When someone says, “Tell me a story,” is it “tell,” “show,” or both? And who delivers that story to children aged one to one hundred? The narrator, of course. Who, of course, sometimes “tells.”
It matters only to novelists, but the combination of characters and narrator keeps readers satisfied. Yet narrators often lapse into “telling,” which is indeed a terrible thing.
What’s a novelist to do? Accept that like any good character, the narrator has flaws and assets. In this sense, omitting essential narration is like refusing to grow roses because they have thorns. Your clumsy movements won’t hurt you, but so much gets lost. So much. Because the narrator contributes everything that characters can’t provide, essentials like:
Characters rarely tell it like it is. They rely on the narrator to do it for them.
~ Segue way.
Fiction jumps around. Readers can’t follow unless someone offers transitions for time, place, and focus. That someone is the narrator.
How can characters interpret what’s happening as it happens? That’s the narrator’s job.
Characters know where they are. But like real people, characters don’t necessarily assess the environment or its impact. Don’t make readers miss out on that.
If characters don’t know what they don’t know, how can they hide it from readers?
Characters are too busy thwarting obstacles to note how those interweave.
Characters rarely look for the kinds of patterns that make novels cohere.
To the character, a stain might just be a stain. The narrator, though, can suggest the meaning of this stain, or Soldier’s Moon, or chewed fingernail.