Choosing a narrator in online serials
Who is going to tell your story?
It’s 2022, I’m barely aware that it’s a Monday, and I should say hello to all the new subscribers. Hello! Today’s newsletter is all about narrators and how your narrative structure can impact upon your writing of an online, weekly serial.
I don’t do new year’s resolutions, but I do have a few hopes for the year in terms of creative projects:
Write more short fiction, most of which will go out via this newsletter alongside the weekly Triverse chapters
Get some of that short fiction published in a recognised literary journal, such as Neon
Finish editing at least one of my earlier books, probably A Day of Faces
Get my illustrations up to a quality where I can start to consider making comics
Get rid of this absurd Christmas belly that has appeared from nowhere
Choice of narrator and narrative structure is very specific to every story and every writer. My intention here is not to provide an introduction to the different forms of narration but instead to look at them specifically from a serialisation perspective, and how they can affect your live writing experience. Again, if you’ve pre-written your entire book before you begin serialising, this is less of a consideration.
Ultimately you should always do what is best for your story, but here are some insights from my own experience of writing in a variety of styles:
I wrote my first serial story, A Day of Faces, with a first person narrator and I’m very glad I did. Telling the story from the perspective of a charismatic, sardonic teenager called Kay gave me two very specific benefits that helped immeasurably, especially given my lack of experience at the time.
A distinct, unique tone of voice. This was to be the first novel I serialised and the first novel I actually completed. It was a bit leap from the unfinished, messy things I’d written previously in my life. Having Kay take the lead and set the tone was useful in that I didn’t have to do any soul searching for my own authorial style. It was Kay’s book and she was going to tell it her way, goddammit. It meant I could really focus in on a single character and make sure that they worked; other characters could be looser and develop more slowly during the story, as long as that central narrative voice was strong. It’s also very easy for readers to quickly know if they’re going to like the book, based on Kay’s narration.
First person also keeps the visible complexity to a minimum. Because the point of view is locked to your protagonist, you don’t have to present multiple viewpoints, or shift gears between personalities and tones. It also keeps the view on the action to that single viewpoint, in that everything is filtered through Kay’s personality and experience. I didn’t have to juggle multiple plot lines or characters operating in disparate situations. I could focus on detail and depth where it mattered, rather than having to wrangle a complex plot and a massive cast (more on doing that in a moment…).
Both of these factors made it possible for me to produce a new chapter every week, more-or-less without fail, for sixty-five weeks. Settling into Kay’s point of view became natural and easy. I never had to think about where the story was going next.
First person also matches the serial format in that it has connections with journaling. There’s a closeness to it which is like reading someone’s diary, their personal account of events. Having weekly instalments feels natural in that context - I’m sure someone has done an experiment whereby the weekly chapters are also playing out in chronological ‘real time’ within the story. You could even write in the present tense, to really commit to that feeling of being in the moment and this is happening right now.
Third person limited
I’ve used this mode for my two most recent books, The Mechanical Crown and No Adults Allowed. Both were dealing with big ideas and ensemble casts which required the ability for me to jump around different viewpoints.
Narratively it made sense. Practically, it was exceedingly difficult, especially in the case of The Mechanical Crown. There is a lot of storytelling juggling required for that kind of fantasy epic, and I would often have multiple plots spinning simultaneously in geographically diverse locations with different combinations of characters. As the book progressed all those different threads had to come together with perfect timing, in a way that felt natural and satisfying to the reader. Because I was ‘live writing’ the book, writing and publishing a chapter each week, I essentially had to hit all of these key beats in what was to all extents and purposes a first draft. No opportunity to go back and edit and tweak the pacing or the timing, or shift a character from A to B for convenience. It was the the most technically difficult thing I’ve done as a writer.
Balancing multiple points of view is simply harder, I find, especially when writing and publishing as you go. It’s necessary for certain types of story, of course, so I’m not suggesting you avoid third person limited for all of your writing. What I do think is wise, especially if you’re just starting out on your first serial, is to consider whether you have any stories which don’t require a third person narration. If you have a handful of decent ideas, go for the one that is first person with a relatively straightforward, linear form of narration. Save the complex, interweaving, multi-perspective saga for another time.
There are other forms of narration, but these are the two most common and the ones with which I have the most direct experience. A lot of what I’m learned about the two above apply equally well to other variants. Don’t make your choice lightly, and remember that you need to choose strategically and practically, as well as creatively.
I’d love to know more about your own projects and how you’ve tackled narrative structure and style, and what you find easier or harder.