Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
This article is part of Writing Essentials,
in-depth coverage of the elements of fiction and writing basics.
I’d intended this article on narrative modes to be quick and simple, maybe in list form with a bit of detail included. But the types of narrative mode I wanted to cover are not the only ones listed by others who discuss this topic and since I don’t ever want to give you only partial information, I’ve included those other options for narrative mode as well. My focus, however, is on those specific elements and tools that fiction writers use to convey plot.
To get us started, a basic definition—
Narrative modes in fiction are the methods that writers use to tell their stories.
In general terms, narrative mode could encompass some basic storytelling elements (it’s these that some writers would include as narrative modes and others would not)—narrative point of view, narrative tense, and narrative voice. Let’s touch on these briefly before focusing on the specific modes.
Narrative Point of View
We’ve covered point of view (POV) in depth, but for a quick review:
The narrative point of view is the way of linking the narrator to the unfolding story. The POV reveals who is telling the story and points out the narrator’s relationship to the story events and characters. The narrator is typically a character in the story whose identity is quite clear (think first-person narrators), or a nameless and unidentified observer who may, from time to time, convey his own opinions about characters or story events (think omniscient narrator with a personality, one who may or may not have access to the thoughts of the characters), or a completely unknown and unnoticed observer who simply relates story events as they unfold (a neutral omniscient narrator with or without access to the thoughts and minds of one or more characters).
At the most basic, POV options used to convey story events include:
First Person, where the narrator refers to him or herself as I. Usually this is the protagonist, but that’s not a requirement. Also, a story could feature multiple first-person narrators. And the narrator is virtually always a character in the story (allowances for stories told by a narrator who says that another person first relayed the story to him).
Second Person, where you, the reader, or some general you, is the focus of the narrator’s story.
Third person, where the narrator refers to characters as she and he, never as I. The narrator in third-person may know only the experiences of a single character or may know what happens to all characters. The narrator may be able to report what goes on in one character’s thoughts, or in the thoughts of several characters, or in the minds of all characters. Or he may have no knowledge of character thoughts at all.
The narrator may know what happens only when the viewpoint character(s) learns about events, or the narrator may know everything that goes on in the world.
There’s quite a range of options for third-person narration.
We’ve also covered narrative tense but at its most basic, it conveys the when of story.
Stories are typically told as if events are happening now, present tense, or in the past, using primarily the simple past tense.
This doesn’t mean that every verb tense in a novel is always past tense or always present tense. It simply means that the large portion of the story relates events either as if they’ve already taken place or are unfolding now, just as the reader is reading about them.
This one is tricky; there seems to be no consensus for what narrative voice is. If I tell you it’s one thing, I’d be excluding some element that an expert would say is intrinsic to the definition. So let’s simply cover all our bases.
Is it story voice? the writer’s voice? the narrator’s voice? the viewpoint character’s voice? Does it refer to the writer’s style or the tone revealed through the narrator’s or the viewpoint character’s word choices? Is it personality of narrator or viewpoint character? (More on style, tone, and mood.) I’ve seen each of these items included as part of narrative voice, which doesn’t help too much when you’re trying to define it.
Others, in talking of narrative voice, often refer back to point of view, with no other explanation, implying that voice and point of view are the same. Or so closely related that there’s little difference between them. What they should probably be saying is that while POV is not narrative voice, it does have a major impact on it.
Still others says narrative voice is the how of a story’s presentation—through thoughts (including a stream of consciousness style), through memories, via letter (epistolary) or newspaper accounts, or through recitation of events.
To make sense of all these definitions, at this time I’m going to conclude that narrative voice is the look and feel and sound of story as it’s relayed through writer, narrator, and viewpoint character. So, yes, it’s tone and style. But it’s also attitude. And it’s focus—what does the narrator point out and what is ignored? And it includes the method through which that look and feel and sound are conveyed to the reader—through thoughts or letters or the direct report of events. And it includes the distance and relationship between narrator and the people and events he is watching. (A narrator may be aloof and observational or up close in the thick of the action.)
Syntax and diction both contribute to narrative voice as well. Since they both influence sound and feel, how could word order and word choice not be a major part of narrative voice?
Now to address what I actually wanted to talk about—the writing elements we use to tell our stories. Consider these—these approaches and methods and tools—the narrative modes of fiction.
Unless you’re a very new writer, you’ll be familiar with each of these. You probably use one or two of them in your stories to a greater degree than the others. You probably don’t use at least one of them much at all. And that combination of what you use often and what you don’t use at all is part of your style and your strengths. And it means that your stories will be different from the stories of other writers who use a different mix of these elements.
The Narrative Modes of Fiction
The talk between your characters. This is the spoken communication found within quotation marks.
Events portrayed as they happen in some place and that take time to play out. Action is not summary, not the report that Bill and Bob fought. Action is Bill and Bob fighting and knocking over furniture and striking blows.
The details or explanation of how some thing, some place, or some person looks or behaves or functions (or sounds, tastes, feels, or smells).
This is the telling part of story. Exposition relays information. Exposition is used near the beginning of a story to fill in the blanks for readers (think back story). It’s also used in transitions, between scenes, to quickly get readers up to speed when time passes or the new scene takes place in a location different from the previous scene. Transitions are also commonly used when the viewpoint character changes.
A line or two of transition is sufficient at the top of a new scene to relay place, passage of time since the last scene (or since the last time readers were in this location or with these particular characters), viewpoint character, and the scene’s mood.
Exposition is used for narrative summary, allowing writers to skip the details of unimportant events. It’s also perfect when it’s necessary to lay out facts quickly, when scenes take too long to make facts known.
Consider the use of exposition when what needs to be is conveyed is more important than how it is conveyed.
If readers or your critique partner tell you that you tell too much at the expense of showing, they’re usually referring to too much exposition and explanation. (Exposition can be used in both dialogue and thought and like exposition anywhere, it can be overused in those places as well.)
NOTE: Some consider transitions and narrative summary to be separate narrative modes, though I’ve included them as types of exposition.
Thought (and Character Self-talk)
While the other items on this list are also found on lists of the elements of fiction, thought and a character’s self-talk (both often referred to as monologue or inner dialogue, though thought and self-talk aren’t the same thing), are not typically considered among the elements of fiction. Yet they are methods for relaying story and so should be included here.
A character’s thoughts might be simply thoughts. But a character could talk to himself in his head, calling himself names, for example, for the foolish risks he took or giving himself a pep talk. In third-person narration (including omniscient POV), even when a character’s thoughts are written in roman text, a writer might put a character’s self-directed thoughts in italics, might also allow his character to talk directly to himself using the pronoun I—Why’d I do something so stupid?
Scene is not truly a narrative mode since scenes contain a number of these other modes, but since a scene is often mentioned in contrast to exposition, I’m including it here for reference.
Flashback and flash forward are unique types of scenes, and require special attention as you open and close them, but otherwise they play out much like typical scenes, with the inclusion of action, dialogue, and description.
While all stories contain action, dialogue, description, exposition, and thought, no two stories will have the same balance of each of these elements. Those that will be most similar will be series stories featuring the same protagonist, such as a detective. But even then each story will have its own balance of elements.
Still, a writer writes to his strengths. And if one writes dialogue exceptionally well, it’s likely that most of his books will feature dialogue rather than the other storytelling modes.
The writer who writes action scenes well will no doubt feature action in her stories.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing to your strengths. And don’t think you have to change your style and the balance of these elements—if they work for you—just to write like someone else.
Yes, you may have to make changes for the genre. Or to create a better fit for a character. (If you’ve got a character who’s supposed to talk a lot, you better be writing a lot of dialogue for him.) But you don’t have to try to change the way you mix these elements if what you’re doing already works for your stories.
You can always make changes to improve your writing, to tighten your stories. But don’t think you have to emulate others.
So how can you strengthen your stories? And how do you choose which mode to use when?
~ Use a variety of modes. Don’t worry about your choices as much when writing your first draft, but do check to see which modes are lacking when you rewrite, and then make adjustments.
~ Start or end scenes and chapters with a variety of modes so that all scenes don’t have the same feel.
~ Learn what each mode does (or does well) and what it doesn’t do, and choose accordingly.
~ Break up or interrupt too much of any one method of storytelling with one of the others.
Considerations and Options for the Narrative Modes . . .
Exposition is the narrative mode that gives a lot of writers trouble. I think this is simply because it’s easy to use and finds its way into stories in places where a less telling or reporting mode should be used. Action and dialogue take time and effort—exposition can be written, rewritten, and polished in moments. But while exposition is sometimes necessary, it’s not always the right choice.
For most novels in most genres, exposition should not take up the bulk of the story, should not overwhelm. It should not be your go-to element of first choice. If you find yourself always writing scenes with exposition, telling what is happening, make the choice to write action or dialogue instead. This doesn’t mean you do away with all exposition. It means you put it in its proper place.
If your characters talk (or think) too much, silence them. Put them in motion for a moment or two. Dialogue can be marvelous, but there must be movement and event in your books. And while thoughts can give readers great revelations, readers can get tired of being confined in a character’s head. Make something happen in terms of action. I’m talking both major action events and simple movement. Putting your characters in motion, by adding movement to dialogue, can change the impact of a scene of dialogue. (Cutting action beats out of dialogue also changes the impact on a scene, and that might be a change you need to make.) You’ll also want to interrupt thoughts with action and events outside the character’s mind.
On the other hand, if action events trip over themselves and characters (and readers) don’t have time to breathe, add dialogue or thoughts. Slow down the action with these other elements. Make sure characters use more than their bodies. Have them share a moment with a buddy (or the enemy). Have them puzzle through the meaning of events when they have opportunity—and give them that opportunity.
If events aren’t important enough to be shown as scenes, or if you have too many minor scenes in a row, employ exposition via narrative summary.
And make sure you include the right amount of description for your story as a whole and for each scene individually.
Readers need description to orient themselves. This can be setting description or character description. But be sensitive to what’s happening in the scene; the only setting details some characters should be noticing are the exit in front of them and the sound of the approaching footsteps of the bad guy gaining on them. Description in the wrong place or time is often worse than having no description at all.
Yet you’ve got to give us setting details at some point. So whether you lovingly paint the scene at the top of the story and at any time the setting location changes or you use a lighter touch, giving readers at least enough to set their own imaginations going, description of some kind is a must.
Unless you’re using a POV that doesn’t tap into a character’s thoughts (a very observational POV), you should share character thoughts. A character doesn’t have to talk to himself, but he could. And he doesn’t have to share every thought—and he definitely shouldn’t interrupt every action event with some silly thought—but you should take advantage of the ability to share the viewpoint character’s thoughts from time to time. Especially as a means of increasing conflict—his thoughts in conflict with his heart’s desires or the desires of someone close to him. Or maybe his thoughts are in contrast to his words.
Giving readers character thoughts that conflict with the character’s spoken words is a great way to make readers anxious. They know that something bad is going to come of the dichotomy.
The point of this article is to have you recognize that there are multiple methods of conveying story and that your books should contain a mix of them.
Write to your strengths, but develop strengths in the modes you use less frequently.
If a scene isn’t working, try a different mode. See if dialogue suits better than action, if a bit of description might not be a better buffer between lines of dialogue than thought would be.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with narrative modes to create a more entertaining or more engrossing story.