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.

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.

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.

Storytelling: Second Person POV

Second person point of view is the least most commonly used point of view in fiction.

Second person POV is written in present tense and addresses the reader directly, using the address of “You.”

This POV makes the reader the protagonist. The narrator often uses detailed description, shares psychological insights, and tries to anticipate reader reactions.

This in uncommon in teen or adult fiction and is mainly used, though there have been authors who have used it successfully.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Second Person POV

Advantages of second person are limited. It is very difficult to do well and most readers find it jarring and difficult to connect with while reading.

One advantage is that you can create a different feel to a story, and can speak to the reader directly. This story has to be a good fit for this type of narration.

The disadvantages are more prevalent, partly because this style of narration can feel too personal. It can give a juvenile feel to a story if not done well.

Second Person POV Considerations

Before committing to a whole novel in second person, try writing a single scene and getting feedback from other writers and target readers.

Study those few examples of well written second person POV stories, such as “Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney.

Storytelling: Third Person POV

Third person point of view has four variations.

Third person omniscient has an all-knowing narrator who tells the story. The narrator can share the thoughts and feelings of all characters at any point in a scene and knows information that the characters do not.

Third person objective has a narrator who can only tell the reader things which could be recorded by a camera or microphone. The narrator cannot share thoughts or feelings of the characters, and cannot reveal information to the reader that is not communicated, discovered, or shown directly by a character.

Third person limited has a narrator who tells the story from the perspective of a single character at a time. The perspective can switch to another character in a different scene. The narrator is limited to sharing what the character sees, hears, experiences, etc.

Third person deep tells the story in the hero’s voice, rather than the author’s voice. The narrator can share internal thoughts and feelings of the character, but if limited to only that character’s experiences.

Advantages of Third Person Omniscient

The story can be written as an onlooker watching the full story unfold.

You can add contrasting viewpoints with other characters, but you cannot “head hop,” or bounce between characters’ thoughts and experiences within the same scene. This can give a reprieve to the reader and allow them to see another side of the story.

You can expand the scope of the story by moving between settings and viewpoints.

You aren’t limited to characters in the story when choosing a narrator, which can provide a unique perspective.

It allows the narrator to share his or her own views, but don’t slip into second person to do so.

Disadvantages of Third Person Omniscient

Disadvantages center around the confusion this POV can create when not done with attention to detail. If narrators don’t have a distinct voice, readers may be confused on who is narrating or which character knows what.

Switching to other characters can diffuse the tension or excitement when not planned well.

It’s easy to write as the author instead of the narrator.

It can be more difficult to forge a connection with readers if it comes off as too distant or impersonal.

Advantages of Third Person Limited/Objective

It attempts to combine the best of first and third person omniscient.

The limited/objective POVs allow writers to more deeply explore the narrator and forge a stronger connection with the reader without asking them to live out a story with the narrator.

Disadvantages of Third Person Limited/Objective

It limits you to choosing a character as a narrator and limits you to the narrator’s thoughts and experiences.

The distance third person creates between the story and the reader can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the story. Some stories may be too raw or personal and distance is needed to allow the reader to remain at a certain comfort level. However, if in order to fully understand or experience a story, the reader needs to be enveloped in it, the distance of third person may prevent that.

Advantages of Third Person Deep

The biggest advantage of the deep perspective is that is attempts to remove distance between narrator and reader by getting inside the character’s head and experiences.

The reader can experience more fully what the narrator is thinking and feeling.

It feels more like first person to a reader, but uses third person pronouns, which can be important in following genre conventions.

Disadvantages of Third Person Deep

The main disadvantage is that this is a challenging POV to write and is still gaining traction in some genres.

Storytelling: First Person POV

Narrative point of view is the perspective through which a story is communicated. If you want to tell the story from the direct perspective of the main character or an observer, first person might be the right POV.

First Person POV

There are two variations of first person POV.

First person protagonist is when the character narrates his or her own story. This is very common in popular fiction. This allows the reader a close, personal look into the character’s experience, thoughts, and emotions.

First person observer is when a secondary character tells the main character’s story, such as Dr. Watson narrating Sherlock’s Holmes cases. This is less common in modern popular fiction, but is still used by some writers. This is a useful style when you don’t want the reader to be directly inside the main character’s mind and when the story is better served being told by someone who can somewhat objectively tell the main character’s story.

Advantages of First Person

It feels natural to the reader, because it’s how we speak about our world and experiences to others in real life.

Dealing with only one narrator’s mind can also be easier for the writer than writing multiple narrators. It is also usually easier for the reader to follow the story and keep track of events.

It also creates a unique and distinctive internal voice. Being in only in one character’s mind at a time makes it easier to “stay in character” as well. This is a popular POV for new or young writers for that reason.

Readers also get to experience the story vicariously more easily in first person, which may or may not be a benefit to the story and should be a factor in considering what POV to use.

There is also opportunity to create an unreliable narrator, however, this is a very challenging character to write and must be well planned from the beginning to be successful.

It is much more intimate and can fully immerse a reader in a story, which might be too much for some stories that have triggers or are highly intense or emotional.

Disadvantages of First Person POV

Writers are limited to writing only about what the character can see, know, or hear. This makes it difficult to hide things from the main character, or to reveal information to the reader without the main character knowing as well.

The narrator must be in every scene, observing and participating in the story. This limits what scenes the reader can observe and what information the reader is privy to.

Minds of other characters are off limits, as is their knowledge about the story, unless directly shared with the narrator in some way.

Storytelling: Narrative Mode and Point of View

This writing craft series will focus on choosing the right Narrative Mode and Point of View.

Telling the right story means telling it from the best POV and with the best narrative modes.

What is Narrative Mode?

Narrative Mode and Narration are easy to confuse.

Narration is the use of commentary to convey a story to an audience.

Narrative Modes in fiction are the methods used to tell a story. Methods that are commonly used include narrative point of view, narrative tense, and narrative voice. This series will delve into each mode, beginning with the one that writers and readers or most familiar with, Point of View.

Narrative Point of View

Narrative POV links the narrator to the story. It reveals who is telling the story and what their relationship is to the story events and characters.

The narrator is often a character, but can also be an unknown observer who conveys thoughts or opinion, or a completely unknown observer who only relates the events without additional commentary.

Writing from the point of view of a character is very common in modern popular fiction, but telling a story from an observer’s perspective is still used, though it is seen more often in literary fiction. It is not often a reader comes across a contemporary book written from the perspective of an observer who offers no commentary.

Point of View

When we talk about point of view, what we’re really discussing is how and by whom the story is being told. Narrative point of view is the perspective through which a story is communicated to the reader, and it can great affect how a story is told and how a reader connects with the story and its players.

There are multiple point of views through which to tell a story, including first person (protagonist or observer), second person (the reader is the character and is addressed directly), and third person (omniscient, objective, limited, and deep).

Each type will have a different impact on the story, including how close a reader can get to the characters, what limitations a particular POV places on storytelling, and what the reader can know through the character.

In the next several posts, I’ll break down each of these point of views and their advantages and disadvantages.

Setting: Elements of Setting

Setting has several major components, most of which are at least somewhat interconnected.

It’s important to consider all aspects of setting and how each element will impact the story or characters.

Many aspects of setting have the potential to affect character and story.

Social environment

The social environment a character inhabits affects their place in society, how she view herself and how others view her. It can impact confidence and expectations the character holds for himself or that others hold for him. A social environment can be encouraging and supportive or destructive and hindering.

It’s also important to consider the stability or chaotic nature of a social environment. Instability may breed disillusionment and rebellion while stability encourages things to stay as they are and may either be peaceful or boring.

Place/Location

Where a character lives or was raised will impact how she thinks and what she values. Consider how the land and nature has impacted her life, or how a lack of either may create a sense of fear or longing.

Location also helps determines what hobbies, skills, or habits a character might develop. City dwelling requires different survival skills than country living and classical ballet may not have been an option in a small, rural town.

Place is also important in determining what a character has learned to value. Aspects to consider include, family bonds, responsibility or duty to the community, obedience to elders or leaders, respect for other cultures, etc. Think about what experiences a particular place would have available that will influence developing values.

Time

Time period plays an integral part in creating an accurate and believable setting. This is easier when dealing with the modern world, or a time period you personally experienced.

When writing in a time period not modern or not personally experienced, it is important to thoroughly research the technology, politics, fashion, slang and speech styles, important historical events, differences in geography or town/city structures, etc.

Every time period develops its own social and political culture that is created by a variety of factors. Become familiar with those factors in order to accurately portray a specific time period.

This type of research is also important to know because it will impact the character. Certain concepts and ideas were not widespread or commonly understood in one period versus another. Some ideas, freedoms, or information were simply unavailable in certain time periods and will affect how a character views his or her self or the world.

Mood/Atmosphere

Whether mimicking a real setting or creating a fictional one, mood and atmosphere need to be considered in order for a scene to connect with the reader in the way you want it to.

Determine what type of mood and atmosphere will best serve the scene, then break down what will help create the right mood and atmosphere. Factors may include, weather, decor, time of day/night, sounds, lighting, colors, formal or informal environment, other people in the scene, topic of conversation, and more.

Climate/geography

Weather and geography can influence both the storyline and a character’s thoughts or actions. When writing a scene, consider whether the climate and geography will help, hinder, or remain neutral.

A neutral climate or geography will have little to no impact on the events or actions of the scene. In this case, neither is usually mentioned more than in passing.

A helping climate or geography will provide support to the purpose of the scene, whether that be physical, emotional, or mental. Good weather and a pleasant geographical area can further deep thinking, romantic opportunity, or clam reflection. Bad weather or rough geography can also be a help if it pushes the story in the desired direction (seeking shelter together or providing strenuous activity to clear the mind).

A hindering climate or geography will frustrate a goal or action, through ultimately continue to advance the storyline. A storm might knock out power when it’s needed most or a swampy landscape might make tracking a suspect slow or impossible. While actions or goals might be temporarily hindered, they should also provide opportunities for progression and growth for the character, such as overcoming a fear or physical limitation.

Politics/culture

A character’s political views and cultural background greatly impact how he sees himself or the larger world. It is important to consider how a town’s or region’s politics and culture intersect with a character’s goals, decisions, relationships, career choices, etc. Some areas have strong and specific cultures, which are often intertwined with political ideals. Other areas have more general cultures and political ideals, so individual family culture and politics may play a bigger role in a character’s development.

Young minds are highly influenced and the political and culture environments a person grows up in helps to shape their personality and worldview. A major point of conflict in a story may revolve around overcoming closely held views as a person grows older, experiences a new culture of political view, or faces a personal crisis.

Fully exploring these aspects of personality and character development can help you create a deeper character that connects with readers on a more profound level.

History

History should be considered on a personal, local, and macro level when developing setting.

A character’s personal history with a setting can deeply effect how they view that location and may change some aspect about their personality when they are in that location, such as going how to an abusive environment.

Towns or neighborhoods have specific histories as well. How a neighborhood developed within a larger city might have to do with its ethnic or racial background, or may be more closely linked to career or trade. Natural disasters or community tragedies will also affect the culture and atmosphere of a place.

On a larger scale, major events within a society should be considered when developing setting. What changed about New York post-911 or in elementary schools during the COVID-19 pandemic? What are the lingering effects still seen in New Orleans form Hurricane Katrina? Has the BLM movement changed the way some town and neighborhoods interact with police or racial groups? Some authors choose not to address such issues in order to avoid dating a story, but that often proves impossible. If an large-scale issue impacts setting, thoroughly research the issue in order to portray its effects realistically.

Story Structure: Linking Beginnings and Endings

As you near the end of your project, it’s important to consider the link between the beginning and the end.

Linking the Beginning to the Ending

The beginning and ending of a story should not only be strong, but they should be related in some way.

This may be through reiterating the stated or implied theme at the beginning again at the end of the story, referring back to the symbolism used throughout the story, using situation to mirror or contrast the beginning, coming back to a specific action or piece of information, or other similar methods of tying the two scenes together.

The ending will have more meaning to the reader if the beginning and the end tie together in a meaningful way. To be meaningful, the final scene should relate to the overall concept of the story, which should have been layout or hinted at in the early chapters.

Look back at the beginning scene and consider what message it communicated to the reader, particularly what promises it made, what theme(s) it introduced, what changes the character needed to make in order to find purpose or happiness, etc.

Once you isolate that message, look at your ending scene and make sure that you are fulfilling reader expectations. This may mean fulfilling a promise, completing a character or story arc, or coming back to a theme or concept important to the story or character.

The ending scene should fulfill reader expectations set in the early chapters so they put down the book feeling satisfied.

Final Scene Crafting Detail to Consider

When reviewing scenes, there are a few important factors to consider:

  • Make sure scenes have the right balance of details to create a full scene without bogging it down.
  • Descriptive details should be pertinent to the action, help create mood and tone, or accentuate the dialogue.
  • Details should use all relevant senses to create a full picture of the setting, the characters, and the emotion.
  • Details should reveal something relevant to the character or story and not be superfluous. A clenched fist shows anger, fidgeting conveys unease, food and clothing choices set the stage and reveal preferences, etc.

The structure of a story determines how well it will be told. Poorly thought out or constructed stories frustrate readers and confuse the purpose of the story.

Story Structure: Crafting the High Moment and Using Conflict

A strong high moment and relevant conflict are important components of effective scene crafting.

Crafting the High Moment

Scenes within a story should mimic the overall story structure, meaning it should have a beginning, middle, climax/high moment, and an ending.

The high moment of a scene uses elevated emotion, action, or revelation to impact the character(s) in some way. This does not have to be a major event or action scene, but it should be noticeable to the reader and stand out in some way.

The high moment typically comes at or near the end of the scene, with the previous parts of the scene building or leading up to the high moment. It should be something that produces a reaction in the character(s) involved in the scene. The more important the scene is, the more important the reaction should be. Reactions might include, fear or happiness, making a decision or increasing uncertainty, hiding or running, pulling away or moving forward, etc.

The high moment reveals the purpose of the scene. The character should learn something, either about his or her self or the other characters, which then affects their perceptions or choices. It should also lead the reader into the next scene by setting up the next step the character(s) will take after the revelation in the current scene.

Emphasizing Conflict

Every scene needs some form of conflict: internal, external, or both.

The conflict in a scene needs to have meaning, not be pointless arguing or endless internal lamenting. Have a clear reason for the conflict and consider how it will eventually be resolved, even if the resolution won’t take place until later in the story. Focus the conflict no the purpose of the scene to keep it from meandering.

Conflict, in general, should get progressively worse throughout the story. This increases the stakes for the character(s). Keep this in mind while planning individual scenes and make sure there is an overall progression throughout the story. When considering the main conflict, break it down into smaller pieces or steps and plan its progression with particular scenes.

It’s also important to vary the type of conflict in subsequent scenes. Too many action scenes or scenes with external conflict in a row can be exhausting for the reader and not provide enough time to take in information or impacts of the action. Internal conflict slows down the action and gives the reader a chance to process the conflict and information along with the reader. Scenes with mostly internal conflict won’t be as explosive, but should increase the overall tension.