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Is it bad writing or bad story telling if first person narrative contains more information than the narrator knows?

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Here are a few examples of the narrator knowing more than he should.

(A) In a humourous short story about Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, Bertie is talking about a situation involving two strangers and Jeeves suggests referring to them as A & B. When another stranger enters that situation, Jeeves suggests "We will call him C, sir" and Bertie says, "Caesar is a good name".

It is a pun, "C, sir" sounding like "Caesar", but how could Bertie write "C, sir" correctly and still use "Caesar"?

It is lazy writing because, it is easy to rectify, with Jeeves later saying something like "not Caesar, sir, but rather the letter C". With that minor alteration, everything makes sense.

[[ This is an example of a minor issue which has no impact on the rest of the story ]]

(B) In a detective story, a criminal who is a habitual liar talks about a crime involving "Doyle" and the narrator uses this name throughout the novel but gets no matching record.

He assumes the criminal is lying until he checks with alternate spellings like "Doyel" & "Doile" and gets the matching records.

Here the narrator does not write more than he knows, because he uses the wrong name until the end.

[[ This is an example of good writing and the story is consistent and logical ]]

(C) In too many movies, we see cases like the narrator explaining how something happened, but the flashback scenes include scenes where the narrator is not around or cannot know. E.g., "Hearing a noise, I woke up at 3 AM and was knocked unconscious before I saw anything and the three thieves took all my money and documents. One guy was thin and had a rough voice, another was clumsy and silent, the third was foolish and fat."

We, the audience, see all this and confirm what the narrator says. But how could the narrator describe the thieves if he had been knocked out before he saw anything?

(C1) In "better" stories or movies, this fact is used to accuse the narrator of staging the crime. (C2) In lazily written movies, the description is used to catch the thieves. It could be rectified if it was claimed that the narrator gained consciousness after a while and thereby heard and saw the thieves.

[[ C1 is an example of better writing. C2 is an example of lazy or bad or sloppy writing having a major issue which makes the rest of the story inconsistent or illogical ]]

Now, A and C2 are examples of lazy writing. But is it also bad writing or bad storytelling? Or is it irrelevant because intended readers are okay with it?

Why should this post be closed?

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/45073. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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2 answers

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(A) In a humourous short story about Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, Bertie is talking about a situation involving two strangers and Jeeves suggests referring to them as A & B. When another stranger enters that situation, Jeeves suggests "We will call him C, sir" and Bertie says, "Caesar is a good name".

Bertie can write this because he's relaying a story after the fact. He can understand that he originally thought Jeeves was referring to the Roman leader, but subsequently realized his trusted valet was saying the letter C with the ol' feudal spirit. He's sharing the unintentional pun with the reader.

(B) In a Detective story, a criminal who is a habitual liar talks about a crime involving "Doyle" and the narrator uses this name throughout the novel but gets no matching record. He assumes the criminal is lying, until he checks with alternate spellings like "Doyel" & "Doile" and gets the matching records.

This is fine because the story stays consistent with what the narrator knows. But once the narrator learns the correct name, he should use the correct name.

(C) In too many movies, we see cases like the narrator explains how something happened, but the flashback scenes include scenes where the narrator is not around or cannot know.

This is wrong. As an editor, I would call this out immediately. If the story is first-person or third-person limited, then this is information that the narrator cannot know. The story would have to switch to third-person omniscient.

As an example, the Harry Potter series is set in third-person limited from Harry's POV with the exception of two first chapters, in books 1 and I think 5. Those are third-person omniscient. Rowling did it for effect, and it's fine because it's the first chapter and obviously for effect.

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A main reason to choose a first person narrator in the first place is to limit the scope of the narrator (and to get deeply into that one character's head).

So, no, the narrator should not be privy to information that the character does not know.

With two exceptions:

1. If it's information the character learned later on, the narration can include it.

After all, the character is telling her/his story. When you and I tell our stories in real life, we don't always note when we found out information.

When I got back from the post office, my front door was open and the place looked like a small child had a very big tantrum. Burglars. They found the money and fake IDs and stole my cookie jar for good measure.

You can write this even if it took a few minutes to figure out the money/IDs were gone and a week to notice the cookie jar.

2. If it's an unreliable narrator.

Some people fill in the blanks when they tell stories. In a book it's sometimes easy to spot when the first person narrator offers explanations of what another character is thinking. In some cases, the narrator might be right. "He was angry at me." But other times it's dead obvious how wrong s/he is. (Elaborate descriptions of how the other character's body language means s/he wants to sleep with the narrator.)

Sometimes it can be easy for the reader to gloss over the fact that the narrator couldn't be sure of that information and be misled. As an author, you can use this to your advantage. It's only bad writing if you don't see how and why this works, if you're not doing it on purpose.

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