Narrative mode

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The narrative mode (also known as the mode of narration) is the attribute of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, or musical piece which describes the method used by the author(s) to convey their story to the audience. It encompasses several overlapping areas of concern, most importantly narrative point of view (also known as viewpoint), which determines the person whose the story is viewed through, and narrative voice, which determines how it is expressed to the audience.

The person whose point of view is used to relate the story is regarded as the "narrator," a character developed by the author for the specific purpose of conveying the story. The narrative point-of-view is meant to be the related experience of the character of this narrator — not that of the actual author (although, in some cases, especially in non-fiction, it is possible for the narrator and author to be the same person). In fiction, authors often do not inject their own voices, as this challenges the suspension of disbelief. Texts encourage the reader to identify with the narrator, not with the author.

Literary narration can occur from the first-person, second-person, or third-person point of view. In a novel, the first person is commonly used: "I saw, We did,", etc. In an encyclopedia or textbook narrators often work in the third-person: "that happened, the king died", etc. For additional vagueness, imprecision, and detachment, some writers employ the passive voice: "it is said that the president was compelled to be heard...".

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.

The ability to use points of view effectively provides one measure of someone's writing ability. 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 regarding the composition and effect of the text.

First-person narrative mode[edit]

Main article: First-person narrative

The first-person narrative mode is expressed through the narrator referring to the focal character as "I", if singular, and "we", if plural. In most first-person narratives, there is usually some third-person voice as well. First-person always uses "I" or "we."

The first-person point of view sacrifices omniscience and omnipresence for a greater intimacy with one character in particular: the narrator him-/herself. In this case, the narrator is also a character who is part of the story, sometimes even the main character. First-person allows the audience to see what this one focal character is thinking; 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; 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.

In a first-person narrative, the narrator is always a character within his/her own story. This character takes actions, makes judgments and has opinions and biases, therefore, not always allowing the audience to be able to comprehend as well 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.[1]

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, such as Lockwood in Wuthering Heights.

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 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.

Second-person narrative mode[edit]

Main article: Second-person narrative

Probably the rarest mode is the second-person narrative mode, in which the narrator refers to the focal character(s) as "you", therefore making the audience feel as if they are characters within the story. Because of this, second-person pieces often have an accusative nature with the narrator often condemning or expressing powerful emotions directly at the person whom they are referring to. A small number of novels have been written in the second-person, frequently paired with the present tense. A relatively prominent example is Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, where the central character is clearly modeled on himself, and he seems to have decided that second-person point of view would create even more intimacy than first-person, creating the feeling that the reader is blind, in a sense, and the plot is leading him along. Another example is Damage by A.M. Jenkins, in which the second-person is used to show how distant the depressed main character has become from himself.

The second person format has been used in at least a few popular novels, most notably Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, and Tom Robbins's Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas as well as many short stories. When done well, the readers imagine themselves within the action, which can be used to place them in different situations, for example in Iain Banks' novel Complicity, where the chapters that deal with the actions of a murderer are in the second person. It is almost universally agreed that second-person narration is hard to manage, especially in a serious work. Other examples of second-person narrative are the Choose Your Own Adventure children's books, in which the reader actually makes decisions and jumps around the book accordingly; most interactive fiction; and different chapters from many novels written by Chuck Palahniuk, like his novel Diary.

An even rarer, but 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:

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.
  — Lorrie Moore's, "How to Become a Writer"

Third-person narrative mode[edit]

There are a variety of third-person modes of narration, as they make up the most commonly used viewpoint. In every third-person narrative mode, the focal character is always referred to as "he", "she", "it", or "they", but never as "I" or "we" (first-person), or "you" (second-person). Although they all focus on some character's experiences, the third-person modes are usually categorized into "subjective" (focused on specific characters' thoughts), "objective" (focused on no one character's thoughts), or "omniscient" (focused on the implicit thoughts of the narrator who may or may not be a character in his/her own story):

Third-person, subjective[edit]

The third-person subjective is when the narrator is not an involved character in the story and is therefore able to convey what thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc. are occurring in the minds of one or more characters. If the perspective is seen through the mind of just a single character, this point of view can be referred to as the third-person limited, because the audience is "limited" to the thoughts of just one character, much like a detached variant of the first-person mode.

This style became the most popular narrative perspective during the twentieth century. Third-person subjective is sometimes called the "over the shoulder" perspective; it shows the story as though the narrator could only describe events that could be perceived by a viewpoint character. It can be used very objectively, showing what is actually happening without the filter of the protagonist's personality, thus allowing the author to reveal information that the protagonist doesn't know or realize. However, some authors use an even narrower and more subjective perspective, as though the viewpoint character were narrating the story; this is dramatically very similar to the first person, allowing in-depth revelation of the protagonist's personality, but uses third-person grammar. Some writers will shift perspective from one viewpoint character to another.

The focal 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 uses pronouns such as "he", "she", "they", "them", "him", "her", "their", "herself", "himself", etc. to describe the focal character(s).

Third-person, objective[edit]

The third-person objective perspective tells a story without detailing any characters' thoughts, opinions, or feelings, but instead gives an objective point of view. This point of view can be described as "a fly on the wall" or "the lens of a camera" that can only record the observable actions, but cannot relay what thoughts are going through the minds of the characters. 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 toward the plot — merely a commentating onlooker.

Third-person, omniscient[edit]

Main article: Third-person omniscient narrative

Historically, the third-person omniscient perspective has been the most common, and is seen for example in the works of Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, or 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. The primary advantage is that this mode injects the narrator's own perspective and reputation into the story, creating a greater sense of objectivity for the plot. The third-person omniscient narrator is usually the most reliable narrator; however, the omniscient narrator may offer judgments and express opinions on the behavior of the characters.

The disadvantage of this mode is that it creates more distance between the audience and the story, and that no specific characters are emphasized, perhaps belittling the human thoughts and actions of the characters.

A variation of the third-person omniscient is where the narrator is a character in the story; a small amount of the story might be then told in first person or even in the second person in which the narrator briefly addresses the audience. Third-person omniscient tends to be the most lenient about the variety of which character's perspectives to use; in addition, the narrator's own perspective or attitude can sometimes be inferred from the way in which he/she tells the story.

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 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.

Other narrative modes[edit]

Multiple-person narrative mode[edit]

Not too rare is the multiple person narrative mode. 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.

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.

Stream-of-consciousness narrative mode[edit]

Main article: Stream of consciousness (narrative mode)

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, 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.

Unreliable narrative mode[edit]

Main article: Unreliable narrator

The unreliable narrative mode involves the use of an uncredible 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 supposed 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 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."

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 narrative mode[edit]

Main article: Epistolary novel

The epistolary narrative mode 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. A more recent example is Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull[2]. This work consists of letters, diary entries, newspaper articles and other documents "written" by four major characters, and many minor ones. The reader must keep in mind who is writing, and who the document is addressed to, as some characters will tell more of the truth to some recipients than to others. Dates must also be kept in mind, because a letter may be written before a character learns a particular fact.

Other uses of narrative modes[edit]

Changing points of view within the story[edit]

While the general rule is for novels to adopt a single approach to point of view throughout, there are exceptions. Epistolary novels, 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 book Dracula by Bram Stoker takes this approach. Sometimes, though, they may all be letters from one character, such as C. S. Lewis's 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.

Narration as a fiction-writing mode[edit]

As do so many words in the English language, narration has more than one meaning. In its broadest context, narration encompasses all written fiction. More narrowly, 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.[3]

Use of point of view in other creative media[edit]

Main article: Narrator
Popular uses of grammatical person
Past Present Future
First autobiographies wills shopping lists
Second letters adventure
ransom notes
Third novels plays instructions

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 are often used to 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. There is also something called third person outside observer.

See also[edit]


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