About Narrative Focus

My writing has a tendency to go off topic. In fact, this is an extension of my general thought-patterns, I believe. It’s difficult to concentrate on a single topic at the rate that they flit through my head. No wonder my degree is bipartite.

Despite how important it is, only recently did I learn of narrative focus as by its term, and many writers might still not be utilising focus to its full extent.

What is Narrative Focus?

As complicated as the term might seem, narrative focus is simply the way the writer, through use of a character first-person narrator or third-person abstract narrator, guides the reader through a set of events.

Narrative focus might be used to describe that sense of flow between paragraphs – the way the narrator mentions a certain event and holds that event to task for a page or so. ‘Narrative focus’ also applies to the character focus in scenes and the overall flow between chapters and scenes, especially if they are narrated or in the perspective of different characters.

How Can One Hone Narrative Focus?

In short – like everything in writing – practice. And reading. Chances are that most published books have a narrative focused and directed towards the MC(s). In addition, when editing, you might also concentrate on the flow of where not only your sentences are going but also how the paragraphs flow together to tell your story. What’s the most important thing your main character sees in a scene? How do they react?

As fun as squirrels are, there’s no room for them in your manuscript. In the same way that you must weak out the weak verbs and phrases, you must banish the pieces of description or that do not help the story flow from event to event.

What’s Tricky About Narrative Focus?

The problem, especially in first drafts, is that the writer can easily get side-tracked by the generous setting in their head. Each character has an opinion worth listening to, and so a lot of what they see is transferred to the POV character’s narration.

In contrast with headhopping, these slips of focus are viable in writing – but the question is whether they are necessary. Do you want your reader to notice or care that Bill frowns after Mary raises her eyebrows. Mary might indeed see Bill’s reaction, but does that add to the story or is it simply a line that draws the reader out of the scene?
In the end, it’s up the writer.

I asked writers on Twitter which of first or third person they thought created trickier narrative focus, and the general response was third. Understandably, writers of third person have to enter a certain character’s head whilst still keeping their narration fixed on the prose. Writers of first person already tend to have voice, and have the allowance of stepping fully into a characters’ head as they retell the action and reaction. (I write both so I feel qualified to make these observations.)

What might be interesting is the case of narrative focus in accord with second person. Already rather disjointed in general focus, second person requires the reader to be fully transported into the scene.

Narrative focus is not only used for fiction. Many academic papers, in particular precise scientific results with need for replicability, utilise narrative focus.

Thus, focus in prose is important to guide a reader through what needs to be mentioned in a scene and what doesn’t.

Some useful sites: Janice Hardy’s fiction university

Psychology in narrative focus

Wikipedia-like page

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