The Narrative Mode – An Editor’s Nightmare

In this article we are going to talk about the mode of narration. This is not a new subject, but it is most certainly misunderstood and in some cases misrepresented. I have seen hundreds of articles on the subject some are good and some, not so much. So, why would I add yet another to the mound? It is my hope that I can present a simplified point of view. No pun intended.

The narrative mode is simply the method an author uses to present a story to his audience. As long as you are consistent and persistent your readers will be able to follow you. However, picking your point of view can be tricky and is where writers get into the trouble. One way to represent this to think about a car accident. Let’s say you are driving down Main Street and you are t-boned by a jeep that just ran a red light. No one is hurt, but both vehicles are severely damaged. The police arrive on the scene and the first thing they have to do is to determine what happened. How do they do this? By questioning the witnesses of course. Now let’s say that there are three people that saw what happened. There was the driver of the jeep, a mailman and yourself. Each of person is going to have a point of view. Let’s begin with what you saw:

First Person

This is where you are the narrator and a character in the story. So, you will use phrases like, “I saw” or “We all looked”. In my opinion this is easiest way to tell a story, but does have its limitations. It is easy because you can focus one aspect of the tale at a time and it allows you stay focused. It is limited, because there is no possible way to convey the emotions or thoughts of another character in your story. In our accident I can tell the officer what I did, what I saw and nothing more. Anything that the driver of the jeep saw, did or didn’t do is out of my scope and has to be obtained from another source. For example, the officer may tell me what the other driver said. Typically first person accounts are not popular in fiction because of this limitation. However, the first person point of view is an excellent way to convey the deep, emotional or intense feelings of a character. The most common use of the first-person narration is as a story within a story. A character may stop and relate something that happened in the past that is relevant to the plot’s current situation.

Second Person

Second person narration is the rarest mode in literature. The basic concept is the storyteller refers to one of the characters as “you”, making the audience member feel like part of the story. Second person is often paired first person narration and makes emotional comparisons between the thoughts, actions, and feelings of “you” versus “I”. In our accident scene we can understand how this could work. For example you could tell the driver of the jeep what you saw him doing. Here is how it would sound: “I saw you driving down Main Street. You were looking down at the floor of your car trying to grab at something. You were totally oblivious to the fact that the signal light was red and that I was making a legal left turn.” I think you can understand why this narrative mode is very rare. It can lead to some very serious point of view errors and can make it difficult for a reader to follow your plot.

Third Person

Third-person narration provides the greatest flexibility to the author and is the most commonly used narrative mode in literature. In the third-person, each and every character is referred to as “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”, but never as “I” or “we” or “you”. It is necessary that the narrator be merely an unspecified entity or uninvolved person that conveys the story, but not involved in any way with the events. The third-person modes are usually categorized along two axes. The first is between “subjective” and “objective” narration. Subjective will give a character’s feelings and thoughts, while “objective” narration does not describe any of those concepts. The second axis is between “omniscient” and “limited”, a distinction that refers to the knowledge of the characters available to the narrator. An omniscient narrator has unlimited knowledge of time, people, places and events. A limited narrator may know absolutely everything about a single character, but it is “limited” to that character. In our accident scenario the mailman’s report could be told in the third person. It would sound like this: “The man in the jeep was distracted. He was looking down at the floor of his rig and was not looking at signal. He failed to stop for the red light and plowed right into the other car. Both cars were severely damaged and the blame of the accident rest fully on the driver of the jeep.”

Can you tell which axis this? If you guessed Limited Objective you would be correct. There is a lot more to this we could talk about, but we will leave it here for now and revisit in more detail in future installments. If you are looking a great book on this subject take a look at: Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway.


About Ron

Host and producer of Ron's Amazing Stories since 2011.
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