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Storytelling: Narrative Modes

Narrative modes are individual elements used to relay a story to the reader, and include dialogue, action, description, exposition, thought and scene.

Dialogue

Dialogue is the talk that is exchanged between characters. It is spoken communication and is punctuated with quotations. Dialogue can be used to impart information to the reader, show a character’s personality and unique qualities, or progress the story.

Action

Action is events portrayed as they happen in a story. Action takes time to develop and happens in a specific place at a specific time.

Action is not a “report” of something that happened. It should be described “blow-by-blow” and not as a summary. Action should have meaning and purpose. It should serve to progress the story in some way.

Description

Description is details about how something, a place, or a person looks, behaves, or functions. Description should always have purpose and not be superfluous filler. It should develop setting, characters, situation, and time period.

Description should not be self-serving or irrelevant to the situation or story. It should help orient readers in the scene. Only give the reader enough description to make sure they can accurately picture the image you want them to picture. Leave the rest to the reader’s imagination to fill in.

Exposition

Exposition is the telling of the story through the act of relaying information. It is used to explain, transition between scenes, and offer narrative summary in order to skip details of unimportant but necessary events such as average day-to-day activities like hygiene or traveling to and from locations.

Too much exposition or exposition instead of showing how a character experiences an event is referring to as “telling.” Not every part of the story should be told as exposition.

Thought

Thought, or internal dialogue, is character self-talk or the inner thoughts of a character. It may be only thoughts, or actual talk (self encouragement or disparagement) that a character tells him or her self.

In third person narration, thought is italicized to mark it as different from dialogue. First person wording (“I”) is also used in thoughts. In first person narration, thought is woven into the exposition and narration.

Scene

Scene sets the stage for a particular part of a story or event. It informs the reader of the situation the story section will take place in and offers pertinent details that help develop or provide context for the events taking place.

Special attention should be paid to the opening and closing of each scene so it does not begin or extend beyond what is relevant.

Choosing Which Mode(s) to Use

Every story has a unique balance of narrative modes based on which ones create the most appropriate feel. Modes should be varied. Stories that rely to heavily on one or a select few become monotonous.

Vary modes used to open and close scenes. Break up big chunks of dialogue with action. Avoid long sections of thought. Space out action scenes to give readers a chance to reflect and anticipate what comes next. Keep description to what is relevant and helps develop the story, setting, or characters.

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Storytelling: Elements of Narrative Voice

There are three elements of narrative voice that can impact the way a story is told.

Attitude

Attitude has to do with emotion, values, beliefs, worldview, and feelings about a particular person or situation. The attitude of the narrative voice reveals how the narrator speaks, the narrator’s body language, his or her reactions, and the actions taken in a specific situation.

Attitude adds uniqueness to the narrator’s voice and provides deeper characterization. Consider how the phrase, “I can’t believe you two met online!” could change depending on who says it. A friend of the couple who is of a similar age and understands that various facets of online dating might say it with pleasant surprise, happy that their story worked out. An older relative who distrusts the internet might say it with derision and eye the boyfriend/girlfriend skeptically. In both cases, the reader is given further insight into the speaker.

Tone

Tone isn’t just what is said but how something is said, and it can completely change the meaning of the actual words. The phrase, “I’m sure you could,” can be supportive and kind when said in a soft and loving tone, or snarky and dismissive if the “sure” is emphasized in a spiteful tone followed up by an eye roll or huff of annoyance.

Speed of speech, loudness or quietness, word choice, emotion behind words, and physical actions accompanying words all affect tone. Keep in mind that not all body language and connotations are universal, so make sure that what you’re trying to convey with tone is understood by most readers.

Personal Style

Personal style (of the narrator not the writer) includes vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar and technical aspects, cadence, and personal preferences. This can be developed for each character to highlight uniqueness.

Be careful not to over do it with too much slang, jargon, or colloquialisms that reading the narrator’s dialogue or thoughts becomes a chore for the reader. Give just enough that the voice is recognizable to the reader when you switch narrators.

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Storytelling: Narrative Tense

Narrative tense tells the reader WHEN a story is taking place, such as present or simple past tense.

This does not necessarily limit verb tense entirely, but it means a large portion of the story relates events in that tense.

How to Choose the Right Narrative Tense

What narrative tense a story is told in can greatly affect how events are related and how easily a reader can connect with the storytelling. Consider each tense carefully before choosing the best fit for your story.

Present tense:

Present tense tells the story as if it were currently happening. This provides immediacy for the reader. It is, however, less common and requires an adjustment period for readers, and some readers dislike it regardless of the story or characters.

Using present tense can make the right story seem more unique or novel, when done well. It creates a level of intensity that can be hard to achieve when using past tense because the reader feels as though they are experiencing or watching events in real time more easily.

Believability, however, can be more difficult because the writing has to convince readers that the events could be happening right then.

Simple Past Tense:

Simple past tense tells the story as though it has already happened.It is the most common tense and is easily accepted by readers. Because it is so common, it requires no adjustment period for readers to acclimate to the style. It’s also accepted in most genres.

It does create more distance between character and reader, because the events have already taken place. That distance can be a good thing for particularly intense subject matter. Some readers simply do not want to feel they are in the story as it is happening, as with present tense, and like having the distance.

Other Tenses:

There are three other narrative tense, which include past continuous, past perfect simple, and past perfect continuous. These tense, however, are not typically used to write an entire story or novel, but are used in particular instances when they are needed.

Past continuous describes action in progress, such “They were walking.”

Past perfect simple describes action that occurred before a character entered the scenes, such as “They had walked.”

Past perfect continuous describes action in progress that occurred as a character entered a scene, such as “They had been walking.”

While it is important to know these tenses and use them appropriately, they are not typically a factor in choose the narrative tense for an entire story or novel.