So we know what our narrator knows, we know what they think they know, we know what they need to find out at we’ve been dropping the hints, but how do we bring it all together? If there’s something the first-person narrator needs to know or motivations they need to figure out how are we going to show them doing it? The most common methods are assembling the pieces in their internal monologue, and/or having a side-kick to bounce ideas off of. Another alternative is that the narrator isn’t the one assembling the pieces they’re telling the story of how they and another character found the answers, such as John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
The first method, having the narrator develop ideas in their internal monologue, is effective at showing the thought process of the narrator however it does have one major problem. When we have the narrator figuring things out there is a risk that we will lapse into heavy exposition and give the reader too much information at once. This doesn’t always mean that we’re giving them information the narrator couldn’t have, simply that we’re giving them too much information at once. There’s only so much exposition a narrative can handle in one chuck before it slows down and becomes too dull. It can also risk putting too much emphasis on the things that were obvious to begin with. However, if we find the right level of information to give the narrative can be interesting, showing out narrator out-thinking people or giving witty asides to the reader while saying something contradictory to another character. This allows us to reveal aspects of a character that may not be seen in a third-person/omniscient narration.
Breaking up exposition is a reason that sidekicks are popular are the repartee between two characters can help make even dull information interesting. If we have sidekicks we can reveal pertinent plot information in-between arguments, or we can have contradictory views, or they can make jokes to each other. In movies stake outs are always more interesting with two, because waiting can be balanced with conversation revealing things about the characters and the story in one go.
Another version is where the sidekick is the narrator and the ‘detective’, though not always a detective, is figuring it out and talking to them. This is what usually happens in the Sherlock Holmes stories where Watson becomes the in to Holmes’ mind for the reader, asking him questions the read might ask, and slowing him down to the pace of most people. It’s not that Watson himself is slow, he’s an intelligent man in his own right, but he’s not at Holmes’ level which in almost magical in his ability to figure things out. Without Watson Holmes would not feel the need to tell anyone what was going on in his head or explain exactly how he figured out the answer. Watson also provides the role of breaking up the exposition often saying what he thinks and then Holmes says, ‘Ah, but what you missed was…’ Which shows the difference in their thought patterns, even when applying the same techniques, and can be more interesting than a straightforward explanation.
Whichever method we use to assemble the pieces we have to find a balance between pace and information so we don’t make the narrative too information heavy cause the reader to lose interest in our story. It can be a tricky balance to find but it doesn’t matter if the narrative is too information heavy in the first draft. Once we’ve worked out what is happening in the story and why it can be easier during editing to trim the bits where characters are assembling information and spread them out so there isn’t too much at once.
For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on narration/narrative see Finding Your Voice and Finding Your Perspective. You may also find my internal monologue series useful under Finding The Characters.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. This is the final part.