Welcome November! Welcome Nanowrimo and those participating in this month of novel writing!
All fictional books have a tone, a certain feel to their narrative voice. Most of the time, they are focused on immersing the reader in the story, whether by offering tidbits of setting or by sweeping the reader up in its plot. But, on occasion, such narrative styles simply cannot provide the reading experience you want to give. It doesn’t fit the story type.
In this case, authors rely on a lyrical narration, beautiful, inexplicable, and smooth. It is a story that never forgets it’s a story, but still manages to sweep the reader away. Whimsical. It does, in effect, what soft magic does for a fantasy magical system: it recognizes the improbabilities, lets the reader in on some of the secrets, but is careful not to reveal the full of it lest the magic of the show be ruined.
So it seems only fair to classify whimsical storytelling as “soft” narration. Its opposite, insistent in its realism, must then be dubbed “strict” narration. Today, of course, we focus on the former.
Of the many books I’ve read in recent years, four in particular stand out as intriguing examples of soft narration. Erin Morgenstern thrives on whimsy, as found in her Night Circus and Starless Sea. And while Maggie Stiefvater does not write soft narration with reckless abandon, The Raven Cycle certainly stands on some in-between. And, finally, Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux is nothing if not whimsical.
By looking at them from an outside perspective, a few commonalities begin to emerge.
Prevalence in the Urban Fantasy Genre
The first thing you’ll notice is that only one of the examples could be classified as high fantasy, and in that, only barely. Soft narration is a callback to the concept of fairy tales. It plays with the idea of a kinder world, of soulmates (see below), of a sort of destiny where the reader can expect for some form of happy ending (again, see below). This is its own form of magic. It’s not that the presence of whimsical storytelling makes it urban fantasy, of course; rather, it’s easier to promise magic, both the in-world kind and the fourth-wall kind, when the narrative already has one foot in the real world.
Essentially, they draw on things that have the potential to feel magical all on their own, even in the real world. Consider The Night Circus. A magician never reveals their tricks, and even if circuses weren’t antiquated at this point, the idea of one already brings enough mysticism for the reader that the impossibilities of the narrative just stem from its inherent magic. Or The Starless Sea. There is an impossible magic just in the idea of story-telling. Humankind has always believed in the power of words. That the words in the story should be real, despite their impossibilities, only seems outlandish if one’s heart has not already been swept away by the charm and charisma of the fantasy genre. So, too, is The Raven Cycle, bred on the power of faith, but we’ll save that discussion for later.
Even if one looks at The Tale of Despereaux–a story that takes place in some fictional medieval country–it relies on familiar, well-tread concepts of the medieval European setting. It is swept away in the idea of kings and princesses, of damsels in distress and knights in shining armor. Most fantasy enthusiasts know those tropes as well as they know the real world. For some, perhaps, the tropes are actually more familiar, in a way. And so, with that as its base, the rest of the soft narration merely unfolds and finds itself capable of wrapping around the reader, sweeping them away.
The Presence of Romance
There are romances and then there are fairy tale romances. If you have a damoiselle or damoiseau in distress, or knights in shining armor, or princes and princesses, star-crossed lovers… Any form of impossible romance that likes to toy with the possibility of soulmates and happily ever afters, soft narration may prove to be a useful tool. Because soft narration reads almost like a fairy tale, then it’s easier for the reader to accept the possibility of a happy romantic ending for the story’s characters.
In an abstract sense, The Tale of Despereaux provides the best example of this concept: a mouse falls in love with a princess after reading a story about chivalrous knights and a princess locked in a tower. The mouse wants to be that knight. It makes no sense, of course, and nothing can come of it, but it’s alright, because he’s fallen in love more with a concept than with a person.
The likes of The Night Circus is more concrete; the romance between the two characters is intrinsically linked to the plot. The girl and the boy are star-crossed lovers, and the nature of the competition (essentially, to out-do the other’s magic in the circus) means only one survivor. But the nature of the narration allows the reader to humor them, even hope for them, because it reads like a fairy tale and there are always impossible obstacles that fairy tale characters must overcome before they can be together. And if The Starless Sea features a protagonist whose love life is a little more complex, it still certainly revolves around two characters that want nothing more than to be together, whose destinies have been yanked apart by the stars (supposedly, literally).
The Raven Cycle‘s romances are not nearly so cleanly drawn. It’s messy, though it has a right to be, because its narration straddles the line between soft and strict. However, one of the main connections is between Blue and Gansey. Blue always knew she was going to kill her true love, that her lips were cursed to kill him. She knows Gansey will die in a year, because she saw his ghost, saw it when she normally can see or do nothing psychic-related. In book terms, that means she either kills him or he is her true love. Or both.
As I said, there’s a pattern.
To Consider the Power of Faith
Belief is a powerful thing, but when it comes to the real world, it is not enough to actually conjure anything or physically make a mark on the world. It’s difficult to write about a character that’s passionate to such a major degree that doesn’t also come across as naive or fanatic when using strict narration. But there is a magic, too, in faith; it is, in a way, its own magic system. With soft narration, that faith just hits different.
So we consider, firstly, the likes of The Raven Boys, and I’m going to have to skirt the extent of this point because I’ve been trying to avoid any major spoilers. But, even in the beginning, Blue gets swept away in the power of Gansey’s belief in Glendower. She has the knowledge of existing magic to bolster her faith, but neither Adam nor Ronan can say the same, and they’re swept up on the quest same as Blue. And the same can be said, in a different way, for The Tale of Despereaux. The mouse finds himself embroiled in a quest not in pursuit of the princess, not really. Rather, he is forced into that quest as a result of his insistent belief in what is good and true and kind.
The main cast of the titular Night Circus do not need the power of belief; they all have their own forms of magic to provide. But the circus-goers are another matter, and one of the recurring characters is not a member of the circus at all, but rather, one who is swept away by its mysticism. The soft narration invites the reader to believe, too, and it’s a compelling argument. A magician never reveals their tricks, and, hidden behind clever words and lyrical phrases of the narration, the magicians never have to. For The Starless Sea, the main draw of belief is in its stories. Some of the characters that started off as enemies, a long time ago, are enemies no longer, swept away by the beauty of the truth.
Happy Endings Are Never What You Expect
One of the most successful things about soft narration is the execution of the resolution. The endings are typically very hard to predict, and I don’t think it is just the nature of the author’s skill, though that undoubtedly plays a part. Perhaps it is the nature of the voice and tone that makes it easy to misdirect the readers. Perhaps it is simply that the winding nature of soft narration makes it difficult to even guess what kinds of happy endings are even possible. Often, the protagonists are hoping for some happily ever after, and although they rarely get what they dream about, they get the next best thing.
The Tale of Despereaux makes for an easy study. A mouse and a princess cannot fall in love, but Despereaux’s fascination with Princess Pea impacts Miggery Sow’s life, Roscurro’s life, even the lives of the people inside the castle and out. It doesn’t make Despereaux fit neatly into the mouse community, but he has a place up with the regular humans, and that’s no small thing. The Raven Cycle makes for another easy example, if difficult to talk about without spoilers. The protagonists’ quests takes them far, even reveals things that cannot possibly exist, but there are certain realities that they must face, and their stories do not lead them quite where they expect.
The Night Circus and Starless Sea, of course, do much the same. The star-crossed lovers of the former cannot be together as they are, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be together in some other way. The latter does offer more of a concrete happy ending, but certainly, with the inclusion of the very softly narrated short stories within the text, it was next to impossible to figure out where the story might lead.
There is, of course, a reason why most books take on stricter narration to tell their story. Actually, there are probably more reasons why a book might use strict narration than there are for why a book might use its opposite. Truly, though, the biggest reason against softer narration is simply a matter of attention. Soft narration is poetic and lyrical. It is beautiful, but it requires more work. It is hard to keep the reader engaged in a story when they constantly have to sift through the words to find the important details hidden in the lyrical language. Sometimes, it just grows stale.
This is why most books that employ soft narration do not use the technique throughout the entire story. Starless Sea‘s present-day narrative was, for the most part, pretty clear-cut. The Raven Cycle was mostly strict narration, with some lyricism thrown in. The Tale of Despereaux was all soft narration, but it works because it’s short. Even The Night Circus changed the tone to something more aligned with strict narration throughout the book to help keep the reader engaged.
So as you consider what kind of narration your story should use, consider these above points. It’s worth mentioning that the narrative style is not really just a random decision or even an artistic choice. Especially when it comes to soft narration, it is as much a part of the story as your protagonist or your main plot, and as such, it’s one of the first few things you should probably consider. If you’ve done all your plotting, world-building, and character development, and you’re about to start writing and you wonder, would some whimsical narration be a good idea? That late in the game, well, it’s worth trying out, but ultimately, the answer will probably be no.