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"Little did he know, that this simple, seemingly innocuous act, would result in his imminent death." --Stranger than Fiction (2006)

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The narrative mode (also known as the mode of narration) is the set of methods the author of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, or musical story uses to convey the plot to the audience. The collection of all narrative modes in order to construct a complete narrative is also called the narration (the process of creating the narrative); the terms are sometimes differentiated. It encompasses several overlapping areas of concern, most importantly narrative point-of-view, which determines whose perspective the story is viewed through (the first, second, or third person's); narrative voice, which determines how the story is verbally expressed to the audience; and narrative tense, which determines whether the story occurs in the past, present, or future.

The person who is used to tell the story is called the "narrator," a character developed by the author expressly for the purpose of relating events to the audience. The experiences and observations related by the narrator are not generally to be regarded as those of the author, though in some cases (especially in non-fiction), it is possible for the narrator and author to be the same person. In first-person point of view, the narrator is participant, an actual character in the story, while in second- and third-person point of view, the narrator is nonparticipant, only an implied charcter, a sort of omniscient or semi-omniscient being who does not take part in the story but only relates it to the audience.

Ability to use the different points of view is one measure of a person's writing skill. The writing mark schemes used for National Curriculum assessments in England reflect this: they encourage the awarding of marks for the use of viewpoint as part of a wider judgment.

The narrative mode encompasses not only who tells the story, but also how the story is described or expressed (for example, by using stream of consciousness or unreliable narration).


Narrative point of view

Narrative point of view (also point-of-view or viewpoint) describes from which grammatical person's perspective of the story is perceived.

First-person view

The first-person narrative makes it necessary that the narrator is also a character within his or her own story, so that the narrator reveals the plot by referring to this viewpoint character as "I" (or, when plural, "we"). Oftentimes, the first-person narrative is used as a way to directly convey the deeply internal, otherwise unspoken thoughts of the narrator. Frequently, the narrator's story revolves around him-/herself as the protagonist and allows this protagonist/narrator character's inner thoughts to be conveyed openly to the audience, even if not to any of the other characters. It also allows that character to be further developed through his/her own style in telling the story. First-person narrations may be told like third-person ones, with a person experiencing the story without being aware that they are actually conveying their experiences to an audience; on the other hand, the narrator may be conscious of telling the story to a given audience, perhaps at a given place and time, for a given reason. In extreme cases, the first-person narration may be told as a story within a story, with the narrator appearing as a character in the story. First-person narration is used somewhat frequently. Although the first-person narrator is usually also the protagonist of his/her own story, this is not always true (for example in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the first-person narrator is Nick Carraway and not the title character Jay Gatsby himself). The first-person narrator also may or may not be the focal character.

As aforementioned, the first-person narrator is always a character within his/her own story (whether the protagonist or not) and this viewpoint character takes actions, makes judgments and has opinions and biases, therefore, not always allowing the audience to be able to comprehend some of the other character's thoughts, feelings, or understandings as much as this one character. In this case, the narrator gives and withholds information based on his/her own viewing of events. It is an important task for the reader to determine as much as possible about the character of the narrator in order to decide what "really" happens. Example:

"I could picture it. I have a rotten habit of picturing the bedroom scenes of my friends. We went out to the Cafe Napolitain to have an aperitif and watch the evening crowd on the Boulevard." from The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. The narrator is protagonist Jake Barnes.

In very rare cases, stories are told in first person plural, that is, using "we" rather than "I". Examples are the short stories Twenty-Six Men and a Girl by Maxim Gorky and A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, the novella Anthem by Ayn Rand, and the novels The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase, Our Kind by Kate Walbert, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.

The narrator can be the protagonist (e.g., Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels), someone very close to him who is privy to his thoughts and actions (Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes), or an ancillary character who has little to do with the action of the story (the character Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby). A narrator can even be a character relating the story second-hand. The first person narrator is the type most obviously distinct from the author. It is a character in the work, who must follow all of the rules of being a character, even during its duties as narrator. For it to know anything, it must experience it with its senses, or be told about it. It can interject its own thoughts and opinions, but not those of any other character, unless clearly told about those thoughts.

In autobiographical fiction, the first person narrator is the character of the author (with varying degrees of accuracy). The narrator is still distinct from the author and must behave like any other character and any other first person narrator. Examples of this kind of narrator include Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in Timequake (in this case, the first-person narrator is also the author). In some cases, the narrator is writing a book — "the book in your hands" — therefore it has most of the powers and knowledge of the author. A good example of this style is The Name of the Rose, written by Umberto Eco.

Examples of books with this viewpoint are Percy Jackson series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

First-person Omniscient view

A rare form of first person, where the narrator is a character in the story, but also knows the thoughts and feelings of all the other characters. It can seem like third person omniscient at times. (e.g.:The Book Thief by Markus Zusak)

Second-person view

Probably the rarest mode in literature (though quite common in song lyrics) is the second-person narrative mode, in which the narrator refers to one of the characters as "you", therefore making the audience member feel as if he or she is a character within the story. The second-person narrative mode is often paired with the first-person narrative mode in which the narrator makes emotional comparisons between the thoughts, actions, and feelings of "you" versus "I". Often the narrator is therefore also a character in his or her story, in which case it would technically still be employing the first-person narrative mode.

In letters and greeting cards, the second-person narrative mode is often used in a non-fictional atmosphere.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this mode in contemporary literature is Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City. In this novel, the second-person point of view is intended to create an intense sense of intimacy between the narrator and the reader, causing the reader to feel implicit in and powerless against a plot that leads him, blindly, through his (the reader’s and the narrator’s) own destruction and redemption:

"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already."

Other notable examples of the second-person narrative mode include Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, and Tom Robbins' Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. As well, Damage by A.M. Jenkins uses the second-person to show how distant the depressed main character has become from himself. And the narrator of Joseph Olshan's novel Nightswimmer intimately explains a story that his lover only partially understands. The second-person has also been used in many short stories.

Second-person narration can be a difficult style to manage. But when it is done well, this type of narration allows (or forces) the reader to imagine him or herself within the action of the novel. One possible (and frequently exploited) effect of the second-person is a strong accusatory tone, which can be achieved if the narrator condemns or expresses strong feelings about the actions of the focal character (“you”). This technique can also be used effectively to place the reader in unfamiliar, disturbing, or exciting situations. For example, in his novel Complicity, Iain Banks uses the second-person in the chapters dealing with the actions of a murderer.

One notable example of the use of second-person narration is the Choose Your Own Adventure series of children's books, in which the reader actually makes decisions and jumps around the book accordingly. Similarly, most interactive fiction is in the second person.

An even more unusual, but potentially stylish version of second person narration takes the form of a series of imperative statements with the implied subject "you", as in this example from Lorrie Moore's "How to Be a Writer":

"Decide that you like college life. In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life."

An example of second-person narrative in TV is the show Secret Girlfriend on Comedy Central. The show and story is shot and written as if the viewer is actually in the episode. Sonic the Story, a book that breaks the fourth wall, has this point of view.

Third-person view

Third-person narration provides the greatest flexibility to the author and thus is the most commonly used narrative mode in literature. In the third-person narrative mode, each and every character is referred to by the narrator as "he", "she", "it", or "they", but never as "I" or "we" (first-person), or "you" (second-person). In third-person narrative, it is necessary that the narrator is merely an unspecified entity or uninvolved person that conveys the story, but not a character of any kind within the story being told. Third-person singular (he/she) is overwhelmingly the most common type of third-person narrative, although there have been successful uses of the third-person plural (they), as in Maxine Swann's short story "Flower Children." Even more common, however, is to see singular and plural used together in one story, at different times, depending upon the number of people being referred to at a given moment in the plot. Sometimes in third-person narratives, a character would refer to himself in the third-person e.g., "(Character name) would like to come with you".

The third-person modes are usually categorized along two axes. The first is the subjectivity/objectivity axis, with "subjective" narration describing one or more character's feelings and thoughts, while "objective" narration does not describe the feelings or thoughts of any characters. The second axis is between "omniscient" and "limited," a distinction that refers to the knowledge available to the narrator. An omniscient narrator has omniscient knowledge of time, people, places and events; a limited narrator, in contrast, may know absolutely everything about a single character and every piece of knowledge in that character's mind, but it is "limited" to that character—that is, it cannot describe things unknown to the focal character.

Multiple-person view

Not too rare is the multiple person narrative mode. Sometimes, an author will use multiple narrators, usually all of them storytelling in the first person. In stories in which it is important to get different characters' views on a single matter, such as in mystery novels, multiple narrators may be developed. The use of multiple narrators also helps describe separate events that occur at the same time in different locations. William Faulkner's novels As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury are told from multiple points of view, in the first and third person, respectively, although the latter uses a less conventional chronology.

Alternating person view

While the general rule is for novels to adopt a single approach to point of view throughout, there are exceptions. Many stories, especially in literature, alternate between the first and third person. In this case, an author will move back and forth between a more omniscient third-person narrator to a more personal first-person narrator. Often, a narrator using the first person will try to be more objective by also employing the third person for important action scenes, especially those in which he/she is not directly involved or in scenes where he/she is not present to have viewed the events in first person. This mode is found in the novel The Poisonwood Bible.

Epistolary novels, which were very common in the early years of the novel, generally consist of a series of letters written by different characters, and necessarily switching when the writer changes; the classic books Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Abraham "Bram" Stoker and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde take this approach. Sometimes, though, they may all be letters from one character, such as C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary. Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island switches between third and first person, as do Charles Dickens's Bleak House and Vladimir Nabokov's The Gift. Many of William Faulkner's take a series of first-person points of view. E.L. Konigsburg's novella The View from Saturday uses flashbacks to alternate between third person and first person throughout the book; as does Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome. After the First Death, by Robert Cormier, a novel about a fictional school bus hijacking in the late seventies, also switches from first to third person narrative using different characters. The novel The Death of Artemio Cruz, by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, switches between the three persons from one chapter to the next, even though all refer to the same protagonist.

Narrative voice

The narrative voice describes how the story is conveyed (for example, by "viewing" a character's thought processes, by reading a letter written for someone, by a retelling of a character's experiences, etc.).

Stream-of-consciousness voice

A stream of consciousness gives the (almost always first-person) narrator's perspective by attempting to replicate the thought processes (as opposed to simply the actions and spoken words) of the narrative character. Often, interior monologues and inner desires or motivations, as well as pieces of incomplete thoughts, are expressed to the audience (but not necessarily to other characters). Examples include the multiple narrators' feelings in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, the character Offred's often fragmented thoughts in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and the development of the narrator's nightmarish experience in Queen's hit song, Bohemian Rhapsody.

Character voice

One of the most common narrative voices, used especially with first- and third-person viewpoints is the character voice in which an actual conscious "person" (in most cases, a living human being) is presented as the narrator. In this situation, the narrator is no longer an unspecified entity, but rather, a more relatable, realistic human character who may or may not be involved in the actions of his or her story and who may or may not take a biased approach in the storytelling. If he or she is directly involved in the plot, this narrator is also called the viewpoint character. The viewpoint character is not necessarily the focal character: examples of supporting viewpoint characters include Doctor Watson, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway.

Unreliable voice

Under the character voice is the unreliable narrative voice which involves the use of a non-credible or untrustworthy narrator. This mode may be employed to give the audience a deliberate sense of disbelief in the story or a level of suspicion or mystery as to what information is meant to be true and what is false. This unreliability is often developed by the author to demonstrate that the narrator is psychologically unstable; has an enormous bias; is unknowledgeable, ignorant, or childish; or, is perhaps purposefully trying to deceive the audience. Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators. However, when a third-person narrator is considered unreliable for any reason, his or her viewpoint may be termed "third-person, subjective."

Examples include Junie B. Jones in the Junie B. Jones children series by Barbara Park, Holden Caulfield in the novel "The Catcher In The Rye", Dr. James Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, and Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

A naive narrator is one who is so ignorant and inexperienced that he/she actually exposes the faults and issues of his/her world. It is used particularly in satire, in situations where the user can draw more inferences about the narrator's environment than the narrator. Child narrators can also fall under this category.

Epistolary voice

The epistolary narrative voice uses a series of letters and other documents to convey the plot of the story. Although epistolary works can be considered multiple-person narratives, they also can be classified separately, as they arguably have no narrator at all—just an author who has gathered the documents together in one place. One famous example is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein which is a single story written in a letter. Another is Bram Stoker's Dracula, which tells the story in a series of diary entries and newspaper clippings. Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos is again made up of the correspondence between the main characters, most notably the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. Langston Hughes does the same thing in a shorter form in his story "Passing," which consists of a young man's letter to his mother.

Third-person voices

The third-person narrative voices are narrative-voice techniques employed solely under the category of the third-person view.

Third-person, subjective

The third-person subjective is when the narrator conveys the thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc. of one or more characters. If it is just one character, it can be termed third-person limited, in which the reader is "limited" to the thoughts of some particular character (often the protagonist) as in the first-person mode (though still giving personal descriptions using "he", "she", "it", and "they", but not "I"). This is almost always the main character—e.g., Gabriel in Joyce's The Dead, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown, or the elderly fisherman in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Certain third-person omniscient modes are also classifiable as "third person, subjective" modes that switch between the thoughts, feelings, etc. of all the characters.

This style, in both its limited and omniscient variants, became the most popular narrative perspective during the twentieth century. In contrast to the broad, sweeping perspectives seen in many nineteenth-century novels, third-person subjective is sometimes called the "over the shoulder" perspective; the narrator only describes events perceived and information known by a character. At its narrowest and most subjective scope, the story reads as though the viewpoint character were narrating it; dramatically this is very similar to the first person, in that it allows in-depth revelation of the protagonist's personality, but it uses third-person grammar. Some writers will shift perspective from one viewpoint character to another.

The focal character, protagonist, antagonist, or some other character's thoughts are revealed through the narrator. The reader learns the events of the narrative through the perceptions of the chosen character.

Third-person, objective

The 'third-person objective'mode tells a story without describing any character's thoughts, opinions, or feelings; instead it gives an objective, unbiased point of view. This point of view can be described as a "fly on the wall" or "camera lens" approach that can only record the observable actions, but does not interpret these actions or relay what thoughts are going through the minds of the characters. While this approach does not allow the author to reveal the unexpressed thoughts and feelings of the characters, it does allow the author to reveal information that not all or any of the characters may be aware of.

The third-person objective is preferred in most pieces that are deliberately trying to take a neutral or unbiased view, like in many newspaper articles. It is also called the third-person dramatic, because the narrator (like the audience of a drama) is neutral and ineffective toward the progression of the plot — merely an uninvolved onlooker. It was also used around the mid-twentieth century by French novelists writing in the nouveau roman tradition.

Third-person, omniscient

omniscient narrator

Historically, the third-person omniscient perspective has been the most commonly used; it is seen in countless classic novels, including works by Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot. This is a tale told from the point of view of a storyteller who plays no part in the story but knows all the facts, including the characters' thoughts. It sometimes even takes a subjective approach. One advantage of omniscience is that this mode enhances the sense of objective reliability (i.e. truthfulness) of the plot. The third-person omniscient narrator is the most reliable narrator, or in any case, the narrator least capable of being unreliable—although the omniscient narrator can have its own personality, offering judgments and opinions on the behavior of the characters.

In addition to reinforcing the sense of the narrator as reliable (and thus of the story as true), the main advantage of this mode is that it is eminently suited to telling huge, sweeping, epic stories, and/or complicated stories involving numerous characters. The disadvantage of this mode is that it can create more distance between the audience and the story, and that—when used in conjunction with a sweeping, epic "cast of thousands" story—characterization is more limited, which can reduce the reader's identification with or attachment to the characters. A classic example of both the advantages and disadvantages of this mode is J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings novel. However, as demonstrated by Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, this mode can capture huge sweeping stories (such as the political history of Chile, a major element of the novel) while also maintaining the reader's intimacy with certain key characters. Ann Patchett's Bel Canto also illustrates how this mode can be used to tell a complicated story involving dozens of characters while maintaining intimacy with the key characters.

Some make the distinction between the third-person omniscient and the universal omniscient, the difference being that in universal omniscient, the narrator reveals information that the characters do not have. This is also called "Little Did He Know" writing, as in, "Little did he know he'd be dead by morning." Usually, the universal omniscient enforces the idea of the narrator being unconnected to the events of the story.

Some more modern examples are Lemony Snicket, James Eugene Robinson in his novel, The Flower of Grass, and Philip Pullman. In some unusual cases, the reliability and impartiality of the narrator may in fact be as suspect as in the third person limited.

Narrative tense

The narrative tense or narrative time determines the grammatical tense of the story; whether in the past, present, or future.

Past tense

The most common in literature and story-telling; the events of the plot occurred sometime before the current moment or the time at which the narrative was constructed or expressed to an audience. (e.g. "They were going home. They had found their way and were ready to celebrate.")

Present tense

The events of the plot occur or are occurring now—at the current moment—in real-time. (e.g. "They go home. They find their way and are ready to celebrate.")

Future tense

Extremely rare in literature; the events of the plot will occur soon or eventually; often, these upcoming events are described in a way that makes it seem like the narrators uncannily know (or believe they know) the future. Some future-tense stories have a prophetic feel. (e.g. "They will be going home. They will have found their way and will be ready to celebrate.")

Other narrative modes

Fiction-writing mode

Narration has more than one meaning. In its broadest sense, narration encompasses all forms of story-telling, fictional or not; personal anecdotes, "true crime," and historical narratives all fit here, along with many other "non-fiction" forms. More narrowly, however, "narration" refers to all written fiction. Finally, in its most restricted sense, narration is the fiction-writing mode whereby the narrator communicates directly to the reader.

Along with exposition, argumentation, and description, narration (broadly defined) is one of four rhetorical modes of discourse. In the context of rhetorical modes, the purpose of narration is to tell a story or to narrate an event or series of events. Narrative may exist in a variety of forms: biographies, anecdotes, short stories, novels. In this context, all written fiction may be viewed as narration.

Narrowly defined, narration is the fiction-writing mode whereby the narrator is communicating directly to the reader. But if the broad definition of narration includes all written fiction, and the narrow definition is limited merely to that which is directly communicated to the reader, then what comprises the rest of written fiction? The remainder of written fiction would be in the form of any of the other fiction-writing modes. Narration, as a fiction-writing mode, is a matter for discussion among fiction writers and writing coaches.

Other types and uses

In literature, person is used to describe the viewpoint from which the narrative is presented. Although second-person perspectives are occasionally used, the most commonly encountered are first and third person. Third person omniscient specifies a viewpoint in which readers are provided with information not available to characters within the story; without this qualifier, readers may or may not have such information.

In movies and video games first- and third-person describe camera viewpoints; the former being a character's own, and the latter being the more familiar "general" camera showing a scene. The second-person may also be used.

For example, in a horror film, the first-person perspective of an antagonist could become a second-person perspective on a potential victim's actions. A third-person shot of the two characters could be used to show the narrowing distance between them.

In video games, a first-person perspective is used most often in the first-person shooter genre, such as in Doom, or in simulations (racing games, flight simulation games, and such). Third-person perspectives on characters are typically used in all other games. Since the arrival of 3D computer graphics in games it is often possible for the player to switch between first- and third-person perspectives at will; this is usually done to improve spatial awareness, but can also improve the accuracy of weapons use in generally third-person games such as the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

Text-based interactive fiction conventionally has descriptions written in the second person (though exceptions exist), telling the character what he is seeing and doing. This practice is also encountered occasionally in text-based segments of graphical games.

See also

Further Reading

  • Fludernik, Monika. Towards a "Natural" Narratology. London: Routledge 1996.
  • Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. Transl. by Jane Lewin. Oxford: Blackwell 1980 (Translation of Discours du récit).
  • Stanzel, Franz Karl. A theory of Narrative. Transl. by Charlotte Goedsche. Cambridge: CUP 1984 (Transl. of Theorie des Erzählens).

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Narration" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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