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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 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. In the case of most written narratives (novels, short stories, poems, etc.), the narrator typically functions to convey the story in its entirety. The narrator may be: an anonymous, non-personal, or stand-alone entity; the author as a character; or some other character appearing and participating within their own story, whether fictitious or factual. The narrator is considered a participant if it is a character within the story, and a non-participant if it merely relates the story to the audience without being involved in the plot. Usually, non-participant narrators are either implied characters, or a being or voice with varied degrees of omniscience. Some stories have multiple narrators to illustrate the storylines of various characters at the various times, creating a story with a complex perspective.
Narration encompasses who tells the story and 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.
- 1 Narrative point of view
- 2 Narrative voice
- 3 Narrative time
- 4 Other narrative modes
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 Further reading
Narrative point of view
Narrative perspective is a term used to describe the position and character of the storyteller, in relation to the narrative. It is a point of view akin to that from the narrator's shoulder, with access to the narrator's mind.
A first-person point of view reveals the story through a participant narrator. First person creates a close relationship between the narrator and reader, by referring to the viewpoint character with "I" or "we," if the narrator is part of a larger group. That is, the narrator openly acknowledges their own existence. Frequently, the 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 limited omniscience 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. 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 point of view is a point of view where the audience is made a character. This is done with the use of the pronouns "you", "your", and "yours." The narrator is trying to address the audience, not necessarily directly, but rather to administer more of a connection. Stories and novels in second person are comparatively uncommon. Examples include the short fiction of Lorrie Moore and Junot Díaz and the short story The Egg by Andy Weir. An example in contemporary literature is Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, in which the second-person narrator is observing his life from a distance as a way to cope with a trauma he keeps hidden from readers for most of the book.
"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)
In the third-person narrative mode, characters are referred to by the narrator as "he", "she", or "they", but never as "I" or "we" (first-person), or "you" (second-person). This makes it 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, or at least is not referred to as such.
Traditionally, third-person narration is the most commonly used narrative mode in literature. It does not require that the narrator's existence be explained or developed as a particular character, as with a first-person narrator. It thus allows a story to be told without detailing any information about the teller (narrator) of the story. Instead, a third-person narrator is often simply some disembodied "commentary" or "voice", rather than a fully developed character. Sometimes, third-person narration is called the "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 personal feelings and thoughts, and third person objective narration not describing the feelings or thoughts of any characters but, rather, just the exact facts of the story. The second axis is the omniscient/limited axis, a distinction that refers to the knowledge held by the narrator. A third person omniscient narrator has, or seems to have, access to knowledge of all characters, places, and events of the story, including any given characters' thoughts; however, a third person limited narrator, in contrast, knows information about, and within the minds of, only a limited number of characters (often just one character). A limited narrator cannot describe anything outside of a focal character's particular knowledge and experiences.
While the tendency for novels (or other narrative works) is to adopt a single point of view throughout the entire novel, some authors have experimented with other points of view that, for example, alternate between different narrators who are all first-person, or alternate between a first- and a third-person narrative perspective. 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 of his friends back home. 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 is a love story, told in alternating first person. This novel alternates between an art student named Clare, and a librarian named Henry. Henry’s disorder called Chronic-Displacement causes him to be put in the wrong time. He is then put in emotional parts from his past and future, going back and forth in time. John Green & 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. Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down has four narrators, who also are its main characters. These four characters meet at the top of a tall building known as “the suicide spot” and begin to talk instead of jumping. They then form a group, and continue to meet up.
The narrative voice is essential for story telling, because it's setting up the story for the reader, 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; this character is called a viewpoint character. 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.
The unreliable narrative voice 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. 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, a third-person narrator may be unreliable. In J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the voice of Holden Caufield, the novel's narrator is biased, juvenile, and unreliable.
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 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. C. S. Lewis demonstrates this style in The Screwtape Letters.
The third-person narrative voices are narrative-voice techniques employed solely under the category of the third-person view.
Historically, the third-person omniscient (or simply omniscient) perspective has been the most commonly used in narrative writing; 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 (that is, truthfulness) of the plot. The third-person omniscient narrator is the least capable of being unreliable – although the character of omniscient narrator can have its own personality, offering judgments and opinions on the behavior of the story 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.
The third-person subjective is when the narrator conveys the thoughts, feelings, and opinions 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 (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 "third person, subjective" modes that switch between the thoughts and feelings 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 Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, or 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.
This narrative mode 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.
The third person indirect style or free indirect style is a method of presenting a character's voice freely and spontaneously in the middle of an otherwise third-person non-personal narrator.
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. Typically, like the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, a switch of third-person limited viewpoint on some character 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.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 (for example, the Muggle Prime Minister in the Half-Blood Prince).
The narrative tense or narrative time determines the grammatical tense of the story, meaning whether it is presented as occurring before, during, or after the time of narration, that is, in the past, present, or future. In narration using the past tense, the events of the plot are depicted as occurring before the time at which the narrative was constructed or expressed to an audience or before the present moment; this is by far the most common tense in which stories are expressed. In the present tense, the events of the plot are depicted as occurring now—at the current moment—in real time. In English, this tense, also known as the "historical present", 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. A recent example of novels narrated in the present tense are those of the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The future tense is the most rare, portraying the events of the plot as occurring some time after the present moment, in a time-period yet to come. Often, these upcoming events are described such that the narrator has foreknowledge (or supposed foreknowledge) of the future, so many 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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