Who’s on First?

The mystery novel I’m working on has certain cozyish elements, so I picked up a Kindle copy of Nancy Cohen’s Writing the Cozy Mystery. One of the things I like about this book is that it’s not a how-to-write book. It’s more a cookbook: Here are the ingredients of a cozy, and here’s how to stir them in together.

When Cohen discusses first-person narration, she cautions writers against this type of thing: “I never dreamed that just around the corner, death waited in the wings.” Or, another example: “I felt badly about the unknown victim, but it had nothing to do with me. Or so I thought.”

Technically, this is a form of foreshadowing. It’s a bad idea because while reading we’re in the narrator’s head at the point in the story that has been reached. When the narrator jumps out of the scene in order to make a comment about something that he or she would not have known in the scene at that time, it’s jarring. It’s poor technique.

On the other hand, we might want to ponder this well-known passage:

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.

The distinction I want to make is between two rather different forms of first-person viewpoint, which I would call the narrative first person and the storyteller first person.

Cohen is advising that writers stick to the narrative first person, and that’s generally good advice. In narrative first, the pronoun is “I,” but the viewpoint is strictly what the narrator would have known at that moment in the story. Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer stories are a fine example of narrative first. Archer is telling the story, but he never looks up over the top of the typewriter, winks at you, and gives you a hint about what’s coming, other than perhaps to mention his emotions at the time — “There was something about the setup that I didn’t like.” That type of thing.

The opening of HuckleBerry Finn is in storyteller first. In storyteller first, the narrator steps out to the front of the stage and addresses the audience (that is, the reader) directly. If handled badly, this jerks the reader out of the scene. It’s a loss of immersion. But if handled well, it can increase the credibility of the story and even lead the reader to feel a closer bond with the lead character.

My work-in-progress is in first person, and the person has a very strong narrative voice. She has attitudes. A passage in the first draft, which may or may not make it into the final version, goes like this: “That was when I noticed something you probably noticed way back in Chapter 5 and have been wondering about ever since. Lucas’s old pickup truck was still sitting there, parked off at the side of the street across from Grace’s house.” Here, the narrator is, in show biz parlance, breaking the fourth wall. She’s addressing the reader as someone who is reading the book. It’s storyteller first person.

Novelists in the 18th and 19th centuries broke the fourth wall with abandon. As a technique, it has fallen out of favor. It can only be done, I think, when your narrator character is strong enough and opinionated enough to carry it off. Huck Finn is a strong enough character to carry it off. The standard cozy protagonist, maybe not so much. And there should always be a reason for doing it. In Twain’s case, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and he wants to set that out at once, while also giving you a taste of Huck’s rather cynical viewpoint.

I’m still debating with myself how useful or treacherous this technique is — but I’m not willing to be hemmed in. I will use any technique that does what I feel I need to do. I would recommend against breaking the fourth wall in order to foreshadow in the manner of Cohen’s imaginary excerpts. But even for this purpose I might be willing to make an exception. Here’s the last paragraph of my draft of Chapter 1. Lucas is talking about Amanda’s pet rat:

On his way out he turned to me and said, “You remember what I said about the cats. I hate to see your little friend caged up like that, but I wouldn’t want the cats to get him.” That’s what you need to know about Lucas. He was a kind, caring guy, later on a lot of people said it but I know it was true. I wanted to mention it because the next time I saw him he was dead.

That’s foreshadowing, for sure, but it’s not “had I but known” foreshadowing. It’s just storytelling. There’s a lot more to Lucas that Amanda is not telling you at that point. It will only appear in the narrative when the proper moment arrives.

It’s a technique to handle with care.

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