Saturday, August 30, 2008

Rhetorical stance in narrative

I have the brilliant members of my critique group to thank for a helpful new way of thinking about narrators. Rhetorical stance, or simply stance, refers to where your narrator stands in relation to its audience, its own authority, and what it is saying. Reading your draft with an eye to stance can help you diagnose and fix a range of problems. For example:
  • Your narrator speaks over your audience's heads. That indicates a problem with stance in relation to audience. To fix it, you would seek to tone down the bluster or jargon, and build a better rapport with your readers. What do they know? What are they not expected to know? Where might they get lost?
  • Sentimentality. A sentimental narrator is working too hard to appeal to the audience. As a result, readers feel manipulated and the writing sounds forced. To fix it, give your audience some breathing room, and see if you can engage our minds instead by focusing on detail and action (i.e., simple information), and using plainer language.
  • Inconsistent narrator. If your readers begin to lose their suspension of disbelief--or if for some subtle reason they just aren't buying your story anymore--then you may need to get a clearer grasp of your narrator. I'm not sure how to best describe the problem other than that things start getting muddy. I see it in a lot of drafts. A supposedly ingenious character's point of view reads as though a fifteen-year-old wrote it. A historical novel is told in the easygoing language of a Christmas letter. The tone of one section is solemn and the next is breezy, for no apparent reason.
Remember that your storyteller is a character, too. It's worth your while to develop a consistent voice appropriate to the subject matter, and make sure that any deviation from it happens for a good reason. When you reach a well-balanced rhetorical stance, your narrator is believable, inviting, and has a thorough knowledge of the story--even the parts that don't make it on the page.

Wayne C. Booth wrote about the subject fifty years ago. Read more examples in his seven-page essay here:


Mark Pennington said...

Teachers can help students practice the elements of Rhetorical Stance: voice, audience, purpose, and form. Learning these elements will enable students to flexibly address any writing assignment with dexterity and flair. Students need to be able to adjust their writing to a wide variety of genre in order to communicate effectively. Check out this article: