The Power of the Silent Narrator

The technique of the silent narrator is unlike any other and is used relatively rarely in fiction. Regardless, the use of a silent narrator is engaging, mysterious and certainly a challenge for any budding author.

The silent narrator essentially creates a plot based around conversations, yet we only ever hear the response from the other character and not the questioning or retort from the narrator.

We get to see how the narrator views the world, but very little about what he or she actually thinks of it. This results in the narrator being silent in their verbal or physical presence and our opinion of this narrator being shaped through his or her interactions. 

To review this technique, we are going to look at Rachel Cusk’s novel “Outline” which is the first book in her trilogy.

The novel documents the narrator’s social encounters as she flies from London to Athens, teaches her writing classes, meets people for dinner and goes on boat rides. At first glance, this novel seems to chart mundane and ordinary situations, but the technique of the silent narrator allows Rachel Cusk to create striking tensions within the novel as the narrator absorbs the stories of others and provides a critique on life, love and everything in between. 

What is initially striking about “Outline” is the sense of mystery that surrounds the narrator. We only find out the narrator’s name “Faye” towards the end of the novel and we know relatively little about her factually, yet we gain a detailed understanding of how she perceives the world and those around her.  The narrator’s perception of the world is beautifully insightful, and each interaction is meaningful. The narrator’s second interaction with the man she sat next to on the plane to Athens is one of these moments: 

“I was sent to an English boarding school at the age of seven” he replied “you might say I have the mannerisms of an Englishman but the heart of a Greek. I am told” he added, “it would be much worse the other way around.” 

This interaction is a perfect example of not only how to construct a conversation using a silent narrator, but how powerful this narration technique can be.

To construct a sentence using a silent narrator, you need to have each character carefully planned as well as their 

dialogue planned and crafted.

Then you need to omit the narrator’s voice. Rachel Cusk does this successfully through using phrases spoken by the other 

character such as “he replied” and “he added” to give the impression that a conversation is flowing yet the reader is only exposed to the responses within the conversation.

The power of the silent narrator is that the emotions and perspectives that are exposed are truly unique and intriguing. The brief conversation between Faye and the man on the plane reveals complex emotions regarding national identity, yet they are presented within the mundane environment of a plane journey. This tension between the mundane and the emotionally charged conversations creates a truly unique environment within the fictional world where the reader is forced to reflect upon their own existence and human experience. 

The ultimate effect of the silent narrator on the reader is that they experience the world from the mind of the silent narrator; the readers of Rachel Cusk’s novel ultimately become Faye, sitting on a plane, travelling around Athens and having conversations. The silent narrator creates a fully immersive experience within the fictional world the author (or you) have created.

Do you need inspiration for your next writing task? Check out these short stories from The Writer’s Initiative debut fictional and short story writer Julian Faustini