When you read a book, a nearly invisible narrator is guiding you through the text—helping you to focus on the important things in your story. The narrator guides you through the action and setting, and guides you to understand the psychology of the characters, goals, conflicts, and themes being explored. Through the narrator, you learn what’s at stake—what the tensions and conflicts in the story are, even if they’re internal. The narrator translates and interprets an action by offering a reaction.
“She shut the door in my face.”
“She shut the door in my face. I never thought that my mother would do such a thing to me. She’d always been my best friend. What happened to her?”
With no narrator guidance or reflection, we don’t have insight into what’s occurring in the story—no context to understand the action taking place. Too often, writers depict action in scenes without offering enough clues about how those actions are affecting the narrator, forgetting that the reader is tracking what happens internally as much as externally.
Inner life and reflection are important in all fiction and creative nonfiction, but especially important in memoir, because we are trying to understand our emotional selves as we write and need to share those insights with readers.
“We went to the store to get the wedding dress, and then out for coffee afterward. It was a nice afternoon.”
We don’t know the narrator’s reaction to getting the dress, the context in which this is happening, or what “nice afternoon” means. The narrator needs to say more about what is happening and show what it means.
“After we made our selection, we decided to celebrate Laura’s having found the perfect dress to marry the man she’d lost track of so many years ago in. On Smith Street, not far from the dress store, we found the Little Mermaid Bar, where we ordered the best margaritas I’d ever had in my life. The sun-dappled trees and the soft southern breeze, the way the drinks softened our bones, and the feeling that the past had finally been made right, came together to create a moment I knew we’d always remember.”
In this passage, the setting—Smith Street, the bar, the quality of the drink, and the narrator’s enjoyment of the moment—create a pleasing mood for the reader to identify with. The narrator translates how she will remember the moment, and we learn about her relationship with her friend and how this moment connects with the past. The descriptions of the “sun-dappled trees” and “soft southern breeze” are sensual details that invite the reader to share in the same relaxed feeling the narrator experiences in that moment.
The Role of the Narrator
The narrator has two roles in memoir: the writer-guide, who has a perspective on the whole story and tells the story in the “I” voice; and the first-person point of view “I” character, who appears in scenes of the memoir that are located in a particular time and place. The narrator can generalize, summarize, and reflect. The character, however, is embodying specific moments in time, and sees each moment only through the lens of who they were then. If your memoir features you as a nine-year-old during some scenes, then in those scenes the reader should experience the world through the eyes of the nine-year-old you.
As we think about how the narrator works, it’s helpful to use the metaphor of a camera lens. The narrator guides the camera to be zoomed in or zoomed out—close or distant. In the distant perspective, you’ll hear the narrator summarize and bring together elements of the story—the past and the present, the thoughts and feelings of the narrator—whereas in a close-up camera shot, you’ll see details, specific actions, and immediate reactions in-scene.
The narrator also manages time. Too often, writers set up a scene without providing a transition from the previous scene, which means the reader has no clue about how much time has passed between scenes. The reader is always trying to understand time, and this is especially true in memoir because memoirists are always dealing with time and their reaction to the memory and time. Throughout your memoir, your narrator needs to set up a way for the reader to enter each time frame so they don’t get lost, especially during flashback chapters or sections.
Even if your memoir is structured more as a series of what you think of as stand-alone chapters, you still need to help the reader understand the relationship of one chapter to another. It’s your job as the narrator to be the reader’s guide and translator of experience. In addition to keeping track of time, it is the narrator’s job to convey the mood of each moment. A narrator’s voice and tone create subtle cues for the reader; like the music that plays underneath scenes in a movie, they guide the reader to develop particular feelings about and expectations of the story.
Examples of narrative techniques
Cheryl Strayed; Wild, p. 143
“ . . . stepping into the snow made me more alive to my senses than ever . . . I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something . . . the wilderness had a clarity that included me.
Somber and elated, I walked in the cool air . . .”
Here, Strayed pauses in the first paragraph to reflect on the effect of her hike. Then, in the first sentence of the next paragraph, she takes us back to the present scene: “Somber and elated, I walked . . .” She helps us to understand her experience, the sense she’s making of this venture, by presenting the layers of her life—her childhood, her mother’s death, using drugs, the breakup with her husband—and weaves them through the action sequences of her hike on the Pacific Coast Trail.
Strayed keeps track of time in this way:
“On my third day out from Sierra City . . .”
“The next morning . . .”
The reader goes back and forth in time with Strayed throughout the book, which she cues subtly. The hike has a time frame that she has set out—a goal of miles and time—and she lets us know where she is in those marking points as we move through the story. Because of this, we have the feeling as readers that we are progressing through these moments as she is, on the trail and psychologically.
Mary Karr: Lit, p. 164
In this scene, Karr goes to the daycare center with her young son. She is struggling with a failing marriage and too much alcohol.
Is everything okay at home, she asked. She had front teeth like fence pickets, and the reflection on her octagonal wire frames was my puffy face. Of course everything was, great. I was great and my husband was great. Happiness was the currency we paid to get our kid accepted here. So I failed to tell her that my husband and I had barely spoken that week . . . Or that—driving to my in-laws’ for Christmas dinner—I’d risen at four, ostensibly to make pies but actually to drive around the local reservoir, finishing a six-pack of beer . . .”
Initially we are in a scene at the daycare, with specific details that help us see Karr there, then we see the reflection she doesn’t share with the daycare person, then another mini-scene of her driving and drinking. She does not say, “I drank a lot that morning”— summarize—but shows where and how she did it. In doing so, she reveals that she is pretending to have a certain kind of life but it’s not working.
Linda Joy Myers: Don’t Call Me Mother, p. 33
“The Great Plains is an inland sea. I am a speck in that sea, brought to the copper dirt of this place by a migration . . . The landscape is dotted with derricks whose steel arms pump oil up through layers of time. The whole town smells of oil. I stand outside to listen to the wind blowing the spirit of the past against my pale body. Dirt from an ancient era blows against me. I bow my head to the power of the land, the wind lifting my hair and tickling my skin with pinpricks of bone too small to be seen with the naked eye.”
The narrator here presents themes—layers of time, the power of the land, and the mysticism of the moment. It creates a reflection on setting and sets a mood and tone of longing and the shifting realities of change. In the next paragraph, the little girl greets her mother at the train station and enters into the realm of longing and loss in real life. The narrator’s voice weaves throughout the book, a chronological story told through the eyes of a small girl who grows up through the book.
Reading as a Writer
As you read, notice how you are guided through the story, and notice if you lose interest to keep reading. Notice how scenes are handled and how transitions are made from one scene to another, especially transitions regarding time.
Be clear about what you are conveying if you are writing a scene or a reflection:
• After a scene, are you helping the reader to interpret the thoughts and reactions of the character-you? That is reflection or summary. It’s also called sequel.
• Clearly indicate how each scene occurs at a specific time and place.
• Use sensual details to bring your reader into an experience of that scene.