Writing and Shit – part 40 – Is your narrator looking through a microscope when they should be looking through a telescope?

We ended last time with rather abrupt this statement –

The most basic problem with the novels that most writers write (and fail to get published) will be something to do with –



We’ve already seen some examples of this with our slipping around chase scene the top of the Eiffel Tower.

I am going to give you a clear example where of time and point of view don’t fit together, and so (in my view) completely undermine the story being told.

Here is an excerpt from a made-up novel being narrated by a man in his eighties. He is looking back over his whole life, remembering crucial scenes.

I heard my parents shouting and came to sit at the top of the stairs, as I had done so many times before. There was a draught through the cracked window in my sister’s empty room, and to avoid it I had to press hard against the wall on my right. While I was sitting there, a spider dropped down on its thread and landed on my cheek. Somehow I managed to grab it without damaging it. When I opened my hand, I saw that it was brown in colour and had a peculiarly skull-like design upon its abdomen.

‘You bitch!’ shouted my father. ‘I should have left you years ago.’

‘And I wish you had,’ screamed my mother. ‘I wish you’d run off with whichever of your fancy ladies would have you – and then we’d see how long they stood your nonsense.’

I didn’t know what fancy ladies were, I was only eight years-old, but I remember I quite liked the sound of them. My mother, for all her virtues, was anything but fancy.

The spider’s abdomen was silken in texture and the minute hairs upon it appeared to me like the spikes on a hedgehog’s back.

‘Once I’m gone,’ my father said, ‘it will be fancy ladies all the time – and I’ll never have to be ashamed to walk out with a slattern like you.’

‘Slattern, is it?’ my mother shrieked, and I heard the breaking of something that I learned the next morning had been a Staffordshire figurine of a Spaniel. To be more precise, it was the spaniel which sat on the left. This had already had a hairline fissure almost down its exact centre. The line of this traced a route uncannily similar to that of the Nile River as it rises towards the Mediterranean. The Spaniel on the right was, by contrast, pristine in that it had never been broken, but for some reason I found inexplicable it was lighter in colour to the now-destroyed left-hand Spaniel. Whereas the left Spaniel glowed with a deep burnished russet that on the right had a tone more akin to a jar of Robinson’s marmalade held up to the light on a cloudy afternoon in mid-October.

Wow, you may be asking, how does this guy remember all this stuff?

The answer is, He doesn’t. No-one does.


What we have here is a leisured, adult narrator (actually author, because they’re hijacking the narrator) who desperately wants to do the world – Staffordshire pottery dogs and all – as wonderfully well as he can.

But so wonderful does it become that it completely telescopes the time between the action, say 1939, and the time of the narration.

The exhaustive/exhausting details set down, one after another, aren’t those that would have been noticed by a boy hearing his parents rip one another to bits. He would be panicked, and panicked people notice less.

Also, he is so distant in time from the boy – even if he is the same person – that he would have forgotten some, though not necessarily all, of these magnificent tiny details.


It isn’t the hairs on the spider’s back that are unbelievable, that break the point of view (in terms of time), it’s the addition of detail upon detail until they can no longer be distant memories but have to be understood as recent observations.

The writer of this passage might have two excuses.

First, that the person they were writing about (via first person narrator) was a very sensitive boy, and that he really did recall every single one of these details. (See Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory.) Childhood impressions, especially of the future artist, are sometimes, for some people, super-real. And some readers quite like reading this kind of thing. (Alan Hollinghurst-y stuff.)

Second, this extremity of detail from the past is actually founded in a convention – a convention that, in screen cliché, becomes wibbly-wobbly, whoa! everything going zigzag blurry –


..and we’re back in a memory that is shown in equally high definition to the present moment we’ve just left behind.

Because some readers want to read this kind of wonderful detail of the world, and certain because many writers see doing the world wonderfully as being their main job and joy, the convention is accepted.

The reader doesn’t need to believe the eighty year-old man has total recall of the sensual experiences of his eight year-old self. The past is allowed to become the present and the present doesn’t mind being indistinguishable – in terms of detail – from the present.


Literary aside: The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov wrote two memoirs of childhood, Transparent Things and Speak, Memory, in which he shows off and brags about the exactness and the scope of his memory. He claimed that memory was the greatest part of his genius.


For this exercise, I need you to be extremely honest as well as extremely focussed.

You can also take longer than usual to work up to it. Mull it over for a few hours.


Exercise: Write down the longest unbroken piece of conversation of any sort that you can remember.

Explanation: You need to be self-policing here. If you can exactly remember what one person said, but have only a vague sense of the reply, choose another conversation. I’m calling it ‘conversation’ not ‘dialogue’ because it has to be a passage of real talk you are remembering from your own experience.

Go on for as long as you can, but if you can’t go on very long – only a couple of pairs of lines – don’t worry.


We are very used to stories in which the past is given to us as a series of scenes. These scenes may be narrated by a person in the story –

‘You know,’ he said, ‘I’ve always meant to tell you about when my parents broke up. I was eight years-old, and lying beneath my pink silk duvet embroidered with yellow and lavender butterflies, a very interesting species, actually…’

Or they may be given to that character by a third person narrator –

Over the years, the many years, he had often thought of the night upon which his life had changed. He had been eight years-old, lying in bed beneath his pink silk duvet embroidered…

In the second example, the pink silk duvet is brought to to the reader partly through the memory of the old man but also by the time-travelling eye of the third person narrator.

Responsibility for the level of detail achieved can be shared. Because he – the old man – is speaking aloud in the first example, every minute piece of detail of the past is entirely down to him. He has to remember it and then be able to form it into these sentences in this moment. Is that believable? Or is it just conventional?

Let’s continue the scene, just including the dialogue –

‘You bitch, shouted my father. ‘I should have left you years ago.’

‘And I wish you had,’ screamed my mother. ‘I wish you’d…’

In the exercise you’ve just done, how many lines of conversation did you manage to remember? Two? Four? Seven?

For myself, if I’m being honest and not filling in any memory gaps, I can probably remember six.

(Thinking about it now, under pressure, I’m actually having difficulty remembering anything anybody said ever.)

The eighty year-old man remembers five bits of speech from seventy-five years earlier – and remembers them accurately enough to give them word for word. He never says, ‘Then my father mumbled something I didn’t catch’ or ‘What my mother screamed next was so furious it might have been a curse or just a gargle of rage.’


This is total recall, or, even more so, hearing the scene as clearly as if he were a boom microphone held out on a long pole directly over the mother and father’s heads.

But I am prepared – if really pushed – to accept that seventy-five years after overhearing that final collapse of his parents’ marriage, a man might remember, or feel sure he remembered, every minute inflection and every word choice. No wibbly-wobbly, just painfully clear memories.

What I’m not prepared to accept is a scene like the following –

The day before my parents split up, we had toast and marmalade for breakfast with big mugs of tea. The milk was creamy, and I sat looking at the globules of yellow that floated around the edge of my blue and white striped mug. My father was behind the newspaper, where the sports pages reported that Crystal Palace F.C. had defeated Manchester United 2-1 and that the England opening pair had put up a stand of 78.

‘I may go to the shops later,’ said my mother.

‘Fine,’ my father replied. ‘Will you take the lad?’

‘No, she said, ‘he can bide here a while.’

‘I’m after tobacco,’ said my father. ‘And matches. You know the sort.’

‘Let me write it down,’ my mother said, ‘you know how I’m forgetting things these days.’

‘Swan Vestas,’ said my father, and then coughed three times. He was still behind the newspaper. I had finished my toast, all but the top crust which lay on my plate like a Cheshire Cat’s smile.

The longer this mundane conversation (but still about power, hiding and ego) goes on, the more strained the point of view becomes.

This isn’t meant to be a memory of a life-changing moment. It’s an average breakfast. It’s this family’s routine. Because you’ve already read the break-up scene, you can hear or imagine you hear all the tensions in it. But the boy had no particular reason to remember these exchanges – given to us the readers as accurate.


Again, it is a convention of the literary novel that the people in them have extremely good memories and notice a vast number of tiny details.

Mr But: Okay, I really enjoy literary fiction. And you’re being quite snitty about it, if I may say. And I don’t want it all to be vague – even if my own memory of conversations isn’t all that great. I’m prepared to give the writer a bit of leeway, if they’re bringing me pleasure. What’s wrong with a bit of embroidering of the past? Are you suggesting this novel should be chucked in the bin?

I’m not suggesting that at all. But what I would advise the writer of this novel to do would be to switch from the first person to the third person, so that responsibility for the tiny details of the past can be shared between the person who remembers the vague outlines and the narrator who fills in the gaps.

Exercise: I would like you to write three versions of the same made-up scene (not my made-up scene) – all have to be in the third person past tense. The first scene is remembered from this morning, the second from one year ago and the third from as many years ago as a person can go back, say seventy.

Explanation: This exercise may, fittingly, take you a little longer than some of the others. You may want to do the first scene then put it aside for a little while, away from where you can see it, and then go back to it when it has had a chance to become a little less clear.

What I want you to concentrate on is the difference in tone between how we remember the immediate, the recent and the distant past.

If you like, you can stick in another version, from ten years ago.

Exercise: I would like you to write three separate pieces of memoir. The first, from something you remember that happened yesterday. The second, from an event of about this time last year. And the third from the first year you can remember well.

When a little time has passed, a day or two, I’d like you to go back to these three little memoirs and see if you can notice any differences between them, in terms of how the past is spoken about.

I hope that what you’ll see is that it’s not just a matter of things becoming vaguer the further in the past they are.


It’s quite likely that what you remember from your early life is more vivid than what you remember from a year ago. But the tone in which it is given will, I hope, be different.

We adopt a different tone when recalling people who are dead, houses we no longer occupy, objects lost or destroyed or sold. And just as equally, we speak differently of the past when it seems clearly to us a different moment of our lives and a different historical period.

Think about how people, right now, are referring to pre-COVID life. They may speak nostalgically about the crush of their commute. That’s because of the change in historical period.

The easiest way of saying this is that we gain perspective on the past. We know not only what happened that day (the parents splitting up) but also what this led to (the pain and the happiness, the different houses and step-parents, the sense of being more grown-up than friends). Perhaps we also know this was the 1970s, and how that made such a difference to how things were said and done and thought of.


Another way of saying this is that we have become less like first person present tense narrators and more like third person past tense narrators.

It’s not that we see ourselves more objectively but we do see ourselves from further away.

We see ourselves through binoculars.

basic08_pic_002.jpgBut if your narrator is doing the past wonderfully well, yet speaking in advanced old age, they essentially have access to two things (as well as a great memory): a microscope and a time machine.

The former is commercially available; the latter (unless you already have a time machine) is not.

The third person is a kind of time machine; and can see with perfect eyes; and has infinite hours in which to construct sentences.

See you soon.

One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 40 – Is your narrator looking through a microscope when they should be looking through a telescope?

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 39 – Is your narrator reclining on a chaise lounge or (more likely) not? | tobylitt

Comments are closed.