Narrative Choice, Part 1

by Stephen Geez

Every new story project offers me the challenge of finding a narrative style and format that are different than any I’ve previously written. I don’t make choices to be gimmicky, but rather to find what works best, which is usually something I might not have routinely considered. The obvious choices come down to who (singular or plural) is narrating, and which tense (or mix of tenses) is being used. Beyond those, though, narrative offers nearly unlimited possibilities. Is your narrator talking to readers—or another character? Is the narrator speaking of believable events, or might that person be unreliable, speaking opinions rather than facts, or even spinning a yarn from delusion? How much does your narrator know—and is s/he revealing or holding back—or deceiving? Seems the more we consider options, the more choices we need to make.

For this post, I’ll start with the basics in narrative choice—voice, tense, and identity—then in my next post I will continue to expand those into some innovative and unusual techniques. I’ll also cite books by me and some of my favorite authors in case you want to look closer at certain stylistic examples. You’re already a quality writer with experience and a flair for finesse, but your stories deserve extra consideration in how else they might be told. And you deserve a chance to flex your skills in bold new ways.

What’s a Narrator?

Any story you write must be narrated by someone.  Your choice of narrator can range from as close as a character in the story to as removed as a non-character in another time and place relating events third-hand.  Many readers assume the narrator is merely the author talking, but skilled writers tend to adopt a narrative persona, a storytelling style more dramatic and expressive than one might normally speak.  This style tends to vary depending on the kind of story and target audience for each new project.

Narrators can be obviously male, female, or neuter; from unborn to long dead; either humanoid or not.  The narrative may come from a single source, or from two or more, which might even include an alternation of tellers from inside and outside the story.  Even if the voice readers hear is essentially yours, you will likely choose to present yourself as closer to the action than someone who is merely cloistered at a keyboard, removed from everyday bustle.

There are many deliberate choices to be made when crafting your narrative.  Each option can substantially alter the tone, reader involvement, emotional effect, and verisimilitude of your tale.  The right choices engage your readers and make your story more compelling.

Whether by intent or default, you must make narrative-style choices in each of the following categories: Narrative Person, Verb Tense, Narrator Knowledge, Narrative Audience, Narrative Format, and potential Narrative Variations.  Consider these options:

Narrative Person

3rd Person: The most commonly used, 3rd-person narrative is told by someone who is not participating in the story.  Thus, the characters are portrayed as he, she, and they, using a mix of their proper names and pronouns.  HE first met MARY at the store where THEY saw five people mysteriously pass out.  3rd-person narrative allows the widest range of potential voices, from sounding like the author to sounding like virtually any other kind of speaker.  For single POV in 3rd person, see Papala Skies or listen to my short, “Bus, Boy,” on YouTube. For two alternating POVs in 3rd person, see What Sara Saw. For multiple as-needed POVs in 3rd person, see Dance of the Lights.

1st Person: Growing in popularity, this narrative style is told by someone participating in the story, or by someone identified as having inside knowledge of it.  The narrator refers to him/herself as I and we.  I first met Mary at the store where WE saw five people mysteriously pass out.  Because you must write in the voice of whatever kind of person is narrating, it is generally more challenging for writers who are still developing their own narrative styles.  1st person also limits your narrative to the point-of-view (POV) and knowledge of the storyteller. Examples of 1st-person narrative include Jazz Baby by Weeks; Fantasy Patch; and The Odd Sea by Reicken. 1st-person single POV can be heard when I narrate my own short, “Sidekick,” on YouTube, which you can also read at Multiple alternating 1st-person narratives are found in The Poisonwood Bible by Kingsolver. Scenes in 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-person narrative can be found in  Veniss Underground by VanderMeer.     

2nd Person: This storytelling style places the reader in the tale.  The narrator refers to you as a participant.  YOU first met Scott at the store where YOU and he saw five people mysteriously pass out.  Least common, but potentially very compelling, 2nd-person narrative can be essential to interactive stories.  This style tends to work best when readers’ demographics make their presence and/or participation plausible, such as a boy-centric adventure tale written for a scouting publication or a traveling-with-grandchildren story targeted for retirees’ magazines. See “Time and Space.”

Verb Tense

Past Tense: Most common of the tenses, past-tense narrative tells the story as if it already happened.  Tyler FOUND a red lizard eating the butter in his fridge.  The time gap between the story’s events and the narration can span millennia, or it may lag by mere seconds, just as a sports announcer relates what happened an instant after each play.  The length of this gap is not relevant to choosing past tense; even far-future science fiction can be told in the past tense.  In the year 3796, the red lizard-lord FOUND the last surviving humanoid eating kloober in his smoot-box. See novels such as Invigilator; Papala Skies; and Dance of the Lights.

Present Tense: Very effective in tales where the narrator shows surprise at what happens, or when you do not want the narrator to show hindsight when interpreting events, present-tense storytelling speaks of events as they are occurring.  Tyler OPENS his fridge and FINDS a red lizard eating the butter.  Plot events that occurred prior to the present are still described in the past tense even when the narrator is speaking in the present.  Tyler OPENS his fridge and FINDS a red lizard similar to the blue one he SAW yesterday. See Fantasy Patch or Lost Memory of Skin by Banks.

Future Tense: Least common in fiction, future-tense stories relate events that have not yet happened.  Tyler WILL OPEN the fridge and find a red lizard eating the butter.  Prior events are still described using past-tense verbs.  Tyler WILL OPEN the fridge and FIND a red lizard similar to the one he SAW yesterday.  The future tense can even be used to tell a story that will occur in the past.  Tyler WILL IGNORE the American Revolution until soldiers overrun his homestead and eat his butter.  See “Time and Space.”

Narrator’s Identity

Anonymous, Not Involved: This narrator acts only as a conduit between you and the action.  Descriptions tend to be neutral, without opinion or emotion.  A viscous blue liquid seeped from the dead body, staining her shoes and filling the air with odor. See “The Kid Nobody Could Handle” by Vonnegut.

Anonymous, Involved: This narrator still acts as a conduit, but adds opinion and emotion.  Gross blue goo oozed from the carcass, ruining her shoes and gagging her with its putrid stench. See Zhasou Pure; Dance of the Lights; and Papala Skies.

A Character: This narrator usually participates in the story.  I reeled from the putrid smell of blue liquid oozing from the corpse and mucking my shoes.  It can be a character who does not participate in the story.  The only time I met my grandfather, he told me about discovering the goo-oozing carcass, which . . .  An uninvolved character can also relate the story as hearsay.  I never met my grandfather, but many have told me about the time he discovered the . . . See Jazz Baby and Fantasy Patch ,

Expert/Teacher: The narrator can be someone offering inside knowledge or expertise, a teller who explains and/or interprets for you.  A kloob-rider has three options when his beast is spiraling out of control, two he learned at the academy, a third handed down by generations of old-school riders. See “Kitty Makes Three” and Fantasy Patch.

Unconventional Narrator’s Identity: There is no limit to possibilities for other kinds of narrators.  Examples include a dead person who is not a character, or a dead person who is involved in the story: Four generations would pass before my bones were discovered.  An animal: I was a wee pup when Brent came to the shelter to adopt me.  A mystery eventually revealed, likely near the end: For you see, I am the one they called Susan in centuries past.  A mystery never revealed: It matters not who I am, child, for you are the chosen, and it is my honor to guide you through this step in your  journey.  An object or place or anything in the physical world, real or imagined: I am the highest mountain in the realm, and I shelter a village in my foothills where a sorcerous boy who knows my secret will one day . . .   A concept, idea, emotion, manifestation, etc.: I am revenge, drawing my power from the wronged who call me forth like storm clouds roiling beyond  the horizon.  A voice that comes through unconventional channels, identified or not, such as dreams, words appearing on a screen, sign-language, images through a mirror, passages appearing on pages, interior thoughts, etc.: There will come a time when you need your space, and you will go . . .   A character who must communicate unconventionally, such as from a coma, correspondence that travels through time, the diminished capacity of brain injury or dementia, a journal left for progeny after the narrator is dead, a series of e-mails or anonymous calls, etc.: Beware, all who come this way, and learn from our demise at the hands of . . .   See The Lovely Bones by Sebold.

Another Note from Geez

See, even these basics have you thinking! Come back next time for Part 2 and we’ll have some fun with many of the different directions you can take narration.

64 thoughts on “Narrative Choice, Part 1

  1. What an informative and helpful post, Stephen! I’m saving this for closer perusal as I try to get back to my long-delayed WIPs. And I’m very much looking forward to Part 2 of this series. Thanks so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Stephen. I almost always write in third person past tense. I’ve only written two stories in first person. One of them is in first person present tense (something I swore I’d never do). However, that story just called for it. Looking forward to learning more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Joan. I’ve only done one novel first/third and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was not other way to write it, as the character needed to be telling us things he believed but that we might, and I couldn’t allow him any hindsight or it would alter his actions. Cool options!

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  3. Pingback: Narrative Choice, Part 1 #SocialMediaMonday #Tips – Patty's Worlds

  4. Great post and examples, Stephen! There is a lot to play with and put together when writing a story. It is fun to try them out especially in short stories and see what works. I look forward to the second part.

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  5. Great post and you encapsulated things well, with great examples. Many years ago, I experimented with things, voices, tenses and use of a narrator, but I have become lazy over time. Using “Stephen Pressfields” example of inserting a fictional character into an historical setting where no one will or could have seen everything seemed a suitable compromise to me. lol you just have to think of an excuse for that character to have been in every scene. Not as easy as it sounds.

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  6. Wow, what an informative post, Stephen! I’m most comfortable writing third person past tense, but I have played around with other POVs and tenses. As a reader, I’ve experienced all of them–and like all of the–with the exception of second person. I think my brain just isn’t wired that way.

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  7. Way to announce your presence with authority. This is a great post and I’m looking forward to more. I’ve dabbled with most forms, even including some one-page stuff in second person in one of my collections. The one I just finished is in first person, which I enjoy.

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  8. Pingback: Narrative Choice, Part 1 – Verbose Lady

    • Lots of tricks are available to ameliorate that. For example, in POV we want to eliminate unnecessary reminders. If we know the POV, not need to say, “I looked out the window and saw a bird on the tree branch.” If you just say “A bird landed on the tree branch outside the window,” we know the POV character must be seeing it, but we eliminate the I! Thanks, John.

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  9. Great opening post, Stephen. The examples brought the different options to life – and I’m tempted to carry on that wonderful opening: Four generations would pass before my bones were discovered.  Looking forward to the next one.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a lot to absorb, Stephen, and you’ve presented this part 1 very well. I am most comfortable writing in 3rd person with multiple POVs, but usually no more than two. I have, however, written in 1st person but never 1st person, present tense. Lots to think about. I look forward to part 2!

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  11. Great post, Stephen. I loved your examples including red lizards and butter. Lol. I generally write third person/past tense and try to get up close and personal with narrative povs. As a reader, I’m not a big fan of omniscient narrators, and I find them hard to write well. I rarely write first person, but I do enjoy reading and writing those stories. They have such a tight pov that wandering away from the immediate action seems rare. I’m looking forward to your next post in the series. What an excellent start!

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  12. Excellent post, Stephen. I don’t think I’ll ever forget your butter-loving lizard Tyler. If he visits my frig, the little critter will quickly become past tense. 😄 Thank you for the clarity on the narrative choice. Very helpful.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Pingback: Narrative Choice, Part 1 | Legends of Windemere

    • Glad so, Chel. I leaned heavily on my own stuff, but I love to collect examples from others. Most people’s favorite stories have something quirky or unique in how they are told. Thanks!

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