Yes, Narrators Can Still Die: Part I
Some books on writing claim that a past-tense, first-person narrator can’t be killed off during the story. The reasoning is that if your narrator is narrating in the past tense, he has to be alive at the end of the story, or he wouldn’t be telling it.
Is that true or false?
It’s complicated, but it’s not 100% true.
In order to explain this premise clearly, let’s break down the several factors involved. In this post, we’ll explore the first one: framing devices.
All Hail the Framing Device!
When you’re writing a story, if you’re using a framing device constructed by the narrator, he or she has to be alive.
A framing device is when the main story is actually a “story within a story”, with the narrator telling the story to an in-universe audience of one or more. The outer story is the “frame” for the inner, more important story.
A well-known example would be the grandfather reading The Princess Bride to the kid in the movie version. Literature-wise, One Thousand and One Nights is the new wife of a murderous king telling him story after story, in order to evade death. With the latter, sometimes the tale being told is another frame for yet another tale: a story-within-a-story-within-a-story!
For an example with the protagonist being the “framer”, there’s the elderly Rose conveying her experiences of love and death in Titanic.
In Titanic’s case, Rose is telling the inner story to a group of people. If she went down with the ship, then there would’ve been a huge, gaping plot hole larger than the iceberg. Not even James Cameron could’ve gotten away with that.
In general, if the storyteller is done telling his own story and then he gets killed off, that’s fair game.
On the Other Hand….
The framing device is only one scenario. It can still happen without the protagonist of the tale telling it…or even the “narrator” being alive! The in-universe audience of a framed story might be experiencing it through a series of letters or journal entries.
Besides, framing devices aren’t present in most stories. What do you do then?
Tune in next time.
Have you ever killed the narrator off in your story? Have you ever read a book where the author kills the narrator off?
Before we get our hands dirty, let’s play with the framing device.
Decide what story or moment you want your narrator to tell (the inner story) and decide how they tell it (in the outer story), or vice-versa. Start with the outer story, then transition into the inner story. Write for fifteen minutes, then post your practice in the comments.