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Narration is the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience.[1] Narration is conveyed by a narrator: a specific person, or unspecified literary voice, developed by the creator of the story to deliver information to the audience, particularly about the plot: the series of events. Narration is a required element of all written stories (novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, etc.), presenting the story in its entirety. However, narration is merely optional in most other storytelling formats, such as films, plays, television shows, and video games, in which the story can be conveyed through other means, like dialogue between characters or visual action.

The narrative mode, which is sometimes also used as synonym for narrative technique, encompasses the set of choices through which the creator of the story develops their narrator and narration:

  • Narrative point of view, perspective, or voice: the choice of grammatical person used by the narrator to establish whether or not the narrator and the audience are participants in the story; also, this includes the scope of the information or knowledge that the narrator presents
  • Narrative tense: the choice of either the past or present grammatical tense to establish either the prior completion or current immediacy of the plot
  • Narrative technique: any of the various other methods chosen to help narrate a story, such as establishing the story's setting (location in time and space), developing characters, exploring themes (main ideas or topics), structuring the plot, intentionally expressing certain details but not others, following or subverting genre norms, employing certain linguistic styles, and using various other storytelling devices.

Thus, narration includes both who tells the story and how the story is told (for example, by using stream of consciousness or unreliable narration). The narrator may be anonymous and unspecified, or a character appearing and participating within their own story (whether fictitious or factual), or the author themself as a character. The narrator may merely relate the story to the audience without being involved in the plot and may have varied awareness of characters' thoughts and distant events. Some stories have multiple narrators to illustrate the storylines of various characters at various times, creating a story with a complex perspective.

Narrative point of view[edit]

An ongoing debate has persisted regarding the nature of narrative point of view. A variety of different theoretical approaches have sought to define point of view in terms of person, perspective, voice, consciousness, and focus.[2] Narrative perspective is the position and character of the storyteller, in relation to the narrative itself.[3] There is, for instance, a common distinction between first-person and third-person narrative, which Gérard Genette refers to as intradiegetic and extradiegetic narrative, respectively. Intradiegetic narrators are of two types: a homodiegetic narrator participates as a character in the story. Such a narrator cannot know more about other characters than what their actions reveal. A heterodiegetic narrator, in contrast, describes the experiences of the characters that appear in the story in which he or she does not participate.

Most narrators present their story from one of the following perspectives (called narrative modes): first-person, third-person limited, or (third-person) omniscient. A first-person narrator offers the potential for unreliability, which means it can both reveal and obscure the narrator's actions and feelings. A third-person limited narrator, otherwise known as close third-person, is also focused on a character's perception and experience of the world, but without the ability to lie. A third-person omniscient narrator can give a panoramic view of the world of the story, revealing the thoughts and actions of more than one character, and into the broader background of a story.

Literary theory[edit]

The Russian semiotician Boris Uspensky identifies five planes on which point of view is expressed in a narrative: 1) spatial, 2) temporal, 3) psychological, 4) phraseological, and 5) ideological.[4] The American literary critic Susan Sniader Lanser also develops these categories.[5]

The temporal point of view can refer to narrative tense, or it can refer to how detailed or summarized the narration is. For example, when events are narrated after they have occurred (posterior narration), the narrator is in a privileged position to the characters in the story and can delve into the deeper significance of events and happenings, pointing out the missteps and missed meanings of the characters. The temporal point of view also focuses on the pace of the narration. The narrative pace can either be accelerated or slowed down. Narrative retardation (slowing down of narration) foregrounds events and suggests what is to be noticed by the reader, whereas summation or acceleration of narrative pace places events and happenings in the background, diminishing their importance.

The psychological point of view focuses on the characters' behaviors. Lanser concludes that this is "an extremely complex aspect of point of view, for it encompasses the broad question of the narrator's distance or affinity to each character and event…represented in the text."[6] Negative comments distance the reader from a character's point of view while positive evaluations create affinity with his or her perspective.

The phraseological point of view focuses on the speech characteristics of the characters and the narrator. For example, the names, titles, epithets, and sobriquets given to a character may evaluate a character's actions or speech and express a narrative point of view.

The ideological point of view is not only "the most basic aspect of point of view" but also the "least accessible to formalization, for its analysis relies to a degree, on intuitive understanding."[7] This aspect of the point of view focuses on the norms, values, beliefs, and Weltanschauung (worldview) of the narrator or a character. The ideological point of view may be stated outright—what Lanser calls "explicit ideology"—or it may be embedded at "deep-structural" levels of the text and not easily identified.[8]


A first-person point of view reveals the story through an openly self-referential and participating narrator. First person creates a close relationship between the narrator and reader, by referring to the viewpoint character with first person pronouns like I and me (as well as we and us, whenever the narrator is part of a larger group).[9] That is, the narrator openly acknowledges their own existence. Frequently, the first-person narrator is the protagonist, whose inner thoughts are expressed to the audience, even if not to any of the other characters. A first person narrator with a limited perspective is not able to witness or understand all facets of any situation. Thus, a narrator with this perspective will not be able to report the circumstances fully and will leave the reader with a subjective record of the plot details. Additionally, this narrator's character could be pursuing a hidden agenda or may be struggling with mental or physical challenges that further hamper their ability to tell the reader the whole, accurate truth of events. This form includes 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 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.


The second-person point of view is a point of view similar to first-person in its possibilities of unreliability. The narrator recounts their own experience but adds distance (often ironic) through the use of the second-person pronoun you. This is not a direct address to any given reader even if it purports to be, for example in the metafictional If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. Notable examples of second-person include the novel Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, the short fiction of Lorrie Moore and Junot Díaz, the short story The Egg by Andy Weir, and Second Thoughts by Michel Butor. Sections of N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season and its sequels are also narrated in the second person.

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.

— Opening lines of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984)

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Gamebooks, including the American Choose Your Own Adventure and British Fighting Fantasy series (the two largest examples of the genre), are not true second-person narratives, because there is an implicit narrator (in the case of the novel) or writer (in the case of the series) addressing an audience. This device of the addressed reader is a near-ubiquitous feature of the game-related medium, regardless of the wide differences in target reading ages and role-playing game system complexity. Similarly, text-based interactive fiction, such as Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork, conventionally has descriptions that address the user, telling the character what they are seeing and doing. This practice is also encountered occasionally in text-based segments of graphical games, such as those from Spiderweb Software, which make ample use of pop-up text boxes with character and location descriptions. Most of Charles Stross's novel Halting State is written in second person as an allusion to this style.[10][11]


In the third-person narrative mode, the narration refers to all characters with third person pronouns like he, she, or they, and never first- or second-person pronouns.[12]

Third-person narration can include an omniscient narrator; close or limited points of view; or a combination of the two. Sometimes, third-person narration is called the "he/she" perspective,[13] and, on even rarer occasions, author/omniscient point of view.[citation needed]

A third person omniscient narrator can convey information about multiple characters, places, and events in the story, including any given character's thoughts, and a third-person close or limited narration conveys the knowledge and subjective experience of just one character. Third person narration, in both its limited and omniscient variants, became the most popular narrative perspective during the 20th century.

Omniscient or limited[edit]

Omniscient point of view is presented by a narrator with an overarching perspective, seeing and knowing everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling. The inclusion of an omniscient narrator is typical in nineteenth-century fiction including works by Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot.[14] It sometimes even takes a subjective approach. One advantage of narrative omniscience is that it enhances the sense of objective reliability (that is, apparent truthfulness) of the plot, which may be important with more complex narratives. The third-person omniscient narrator can have its own personality, offering judgments and opinions on the behavior of the story characters.

Some works of fiction, especially novels, employ multiple points of view, with different points of view presented in discrete sections or chapters, including The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, and the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. The Home and the World, written in 1916 by Rabindranath Tagore, is another example of a book with three different point-of-view characters. In The Heroes of Olympus series, the point of view alternates between characters at intervals. The Harry Potter series focuses on the protagonist for much of the seven novels, but sometimes deviates to other characters, particularly in the opening chapters of later novels in the series, which switch from the view of the eponymous Harry to other characters (for example, the Muggle Prime Minister in the Half-Blood Prince).[15][non-primary source needed]

Examples of Limited or close third-person point of view, confined to one character's perspective, include J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace.[16]

Subjective or objective[edit]

Subjective point of view is when the narrator conveys the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of one or more characters.[17] If this 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 third-person pronouns. This is often the main character (for example, Gabriel in James 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 using the third person, subjective mode when they switch between the thoughts and feelings of all the characters.

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 does not permit the same level of unreliability.

Free indirect speech is a literary term that refers to the presentation of a character's thoughts in the voice of the third-person narrator.

Objective point of view 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.[17] Often the narrator is self-dehumanized in order to make the narrative more neutral. This type of narrative mode is often seen outside of fiction in 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 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. An example of this so-called camera-eye perspective is "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway.

This narrative mode is also called 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.

Alternating- or multiple-person[edit]

While the tendency for novels (or other narrative works) is to adopt a single point of view throughout the entire novel, some authors have utilized other points of view that, for example, alternate between different first-person narrators or alternate between a first- and a third-person narrative mode. The ten books of the Pendragon adventure series, by D. J. MacHale, switch back and forth between a first-person perspective (handwritten journal entries) of the main character along his journey as well as a disembodied third-person perspective focused on his friends back home.[18] Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace provides one character's viewpoint from first-person as well as another character's from third-person limited. 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 Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. In William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, even the perspective of a deceased person is included.

Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife alternates between an art student named Clare, and a librarian named Henry. John Green and David Levithan's novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson rotates between two boys both named Will Grayson. It alternates between both boys telling their part of the story, how they meet and how their lives then come together. K.A. Applegate's Animorphs series contains four special-edition books, the Megamorphs books, in which narration alternates among the six main characters, Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, Marco, and Ax.

My Name Is Red and Silent House by Orhan Pamuk have alternating first-person narrators. Sometimes even animals, plants, and objects narrate.

A writer may choose to let several narrators tell the story from different points of view. Then it is up to the reader to decide which narrator seems most reliable for each part of the story. See for instance the works of Louise Erdrich. William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is a prime example of the use of multiple narrators. Faulkner employs stream of consciousness to narrate the story from various perspectives.

In Indigenous American communities, narratives and storytelling are often told by a number of elders in the community. In this way, the stories are never static because they are shaped by the relationship between narrator and audience. Thus, each individual story may have countless variations. Narrators often incorporate minor changes in the story in order to tailor the story to different audiences.[19]

The use of multiple narratives in a story is not simply a stylistic choice, but rather an interpretive one that offers insight into the development of a larger social identity and the impact that has on the overarching narrative, as explained by Lee Haring.[20] Haring analyzes the use of framing in oral narratives, and how the usage of multiple perspectives provides the audience with a greater historical and cultural background of the narrative. She also argues that narratives (particularly myths and folktales) that implement multiple narrators deserves to be categorized as its own narrative genre, rather than simply a narrative device that is used solely to explain phenomena from different points of view.

Haring provides an example from the Arabic folktales of One Thousand and One Nights to illustrate how framing was used to loosely connect each story to the next, where each story was enclosed within the larger narrative. Additionally, Haring draws comparisons between Thousand and One Nights and the oral storytelling observed in parts of rural Ireland, islands of the Southwest Indian Ocean, and African cultures such as Madagascar.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," said the smith. "I'll fix your sword for you tomorrow, if you tell me a story while I'm doing it." The speaker was an Irish storyteller in 1935, framing one story in another (O'Sullivan 75, 264). The moment recalls the Thousand and One Nights, where the story of "The Envier and the Envied" is enclosed in the larger story told by the Second Kalandar (Burton 1: 113-39), and many stories are enclosed in others."[20]

Narrative tense[edit]

In narrative past tense, the events of the plot occur before the narrator's present.[21] This is by far the most common tense in which stories are expressed. This could be in the narrator's distant past or their immediate past, which for practical purposes is the same as their present. Past tense can be used regardless of whether the setting is in the reader's past, present, or future.

In narratives using present tense, the events of the plot are depicted as occurring in the narrator's current moment of time. A recent example of novels narrated in the present tense are those of the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Present tense can also be used to narrate events in the reader's past. This is known as "historical present".[22] This tense is more common in spontaneous conversational narratives than in written literature, though it is sometimes used in literature to give a sense of immediacy of the actions. Screenplay action is also written in the present tense.

The future tense is the most rare, portraying the events of the plot as occurring some time after the narrator's present. Often, these upcoming events are described such that the narrator has foreknowledge (or supposed foreknowledge) of their future, so many future-tense stories have a prophetic tone. An example being Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

Narrative technique[edit]


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.[23] 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.

Unreliable narrator[edit]

Unreliable narration involves the use of an 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 meant to be false. Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators; however, a third-person narrator may be unreliable.[24] An example is J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, in which the novel's narrator Holden Caulfield is biased, emotional, and juvenile, divulging or withholding certain information deliberately and at times probably quite unreliable.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hühn, Peter; Sommer, Roy (2012). "Narration in Poetry and Drama". The Living Handbook of Narratology. Interdisciplinary Center for Narratology, University of Hamburg.
  2. ^ Chamberlain, Daniel Frank (1990). Narrative Perspective in Fiction: A Phenomenological Meditation of Reader, Text, and World. ITHAKA. ISBN 9780802058386. JSTOR 10.3138/j.ctt2ttgv0.
  3. ^ James McCracken, ed. (2011). The Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 16 October 2011.
  4. ^ Boris Uspensky, A Poetics of Composition: The Structure of the Artistic Text and Typology of Compositional Form, trans. Valentina Zavarin and Susan Wittig (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973).
  5. ^ Susan Sniader Lanser, The Narrative Act: Point of View in Prose Fiction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1981).
  6. ^ Lanser, 201–02.
  7. ^ Uspensky, 8.
  8. ^ Lanser, 216–17.
  9. ^ Wyile, Andrea Schwenke (1999). "Expanding the View of First-Person Narration". Children's Literature in Education. 30 (3): 185–202. doi:10.1023/a:1022433202145. ISSN 0045-6713. S2CID 142607561.
  10. ^ "Halting State, Review". Publishers Weekly. 1 October 2007.
  11. ^ Charles Stross. "And another thing".
  12. ^ Paul Ricoeur (15 September 1990). Time and Narrative. University of Chicago Press. pp. 89–. ISBN 978-0-226-71334-2.
  13. ^ "Ranjbar Vahid. The Narrator, Iran: Baqney 2011" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 December 2012. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
  14. ^ Herman, David; Jahn, Manfred; Ryan (2005), Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, Taylor & Francis, p. 442, ISBN 978-0-415-28259-8
  15. ^ Rowling, J.K. (2005). Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury. pp. 6–18. ISBN 978-0-7475-8108-6.
  16. ^ Mountford, Peter. "Third-Person Limited: Analyzing Fiction's Most Flexible Point of View". Writer's Digest. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  17. ^ a b Dynes, Barbara (2014). "Using Third Person". Masterclasses in Creative Writing. United Kingdom: Constable & Robinson. ISBN 978-1-47211-003-9. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  18. ^ White, Claire E. (2004). "D.J. MacHale Interview". The Internet Writing Journal. Writers Write. Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  19. ^ Piquemal, 2003. From Native North American Oral Traditions to Western Literacy: Storytelling in Education.
  20. ^ a b Haring, Lee (27 August 2004). "Framing in Oral Narrative". Marvels & Tales. 18 (2): 229–245. doi:10.1353/mat.2004.0035. ISSN 1536-1802. S2CID 143097105.
  21. ^ Walter, Liz (26 July 2017). "When no one was looking, she opened the door: Using narrative tenses". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  22. ^ Schiffrin, Deborah (March 1981). "Tense Variation in Narrative". Language. 57 (1): 45–62. doi:10.2307/414286. ISSN 0097-8507. JSTOR 414286.
  23. ^ "stream of consciousness – literature".
  24. ^ Murphy, Terence Patrick; Walsh, Kelly S. (2017). "Unreliable Third Person Narration? The Case of Katherine Mansfield". Journal of Literary Semantics. 46 (1): 67–85. doi:10.1515/jls-2017-0005. S2CID 171741675.

Further reading[edit]

  • Rasley, Alicia (2008). The Power of Point of View: Make Your Story Come to Life (1st ed.). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. ISBN 978-1-59963-355-8.
  • Card, Orson Scott (1988). Characters and Viewpoint (1st ed.). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. ISBN 978-0-89879-307-9.
  • Fludernik, Monika (1996). Towards a "Natural" Narratology. London: Routledge.
  • Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. Transl. by Jane Lewin. Oxford: Blackwell 1980 (Translation of Discours du récit).
  • Stanzel, Franz Karl. A theory of Narrative. Transl. by Charlotte Goedsche. Cambridge: CUP 1984 (Transl. of Theorie des Erzählens).