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Narrative Modes in Fiction—Telling Your Story (Writing Essentials)

June 24, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 25, 2013

This article is part of Writing Essentials,
in-depth coverage of the elements of fiction and writing basics.

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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.

Narrative Tense

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.

Narrative Voice

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?

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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

Dialogue
The talk between your characters. This is the spoken communication found within quotation marks.

Action
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.

Description

The details or explanation of how some thing, some place, or some person looks or behaves or functions (or sounds, tastes, feels, or smells).

Exposition
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 IWhy’d I do something so stupid?

Scene
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.

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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.

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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.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Definitions, Writing Essentials

14 Responses to “Narrative Modes in Fiction—Telling Your Story (Writing Essentials)”

  1. Benjamin says:

    A very good blog that makes a lot of sense. I’ve never considered blending in a missing mode. Thanks for making me aware.

  2. Bellakentuky says:

    Great article, Beth! I am spreading the word about your blog!

  3. tess kann says:

    I love this post, not that I haven’t been extra pleased with previous ones but this one is over the top for Me. Thank you.

  4. Thanks, Bellakentuky. I hope your friends enjoy the blog too.

  5. Thank you, Tess. I hope over the top is a good thing in this context.

  6. rich says:

    nice, but you can improve this with two things:

    1. give an example of text that would be “second person.” this form of narration still baffles me, and i have never seen an example that i find thoroughly explanatory so that i completely understand it.

    2. expand on “third person” using the terms “third person limited” and “third person omniscient.” and also give examples of the differences.

    thanks.

  7. Rich, your wish is my command. Actually, this topic is covered in depth in a three-part series on point of view. The first article is What is Point of View. I didn’t want to repeat myself too much since this article covers the full narrative mode, not only POV, thus this one doesn’t go into detail on the different POV options. You should find all you’re looking for in that series. If not, let me know.

  8. Louise says:

    Louise says:
    August 2, 2013 at 7:31 am
    Hi, I wonder if you could help me. My character is telling her story directly, and keeps jumping from past to present. How should I punctuate the past? Italics, or trust the reader to use their heads… I just feel it could get confusing for the reader without clear indication as it does jump back and fourth. (don’t judge all my punctuation and spelling this is purely a rough draft!)

    Belmont, California: April 2008

    I still believe he visited me that day with the intention of killing me in cold blood. My memory of it is so blurry yet so clear. Almost surreal. I am sure the figure behind him had been holding a gun as he had walked out of the room when the ringmaster had dismissed him. Then again it could have been the radiant artificial glare blinding me, playing tricks on my mind. An illusion to suit the story. If he had entered that day to assassinate me, then he had been right. I will regret spitting at him forever. It would have been the kindest mercy to have killed me so painlessly that day. But my emotions had got in the way. I allowed my anger to dictate my fate. Allowed my pride to take precedence. I was a fool. I fought them every step of the way. Believing somehow that I would conquer. I had starved myself for those several days of solitude. Attacked anyone who tried to come near me. It didn’t matter that I was shackled to the wall. What leeway I had was enough to kick scratch and bite. I was a wild animal in a cage. I may have been contained physically but emotionally I was completely unrestrained. That was at least until they changed me, or tried to. They had offered me an alternative.
    ‘Kuthi, are you aware what bribery is?’ The ringmaster chided from a safe distance, as I pulled at the chains to get at him. I wanted to beat him. Punch, scratch, spit – any physical abuse would have sufficed. I knew I was wasting energy, but I could not restrain my desire to physically assault anyone who threatened my freedom. Perhaps I believed they would let me go in defeat. Give up on trying to tame me. I had been so wrong. ‘If you are a good doggie I would listen very carefully… If you do not start to co-operate with us we will have to take matters a step further. We know where you live and we know who your family are.You have one warning’ He ended sounding so sure of himself. Despite his dark and evil threat I had laughed at him, looked him in the eye and laughed.
    ‘You have NO idea who my family are! Nor where they live. If you did, you wouldn’t have DARED treat me like an animal’ I threatened back with a menacing triumph, still yanking at my chains to get at him.
    ‘Believe what you will…. but I have every idea of who they are and where they live and I do dare to treat you however I see fit Kuthi. And if you do not learn to co-operate you will get your answer shortly’ He sounded almost sad for me as he closed his statement with a pained sigh and locked the door behind himself, leaving me with my own tortured thoughts again.
    Oh I had convinced myself they had no idea. How could they? Afterall I was really Audrina Grace Todd, not the Audrina Mary Fynn they would have found me to be on the passport in my bag. I thought back to the few other items I had packed and what they might have found. I had cautiously stored the photo’s and letters in America, in fear of being connected to the Todds in anyway. There was nothing sentimental in that bag, I had made sure of that. It was just clothes and about a thousand dollars to get me started. The rest of the money had been thrown at a get rich quick investment before I had left. Which, at the time, I had ciphered would have been complete flop – how wrong I had been. I poured a glass of amber liquid, what was it Scotch? I slugged it back thirstily – Rum, my own stamina surprised me as I replaced the empty glass back onto the table. I felt a slight dizzying warmth wash over my chilled bones as I tried to remember and forget how that week had ended.
    ‘I blame myself – entirely’ I looked at the camera to confirm my guilt. ‘This is something that could have been avoided… If only-’ I sniffed back my hurt and huffed amusement ‘I promised I wouldn’t use those words “if only” – then again I promised myself I wouldn’t feel, yet here I am crying and smiling all within the same moment.’ I shook my head in disbelief at it all. Another glass of the golden nectar was required. I took another large glass in a single go. ‘This is the part where I killed my father…’

    at this point I would jump back into india 2006 (when and where is happened) and let loose with the story in its ”present” form….

    Greatly appreciate your input.

    Thanks

    Louise

  9. Louise, I don’t recommend italics for the past. If you’re writing a flashback, just be sure to introduce it as such. Then let it play out as it is happened.

    The ellipsis is helpful as a tool to introduce the past, and you’ve used it, so that should work. You could also use the date as a subtitle, as you did for the section that you included here. So if this section is from 2008, give us the dateline for the flashback. That should be sufficient. Then when you come out of the past to the present again, simply give us the current date.

    If there’s going to be a lot of this flipping back and forth, the dateline could become intrusive. But if doesn’t happen more often than once a chapter, it shouldn’t become bothersome.

    Keep in mind, however, that not all readers will pay attention to the dateline. Make sure you also include other markers, in the text, especially when you return to the present. You don’t want readers getting confused as they move between the different time periods.

    Also, as an alternative, you may want to tell the story from one time period, with only brief visits to the other. So if the true story is in the past and your narrator is looking back on those days, use the present to frame the past. Open the story in the present, show us why the character is telling the story, and then let the past story play out without interruption. At the end, you’d return to the present, maybe have the character show what she had learned. Frame stories allow a character to look back at events of the past, maybe put them into context. Maybe say she wished she’d done something different.

    More than you asked for, I realize, but I hope it helps. But you definitely don’t want to use italics for large sections of text. There’s nothing wrong with introducing adventures from the past. Bouncing between past and present, chapter after chapter, requires special attention since you’re interrupting both the narrative in the past and the one in the present, but it can be done. But do consider if that is the best choice. If you can instead give readers much of one timeline at a time, that works. Switching between past and present can work, so I’m not saying you shouldn’t try it. Just be aware of the pitfalls.

    Does that help? (I saw your comment on the other article as well. I’ll delete that one.)

    • Louise says:

      Hi Beth,

      (My apologies for double posting!- When I tried to post it wouldn’t allow me to so I tried this page instead…I guess it went through regardless, apologies)

      Thank you so much for such a thorough insight. It certainly does help to have an outside perspective pull you out of a syntax rut! I agree that smaller references can be done without blatant intrusion or need for ”grammatical-neons”. The more hearty past (well future references in my case) references should be dated as such – especially so when I wish to have the past tense being narrated in present tense for the sake of more impact. You really have shone a light on how to make this fit – Felt like I was playing a dangerous game of linguistic Jenga trying to keep it balanced. Thanks again for your insight, it has DEFINITELY helped. I think I shall cut out some of the unnecessary forward dating and references and try let the past be the present with only key elements reminding the reader of where the story may or may not end up… some good old fashioned bait!

  10. David says:

    “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.”

    Wow! I had to read that sentence twice, before it became clear. I think, it should be at least two sentences. If not, add more commas.

  11. David, a comma after topic is probably what you were looking for. Thanks for pointing that out.

  12. Chelsea says:

    I’m a bit of a writing novice, and I’m looking for some help. I’m writing a novel that’s written in third person omniscient in present tense. I recently asked a friend to read over a little piece of a chapter, and he said that my style of writing is grammatically incorrect. I did some research and found that it is actually possible, but it’s just frowned upon. I’m asking you on your thoughts on the matter, since getting multiple opinions can be helpful.
    Thank you!

  13. Chelsea, I’d love to offer an opinion, but I’m not exactly sure what the question is. Are you just wondering if omniscient can be paired with present tense? There’s no prohibition that I can think of beyond it’s not often done and thus may come across as experimental. It also may be difficult for readers to accustom themselves to, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t try it.

    In most stories, however, you don’t want readers noticing the setup and the underpinnings. So if the style or POV or anything else stands up and says “look at me,” that’s probably not the best choice. The only time you want readers noticing the story’s foundations is if that noticing becomes part of the story or the reading experience for a particular purpose planned by the writer.

    Some story combinations are used again and again and again because they work. They’re successful for creating the story the writer wants to create and for creating the reading experience a reader can enjoy. What’s your purpose for using present tense? For using omniscient? The combination of the two may not be the best way to accomplish what you have in mind.

    On the other hand, it may be exactly what you need.

    The standard advice for new writers is to use either third or first person. There are plenty of books written in both, and new writers can learn from what has been written before.

    Omniscient isn’t used as often today as it used to be. I’m not saying you can’t use it, but it works better for some story styles and genres than for others. Omniscient is also tough to do well. New writers might want to begin with a different option. I’ve got a series on point of view, beginning with What is Point of View. You might want to read through the articles, see if they might point you to a different POV, one that better fits your story’s needs.

    But narrative tense is pretty straightforward—past or present. Past is the predominant tense used today if you consider all novels, but for some genres, present tense is all the rage. Much of YA, especially the dystopian stories, uses present tense. You’ll also find a fair amount of present tense in literary fiction. But almost any novel in any genre could be written in present tense. (Romance typically uses past tense.)

    All that said, I’m not sure what your friend is saying about the style being grammatically incorrect. Grammar and POV and narrative tense are each different issues. Now, maybe something you’ve written is grammatically incorrect—maybe you’re mixing verb tenses instead of maintaining present tense—but that simply means you have to correct the errors.

    If that’s not the issue, maybe you could share a bit about what your friend is getting at. Then maybe I could make a suggestion or two for addressing the issue.

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