Narration is the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience. Narration encompasses a set of choices through which the author presents their story, including:
- Narrative point of view: the grammatical person used by the narrator to refer to the character being narrated.
- Narrative tense: the consistent use of the grammatical tense of either past or present.
- Narrative techniques: methods of conveying the story.
Narration encompasses who tells the story and how the story is told. In traditional literary narratives, narration is a required literary element; in other types of narratives, such as plays, television shows, video games, and films, narration is merely optional.
Narrative point of viewThere has been an ongoing debate on 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. Narrative perspective is the position and character of the storyteller, in relation to the narrative.
Literary theoryThe 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. The American literary critic Susan Sniader Lanser also develops these categories.
Spatial point of view is the stance in terms of space from which the narrator tells the story. The narrator may be outside the narrative or within the story as a character. Or the narrator may be an observer that records events and happenings similar to a roving camera and montage. Whatever the spatial stance of the narrator, it conveys a point of view to the reader. The spatial position of the narrator may create for the reader affinity to a character's point of view, or it can have the opposite effect of establishing distance from a character's perspective.
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, 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. Temporal point of view also focuses on the pace of narration. Narrative pace can either be accelerated or slowed down. Narrative retardation 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.
Psychological point of view focuses on 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." Negative comments distance the reader from a character's point of view while positive evaluations create affinity with his or her perspective.
Phraseological point of view focuses on the speech characteristics of 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.
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." This aspect of point of view focuses on the norms, values, beliefs, and Weltanschauung 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. The Gospel of John is an example of explicit ideology while Virginia Woolf's The Waves expresses an ideological point of view that is deeply embedded in the narrative.
First-personA 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 first person pronouns like I. 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.
Second-personThe second-person point of view is a point of view where the audience is made a character. This is done with the use of second-person pronouns like you. The narrator may be addressing the audience directly, but more often the second-person referent of these stories is a character within the story. Stories and novels in second person are comparatively uncommon. Examples include the novel Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins, the short fiction of Lorrie Moore and Junot Díaz, the short story The Egg by Andy Weir, and in French, Second Thoughts by Michel Butor.
"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
The Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks are written in second person.
Text-based interactive fiction, such as Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork, conventionally has descriptions written in the second person, 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 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.
Third-personIn 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. This makes it clear the narration is done without the need for a narrator who is identified and personified as a character within the story. For the purpose of comparison to stories that have a narrator, third-person narration is described as having an anonymous narrator.
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 would be the case with a first-person narrator. It thus allows a story to be told without detailing any information about the teller of the story. Instead, a third-person narrator is often simply some disembodied commentary, rather than a fully developed character. Sometimes, third-person narration is called the "he/she" perspective, and, on even rarer occasions, author/omniscient point of view.
The third-person modes are usually categorized along two axes. The first is the subjectivity/objectivity axis, with third person subjective narration involving one or more characters' 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. Third-person modes may also be categorized along the omniscient/limited axis. A third person omniscient narrator conveys information from multiple characters, places, and events of the story, including any given characters' thoughts, and a third person limited narrator 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 limitedOmniscient 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. This narrative point of view 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. It sometimes even takes a subjective approach. One advantage of narrative omniscience is that it enhances the sense of objective reliability of the plot, which may be important with more complex narratives. 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.
Many stories, especially in literature, alternate from one character to another at chapter boundaries, such as in 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 switching among just three characters at chapter boundaries. 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 deviates to other characters on occasions, particularly during the opening chapters of later novels in the series, which switch from the view of the eponymous Harry to other characters.
Limited third-person point of view is used by an anonymous narrator who follows one character's perspective. This is the most common narrative point of view in literature since the early 20th century. Examples include the Harry Potter books and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
Subjective or objectiveSubjective point of view is when the narrator conveys the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of one or more characters. 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 as in the first-person mode, except still giving personal descriptions using third-person pronouns. This is almost always the main character. 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 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.
Free indirect speech is 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. 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 personWhile the tendency for novels 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 adventure series, by D. J. MacHale, switch back and forth between a first-person perspective of the main character along his journey as well as a disembodied third-person perspective focused on 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 alternates between an art student named Clare, and a librarian named Henry. 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.
Stream-of-consciousnessStream of consciousness gives the 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.
Unreliable narratorUnreliable 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. In J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the voice of Holden Caufield, the novel's narrator is biased, juvenile, and unreliable.
Narrative tenseIn narrative past tense, the events of the plot occur before the narrator's present. 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". 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.
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 of their future, so many future-tense stories have a prophetic tone.