Tag Archives: Jerome Stern

Pick a Narrator

In any work of fiction or creative non-fiction there is a narrative voice, a central consciousness to relate the parts that can’t be witnessed first hand through scene. This narrative voice is what we call Point of View or POV and who your narrator is will be one of the most important decisions you’ll make.

You have three choices:

                        1st Person                       

                        2nd Person                        

                        3rd Person

Every story has a narrator even if the story is, according to Alice LaPlant, “ being told by an invisible and bodiless intelligence which never personally enters the story as a character, and which appears to be godlike in its scope of knowledge.” But please, don’t assume this voice is the author! When the author’s voice, or POV, enters the story, it’s called author intrusion—something we want to avoid. In fiction, the narrator is different from the author. The author writes the words but the narrator is the intelligence that is telling the story. The author controls the narrator, but that doesn’t make the author synonymous with the narrator.

There’s a big difference between a fiction narrator and a creative non-fiction narrator. In creative non-fiction, the author and the narrator are the same. No writing convention exists to differentiate these voices.

Think about it. If the narrator of your short story were I, the author, the work would be non-fiction!

First Person

The narrative is told by an actual character: I. That character can be a participant in the action or merely an observer of the action who tells about it, like Nick in the Great Gatsby. He was smitten with the glamorous Jay Gatsby next door and tells Gatsby’s and his cousin Daisy’s story. But ultimately the story is about Nick.

That’s the rub. The story is always about who we are primarily focused on. Even when there is a detached first person narrating, it’s going to be that person’s story. This is a convention you can count on.

Another first person option is the plural first person: We. This isn’t very common, but it isn’t unheard of either. Check out William Falkner’s A Rose for Emily.

Second Person

Second person is complex and rare. The narrator is You. But the “you” is really “I”, usually because “you” has disassociated from the unpleasant thoughts of “I” as found in Jay McIrney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Another possibility is that you is really another character and the piece is a monolog addressed to someone. Or the you addresses the reader as in Lorrie Moore’s How to be a Writer.

Third Person

Third Person is the most complex and requires a discussion in its own post. Tune back in next week to learn why the 3rd person isn’t a fixed voice, but a continuum of possible voices limited only by the number of authors using it.

Assignment: pick a story, your own or someone else’s. Identify the major characters. Who is the point of view character? Rewrite a scene from another POV in the first person. Is the story different? Is the meaning changed? Read your original and re-write in class.

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Tension, Suspense and Conflict in Your Writing #1

“Tension is the Mother of Fiction” ~Jerome Stern



According to Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction (W.W. Norton and Company 2000), “When tension and immediacy combine, the story begins.” Stern advises the writer that tension is created out of conflict: between characters, between the characters and forces of nature, society, or vampires. Characters may even have conflict with themselves. Tension is integral to all aspects to storytelling. Tension is part of what involves the reader in the story—“the more you get readers to feel and visualize the scene, the more vivid the tension….” (Stern) Tension may resolve, end, or continue at the end of the story, but the story remains memorable after the cover is closed on it if the tension lingers.

Alice La Plant, in The Making of a Story—A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), defines tension as “the juxtaposition of two opposing forces.”

My dictionary (www.dictionary.com) lists two definitions that fit:
—mental or emotional strain; stress
—situation or condition of hostility, suspense, or uneasiness

In his Revision & Self-Editing—Techniques for transforming your first draft into a finished novel, James Scott Bell (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008) says “modulating tension is one of the keys to writing fiction.”


Stern identifies suspense “as the way you get your audience to worry.” It’s essential to any narrative; it’s the stakes. Suspense is that element that keeps your reader wondering what will happen next—“hoping for one resolution and fearing others.”

LaPlant defines suspense as “The state of being uncertain, unresolved. The sense that something of dramatic importance is about to happen.”

Dictionary.com says: a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.


LaPlant links conflict to tension: “Tension arising from opposite forces that is considered necessary by some to sustain a reader’s interest.”

The conflict—crisis—resolution model is the most predominant model for story telling. This is the model that defines a story as having an arc, or the Freitag triangle, named for the 19th century literary critic who developed the theory. Freitag identified five stages of the short-story: 1) the beginning exposition where the characters, setting and situation are introduced; 2) the rising action where the characters feel increasingly intense conflict; 3) the climax or the culmination of the conflict; 4) the falling action, denouement, when the tension is eased; 5) the resolution where the story ends.

This is the model taught in schools and posits that there are three kinds of conflict, those Stern lists under tension: man against man, man against nature, man against himself.

It is not the only model for stories! But it is a good starting point to understand the importance of suspense-tension-conflict in a work of fiction or creative non-fiction.


   [v. kuhhttp://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/dictionary/graphics/luna/thinsp.pngn-flikt; n. kon-flikt]

verb (used without object)

1. to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash: The account of one eyewitness conflicted with that of the other. My class conflicts with my going to the concert.

2. to fight or contend; do battle.


3. a fight, battle, or struggle, especially a prolonged struggle; strife.

4. controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.

5. discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.

6. a striking together; collision.

7. incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.


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