Direct narrative is when you have the reader experience a scene through a character. Doing what they do, feeling what they feel.
Indirect narrative is when the reader is told what just happened without getting a blow by blow report.
In most cases you’re going to write in direct narrative as much as possible. It’s more immediate and engaging, and makes it easier for the reader to connect with the character. First person narrative in particular is mainly written in this mode.
But there are times when you don’t want to live through every second of a story. Knowing when it is beneficial to the story to live through every moment, and when it’s just padding things out unnecessarily isn’t always obvious. Fortunately there’s a rule of thumb that can help make it clear which way to go.
[Standard disclaimer: Other rules of thumb are available. Your story is at risk if you do not make decisions for yourself or if you fail to rely on common sense, personal preference and good judgement.]
If Phil is downstairs in his house and goes up to the bedroom, should you take the reader up the stairs with Phil, step by step?
What if the house is empty and Phil hears a weird sound coming from upstairs? Is the journey up the stairs more interesting now?
Or what if Phil is climbing the stairs because of a weird sound, but the reader doesn’t know that yet? They just know he’s climbing the stairs very slowly. How do you get across what’s freaking him out without spoonfeeding the audience.
The rule of thumb is this: if it’s new information to the reader, then go with direct narrative. If the reader already knows what’s going on, you can use indirect narrative until you get to the next bit of new information.
So, if Phil is already on the stairs when we join him, then you should use direct narrative. Let the reader experience the journey up the stairs, and use it to convey what’s going on.
That doesn’t mean you have to spell out what, how and why, but a guy who’s driving across town to confront his cheating girlfriend will drive his car in a way that reflects his state of mind and his purpose. Direct means direct access to the character, not necessarily a full explanation of what’s going on.
Staying inside of Phil’s reactions, emotions and thoughts will build up a picture of the situation in a way that just stating it can’t match.
This is indirect: Phil paused on the stairs and listened. The scratching sound he’d heard a few moments ago had stopped.
I’m telling you about something that happened before without you being there to witness it yourself.
This is direct: Phil paused on the stairs and listened. The scratching sound was definitely coming from his bedroom.
On the other hand, if we’re with Phil when he hears the weird sound for the first time, then there’s much less of a reason to provide details of how he feels as he heads towards it, assuming his feelings don’t change all that much.
It could be argued that we could stick with him as he climbs the stairs as a way of raising the tension, which is fine if his emotional state is changing or he’s discovering new details (like where the sound is coming from).
However, if you’re just reiterating his condition (he’s scared, takes a step, he’s still scared) it won’t add much and will probably annoy the reader.
Anytime you try to emphasise through repetition without adding anything new it will read as being pushy. Providing cause and effect, and an evolving situation, will allow the reader to mirror the character’s development.
If the sound from upstairs turns into a voice and then the voice starts saying Phil’s name, Phil’s transition from nervous to terrified will be much more engaging for the reader. Although why he wouldn’t turn around and run out of the door, I don’t know.
Alternatively, if Phil hears a sound, goes upstairs and then realises it’s a voice when he’s standing outside the bedroom door, then the trip up the stairs has minimal narrative purpose.
If the scene is providing the reader with new information, let them experience it with the character. If it’s stuff they already know, consider shortening it to transitional length and detail.
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