Writing with Authority: A Primer
You may have heard someone say that a story they’ve read either has or lacks authority. It’s a common term in writing craft, albeit one that’s deceptively vague.
Narrative authority is a lot of things. More than anything, authority signifies believability. It’s a series of deliberate yet artfully subtle cues that convince the reader that what we’re seeing on the page accounts for a genuinely human experience. In order for it to work, authority requires an acknowledgement on behalf of the reader, a tacit understanding that the narrator is a credible source to deliver the information proposed. Ultimately, authority convinces readers to take a leap of faith. It instills trust; it’s the practice of believing that the illusion of the story is as real as anything else.
To put it simply, authority is literary sleight of hand. It's a trick, and like all tricks it’s an entirely intentional and thorough process, but one that has to be performed covertly and tactfully in order for it to work. It doesn’t point out its own suggestions, or reveal the literary rabbits you’ve been putting into the hat backstage.
Here’s a list of five components all authoritative narratives have.
Some people assume narrative authority is the same thing as voice. It isn't, but voice is certainly a huge part of it. Language. Dialect. Jargon. Diction. Vernacular. These tools allow the author to establish who the narrator is, whether he/she is reliable, the narrative limitations and freedoms of the perspective, as well as where the story takes place and from what position it will be told. The great thing about voice is it works like a literary protractor: it establishes a particular person occupying a particular point in space. It sets the stage and lays out the terms of the story, and its effects are practically immediate.
“I remember one thing he done one time. I was raised with him over in the tenth. He lost a softball down off the road that rolled down into this field … and he told this boy, this Finney boy, told him to go and get it. Told him, said: Go get that softball.”
— Cormac McCarthy, Child of God
Some writers think they automatically gain more authority by telling a story in a first-person POV. I’d wager that you might get there faster —there’s nothing like a regional accent or dialect to place you in a specific place or mindset — but I’d advise writers to always ask themselves if they lose more than they gain by telling their story in such an intrinsically limiting voice. First-person is a fantastic POV but it’s a difficult form to master, and the easiest to screw up. More than any POV out there, first-person narrations have to be airtight. If the voice slips one time, the reader begins to see the words on the page as the writer’s and not the character’s, and the illusion of fiction — and hence, its authority — fails.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a story in the first- or third-person point-of-view: once you’ve established the parameters of that voice, once you’ve begun transmitting a character’s thoughts and language, it has to remain 100% credible 100% of the time. This means you simply have to let the voice lay: once you begin explaining the terms of the narration or a particular character’s jargon you reveal the writer’s hand working behind the voice.
Another way to establish quick authority is with the placement of experts. In other words, an enthusiast or connoisseur of a particular trade or lifestyle. If your story is about a truck driver for instance, it would behoove your narrator to possess some big-rig wherewithal. It goes without saying that in order to craft the expert character, you’re going to need to do your research to account for industry knowledge or parlance. If your story involves history, you’re going to need a surplus of historical facts — no doubt more than you can probably cram into the piece. But expertise ultimately involves a lot more than a narrator who’s skilled at a trade or possesses an Asperger's-level trove of trivial information. Sometimes it implies cultural expertise. If you’re a man and you’re writing a story from the viewpoint of a woman, it seeks to reason that you should quell any natural inclination for your character to possess a proclivity for football games and chicken wings, unless you’re deliberately trying to subvert the character as someone who engages in stereotypically male behaviors. If you live in the city and you’re writing about someone who’s never left their rural Indiana community, you have to address the notion that there are some urban experiences the writer encounters daily which might never confront your character. (The opposite is also true. How many life-long urbanites have driven a combine?) In other words, expertise involves an awareness of identity. Once you’ve laid out the epistemological perimeters of your story, you need a narrator who knows what he/she is talking about.
“He flourished on a signature capability, a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of electric meters, so cunningly done that his customers could specify to the hundred-rupee note the desired monthly savings. In this Pakistani desert, behind Multan, where the tube wells ran day and night, Nawab’s discovery eclipsed the philosopher’s stone.”
— Daniyal Mueenuddin, “Nawabdin Electrician”
Fiction writing has an advantage over other types of storytelling in a few regards. Here are two big ones: interior access, and the ability to move through time. Depending on your narrative point of view, you can go as far into a character as you want, and you can take them to the ends of time to do it. Stories are accounts of people and their spaces, the crossroads where characters and time intersect. Given the unparalleled access and roaming room available however, the sheer palette size at your disposal can seem daunting if you don’t know where or how you want to begin telling your story. In other words, there’s a decoding process needed in writing to enter this grid of possibilities, and here’s where it starts: with absolute specifics. Fiction occurs when the particular enters the general, when the specific occurs within the abstract, when the bizarre penetrates the familiar.
The more specific you go in your descriptions, the more authority your story has as something tantamount to an authentic human experience. Specificity implies a literacy of human nature. It promises a genuine, bona fide experience. If you want to write with authority, you have to remember that the spell requires specifics to penetrate the ho-hum malaise of the world outside the story. Your story should always be about a specific place, a specific time, a specific character, a specific desire.
“I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy, and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave.”
— Breece D’J. Pancake, “Trilobites”
Whatever voice or narrative strategy it is that you choose to tell your story, it not only has to be accurate and sincere — it has to be cohesive and consistent as well. To break away from the voice is to break the rules of engagement you’ve established with the reader. It destroys the contractual agreement the writer has with his/her audience.
Unity of scene also falls under this category. A coherent piece of writing comes across as completely and wholly necessary, an organic manifestation of the world in the story and one entirely without filler. One reason why many beginning writers fail at portraying authority is they’re too busy listening to themselves talk. They’re so married to the witticisms they've gotten the chance to place on the page they’ve become blind to the fact that they may not fit the story they’re trying to tell. In other words, once you’ve established a voice, you have to stay with it through thick and thin.
“They came on. I opened the gate and they stopped, turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off my face, but the bright shapes were going again. They were going up the hill to where it fell away and I tried to cry. But when I breathed in, I couldn’t breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from falling off the hill and I fell off the into the bright, whirling shapes.’
— William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Here, the character — a thirty-something mentally disabled man who doesn’t understand the concept of time and possesses little understanding of what’s going on around him — has tried to initiate innocent play with a neighbor girl and the community mistakenly believes he has tried to sexually assault her. To assuage the townsfolk, his family takes him to the hospital, where he is castrated. Didn’t catch that? Neither did I, the first three times I read it. But given it’s a first-person narration from the viewpoint of someone with severe cognitive limitations, that’s exactly how he would explain the situation. Most of us would completely screw this up. The lesson here is simple: once you’ve established a narrative voice you’re not allowed break it, no matter what happens in the story.
Finally, writing with authority bears a certain narrative responsibility, albeit one that doesn’t always appear in the words themselves: trusting your reader. Authority casts the illusion that the story exists as its own world, for its own sake. This means it doesn’t draw attention to itself or serve to remind the reader what “type” of story it is. It also means a confident storyteller should resist the urge to amp up dramatic climaxes so as to make certain thematic connections obvious; he/she shouldn’t litter the work with “construction sign” clues pointing us to the grand themes or meanings you’re trying to elicit beneath the surface. Authoritative writing means requiring the reader to do a bit of the work too, so ultimately they can enjoy the pleasure of feeling that he/she has discovered something, rather than the less rewarding pleasure of simply acknowledging that he/she has seen what “tricks” the author has performed. Authority in fiction reveals a narrative that is aware, but it also implies another kind of awareness: an acknowledgement and a respect for its reader.
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