Subtle Narration in the Graveyard Book

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There are several ways to present your story's universe to the reader. One way is to have an omniscient narrator tell the reader the details they need to know. This happens in the opening pages of The Hobbit, in which the narrator tells us everything about hobbits -- where they live, what they look like, what they eat, etc. (Although it's been a long time since I read The Hobbit. Correct me if I'm mistaken.)

Another approach is to reveal things in a less direct way. Neil Gaiman is a master of this technique.

Take the opening scene of The Graveyard Book. It begins at night with the man Jack, who has stabbed to death all the inhabitants of a house except one. The family toddler has managed to escape his crib and wander out of the house into a nearby graveyard, where some friendly ghosts hide him. The man Jack realizes the toddler has escaped and pursues him to the graveyard. He climbs the fence to look for the child, but he runs into a stranger who tells him he has to leave the graveyard. They have the following conversation.

[The stranger] selected one large key from the keyring, said "Follow me."
The man Jack walked behind the stranger. He took his knife from his pocket. "Are you the caretaker then?
"Am I? Certainly in a manner of speaking," said the stranger. They were walking towards the gates and, the man Jack was certain, away from the baby. But the caretaker had the keys. A knife in the dark, that was all it would take, and then he could search for the child all through the night, if he needed to.
He raised the knife.
"If there was a baby," said the stranger, without looking back, "it wouldn't have been here in the graveyard. Perhaps you were mistaken. It's unlikely that a child would have come in here after all. Much more likely that you heard a nightbird, and saw a cat. They declared this place an official nature reserve, you know, around the time of the last funeral. Now think carefully, and tell me you are certain that it was a child that you saw."
The man Jack thought.
The stranger unlocked the side gate. "A fox," he said. " They make the most uncommon noises. Not unlike a person crying. No, your visit to this graveyard was a mis-step, sir. Somewhere the child you seek awaits you, but he is not here." And he let the thought sit there, in the man Jack's head for a moment, before he opened the gate with a flourish. "Delighted to have made your acquaintance" . . . .
"Where are you going?" asked the man Jack.
"There are other gates than this," said the stranger. "My car is on the other side of the hill. Don't mind me. You don't even have to remember this conversation."
"No," said the man Jack, agreeably." "I don't." He remembered wandering up the hill, that what he had thought to be a child had turned out to be a fox, that a helpful caretaker had escorted him back out to the street. He slipped his knife into its inner sheath. "Well," he said. "Good night."

I'm more impressed here by what Gaimen didn't write than by what he did. If I were writing a scene like this, I would have been tempted to write a few lines like the following.

The man Jack hesitated, confused. What was he going to do with the knife again? He put it down and shook his head. He supposed it was a rather silly idea after all that the child would be in the graveyard...


Well, thankfully, Neil Gaiman is not me, and we instead get this deliciously subtle passage -- the type of passage that makes the reader go, "Wait, did he just do what I think he did?" A few pages later, he finally slips in a confirmation, almost as an afterthought. The following passage is from a conversation between Siilas (the stranger) and a ghost.

"You are a wise woman," said Silas. "I see why they speak so highly of you." He couldn't push the minds of the dead as he could the living, but he could use all the tools of flattery and persuasion he possessed, for the dead are not immune to either.

In other parts of the book, Gaiman is even less direct. For example, he drops many hints about the true nature of Silas's character, but he never really comes out and says it. For me, this was really fun as reader because it allowed me to be an active participant in exploring the world Gaiman created. It wasn't just handed to me on a plate -- I actually had to pay attention.

So what are you thoughts? Is your writing style subtle or straightforward? What style do you prefer to read?


  1. Oh, I definitely prefer the telling-less style.

    After all, the fun of reading, the whole reason why reading novels or any fiction is an enjoyable pursuit, is exactly in that act of sorting out what's true but NOT written on the page.

    "Reading between the lines," they called in gradeschool (although no teacher I ever had could really explain what that meant) is the fun part.

    It's the writer's job to SHOW what happens, as objectively as possible, while giving subtle clues so the reader can interpret what it means.

    Your impulse, to leave more on the page and less between the lines, is TELLING the reader, not SHOWING.

    And it's no wonder people tend not to like that style as much: If you tell the reader what everything means, if you leave nothing between the lines, you are quite literally taking all the fun out of the story.

  2. Subtle. Definitely subtle. I don't like to say everything, and prefer to let the reader come to their conclusions via inference.

    I like the great stories where things were never fully explained, yet you know what happened nonetheless. Faulkner's "Red Leaves" comes to mind. As does Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," in which we're never explicitly told what the narrator's injury is, but don't have any trouble figuring it out.

  3. Simon -- I originally thought of subtletly in narration as a more recent phonomenon that came about as the omnicient narrator became less popular, but the examples you gave are from the early 1900s. Hmm, I wonder when the omnicient narrator started declining...

  4. Livia, I think the modernist novelists were the ones that poked clean through the 3rd person omniscient. Joyce, Conrad, et. al. were certainly not tell-all writers.

    Does it have something to do with Freud's influence and the rise of psycholanalysis/psychology? You'd be in a better position to answer that one, I think.

  5. Oh, just reminded me of another passage that doesn't directly explain things -- the ending of "To Kill a Mockingbird", where they decided that the guy (what's his name?) "fell on his knife." I liked how that was done.

  6. Freud's big contribution was the idea of the subconscious and how that affects our conscious thoughts and behaviors. By necessity, limited POV still mostly deals with conscious thoughts, but it does take us closer to to the subconscious than omniscient 3rd person would. It's an interesting possibility. I wonder if the rise in limited POV also has to do with a rise in individualism and individual identity. It'd be interesting to see whether collectivist cultures have a more omniscient narrator than individualist cultures.

  7. I did love the narration in The Graveyard Book, especially surrounding Silas.

    But I disagree that making it more explicit is always telling. The only part of Livia's example that's truly telling is when she uses the word "confused." The rest is just showing more explicitly than Gaiman did.

    I've heard this expressed as "trusting the reader." It's a very delicate balance—and I'll bet that Gaiman took a lot of drafts and outside advice in achieving that balance.

    And I've been told in Victorian times, when everyone was so concerned about societal standards, the omniscient narrator was so important to stories, so we could get society's POV (check out ).

  8. Jordan -- I like that phrase -- "trusting the reader." And it's made even more challenging by the fact that not all readers are the same -- so you're not dealing with a binary will get it/will not get it, but rather that writing something a certain way will cause 50% of the audience to get it rather than 75%. I find it interesting that Gaiman has this kind of writing style, but this is a children's book. I can definitely see some things sneaking past some kids. It's kind of like Pixar movies -- where they have something for the younger viewers as well as the older.

  9. (typo in previous comment)

    I have to say, when I read that part in the book I thought immediately of Star Wars (goes to show how much less sophisticated my thought processes are compared to your other blog readers :) ). I wondered whether mind control ideas in Star Wars (& millions of other sci-fi-ish shows since) made it that much easier for me to understand what was going on in this scene without a lot of extra explanations.

    Wait...come to think of it, didn't Bram Stoker's Dracula have a mind-control element? (spoiler alert) Thus, this could be another subtle clue that Silas could be a vampire. Woah.

  10. Silas waved a long fingered hand in front of the man Jack's face. "This isn't the toddler you're looking for."
    "This isn't the toddler I'm looking for," said Jack.
    "It was a fox," said Silas.
    "A fox," agreed Jack.
    "Move along."

  11. I am certainly less subtle though I prefer the subtle style in books that I read. It is something that I need to work on as a writer.
    I always fall into the trap of explaining too much because I'm worried the reader might not get it. I have to accept that some very well might not, but most probably will if I've done my job well enough.