April 28, 2019

Your Author-Narrator Dynamic Impacts Your Story’s Execution: Teaching by Example with Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

Kenneth Oppel and his narrator, Matt Cruse, work in harmony to share a beautiful, compelling story.

Their author-narrator relationship is so well honed that the reader feels a sense of leadership behind the actual story and can sit back and easily absorb the tale.

It’s true that as the author, technically, Oppel is Airborn’s narrator.

This makes the purpose of differentiating between the role of the author and the role of the narrator appear to be a moot point. 

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But it’s not. Oppel-as-the-author and Oppel-acting-as-the-narrator are two distinctly separate roles.

As the author, Oppel did all the planning and preparation. He compiled and created information for multiple facets of the story world, and blended both character and plot to become seamlessly relevant to each other.

Once complete, Oppel-acting-as-the-narrator stepped into the “personality” of narrator Matt.

If his chosen narrator hadn’t understood how to communicate effectively, all of Oppel-as-the-author’s hard work would have become diluted or lost in translation.

Thankfully, narrator Matt understands how to present information to the reader.

This isn’t Oppel overriding narrator Matt’s ability to communicate. Rather, Oppel probably had a chat with narrator Matt prior to the writing of the story, so narrator Matt would be able to shape the story’s narrative and dialogue in an articulate manner still reflecting his persona.

Let’s examine how this author-narrator dynamic is carried out in the story.

*This review contains spoilers for the purposes of helping aspiring authors master writing craft.*

What the Book is about:

In a world populated with airships, and not airplanes, Matt Cruse is a cabin boy aboard the Aurora, the same ship his father had worked on. He travels the world, helping transport rich passengers from one continent to the next. Born in the air, he only feels alive in the sky and believes the air would hold him aloft, letting him soar. 

After bringing a dying balloonist aboard, Matt is questioned about beautiful winged creatures in the sky. One year later, the balloonist’s granddaughter, Kate, is a passenger on the Aurora. He learns her grandfather had actually discovered a new species and she will go to no end to prove his findings.

When pirates damage the Aurora, the airship is forced to make an emergency landing on an isolated tropical island. After Matt realizes the island is the same one her grandfather had passed over, he struggles to balance his commitment to the Aurora with his desire to aide Kate in her island explorations.

Narrator & Point of View:

Matt Cruse is both the narrator and Central Point of View character in Airborn. He narrates in the past tense.

I believe, for two different reasons, the distance between now-story Matt and narrator Matt is approximately two years past the book’s conclusion. Determining the distance between the two is important because it reveals how the reader might be impacted.

Establishing a two-year span creates greater emotional distance, which may be more suitable for a topic about the loss of a loved one. Depending on a multitude of factors, a closer emotional distance for this type of topic may result in emotional overwhelm for younger readers and those who have experienced loss themselves. Increased distance may facilitate a more positive reception of the story’s message.

Narrator Matt labels many of his emotions (even though he also shows emotion, too). This telling, rather than showing, creates distance because as time passes, a person gains both mental and emotional objectivity about past emotional events. Now-story Matt has an important lesson to learn, but one that only a two-year span can facilitate.

Additionally, narrator Matt addresses the reader a handful of times. In this particular story, doing so reveals distance because narrator Matt would need both emotional healing and confidence to do so. Any closer distance would have prevented him from sharing his story because his heart would have still been too raw to address the reader about his father.

Voice (Personality) & Tone (Style): 

Narrator Matt’s voice is wondrous. Narrator Matt is an expert descriptionist, whose highly specific word choices ensure all the reader’s senses are engaged.

He views his Normal World* with a reverential joy and his Adventure World* with an angsty awe. Oppel meticulously chose every word to reflect narrator Matt’s fresh appreciation for that which comes across his perspective. 

But a wondrous voice could easily come across as childish, gushing, or relatively chaotic. This is where that prewriting chat comes into play. By keeping his tone structured, narrator Matt avoids these issues.

He uses a systematic framework for sharing information, which grounds the wonder of his voice with a sensible maturity. Paragraphs often start with a big picture and then funnel into greater detail. Sentences vary in length and structure but generally follow the subject-verb-object-clause format—the important information is presented first. Semi-colons and colons are frequently used, which contributes an older, more mature feeling.

*The Normal World and Adventure World are explained further in “Worldbuilding & Setting.”

The Opening Line:

Oppel-as-the-author took great care in helping narrator Matt deliver the heavy-weight champion of first lines, which sets up Airborn’s adventure to be something more than just a mere adventure. (Additionally, every line thereafter fulfills that unspoken expectation.)

The first line immediately anchors the reader into the story world because it delivers, with strategic precision, handfuls of relevant information about narrator Matt, his voice, and the very beginning of the story.

“Sailing toward dawn, and I was perched atop the crow’s nest, being the ship’s eyes.”

In this single sentence, the reader immediately absorbs a multitude of information:
   • Action, from both the ship’s movement and protagonist’s role
   • Setting, from both the time of day and location
   • Point of View, from the First Person, Past Tense format
   • Voice and Character, from the chosen vocabulary:
        o “Sailing towards dawn” conveys a calm yet anticipatory attitude
        o “Perched” is normally associated with birds and conveys both
           readiness and lightness
        o “Atop” falls under antiquated vernacular and conveys both era and
           playfulness
        o “Being the ship’s eyes” personifies the ship itself as something alive 
           and also conveys responsibility

Theme:

Now-story Matt learns that healing requires both time and bravery. More specifically, he comes to understand that he cannot fly away from grief.

Worldbuilding & Setting:

Oppel-as-the-author constructed both Matt’s Normal World and his Adventure World as extensions of the lesson now-story Matt needs to learn.

Both are exquisitely described by narrator Matt; first, out of necessity to avoid reader confusion and, later, to support the reader’s emotional investment to now-story Matt’s journey. 

Matt’s Normal World is the Aurora, which reflects the safety of his Lie. The airship is a relative heaven. The Aurora is always in the air; has a great visual scope; has cool, fresh air with a soft mango scent from the ship’s hydrium; and a comforting, gentle hum from the activities of the crew at work.

Matt’s Adventure World is a tropical island, which reflects the unknown beauty and danger of the Truth. It is a claustrophobic prison. The island is landlocked; is visually restrictive from vegetation overgrowth; has humid, stagnant air heavily perfumed from flowers and ripe mango trees; and a grating cacophony from chattering bugs and screeching birds.

Characters:

Oppel has created a colorful cast filled with depth. From the primary characters to the tertiary characters, each one is different from the other.

The secondary characters are especially quirky and provide comic relief, conflict, and tension. Each one is superbly crafted, memorable, and realistic despite modeling one or two specific traits.

As a reader, you can actually sense the secondary characters’ motivations behind their dialogue and actions.

Matt Cruse, Positive-Change Arc

Matt is a teen boy trying to become a man. Little does now-story Matt realize that in order to do so, he will need to face the grief he has been avoiding for the past three years after his father’s passing. 

Now-story Matt pretends that his father didn’t fall to his death off the Aurora but instead flew clear and soared into the sky. Now-story Matt also believes that if he ever fell (off the Aurora), the air would catch him and he would be able to fly.

This defense mechanism protects his tender heart from the pain, and resulting unhappiness, of losing his beloved father. Now-story Matt believes he is closer to his father when he is in the air and on the Aurora. Subsequently, he develops an extraordinary attachment to the airship. 

Because his father is gone, now-story Matt looks up to Captain Walken, who is like his father in quality of character. Matt admires Captain Walken for treating him with respect, despite his low rank and young age.

When now-story Matt disappoints Walken, he learns that role models are exactly that, just a role model. Now-story Matt learns he, himself, must be proud of his own actions; this revelation spurs him to take brave, leaping steps later in the story. He steps into the shoes of leadership by both saving the day and facing the truth that his father wasn’t invincible and, neither is he.

But his character isn’t wholly focused on grief. He is as dimensional and human as they come.

When Kate de Vries expresses genuine interest in the Aurora, the formal divide of their stations slowly gives way as a genuine friendship forms. Now-story Matt develops an attraction towards her as their interactions continue; he admires her inquisitive mind and appreciates her sincere interest in what he has to say. 

Due to their class divide, their friendship draws a significant amount of attention, causing now-story Matt to struggle with indecision because his role aboard the Aurora could be affected.

Kate’s well-intentioned insistence often causes Matt anger and frustration; sometimes she just comes across the wrong way, and, other times, he just doesn’t appreciate her shaking up his Normal World. 

Additionally, when now-story Matt’s promotion is denied due to nepotism, he struggles with jealousy and resentment towards Bruce Lundari, a young man just a couple years older than him. 

He views Bruce as both professional and personal competition and occasionally lashes out towards him. But now-story Matt doesn’t let his emotions fester. After Bruce is brutally injured, he lets go of his resentment for genuine concern and compassion towards Bruce.

Matt's Character Arc Foundation

Let’s take a look at what makes Matt Cruse function as a character.

The Thing He Wants: To fly aboard the Aurora forever
The Thing He Needs: To face his grief and accept the loss of his father
The Lie He Believes: Because he can fly, being light as air, he is both invincible to pain and closer to his father

His Deep Need: To stop avoiding his grief and accept the loss of his father
His Wound: His father’s death
His Belief: Because he can fly, being light as air, he is both invincible to pain and closer to his father
His Fear: Being consumed by his grief

Vikram Szpirglas, Negative-Change Arc*

Szpirglas is partly a mirrored reflection of Matt avoiding his grief. As a fearsome pirate, he believes he is free to live the life he wants, but, in reality, he isn’t. His freedom is his very prison.

Szpirglas wants to be left alone to carry out his role in the world and then contentedly hide himself away on his isolated tropical island. But he meets resistance wherever he goes: from the ships he boards and the passengers he steals from, to evading capture from the Sky Guard.

It is the same with Matt; he believes he is free on the Aurora, but his Lie holds him prisoner to it.

Szpirglas' Character Arc Foundation

Let’s take a look at what makes Szpirglas function as a character.

The Thing He Wants: To protect his way of life
The Thing He Needs: To participate in society as a normal, contributing patron
The Lie He Believes: His actions are justified to maintain what he wants

His Deep Need: To participate in society as a normal, contributing patron
His Wound: Either he was taught the law only benefits the rich or he experienced some type of injustice*
His Belief: His actions are justified to maintain what he wants
His Fear: He will lose the “freedom” his lifestyle creates

*From the story, it’s difficult to tell exactly what Szpirglas’ Wound is. He was either raised in an environment where criminal behavior was necessary and acceptable or some sort of perceived or actual injustice occurred towards him or a loved one, either of which spurred him towards his present vocation.

If the former, he most likely has a Negative (Fall) Arc, where he starts out believing the Lie. If the latter, he most likely has a Negative (Corruption) Arc, where he starts out knowing right from wrong and then adopts his Lie.

Kate de Vries, Positive-Change Arc

Kate is a scared, tender-hearted young woman. Her greatest desire is to be treated respectfully as an equal; she has an inquisitive mind and despises the societal conventions placed upon the female gender.

Kate is unrelentingly obstinate as she pursues her goal in the story. If met, she sees proving her grandfather’s discovery as a benefit to all of society.

Her eternally-positive view in achieving her goal eclipses common sense and consideration of others; she genuinely means well and wants to be a good person but struggles in coming across the right way.

Kate's Character Arc Foundation

Let’s examine what makes Kate’s character function.

The Thing She Wants: To defend her grandfather’s reputation and get into university by proving his discovery of a new species
The Thing She Needs: To learn that not everyone’s resistance towards her originates out of pretension or sexism
The Lie She Believes: No cost is too high to obtain indisputable proof of her grandfather’s discovery

Her Deep Need: To respect others and trust their wisdom is for her benefit, not her downfall
Her Wound: Gender constraints from societal and parental expectations
Her Belief: She must force anyone acting as an obstacle in her path to yield to her goal
Her Fear: To be forced to do nothing with her life

Secondary Characters

There are too many secondary characters to write about at length, so I thought I’d write a sentence or two about them to show how everyone is distinctly different from each other. 

Paul Rideau is the Aurora’s first officer. He is easily annoyed by anyone below his rank. He likes to sigh and give sharp orders.

Captain Walken is the ever steady, respectful, authoritative figure anyone would ever dream to work under. When giving orders, he uses please and thank you. 

Baz is Matt’s friend and roommate aboard the Aurora; he is more like an honorary older brother. He is cheerful, supportive, and a humorous riot.

Miss Simpkins is Kate’s chaperone. She is neurotic, ridiculous, and an utter inconvenience to Kate. Her hair is usually in some terrifying frizzed state.

Chef Vlad is outrageous. Cuisine is the pinnacle of his life. His thick accent causes conflict with the ship’s chief steward, Mr. Lisbon. He calms down by sharpening his knives.

Bruce Lunardi is the awkward, new sailmaker with movie star looks. He desperately wants to fit in and find something he is passionate about. When Kate comes on scene, he transforms into a confident and suave character.

Romance:

Matt and Kate’s relationship is based on a mutual friendship that slowly grows into an attraction towards each other. Due to the focus of the story and intended audience’s age group, Oppel-as-the-author planned the romance’s priority to be secondary to the main plot.

Narrator Matt keeps certain information out of his narration so it stays focused on the story’s adventure. This prevents the romance overshadowing or distorting the main story lesson (e.g., using an attraction or a person to improperly cope with grief).

For example, three-quarters into the story, it is not until after now-story Matt kisses Kate that the reader learns he’d been wanting to kiss her for some time.

Their Internal Cross-Compatibility

Let’s see what makes Matt and Kate cross-compatible at the core of who they are. Similar to the “opposites attract” proverb, both characters witness a quality each needs but doesn’t have in the other person. The other person is a walking testament to attaining the lacking quality.

Matt is drawn to Kate’s courage because he wrongly believes he is not strong enough to face his grief. His weakness is ministered to by Kate’s fearless pursuit of what she wants and her gentle, compassionate support when he confides in her.

Kate is drawn to Matt’s trustworthiness and support because she wrongly believes everyone thinks she shouldn’t have ambitions. Her weakness is ministered to by his respect for her. He gives her the benefit of the doubt when he agrees to help her in her investigatory pursuits.

Pacing & Tension:

I have omitted this section because I felt “The Opening Line” contributed far greater value than this section could. Airborn’s pacing and tension falls in the middle of the spectrum between Beauty and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I’ve linked to their respective posts so you can peruse that category as you need.

Plot & Scene:

The relationship between Oppel-as-the-author and narrator Matt really stands out when it comes to Scene* execution.

Oppel carefully developed each Scene’s conflict and response to their maximum potential, which narrator Matt then took and crisply translated so that each Scene resounded with impact.

The result: the reader is crystal clear about what happened in the Scene and why it was important.

*As a reminder, Scenes are comprised of scene/action and sequel/reaction units.

The Plot's Breakdown

The story’s events are outlined below, per the 2004 hardcover edition.

Inciting Incident (20%) [page 71]: Matt reads the journal of Kate’s grandfather, learning about the beautiful creatures her grandfather had mentioned the year before.
Key Event (25%) [page 88]: Matt agrees to check the Aurora’s flight path against the island coordinates Kate’s grandfather had written down.
First Plot Point (28%) [page 98]: Pirates board and damage the Aurora.
First Pinch Point (41%) [page 145]: Matt discovers the skeleton of a cloud cat on the island.
MidPoint (50%) [page 178]: Matt and Kate encounter a living cloud cat on the island and realize it is the same one her grandfather had journaled about. Matt rationalizes why it never learned to fly.
Second Pinch Point (68%) [page 243]: The cloud cat attacks Bruce and then goes after Matt and Kate.
Third Plot Point (78%) [page 276]: After Matt escapes from pirates, he returns for Kate when she doesn’t show at their prearranged meeting place. The pirates capture them.
Climax Begins (94%) [page 334]: Szpirglas chases after Matt on the Aurora.
Climactic Moment (96%) [page 341]: Matt flies the Aurora, preventing it from crashing into a mountain.

A Note about the Plot's Pinch Points

It may appear that the Pinch Points should also be about the pirates but that would be both unrealistic and incorrect. While the pirates are an important antagonistic force, the tropical island is relatively small. Encountering the pirates three additional times (both Pinch Points and the MidPoint) would have resulted in the story ending far too quickly.

The real antagonist in the story is Matt himself—by avoiding his grief, he prevents his healing. Because external conflict keeps the story moving forward and his internal conflict is abstract, another antagonistic force must be introduced as the pirates require limited exposure.

This is where the cloud cat comes in. The cloud cat acts as a gimmick of principle—a physical representation of his abstract mode of thinking. In essence, he comes face to face with various resistant stages of himself.

***

Oppel was able to successfully communicate a marvelous story through fastidious management of his Oppel-as-the-author role and Oppel-acting-as-the-narrator role.

He stepped into the “personality” of narrator Matt and did three things.

First, Oppel let narrator Matt determine what information Oppel-as-the-author-had-prepared was relevant to telling the story. 

Then, Oppel consciously held back his own way of writing, his own voice.

Finally, narrator Matt was unencumbered to filter all the relevant prewriting information through his own persona, giving Airborn its distinct voice.

The result? Airborn has one distinct voice, not two.

What challenges have you had in separating the two roles in your own work-in-progress?

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