Narration is the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience. Narration encompasses a set of techniques through which the creator of the story presents their story, including:
- Narrative point of view: the perspective (or type of personal or non-personal "lens") through which a story is communicated
- Narrative voice: the format (or type presentational form) through which a story is communicated
- Narrative time: the grammatical placement of the story's time-frame in the past, the present, or the future
A narrator is a personal character or a non-personal voice that the creator (author) of the story develops to deliver information to the audience, particularly about the plot. The narrator may be a voice devised by the author as an anonymous, non-personal, or stand-alone entity; as the author herself/himself as a character; or as some other fictional or non-fictional character appearing and participating within their own story. The narrator is considered participant if he/she is a character within the story, and non-participant if he/she is an implied character or an omniscient or semi-omniscient being or voice that merely relates the story to the audience without being involved in the actual events. Some stories have multiple narrators to illustrate the storylines of various characters at the same, similar, or different times, thus allowing a more complex, non-singular point of view.
Narration encompasses not only who tells the story, but also how the story is told (for example, by using stream of consciousness or unreliable narration). In traditional literary narratives (such as novels, short stories, and memoirs), narration is a required story element; in other types of (chiefly non-literary) narratives, such as plays, television shows, video games, and films, narration is merely optional.
Narrative point of view
Narrative point of view or narrative perspective describes the position of the narrator, that is, the character of the storyteller, in relation to the story being told. It can be thought of as a camera mounted on the narrator's shoulder that can also look back inside the narrator's mind.
In a first-person narrative, the story is revealed through a narrator who is also a character within the story, so that the narrator reveals the plot by referring to this viewpoint character with forms of "I" or, when plural, "we". Frequently, the narrator is the protagonist, whose inner thoughts are expressed to the audience/reader, even if not to any of the other characters. A conscious narrator, as a human participant of past events, is an imperfect witness by definition, unable to fully see and comprehend events in their entirety as they unfurl, not necessarily objective in their inner thoughts or sharing them fully, and furthermore may be pursuing some hidden agenda. Forms include temporary first-person narration as a story within a story, wherein a narrator or character observing the telling of a story by another is reproduced in full, temporarily and without interruption shifting narration to the speaker. The first-person narrator can also be the focal character.
The second-person narrative mode, in which the narrator refers to him- or herself as 'you' in a way that suggests alienation from the events described, or emotional/ironic distance, is less common in fiction, though it's often used in the short fiction of Lorrie Moore and Junot Diaz.
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 narrator is observing his own out-of-control life, unable to cope with the trauma he keeps hidden from readers for most of the book, the death of his mother. The Dutch novel nl:De Kapellekensbaan by Louis Paul Boon is written in the second person narrative.
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 clear that the narrator is an unspecified entity or uninvolved person who conveys the story and is not a character of any kind within the story.
If the narrator of the story is not present, or is present but is not the protagonist, and the story told is about someone else and is not the narrator's own story, the story is narrated by He/She perspective.
The third-person modes are usually categorized along two axes. The first is the subjectivity/objectivity axis, with third person subjective narration describing one or more character's feelings and thoughts, and third person objective narration not describing the feelings or thoughts of any characters. The second axis is the omniscient/limited axis, a distinction that refers to the knowledge available to the narrator. A third person omniscient narrator has knowledge of all times, people, places, and events, including all characters' thoughts; a limited narrator, in contrast, may know absolutely everything about a single character and every piece of knowledge in that character's mind, but the narrator's knowledge is "limited" to that character—that is, the narrator cannot describe things unknown to the focal character.
Some stories may be a combination of first, second, and/or third person views. This may be used where the writer wishes to add their own observations to the events that take place during the story notwithstanding whether or not they were a participant in those events. Flora Rheta Schreiber, who wrote the book Sybil, used the third person omniscient view to explain the events of the title character's alleged multiple personality disorder, her attempts to cope and her treatment, except in one chapter where Schreiber switches to first person to describe when she had the opportunity to meet the actual person identified by the pseudonym Sybil (posthumously identified as Shirley Ardell Mason), and, under hypnosis, one of her alternate personalities. The third person indirect style or free indirect style is a method of presenting a character's voice partly mediated by the voice of the author.
While the general rule is for novels to adopt a single approach to point of view throughout the novel's entirety, it is not mandatory to conform to this rule. Many stories, especially in literature, alternate between the third person limited and third person omniscient. In this case, an author will move back and forth between a more omniscient third-person narrator to a more personal third-person limited narrator. The Harry Potter series is told in "third person limited" (in which the reader is "limited" to the thoughts of some particular character) for much of the seven novels. However, it deviates to omniscient on occasions, particularly during the opening chapters of later novels in the series, which switch from the limited view of the eponymous Harry to other characters (e.g. Snape). However, like the A Song of Ice and Fire series and the books by George R. R. Martin, a switch of viewpoint is done only at chapter boundaries. The Home and the World, written in 1916 by Rabindranath Tagore, is another example of a book switching among just three characters at chapter boundaries. In The Heroes of Olympus series the point of view changes between characters at intervals. Alias Grace switches viewpoint as well as perspective; one character's viewpoint is told from first person limited while the other's is told from third person limited. Omniscient point of view is also referred to as alternating point of view, because the story sometimes alternates between characters. 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 they are not directly involved or in scenes where they are not present to have viewed the events in firsthand. This mode is found in the novel The Poisonwood Bible.
Epistolary novels, which were 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, however, they may all be letters from one character, such as C. S. Lewis' The 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 novels take on a series of first-person viewpoints. E.L. Konigsburg's novella The View from Saturday uses flashbacks to alternate between third- person and first-person perspectives 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 1970s, 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. The novel Dreaming in Cuban, by Cristina García alternates between third-person, limited and first-person perspectives, depending on the generation of the speaker: the grandchildren recount events in first-person viewpoints while the parents and grandparent are shown in the third-person, limited perspective.
The narrative voice describes how the story is conveyed: for example, by "viewing" a character's thought processes, reading a letter written for someone, retelling a character's experiences, etc.
A stream of consciousness gives the (typically 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, and the character Offred's often fragmented thoughts in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Irish writer James Joyce exemplifies this style in his novel Ulysses.
One of the most common narrative voices, used especially with first- and third-person viewpoints, is the character voice, in which a 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; rather, the narrator is a more relatable, realistic character who may or may not be involved in the actions of the story and who may or may not take a biased approach in the storytelling. If the character 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 Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby.
Under the character voice is the unreliable narrative voice, which involves the use of a dubious 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 to be false. This lack of reliability is often developed by the author to demonstrate that the narrator is in some state of psychosis. The narrator of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," for example, is significantly biased, unknowledgeable, ignorant, 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, their viewpoint may be termed "third-person, subjective".
Examples include Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, "Chief" Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Holden Caulfield in the novel The Catcher In The Rye, Dr. James Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Stark in Only Forward, Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita, Charles Kinbote in the novel Pale Fire and John Dowell in the novel The Good Soldier.
A naive narrator is one who is so ignorant and inexperienced that they actually expose the faults and issues of their world. This is used particularly in satire, whereby the user can draw more inferences about the narrator's environment than the narrator. Child narrators can also fall under this category.
The epistolary narrative voice uses a (usually fictional) 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 story written in a sequence of letters. Another is Bram Stoker's Dracula, which tells the story in a series of diary entries, letters 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.
The third-person narrative voices are narrative-voice techniques employed solely under the category of the third-person view.
The third-person subjective is when the narrator conveys the thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc. of one or more characters. If there 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, except 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 Santiago 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 20th century. In contrast to the broad, sweeping perspectives seen in many 19th-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, such as in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.
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.
The third-person objective employs a narrator who tells a story without describing any character's thoughts, opinions, or feelings; instead, it gives an objective, unbiased point of view. Often the narrator is self-dehumanized in order to make the narrative more neutral. This type of narrative mode, outside of fiction, is often employed by newspaper articles, biographical documents, and scientific journals. This narrative mode 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. Works of fiction that use this style emphasize characters acting out their feelings observably. Internal thoughts, if expressed, are given voice through an aside or soliloquy. 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. A typical example of this so-called camera-eye perspective is Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway.
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-20th century by French novelists writing in the nouveau roman tradition.
Historically, the third-person omniscient perspective has been the most commonly used; it is seen in countless classic novels, including works by Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot. A story in this narrative mode is presented by a narrator with an overarching point of view, seeing and knowing everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling. 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 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 the increased distance between the audience and the story, and the fact that—when used in conjunction with a sweeping, epic "cast-of-thousands" story—characterization tends to be limited, thus reducing the reader's ability to identify with or sympathize with 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.
Some writers and literary critics make the distinction between the third-person omniscient and the universal omniscient, the difference being that in the universal omniscient, the narrator reveals information that the characters do not have. Usually, the universal omniscient reinforces the idea of the narrator being unconnected to the events of the story.
The narrative tense or narrative time determines the grammatical tense of the story; whether in the past, present, or future.
The events of the plot are depicted as occurring sometime before the current moment or the time at which the narrative was constructed or expressed to an audience.
The events of the plot are depicted as occurring now — at the current moment — in real time. In English, this tense, known as the "historical present", is more common in spontaneous conversational narratives than in written literature. A recent example of this is the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
Rare in literature, this tense portrays the events of the plot as occurring some time in the future. Often, these upcoming events are described such that the narrator has foreknowledge (or supposed foreknowledge) of the future. Some future-tense stories have a prophetic tone.
Other narrative modes
Narration has more than one meaning. In its broadest sense, narration encompasses all forms of storytelling, fictional or not: personal anecdotes, "true crime", and historical narratives all fit here, along with many other non-fiction forms. More narrowly, however, the term narration refers to all written fiction. 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, or 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.
The 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.
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 first-person is from a character's own perspective, and the third-person is the more familiar, "general" camera showing a scene. A so-called second-person may also be used to show a main character from a secondary character's perspective.
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 they are seeing and doing, such as Zork. This practice is also encountered occasionally in text-based segments of graphical games, such as those from Spiderweb Software which make ample use of second person flavor text in pop up text boxes with character and location descriptions. Charles Stross's novel Halting State was written in second person as an allusion to this style.
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