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Yes, Narrators Can Still Die: Part I

This guest post is by Chihuahua Zero, a young, aspiring writer who loves writing, reading, music, Chihuahuas and dark chocolate. Check out Chihuahua Zero’s blog, Thoughts of a Young, Aspiring Writer and follow CZ on Twitter (@chihuahuazero).

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.

Narrators Die

Photo by Derrick Tyson

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?

PRACTICE

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.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • http://www.tanyamarlow.com/ Tanya Marlow

    You’ve no idea how triumphant this makes me!

    Year Nine, I wrote a story. A great one, but I killed off the narrator in a tragic accident and the red ink told me that wasn’t allowed.

    Mrs Sherringham, I hope you’re reading this!

    • Sefton

      You tell’em! Writers can make the words do whatever they want!

  • http://www.facebook.com/lisamimiking Lisa King

    The first example that came to mind was “The Art of Racing in the Rain”. It was so beautifully done that I was in tears.

    • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

      I’ll make a mental note to check that story out.

  • Michele

    I kiiled my nararator and I have been stuck with this dilemma for months now. My story was rejected with a note “dead men feel no tales”. I’m racking my brain to come up with a new ending.

    • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

      Hmm…maybe you should look for a beta reader, mention this post (and the follow-up article), and find an explanation.

      The problem is that not everyone shares this point of view.

  • Deb Atwood

    I read and review ghost novels, so yes, the narrator can be killed off. I recently finished David Long’s The Inhabited World. In that case, the frame would be the dead narrator chronicling the events of his life while observing the new tenant in his house–a very effective fragmented timeline, especially since the present day events he observes trigger memories of past experiences.

    We know the narrator of The Lovely Bones is dead by page 3. Then there’s Elsewhere, and the list of “killed” narrators goes on…

    • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

      Ghosts are also another factor with framing devices and narration! I probably should’ve included that.

      Because although they’re technically “dead, they still have the capability to narrate, but most stories don’t have ghosts.

  • Michele

    “dead men tell no tale” interuptions at work are quite annoying

  • Sefton

    We ran for a mile through the mud, every step a heave and a
    wrench then lurch to the next step. At last we reached the scuttled gunship,
    washed up on the sandbank.

    Of course we started with the guns. Would they still work?
    Could Trace fix them if they didn’t work? I was no help here so I made off down
    below to scavenge parts for our ruined comms. I worked on that while Trace frantically
    tried to cobble together something to defend the ship, defend us, save us.

    We had until high tide to draw them in, then perhaps a few
    minutes before the ship lifted off again, and with its hull shelled to bits in
    the last battle, began to sink.

    Trace finished the guns. I had found some MREs which I doled
    out. No-one had much to say. The regulars just took orders and looked
    despondent. The other specials kept making gloomy eye contact with me which did
    nothing for morale.

    The comms, though, are now working, witness this
    transmission. It’s dark outside so we are relying on heat sensing to tell us
    when the enemy approaches. The tide is due in an hour. The enemy are due around
    the same time, I hope. If they are too early-

    I can hear something. Set comms to record and broadcast.
    This is it.

    They are coming for us.

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    The first five books of the bible are attributed to Moses, but here’s one from the last book. Specifically, Deuteronomy 34:5 So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. (v. 6) And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor.

    And there are 6 more verses to follow.

    • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

      Considering that the Bible has been written by a bunch of writers, someone else besides Moses probably added the ending verses.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Also, they did attribution different back then.

  • Will King

    A case in point would be The Bucket List. Carter narrates the close of the film and sums up Edward’s life, but in the story Carter dies before Edward, so he shouldn’t know how Edward’s life ended or what was done with his remains.

    • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

      Bucket List is a great example. Also, the movie “The Perfect Storm” (don’t know if there’s a book and if it uses the same narrative).

  • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is quite complexly framed. If I’m remembering correctly, the main narrator is telling a story told to him by a dying man who is telling the story of Frankenstein who already died, as Frankenstein told it to him. So, complicated much? However, I’m of the opinion that if Shelley did it, so can we :) Though personally, it makes my head hurt.

    • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

      Oh, I got to read Frankenstein. So it’s sort of like “a friend of a friend”?

      • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

        Kinda. But….not really? lol

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Isn’t a major chunk of it a letter, too?

      • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

        Yes! The main guy telling the story of the guy who told him Frankenstein’s story is writing a letter to his sister. For at least part of the book.

  • Madison

    I’m not very good at present tense. Nevertheless, ladies and gentlemen, here is “Amara”… again:

    Drip. Drip. Drip.
    Blood. Blood is dripping from the ceiling. God, help me. I need sleep.

    And now my vision is bright. I can see the sun through my eyelids. Damn the day. How long have I been asleep? How long was I crying?

    I can hear the soft laughter of my young cousins. They are like nieces to me, Nathalie and Villette. Beautiful girls born on Christmas day 13 years ago, the two. So adventurous and willing. After their father died, just when they were babies, from a fever, I moved in to help protect them.

    “Oncle!” Oncle, they called me. They had soft voices, somewhat shaken and hoarse, but you could hear they couldn’t harm a bug on the wall.

    “Bonjour, bonjour. How was your sleep?”

    “Well, but my dream has left me confused. I kept looking at the whites of my palms.” Villette was putting on her dirty boots and pinning up her hair.

    “A good sign. You will receive a gift.”

    “How do you know?” Nathalie interceding, wiping milk from her upper lip. “Maybe she’ll get big hands when she gets old.”

    “Maybe I’ll be a good climber.”

    “Maybe, but I had the same dream and an old friend told me it meant that I was to receive a gift in the near future.”

    “Did you?”

    “Yes. Her, my friend. She was my gift.”

    “Where is she now? Why haven’t you married, you talk so fondly of her?” Villette began to sit after Nathalie did.

    “Let’s go to the wheat field. I’ll tell you all about her when we get there.”

    “The wheat field is a journey!” Villette exclaimed.

    “Perfect. Let’s go now,” smiled Nathalie, repelling her sister’s annoyance.

    As we go to the wheat field, many questions were already asked. Who is she? Where is she? How did you know her? Why isn’t she here?

    “Her name is Amara. We met when I was your age exactly when she tried to break into my family’s house. She came in through the chimney. Oncle Harper pulled her out. He told me she was filthy that moment. Her hair was covered in dust and dirt and her face was covered by a black hood she wore. I heard my mother run down the stairs, but she told me not to follow her. I remember she shrieked and then after a few minutes, she back upstairs with the black figure and took her into the wash room. I was scared, she was stomping so hard. The door was shut, so I didn’t know what was going on. I heard Amara screaming and yelling in a different language.

    “Eventually they both came out of the wash room and the black figure was now clearly a young girl. Younger than me. She had curled brown hair and brown skin. Her eyes were bright green, though. You saw her eyes before you saw the rest of her. When I saw my mother about to come in, backed from the door. ‘Willie, this lady will be staying with us, oui? I don’t think she understands French. Be safe and be kind.’”

    I know it ends in such an awkward place, but my time was up, lol.

    • http://thethoughtfulbuttonhook.wordpress.com/ Kate Hewson

      that all played really beautifully in my head! What a nice story!

      • Madison

        Wow thanks! I didn’t expect that!

  • Rebecca Klempner

    Peony in Love by Lisa See comes to mind. I think there are other examples, too, where the narrator trails off at the end (the moment of their death) or simply is telling the story from the Afterlife.

    • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

      Trailing off. That’s a good way of describing it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jack.dowden.12 Jack Dowden

    When my great-grandson dug up my body, and brought me back to life, I figured it was for want of a noble cause. To bring history to life! To connect with one’s ancestors! To bridge the gap between life and death. Ididn’t expect him to threaten me with a knife if I didn’t tell him where I’d hidden the gold.

    I dragged my bones, for I was little else, over to a tree stump and plopped down upon it. I motioned for him to come closer and to sit. “First,” I told him. “You’ll need to understand why I took the gold.” Then I started to lie.

    “Kristov, Andrew, and I were what you would call thieves. We robbed people. We never gave anything back, and we didn’t do it to help the less fortunate. Matter of fact, we were mostly fortunate already. Our families had money, and we had some of that. It didn’t matter. We wanted to steal, so we did.

    There was a man, back in those days, named Jeffrey Axel Tipping. I hated him. I don’t recall why at this present moment, but I did. Probably something with a girl, most things revolve around them anyway. Jeffrey Axel Tipping had a lot of gold. He
    was rich, a businessman, but also believed that the government would one day collapse, the banks would go bankrupt, and all the paper money would be worthless.

    So, he bought a bunch of gold and buried in the backyard of his mansion. The reason I know this, is because his college roommate knew Andrew, and Andrew told me, and I told Kristov. We were honorable that way. Whenever we heard about a lot of money somewhere, we all decided to go steal it together. Honor among thieves and all that nonsense.

    One evening, all dressed in black, we went to Jeffrey Axel Tipping’s house, shot him, and dug up the gold. Now, don’t think me a murderer. I merely shot him in the leg and Kristov and Andrew tied him up.

    Why didn’t we just tie him up and not shoot him?

    Hmm….

    ….

    That’s a good point. I’m not sure. But like I said, I hated Jeffrey Axel Tipping. I did not murder him though, please remember that. So we stole the money, split it up evenly (remember: honor among thieves!) and went our separate ways.

    Then a few years later, I contracted syphilis and died. Yes, you can still die of syphilis. Or at least you could when I was alive.”

    When I finished my tale, my great-grandson did not look pleased. “But where is it?” He yelled, brandishing the knife for some reason. “Where’s the gold?”

    “I traded it in for paper money,” I told him. “I did not believe that the government would collapse, that the banks would go bankrupt, and that paper money would become worthless. I traded that gold in for stacks and stacks of paper money.”

    He told me how the government had collapsed shortly after my death, how the banks had gone bankrupt, and paper money had become worthless. He said that times were barbaric now, and that people resorted to magic to get by, which is how he knew how to resurrect me. He said that gold was still worth something, and he needed it.

    I shrugged, and one of my arms popped off and flopped to the ground. “Sorry,” I said. “Shit happens.”

    • http://thethoughtfulbuttonhook.wordpress.com/ Kate Hewson

      Ha! That last line is a killer! What an intersting story. Things do seem to be heading that way don’t they? I’m hanging on to MY gold…

  • Steve Stretton

    I hope the following is not too long. I wrote it a while ago.

    Wickety Wacket

    I first saw them in Hyde Park in London, under some trees near the Serpentine. About six or eight children, they were holding hands and dancing in a circle, singing a child’s song as they did so. As near as I can remember, it went something like:

    “Wickety wackety woo
    “Johnny Kelso’s gone all blue
    “You don’t suppose he’s dead now
    “And coming after you?”

    At which they all spun around squealing with laughter, pointed to a passer-by and fell to the ground, laughing even harder than before. Soon they got up and ran off, still chattering and laughing. I remember starting to laugh myself, so infectious was their childish joy.

    I must admit ‘though that I was puzzled by the look of horror on the face of the man they had pointed to. The classic City gentleman in pin striped suit, bowler hat and carrying brief case and umbrella, he seemed the last person to be terrified by a bunch of children. Then the next day, tucked away in the Times, was the report of the death by heart attack of a prominent barrister, Mr. John Kelso. The coincidence of the name and the likeness in the photo disturbed me for a moment, but I had other worries just then and soon forgot about it.

    I saw them again a week later. Having finished my business in London, I’d decided to look up old friends in Paris, before flying home. And there in a small square off the Quai de Montebello, they were playing under a grove of trees. At first I thought it might be a local version of the same game, as here they were singing in French, but then I recognised the clothes. Again they pointed to a passer-by before running off; again I saw that mix of surprise and horror on her face. And again I read of a mysterious death in the next day’s papers; this time one Josette Kerveau. Then it struck me. The second time I’d heard the song, the name was different. I recall I shivered when I remembered that the new name had been ‘Josie Kerveau’.

    It was some months later that I saw them again. This time in Brisbane, they sang the same song, played the same game and terrified more than just a passer-by; they were starting to terrify me! I deliberately avoided the newspapers, the T.V. news and the radio for the rest of my stay there.

    This morning I saw them for the last time. Only there was no passer-by; it was my name they sang, me they pointed at, me a young girl stared at. I write this as a warning to whoever might read it. I am already dead; I have no doubt I will not see tomorrow.

    Jack Kramer:- heart attack successful.
    Judy Kermond next.
    File this with the others. J.K.

    • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

      I anticipated the moment they say the narrator’s name.

      If word count lets you, you could try writing out the three variations of the rhyme, if you haven’t already. It seems like a good idea ending the story with the implications of death rather than saying “it was my name they sang”. But it’s just a suggestion.

      • Steve Stretton

        Thanks CZ, the narrator isn’t named until the end but I see your point. It is a bit about anticipation. As for the rhyme, I don’t know enough French to translate it into the story. I’m not sure how to end it with an implication of death other than what I did. How would you do it?

  • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

    (Here’s my practice. It’s a little rough, as expected for a practice, but I wanted to test out a thing or two:)

    —-

    Although the day’s events tired me out, I still had a really, really important promise to keep: studying with Jennifer for Geometry. Math could trump the otherworldly any day.

    I burst into Jennifer’s house and through the front hallway.

    “Kelsey!” Jennifer followed me to her backyard. “Where’s the stampede?”

    “In Africa,” I said. I took a deep breath and said. “I have a secret to tell you.”

    “What kind of secret? A ‘I crashed my mom’s car’ secret, a ‘I have yet another crush on this boy’ secret–”

    “A secret.”

    We both stopped. Secrets without description were the most important ones.

    “Spill,” Jennifer said.

    —-

    So I was walking from school, avoiding the cracks, reading the same old signs to find any changes, and picking up every piece of litter, even if it was a tiny piece of paper, on the ground.

    You know, after what happened today, maybe I should let go of that particular obsession of mine.

    Because one piece of “litter” was a bone. Not one of those cute dog bones. A big, bloody bone with meat pieces still stuck on it. Smelled like decomposing garbage. Gross, right?

    So I picked it up by the tip of my fingernails. As much as I wanted to vomit, I couldn’t let it stay on the ground. What if an old lady found it and lost her lunch and then it would be my fault?

    And then a wolf appeared out of nowhere.

    I didn’t scream. I shouted multiple times and almost shattered my wrist swiniging at it with the damn bone.

    —-

    (Yeah, I’m cutting it off just as the action starts. I might pursue this concept more once I develop it and have an idea whatever the wolf is a shapeshifter, the hound of another monster, or just a plain old wolf.)

  • http://thethoughtfulbuttonhook.wordpress.com/ Kate Hewson

    It was past closing time, and I was trying to shut the bar, but this chick was still sat there on a bar stool nursing a glass of gin – her 7th? 8th? I had lost count, as you sometimes do on a busy night with regulars coming and going. I had never seen this girl before – she wasn’t local, I’d have recognised her if she had been. Bright pink hair and more dark makeup round her eyes than was necessary in a small village such as this. She was almost painfully thin in her black vest top and skinny jeans, and her wrists covered in strings of black beads, tatty ribbon and string.
    “I’m sorry, love, can you drink up now?” I asked her, “I need to lock up.”
    She answered without looking at me.
    “Just finishing up here.” She said, holding her glass up and looking at the gin inside, swirling it round.
    There was a photo on the bar in front of her. Curiosity got the better of me and I took a look at it. It was a black and white picture of a tiny island in a lake with a tomb set in the middle.
    “What’s that?” I asked.
    “It’s the grave of a monkey.” She said simply.
    “A monkey?”
    “Yeah.” She picked the picture up and looked at it closely. “I found it in my mum’s stuff. She died recently”
    “I’m sorry,” I said.
    “Nah, she was sick.” replied the girl, “In pain at the end. Everyone told me it was a ‘blessing’ that she went when she did.”
    She lapsed into silence.
    “So what is with the monkey thing then?” I asked.
    “When I was a little girl, she used to tell me a story about a rich couple who wanted a baby, but they couldn’t have one. So the husband bought his wife a gorilla, and they used to treat it like it was their son. Dressed it up and stuff. But then the wife fell pregnant with their REAL son, and after he was born, the gorilla kind of got left out. It got jealous and one day it threw the baby out of an upstairs window and killed him. So they had to have the gorilla put down and they buried him in this tomb in the middle of the lake.”
    “What a sad story” I said.
    She smiled at me. “I used to think it was just a fairytale. Mum was always making stuff up. Or at least I thought she was. And then today I found this picture in her diary. Turns out it was true all along.”
    She drained the gin in her glass, smacked it down on the table and turned to me with a drunken grin.
    “So now I’m wondering about the stuff she used to tell me about Gran burying gold in the back garden. Along with my grandad. If that one is true, you are looking at one rich bitch!”

    • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

      I can imagine the girl vividly. Whatever she’s out of it or not is up in the air.

  • Puja

    I would get her if it was the last thing I did. At least, I hoped that was the signal my eyes were sending Emma. She responded with a snickering kind of giggle and waddled off as fast as her short legs would carry her.

    “I’m gonna get you!” I said, taking off. So my canvas shoes and shirtdress weren’t the ideal clothing for tag, so what? The little pigtailed toddler was no match for me.

    I feinted right, then ran left. With a squeal she zigzagged across the yard, hair and pink skirt flopping. It was so adorable and ridiculous at the same time that I started to laugh and gasp for breath (though still on her tail).

    I was closing in on her. I almost had her. She looked up at me with her big, brown eyes and with another laugh I put out my arms to grab her.

    And froze.

    *

    Emma gazed at the freeze frame, remote still in hand. Her mother poised to snatch her up. A huge grin on her face. Hair completely out of its braid (it had always been unruly). That day had been so sunny, Emma realized. Rather perfect, actually.

    She didn’t turn the TV off. Instead, she leaned back into the sofa cushions and simply stared at the screen for as long as she could.

    • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

      Quite the subtext behind that story, of nostalgia.