Losing the Narrator

When was the last time you watched a documentary? Admittedly they are not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you have you may have noticed that many documentaries no longer use a voiceover narrator to introduce or explain. Instead what you see are a series of interview segments with people who are either witnesses to the events being discussed or experts in the particular field covered by the program, sometimes interspersed with factual material such as video clips or publication headlines.

I find this approach very interesting because it does away with what had long been considered a necessary part of a documentary, the know-it-all white guy with the penetrating voice. Just a few years ago no one would ever have produced this kind of program without the authoritative narrator telling viewers what is going on and how it all connects, and what the viewer should learn from the show. Documentaries were approached as a teaching experience, rather than an entertainment experience. But now they are both. Exploring a particular event or subject without the voiceover allows viewers to have more of a first-hand experience, hearing about what happened through the words of the people who were or are involved. This, I think, provides an added dimension of authenticity to the story being told. It is more than just facts, it is as close to the actual experience as possible, and adds greater emotional meaning. The format may have had its origins in the work of Ken Burns, the paragon of the documentary world. Although none of his documentaries ever eliminated the narrator, he was one of the first to use the actual words of people involved in the experience, through letters, newspaper articles, speeches, and other artifacts. As documentaries continued to evolve you may have noticed the guy’s voice replaced by women’s voices, and more diverse voices.

The questions for fiction writers are whether this technique is desirable for our genre, and is it even possible to do it? I’ve written before about the concept of the “silent story,” one in which the narrator is as unobtrusive as possible. These are stories that create an experience that invites readers to get closer to the characters, to share their situations, and seemingly participate in the decisions they must make. As a reader, nothing turns me off faster than an authorial narrator who simply tells the reader what happened, and often what it means (read: subtle hint to submitters).

How far can fiction writers go in removing narration from their work? There are forms of writing like this—stage plays and screenplays—that by nature are all dialogue and stage directions. But without some form of narration to hold scenes together, to provide enough description so that readers can visualize the setting, can fiction work? I find those narrator-less documentaries immersive. Often it’s like having a conversation with the interviewee, getting to know these people through not only the content of their speech, but also their vernacular and mannerisms. What was once a formal teaching process has become informal, and yet I feel I learn more that way, because I’m getting psychological insight along with facts.

First-person stories come closest to this style—obviously—since the character, like the interviewee, is relating a personal experience. Second-person stories are also like this; the “you” POV is really something of a literary trick that forces readers to substitute their personal perspective for the “you” character. Third-person is different, however. The challenge there is to create character identification and sympathy while using an intermediary (the narrator) to provide a logical progression of information. Here the framework of the story is much more important. The visual elements that are always present in film and theater have to be provided in a non-visual medium. But that doesn’t mean third person requires an authorial narrator. I was thinking about this when rereading Joan Didion’s collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion was careful not to prejudge the people she wrote about. She also understood, more than just about any other writer I’ve encountered, that human desire and motivation is largely a product of circumstance—the place and culture in which we were formed—and she had a remarkable ability to let those factors speak for the people she wrote about.

Okay, you say, but that’s nonfiction. But what if the same technique were applied to fiction? The great writers have always innately understood that to truly engage readers they have to empower them, and to empower them they have to create the illusion of experiencing real life, which by nature precludes a narrator (unless you’re one of those people who goes through life narrating their existence as though starring in a movie). Think of it as an advanced form of showing-not-telling. Details are closely tied to character experience to enhance the impact of action in the present moment. Background information (backstory) arises organically, when it’s apropos for a character to relate it. Nothing is forced. The narrator’s/author’s agenda is eliminated in favor of a forward-moving story that may or may not get to where the writer originally planned (to me that’s part of the challenge and fun of writing). The result is that readers feel they’ve experienced a story, not been told a story.

Possibly the most common reason submissions to Orca are declined is that too-heavy narrative voice. As documentarians have realized, you don’t need it. You may not be able to completely do away with your narrator, but you should strive to come as close as possible.

– Joe Ponepinto