old friend he reveals his wife was killed some years ago. How would one justify not having revealed this at the start?

    My only reason for wanting to do this is to create a kind of 'Ah, that explains a lot.' reaction in the reader, and I also feel it would be far less powerful if just dumped on the opening page.
     
  2. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    I think what you want to do is fine. Just because you are writing in first person doesn't mean your narrator has to show all his cards at once. Having something like this come up in dialog is probably a smart way to deliver this information. It can totally work.
     
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  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I responded to this at excessive length in your previous thread, where you deleted the question. :)

    (Well, my example was excessive.)
     
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  4. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    As long as your character wasn't thinking specifically about her during the first parts of the book, I don't think there's any reason it should have been mentioned in the narrative. I mean, your story probably doesn't open with the narrator giving a life history, right?

    He shouldn't lie (shouldn't say, "I was always feeling down even though nothing bad had ever happened to me,") but he can skip stuff.
     
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  5. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is all very encouraging, thanks.

    I imagine a first-person narrative as an entire dialogue, and my concern is that it would be strange to begin a story of woe without mentioning the very thing that plunged him into the situation we find him in when the story begins.

    I suppose it would be relevant to say when this occurs, and in this first-draft it's approximately 7,000 words in (I would guess somewhere towards the end of chapter 4, perhaps?)

    Over-thinking! It seriously is a blight on my writing!
     
  6. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you think about Catcher in the Rye, for example, we don't really find out what triggered his meltdown until fairly late in the book. And obviously it wasn't a problem for that book's success...
     
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  7. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    @BayView - but is that written in the first?
     
  8. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    Yes. You should read it.
     
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  9. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Even just reading the opening pages on Amazon would give a pretty good idea of how it's set up.
     
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  10. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Mmm, interesting. So the narrator is making it clear he's not going to tell all - he actively says so.

    Thanks.
     
  11. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    There's also the option of a dishonest/unreliable narrator - think Eric Ambler, "Dirty Story"
     
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  12. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's the kind of thing an unreliable narrator would do. I don't really understand the beast yet (as is, I'm sure, obvious in my WIP) so I can't really give you any more to go on.
     
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  13. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I suppose another vehicle would be the 'forgetful' narrator. Page 46: "Oh, by the way, I lost my wife three years ago so I wasn't at my best during that time."

    That might sound stupid, but if the story starts at a point in his life when the bereavement process has run its course, he may well not mention it, or even feel it was relative information at the start of the story. If it crops up I'll mention it, kind of thing.
     
  14. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    or he may not want to talk about it , you can foreshadow it by having him briefly reffer to for example "the accident" without giving fuller info , so that the reader knows theres a reason for his mental state which will be explained in the fullness of time
     
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  15. Nicola
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    Nicola Member

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    ^^ Exactly, he refers to it without explicitly mentioning it.

    He could also refer to fond memories and pleasant past-tenses if it was a happy marriage.

    Losing someone close is not something people would say early on anyway even if it does shape their outlook bc obviously it's sensitive and something they might struggle to accept.
     
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  16. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I understand this, but maybe I look at a first-person, past tense story differently to others. It's more when writing than reading that I tend to think this way, but I see them as one long dialogue (story teller recounting a period of their lives to a listener). If one was talking casually to another person I can see why they may avoid a painful memory such as losing a partner, but if they're setting out specifically to tell a story, it leaves a question mark hanging if they don't include it.

    It's no biggie and easily fixed if I'm really that concerned, but I just like the weight the line carries when it comes, becomes it does so out of the blue.

    I suppose I was just looking for some reassurance it was okay to do it this way, and I've had that many times in this thread. This is one of those occasions where I'm going to go with the readers' consensus rather than my own stubborn obsessions.
     
  17. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    All first person narrators, by definition, are unreliable. A character in the story has an agenda, thus they are unreliable by some stretch of the word.

    ETA: All first-person narrators being unreliable gives the writer endless opportunity to be as overt or covert as they wish. The trick is to do it in a way that's not silly. The plot plays a huge role in this. If the plot calls for information that the narrator is specifically hiding, I want a good reason for them having hidden that piece of information.
     
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  18. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    What if there is no plot, at least in the traditional sense of the word?
     
  19. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    Sure - but a lot of first person narrators are of the dudley do right school of heroic "do the right thing , truth god and the american way' style and thus their narration is broadly accurate... with say Spenser in the Robert B Parker books , as the reader you can accept that he's reporting both the events and his thoughts and feelings accurately . Amblers narrator on the other hand is an unreliable spiv, although he constantly self justifies , as the reader you are clear that although he is relatively honest about major events, his reports of his motivations for his actions, and his interpretation of the actions of others is not accurate or honest
     
  20. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    Sometimes the only way to get through trauma is by suppressing the knowledge of it, so it's not as if your character is doing anything out of the ordinary by not acknowledging the main contributing factor to his depression. Grief does seep out though. I think it's like concealing anything else from the reader. You can subtly hint through his interactions or internalised thoughts while still keeping the, "Ahhh!" moment, things that the reader will notice but not have a ready explanation for at the time. Then you can drop the bomb shell.
     
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  21. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    Oh, I dunno. Different strokes and all that. I've written first person accounts where the narrator really doesn't give a fig for what the reader thinks of them. In fact, I enjoy writing them most of all as they run counterpoint to my own personality. ;)
     
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  22. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Before you clarified this I was about to suggest giving Bukowski's Factotum a try :D
     
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  23. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The unreliable narrator can take many forms. He or she can be consciously deceptive to manipulate the reader, or confused between a delusion and reality, or may have repressed a traumatic event, or simply reluctant to talk about something painful.

    For an excellent use of the unreliable narrator, read The Perfect Ghost by Linda Barnes.
     
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  24. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    I absolutely agree that there is wide variation within first-person. But I'll still contend that every first-person narrator has an agenda and thus cannot be considered reliable.
     
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