The Reminiscing Voice

In a previous post I said how partial I am to first person narrator for writing fiction. Without realizing it, I have at times been seduced by a style within that category, the reminiscing voice.

It took me a while to figure this out. I am right now in the process of editing the second novel of my Herbert West series in preparation for publication later this year. A fellow writer who has read most of the manuscript recently commented that certain sections were too slow, with too many details not relevant to the story. Years ago, a letter from a publisher rejecting this work annoyed me by using the term “plodding prose.” When I discussed this at the time with another fellow writer, we concluded that the removed, reflective quality of the narrative voice may have been what led to this opinion.

Thinking about this some more, I have identified this style of narrative as the reminiscing voice. The narrator is remembering events long after they have occurred, from a perspective of stillness and calm. Whatever the narrator’s problems, conflicts and sufferings may have been, they are over, but they were important events in the life of this character, and he or she is about to relate them to the reader.

Today I took a quick look among my books to find examples of the reminiscing voice.  As an aside, I will mention that many of the books I own — never to be dignified with the terms “collection” or “library” — were purchased in the 1970s and ’80s at used bookstores with no pretensions to the antiquarian. One of these, Ted Fraser’s Book Bin in Vancouver, B.C., actually had “bargain barrels” — big wooden barrels full of books selling at ten cents apiece. Lord only knows what was at the bottom of those barrels. The fact that many of my best-loved reads came from sources such as this should tell you something.

Back to the reminiscing voice. Here is the beginning of The Crystal Cave, the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series:

I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King. The years since then seem to me now more dim and faded than the earlier years, as if my life were a growing tree which burst to flower and leaf with him, and now has nothing more to do than yellow to the grave.

This is followed by four substantial paragraphs about memory and remembering, before the story begins. And even then, we are still in the Prologue.

Another example, this one the first paragraph of The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams (a book that has huge flaws, but which I re-read every few years because… Well, I don’t actually know why):

All day it has been windy — strange weather for late July — the wind swirling through the hedges like an invisible flood-tide among seaweed; tugging, compelling them in its own direction, dragging them one way until the patches of elder and privet sagged outward from the tougher stretches of blackthorn on either side. It ripped the purple clematis from its trellis and whirled away twigs and green leaves from the oaks at the bottom of the shrubbery.

And on and on like this for another two long paragraphs which are word-pictures of a garden and landscape, really quite vivid, but definitely not germane to the story of how the narrator met and lost his wife, the mysterious Karin. Adams breaks another Rule of Writing here, which is never to begin with a description of weather.

For some reason, I find beginnings of this sort compelling, both to read and to write. To me, they are like slow crescendos, starting out quietly and building to a climax in which the narrator is no longer merely remembering, but reliving. But it appears that others disagree. Slow and not sufficiently relevant, they say, and it is difficult to argue with these assessments. “Yes, but I like it, ” isn’t really an argument.

I think it’s OK to use the reminiscing voice if it suits the narrator and his or her situation, but as with so many other things, moderation is the key. Use the reflective style to set the scene and indicate something about the narrator’s personality, but move fairly soon into reliving mode. This is related to the advice about “back story,” that it’s best presented in small, cunningly concealed doses, rather than as a lengthy, identifiable section — sort of like coating a cat pill in butter to make it slip down more easily.

That is if you are following the rules because you must please those who make them, be they instructors, editors or publishers. If you are writing to please only yourself or whatever spirit has inspired you to write, and the reminiscing voice is the voice that speaks, go for it. When I was only a reader and not a writer, I would begin to read a novel and continue to read it to the end, if its voice pleased, allured or fascinated me, never mind why. Much of this writing, I suspect, broke some sort of rule. It’s nearly impossible to identify the precise qualities of prose that attract or repel a particular reader, which is why it is also nearly impossible to come up with a set of definitive rules for writing.

I consider the reminiscing voice at the beginning of a novel to be a signal to the reader that the narrator has something important to say, but isn’t going to launch into the story until the reader is ready to listen. It’s sort of like the opening credits in a movie, that let you settle into your seat, position your popcorn and get set to watch. Or like fancy gift wrapping on a special present, that gives you an opportunity to whet your anticipation. Or like foreplay.

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