Lessons from Lemony Snicket: Narrative Voice

As I mentioned in my writing update a few weeks ago, I recently reread Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events as a part of trying to crack the secret of writing a strong, distinct narrative voice for Whitman Court. My aim with Whitman Court was to write the stories with a clever, omniscient Narrator who comments on the events of the story, which I typically refer to as an “intrusive narrator.” Yet I struggled to find a good balance between this Narrator being overbearing versus not present enough. So, for inspiration, I turned to one of the best examples of this type of narrative voice: A Series of Unfortunate Events. It was really fun to dive into this type of reading research, as I’ve never read a book series to focus solely on growing in a specific aspect of my writing.

From my observations, I noticed two big reasons why Lemony Snicket is a fantastic intrusive narrator: he ultimately becomes a character of the story, and his asides, tangents, and other remarks all contribute positively to the story in some way.  

Lemony Snicket as a Character: What sets Snicket aside as a unique narrative voice is that he’s not directly involved in the story, and thus not really a typical First-Person Perspective narrator, yet he doesn’t know everything, and thus isn’t an example of the “God POV,” or the Omniscient Narrator commonly found in a lot of classical literature. He is someone set apart from the story that we can understand, with a personality we start to see along the way. It’s similar to how Death functions as the Narrator in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

Now, even though Snicket isn’t directly involved in the story of the Baudelaire orphans, he is invested in the story and entangled in the mysteries of VFD, which becomes a major source of intrigue across the series. In other words, it makes sense that Snicket would be the narrator of these stories. Snicket is researching the lives of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. He has a relationship with their mother and thus a connection to them. He, too, is working with VFD to survive and bring villains to justice, in his own way. His presence as the narrator also allows the author to drop clues about VFD, which lets us start to piece the mysteries together as we read. Regardless of whether you, like me, want to write an intrusive narrator, this point should prompt all of us to ask if the narrators of our own stories make sense. Even when we want to break from the norm—such as this book series does—our narrators still need to have some connection to the main story. They can’t be random, or it just won’t work.

Beyond Snicket’s connection to the Baudelaires, he also works as a narrator because we can understand him. He is very human: he makes mistakes, responds out of fear, and has his own goals and desires. This realization was a big eye-opener for me regarding the Narrator of Whitman Court. I have no clue who Whitman Court’s Narrator is. The only thing I know for sure about the Narrator is which of the story’s characters he or she likes or dislikes and that he or she is very fond of food. That’s alright, but it’s just a starting point. I feel the need to develop my Narrator as a character if I’m going to keep it in the series. 

Another important aspect of Snicket’s involvement as the narrator is that we gradually get to know him. In the first few books, we get very little on Snicket’s background and history. We’re given a few scattered lines that turn our heads and make us wonder about the narrator, but they’re quickly forgotten for the sake of the unfolding plot. As the books progress and we are more established in who the Baudelaires are, we get more details on Snicket’s life, which relate to the overarching mystery of VFD. Without this gradual introduction of Snicket, I think the beginning part of the story would feel overwhelming and confusing. Small hints in the first few books help ease us into the series and allow us to appreciate the longer and more detailed narrative asides Snicket makes in the latter half of the series. This has been one of my most helpful observations as I try to navigate how to best introduce the Narrator in Whitman Court. One of my biggest focuses during my last round of edits was to trim some of the Narrator so he or she is present but not overbearing, with the hope to use the Narrator more and more as the series progresses.

Lemony Snicket’s Narrative Style: The second part of what makes Lemony Snicket work as an intrusive narrator is that all of his asides, tangents, and other remarks contribute to the story in some way. If you’re unfamiliar with the books, Snicket often interrupts to share anecdotes or personal stories. These asides scarcely interrupt the flow of the story (except when it builds tension or dread) and they’re scarcely longer than a couple of paragraphs (though do get longer as the series progresses). His brief interludes happen sporadically and typically between scenes, yet they accomplish their purpose without dragging the story’s pacing down. They don’t happen between every line of dialogue, rather, just in moments where they can convey deeper emotion, draw out suspense, or transition between scenes. I’ll admit, I was very guilty of doing the opposite with my Narrator in Whitman Court, frequently interrupting the flow of the story with drawn out tangents or peppering dialogue scenes with the Narrator’s own snarky commentary. Snicket exemplifies a key principle of narration: the Narrator should serve the story, not the story serve the Narrator.

The humor of Snicket also lands well and serves as a vital aspect of his narrative voice. In particular, Snicket uses a lot of callbacks of metaphors or motifs introduced earlier in the book, or uses clever definitions of words to add a touch of humor. Beyond his humorous remarks, Snicket also gives us comical or head-scratching glimpses into his personal life, which both make us laugh and raise questions and intrigue. His wit adds character to his narration, as well as a bit of levity in the midst of this tragic story.

In the end… It was a really fun journey down memory lane with A Series of Unfortunate Events, plus a practical help to me as a writer. I’m excited to see how this study of story strengthens my Whitman Court Narrator, and I hope that some of these observations are useful to you as well as you ponder questions about who’s telling your story and narrative tone.