Narrative Choice, Part 2

by Stephen Geez

In “Narrative Choice Part 1” I started with the basics in narrative choice—voice, tense, and identity. For Part 2 we’ll flex more of the kinds of choices we need to make for our narrators. We fiction-spinners focus a lot on knowing our characters, but too often we default to basic narrators. You can’t begin to know who’s telling your story until you decide what the narrator knows and who s/he believes is listening. The format you choose for the telling is where you bring it together. So what does your narrator(s) know?

Narrator Knowledge

Point-of-View Knowledge: The most popular and arguably most intimate, Point-of-View (POV) narrative chooses one character—or alternates more than one between scene breaks or chapters—then tells the story only with the sensory perspective, knowledge, vocabulary, interpretation, and personal history of that character, whether the character is narrating or the story is being told in the 3rd person.  The narrator is not allowed foresight or knowledge that the character would not have at that point in the story.  For example, a scientist: He hurried into the cluttered lab and spied a gas spectro-chromatograph surrounded by beakers of hue-differentiating coagulates.  A six-year-old POV instead: He slipped into the big, messy room and spied a machine with blinking colored lights surrounded by glasses full of different flavors of Kool-Aid.  A single POV: As Keisha and Damon stood looking at each other, HE HOPED she would be different than all the others, but HE COULD ONLY WONDER if she felt the same. For a single POV at different ages, see Papala Skies. For alternating two POVs, see About a Boy by Nick Hornby; and In a Country of Mothers by A.M. Homes. For a pattern of multiple alternating POVs, see The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. For multiple as-needed POVs, see Dance of the Lights. For a splendid example of multiple as-needed POVs, including scene breaking between individual paragraphs to shift back and forth within one event and setting, study and be impressed by The Orphan Game by Ann Darby—out of print now, but worth the hunt.

Omniscient Knowledge: An omniscient narrator knows everything that happens, even if it occurred or is occurring off the stage.  Privy to all characters’ thoughts and histories, this narrator shares that information with readers.  An omniscient narrator might or might not already know the outcome of the story, and may choose to offer clues about upcoming events.  Omniscience may reveal the POV of one or several characters who know and perceive more than is normally deemed plausible; or it may be used by a dispassionate, uninvolved observer who often is merely the author relating information without guidelines or limits.  Common and at times popular throughout the history of literature, this narrative style is considered by many now to be passé, even an indication of amateurish writing.  While some kinds of stories are best told this way, modern American literature now favors the intimacy of limiting knowledge to the POV of no more than one character per scene.  Omniscience: As Keisha and Damon stood looking at each other, HE HOPED she would be different, but she wouldn’t, because SHE WANTED to con him out of his savings. See Torpedo Juice by Tim Dorsey; The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King; and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

Hindsight: A narrator may tell a story from the beginning while fully knowing what the outcome will be, which may be kept secret, hinted at, or even revealed early.  On a cold winter night in the smallest hovel, a child was born, a young girl who would someday lead her people . . .   Hindsight narration allows you to tell your story in any arrangement of events.  You can reveal the ending, then tell how it came about; or begin with the first part of the climax, go back in time, then come forward to finish the climax.  You can even tell a story backwards if your narrator knows it all beforehand. See First Light by Charles Baxter.

Discovery Knowledge: A discovery narrator has knowledge of events only as they are being told.  With no knowledge of the outcome, the narrator thus sounds urgent during action, worried in times of danger, emotional where appropriate, and just as surprised as anybody when surprises occur.  Discovery narration dovetails with the intimacy of POV narrative where the teller, the characters, and the readers all learn of events only as they occur, with the narrator reacting to them as the POV character would.  While this technique presents myriad methods for drawing readers into the emotional arc of a story and its characters, it risks the potential for shattering the reverie if you stray into unintended omniscience or POV shifting. See Courageous Lady by Mark Allen North; The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini; and Invigilator by Stephen Geez.

Unconventional Knowledge: There is no limit to the creative possibilities of manipulating your narrator’s knowledge.  It may consistently follow unusual parameters throughout your tale.  When I scry a man’s soul, I can see his destiny and the destinies of ten generations!  It can shift and change throughout the story.  Then she reached toward me and . . .  oh, me, now I’ve forgotten again, and I’m out of the gentian blooms I chew to help me remember.  It can be limited by any number of factors such as ignorance, lack of communication skills, time, or distance.  I can feel his rage and see the image of a sparkling gemstone, even from halfway around the world, but when he arrives and we join forces, I will know . . .   Or: Finally she understood why her mother had given her up, but without that journal, the next three years remained little more than a series of confusing impressions she couldn’t quite grasp.  There are no limits to the novelty possibilities, such as a narrator who is lucid only when s/he or the POV character is drunk or holding the amulet or transformed into a werecat. See Wild Child by T.C. Boyle; What Sara Saw by Stephen Geez; and The Lazarus Child by Robert Mawson.

Narrative Audience

The Reader: Narration to the reader speaks to anyone who might consume your material.  While some authors try to write for as broad an audience as possible, most focus on the demographics of their most likely consumers.  Thus “chick-lit” is aimed at young to middle-aged women who most identify with the travails of living as a modern-day woman.  Subject matter, vocabulary, and syntactic style will be determined by the gender, age, tastes, and literary sophistication of your anticipated audience.  Targeting reader demographics also aids in determining character and plot elements, such as choosing a manly-man protagonist for a men’s-adventure tale, and ensuring that your kids’ story features an empowered kid overcoming obstacles rather than being saved by an adult.

Another Character: This style designates a character or group that is hearing/reading the story either as it happens, at some time in the future, or if the listener would not otherwise know, sometime in the past.  You were not quite two years old when you discovered your unique abilities.  An old man might be telling his great-grandson about his own childhood growing up on Wanamaker Mountain.  A child might be telling her pen-pal in distant lands the story of leading her soccer team to the championship game.  A teacher might be relating an important life-lesson to a group of students.  In tales where the audience is accessible, you can choose to have him/her/them interact with the teller.  “How did you get through the winters, Grandpa?” When the audience is not accessible to the teller, you can still show reaction.  And when the last words touched her heart, she closed her long-dead grandmother’s journal and hugged her daughter like never before.  “Now we understand,” she said.  In all cases where the audience is a character(s), the reader is privileged to eavesdrop or read over the narrator’s shoulder.

The Self: The narrator can speak to him/herself internally, orally, in writing, or in any other format such as through a journal or during dreams.  The story can be organized, or a series of events unfolding as a stream of consciousness, a series of impressions and reactions to events as perceived by the narrator.  Blue haze surrounds me, depression, squandered opportunity.   Where is Jadzia?  I can’t feel her, only a hand on my shoulder, the rough hand of disappointment, unmet expectations . . . 

Unconventional Audience: There is no limit to the creative possibilities when your narrator speaks to someone other than a passive reader.  2nd-person narrative speaks to an undefined you. The narrator can be speaking to a deity, a concept such as “nature,” a group or the idea of a group such as mothers or “motherhood,” or even as broad a notion as a lonesome voice speaking to an empty universe.  You are the fathers of saints, the givers of life, and your stories are legend. 

Narrative Format

Story: The story format unfolds with character(s) experiencing a plot.  It usually includes dialogue so we can hear them speak and action so we can see them move around.  While the story’s events can be told in any order, they usually include a goal for the character(s) to achieve, obstacles and complications, a climax, and a denouement.  This is the most popular format for telling stories of any length.

Fictional Documentary: This format tells a story presented as documentary.  While narrative non-fiction relates true events in a story format, fictional documentary presents fiction as if a documentarian researched and organized a presentation of facts.  A handmaiden’s journal recovered from the ruins offers the only clear picture we have of Eddie’s early years when . . . 

Fictional Bio: Whether a faux biography or fictional autobiography, this form pretends to tell the life story of an individual or group, such as a non-existent movie star or rock band.  It might be about someone(s) who really exists but be told as an imagining to fill gaps in documentation.  Shakespeare’s secret love affair with Ernesto’s wife began . . .   It might be about someone real, but with an alternate bio for events that never occurred.  When Hitler retired to his villa in the Congo at the age of seventy . . . 

Unconventional Format: This category is limited only by your creativity.  Examples include telling a story entirely through a fictional diary or journal, a series of emails or messages in bottles, letters through the mail or time, an owner’s manual about the care and feeding of a character, a faux textbook, a school orientation/tour, a series of human-resources meetings at a workplace, a cookbook incorporating character and plot, or a how-to guide.  Now that we have covered the ten steps for coaxing a woman to date you, let us consider the example of “Bob,” a 24-year-old . . . 

Narrative Variations

Any number of variants can be added to a narrative style in order to manipulate the readers’ understanding of the story.  The unreliable narrator relays information inaccurately, either unintentionally or by deceit, which the reader eventually figures out.  The vested-interest narrator is revealed to be putting a personal slant on how events are described, which provides the reader opportunities to interpret differently, or to speculate on what s/he believes is really happening.  The hearsay narrator relates information from another source, which might be a character or not, reliable or not, and separated or not by great distance and/or time.  Even a complete lunatic may narrate your story.  Why, that might be just your style.

Have Fun, I Say

You have a great story to tell. You might find a whole new and exciting way to tell it if you first spend some time considering your narrative options. The right narrator will have something to say about all that.

50 thoughts on “Narrative Choice, Part 2

  1. A wonderful post. Fascinating. You’ve inspired me to try a different voice. I might try it in a short story. I’ve one rattling around in my brain,but not known how to go about it. A different narrative voice might make all the difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That was great, Stephen. What a lot of useful information. I have to say that I haven’t thought about all these choices, at least not consciously. I do notice huge changes in my narrative choices depending on whether I’m writing urban fantasy or epic fantasy, and who the narrator is as a person. I’m glad you mentioned that the omniscient narrator is out of style. It’s not necessarily a bad choice, but it’s very hard to do well. Great post. Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, D! “Consciously” is they key. Like avowed “pantsers” often really are outlining but in their heads, we make lots of choices without really thinking about them. I like nudging people to pause a moment a consider those choices they’re making, as that encourages maybe trying that different-than-usual one for a change.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Yvette. Maybe one of these days those few regular choices for once will feel not quite right. That’s when it’s good to flex and consider trying something different. Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow. What a lot of great information. So much to consider. I don’t think I’ve analyzed my writing like this since college. I usually just put myself in a character’s head and go (which we certainly weren’t allowed to do in my creative writing classes). Thanks, Stephen.

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    • And these are just broad examples, Joan–not nearly all. It can be a fun exercise like brainstorming, even if you settle back where you were. Then your style is not just your default, but rather something you considered and deliberately planned. Thanks!

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  4. I feel like I just sat through an intensive class on Narrative Choice, Stephen. There are so many choices for authors, and I feel like I use the same formula over and over. You’ve given me much to think about and inspiration to stretch and grow! This is such a comprehensive post filled with great tips, examples, and information. Thank you for sharing your expertise. I’ve pinned this for future reference!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, thanks, Jan. The cool thing is that if something piques, no harm in trying a short or a page or few to see if it clicks. I did that with one novel, then wound up writing the whole book that way. It’s my most popular novel. Alt styles can even be little warm-up exercises, a few paragraphs. Sometimes those will surprise you at how well you can make them work. Thanks!

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  5. I never really stopped to consider the options before (there are certainly so many of them)! My characters or the story always seems to dictate narrative, but this is definitely something to consider before sitting down and writing “Chapter One.”
    A great in depth look, Stephen!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mae. These kinds of choices are very helpful up front, but they can also save you mid-stream when you’re trying to figure what is not working. Maybe past tense is making you tamp down your character’s self-righteousness because he knows he will turn out to be wrong. Lots of ways to structure narrative so he does not know include the obvious: switch to present tense and let that character strut. See, narrative choice can bring out your character! It all fits together, so narrative choices can transform the entire tale.

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  6. Wow, Stephen! This is jam-packed with options and fascinating. There were so many possibilities that I hadn’t considered here and I can see the fun/impact that can be had with them. Many thanks for this generous offering!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Narrative Choice, Part 2 | Legends of Windemere

    • Thanks, Gwen! I think the what-try-now part is most fun, when the possibilities are limitless. Seems like I have the most confidence when I can defend why I decided a certain way.


  8. I’m so with you on the ‘have fun’ advice 😁

    So often, my story will present itself in a definite narrative voice, and I can’t write it any other way. Which makes things nice and easy on that level. Less usual, and I count myself lucky for this, I have to experiment with a few until I find the right fit.

    Great post on the options and merits of these choices. Thanks for sharing, Stephen. Have a wonderful week 💕🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Me, too, Harmony. Sometimes it’s obvious, but even then we’ve probably subconsciously kicked a few ideas to find the shiny bright obvious one. When it’s not THE one, we have to be ready to step back and experiment some more.

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