The Levels of Narrator Awareness

Hey everyone,

Sorry about the length of time between my last post and this one. The good news is that its at least partly due to writing. The bad news is that I haven’t finished the novel yet (so I suppose this post could–maybe–be seen as a form of procrastination). Anyway, I’ve had this idea in my mind for a while, but I finally got it written down. Enjoy!

By its nature, narration omits certain details. It indicates to readers which events are relevant to the story and which are largely irrelevant, and one of the main ways this is achieved is through what I like to call character awareness. I imagine this as a series of circles emanating out from the narrator’s viewpoint like ripples, with each ripple in the sequence appearing less important to the narrative than the previous one. For example, we have full awareness, which is something that happens within the narrative and is given full attention and detail. The readers know exactly what happened because a significant portion of the novel is devoted to it. On the other side of the spectrum is periphery discussion, which only the most astute readers will recall (more on this later). To illustrate, here’s a list, in order of proximity to the main character:

  1. Full awareness: Events that happen in the narrative in full detail. These ought to be reasonably related to the main plot, as they will receive the most reader attention.
  2. Glossy awareness: Events that are followed almost entirely within narration (usually at the start of the chapter, before the real action begins). In effect, this awareness is a direct violation of the ‘show don’t tell’ maxim, and as such it subtly clues the reader that the matter is of less import. Expect subplots to be continued here if they don’t have an impact on the main story.
  3. Dialogue awareness: Events which are not described in narration at all, but instead appear in dialogue involving the main character. Ex:

“Jerry jumped off a cliff,” I said.

“Pity. I heard he was going places, but I never figured the bottom of a cliff was one of             them.”

Without consciously thinking about it, your inner reader should tell you that Jerry                  wasn’t very important. If he was, his death would be dealt with at a higher level of                  character awareness.

  1. Periphery dialogue awareness: Events described by one minor character speaking to another, usually before they’re even aware of the main character’s presence. Ex:

“Jerry jumped off a cliff,” he said.

“Pity. I heard he was going places, but I never figured the bottom of a cliff was one of            them.”

I feel that it’s important to note that the forms of dialogue awareness can have significant overlap; that is to say, periphery dialogue awareness can seem more relevant to the plot than regular dialogue awareness, even though it’s usually less relevant. For example, if the main character collapsed into a ball and cried at the loss of Jerry, then the fact that the information is relayed through such a distant level of awareness is seen as cruel. Rather than diminishing the importance of Jerry, it makes him stand out in the reader’s memory even more.

All of this, of course, gets into the games you can play with the levels of awareness. Many authors are fond of mentioning someone in periphery dialogue who ends up being essential to the novel; astute readers are rewarded, while the average reader doesn’t notice anything amiss. For the most part, however, this serves as a simple rule of thumb: the higher the level of narrator awareness, the more important an event is to the overall story.

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