A NORTAV Analysis of Alexandra Sokoloff’s Book of Shadows

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Narrative Mode: NCE 1

Narrator: Omniscient

Narrative Intrusion: Yes

Focal Character(s): Detective Adam Garrett

Prose Type(s) and/or Beat Types(s): NCE (with a good portion of Mixed and Consolidated NCE) and Narration

Narrative Tense: Past

Additional Constraints: None

Narrative Pattern: NCE1 throughout.

Source: Chapter One;Paragraphs 1-9


[Nt1]It was a vision of hell.

Alexandra opens with [Nt1], a Narrated Thought beat. Now, if you pay close attention to this beat, you’ll notice that a definitive narrative mode has not quite been established. This could be a focal character’s thought, passed on to us by the narrator (as it’s notated). It could be a direct focal character thought, with no narrative intrusion. Or it could be the narrator “telling” the reader about something that has no correlation to a focal character at all. Remember, read an entire work (or excerpt in this case) before analyzing, then go back and notate based on a more complete understanding of the piece at hand.

[Nm2] A dismally foggy day over stinking heaps of refuse—a city landfill, the modern euphemism for an old-fashioned dump. Caterpillar trucks and front-loaders crouched with metal jaws gaping, like gigantic prehistoric insects on the mountains of trash, an appalling chaos of rotting vegetables, discarded appliances, filthy clothing, rusted cans, mildewed paper: the terribly random refuse of a consumer society gone mad. A lone office chair sat on the top of one hill, empty and waiting, its black lines stark against the fog.

Here [Nt1] leads to [Nm2], a compound beat of Mixed NCE that includes (mixes) several focal character observations and thoughts. Again, we have not yet definitively locked into a narrative mode, but we do get a sense here that this beat reflects “someone” who is observing this location, and that we are getting that person’s observations and the thoughts those observations provoke, all mixed together (i.e. told to us by a narrator as opposed to being experienced directly through the focal character).

[Nm3] And below it, tangled in the trash like a broken doll, was the body of a teenaged girl.

[Nm2] leads to [Nm3], a beat of Mixed NCE that contains observation and thought. In this case there is very little thought included in the beat. The metaphor (“like a broken doll”) gives the reader the sense that the focal character is taking in the scene and then, in thought, comparing it to the doll. When using metaphors in character observations, the more intricate or well-designed the metaphor, the more the beat comes across as a thought rather than an observation, and therefore we often see them notated as Mixed NCE.

[Nt4] Stiffened . . . naked . . . bloody stumps at her neck and wrist where her head and hand used to be.

[Nm3] leads to Narrated Thought beat [Nt4]. The use of ellipses here definitely confirms the feel that we are dealing with a focal character at the scene and not a narrator describing the scene without a focal character present. The ellipses represent the focal character hesitating or coming to grips with the sudden sight of the defiled corpse. Thus, we feel as if we are experiencing the story of an as-of-yet unknown focal character as the story is happening, narrated to us by an omniscient narrator.

[Na5] Homicide detectives Adam Garrett and Carl Landauer stood on the trash hill: [N6] Garrett, with his Black Irish eyes and hair and temper, hard-muscled, impatient, edgy; and chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, donut-eating Landauer, a living, breathing amalgam of every cop cliché known to man: middle-aged spread, broad sweating face, and bawdy, cynical humor—a lifer who used the caricature as a disguise. [Nc7] The partners were silent, each taking in the totality of the scene. [No8] The landfill was a succession of hills and pits and carefully leveled ground. Rutted roads wound up the slopes to the fresh dumping mound on which they now stood. A strong, cold wind whipped at their coats and hair, swirling plastic carrier bags across the trash heaps like ghost tumbleweeds and mercifully diffusing the stench. [Nt9] On a hot day the smell would have been beyond bearing.

[Nt4] leads to Narrated Action beat [Na5]. Here we are given our first characters, though because they are presented as a group focal character (the perceptions or activities of two or more characters at the same time), we are still not quite sure who is the focal character, or who it is/was that was observing and thinking about the landscape. Also, we have some incidental narrative information tacked on by the narrator (“Homocide detectives”) that continues to illustrate the presence of the omniscient narrator.

[Na5] leads to Narration beat [N6]. Here the narrator steps out of the perceptions and activities of the as-of-yet undetermined focal character and presents the reader with some narrative information directly.

[N6] leads to Consolidated NCE beat [Nc7], which rolls up several different unspecific perceptions and activities of the two characters into a more abstracted, higher-level beat.

[Nc7] leads to compound Narrated Observation beat [No8], a beat of observations that might have been notated as Mixed NCE due to the metaphor toward the end. But the length of the beat and the location of the metaphor (at the very end) makes the beat seem more like the internal observations of one of the two detectives, rather than mixed observations and thoughts. As of yet, we don’t know which detective will become the focal character.

[No8] leads to Narrated Thought beat [Nt9], where we again get the thought of one of the two detectives. And again, because the narrative mode is not definitely established yet, this could also be a comment coming directly from the narrator. On the first read it is a little unclear. But once the narrative mode is firmly established (a bit further on), we can go back and see exactly how this prose was constructed and how it functions.

[Nm10] On one side of the summit a forest stretched below, startlingly green and pure against the chaos of human waste. On the other side the city of Boston was a hazy outline, like a translucent Oz in the bluish fog. Far below, at ground level, were smaller hills of gravel, sand, broken chunks of concrete, logs and stumps, wood chips, various earthy colors of mulch, a black pile of tires. A corrugated tin roof sheltered an open-walled recycling center.

[Nt9] leads to compound Mixed NCE beat [Nm10]. Again, another beat that mixes the focal character’s observations and thoughts.

[No11] A row of BPD cruisers lined the dirt drive up to the landfill’s main office trailer. The temporary command post had been set up beside the trailer, and two dozen mostly African-American and Latino workers huddled beside it, waiting to give statements to a couple of uniforms, while other patrolmen walked the periphery of the fence. A long line of city sanitation trucks was stalled at the front gate, being diverted by traffic control. [Nt12] The first responders had done their best to establish a perimeter, considering the crime scene was a joke: how do you begin to process a mountain of refuse a hundred yards high?

[Nm10] leads to [No11], a compound Narrated Observation beat.

[No11] leads to [Nt12], where we start to get more of a feel that we’re dealing with the perceptions and activities (albeit narrated) of a single focal character, as narrators rarely ask readers a direct question in this type of genre fiction.

[No13] Landauer looked over the reeking heaps of garbage, shook his head gloomily. “Shit.” He spat the word. “I don’t know if he’s the smartest perp I’ve ever seen or the dumbest.”

[No13] is an initiating Narrated Observation beat.

[Na14] Garrett nodded, keeping his breathing even, [Nt15] trying not to suck in too deep a breath of the sulfurous stink…

[No13] triggers the focal character’s response in Narrated Action beat [Na14], which leads to Narrated Thought beat [Nt15]. [Nt15] is where we finally lock into the focal character and into the narrative mode. We now know we have a single focal character, Garrett, at the moment we are given his internal thoughts in a way that we can attribute them to him. Thus, all the previous unattributed thoughts and observations were Garrett’s. And since we know we have an intrusive, omniscient narrator, we can define this as an NCE-based narrative mode. Once we know this, we can go back to the beginning of the excerpt, reread it, and discover exactly how the piece works. (This is why we must always read the entire excerpt or an entire piece in order to accurately define its narrative mode and a narrative schema).

From this example we can start to see Alexandra’s style of writing. She uses an omniscient narrator to tell us the story of Detective Adam Garrett. As the narrator tells the story, she provides the reader with a version of Garrett’s perceptions and activities as the story happens, with a semblance of how Garrett would have perceived or acted them directly. That is, we get a feel for Garrett’s intelligence, sarcasm, and detective know-how in his observations and thoughts, even though those thoughts are presented to us by an intrusive (i.e. we can detect her) narrator. Said another way, the phrasings of the thoughts and observations are rendered with Garrett’s personality, not with the narrator’s, even though the narrator’s presence is also detectable by the reader.

There are obvious pros and cons to this approach. The style keeps the reader closer to the character and the action than a style that is more narrator-driven. It also allows Alexandra to take advantage of the narrator’s ability to summarize, skip to other characters, etc. However, as we can see in the opening to the story, it also can create a little confusion if the writer isn’t careful. A reader may struggle subconsciously trying to understand the source of ambiguous beats. Meaning, the reader might not know if a beat reflects the narrator’s thought or observation, or if it reflects the focal character’s thought or observation. In this piece, Alexandra doesn’t reveal the focal character until the end of the excerpt, which risks ambiguity in the previous beats. But, since this is the opening to the work, and the work is a mystery, and she’s trying to build immediate suspense and interest, the ambiguity works to her advantage. It simply adds one more question, one more unknown part of the work that the reader wants to figure out. Which is exactly what a profession writer will do. She will use the narrative schema to her advantage, maximizing its strengths and minimizing it’s weaknesses, or in this case, turning a weakness into a strength.

Source Copyright

Book of Shadows by Alexandra Sokoloff

Copyright 2010 by Alexandra Sokoloff

Excerpted for this analysis under the Fair Use doctrine codified in Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law.


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