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Mike Klaassen

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Narration as a Fiction-Writing Mode
2/19/2008 12:46:53 PM    [ Flag as Spam or Inappropriate ]

Narration in written fiction today has a different role than it has played in the past. As a fiction-writing mode, narration has a much smaller part—and a shrinking one, at that.

As do so many words in the English language, narration has more than one meaning. In its broadest context, narration encompasses all written fiction. More narrowly, 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, novels. In this context, all written fiction can be viewed as narration. Other than as a means of gaining wide perspective, this definition of narration is of limited value to fiction writers.

Some writing experts describe fiction as having two modes: dialogue and narrative. Such a broad view of narrative may be technically correct, but it ignores the opportunities and challenges presented by more specific fiction-writing modes.

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 any of the other fiction-writing modes. Together with narration, there are eleven fiction-writing modes.

Fiction-Writing Modes
(Arranged in order of the anagram D-A-N-C-E S-I-S-T-E-R):
· Description is the mode by which people, things, or concepts are described.
· Action is the mode of depicting things happening, in detail, as they happen.
· Narration is the mode by which the narrator addresses the reader.
· Conversation is the mode of presenting characters talking.
· Exposition is the mode of conveying information.
· Summarization is the mode of restating or recapitulating actions or events.
· Introspection is the mode of conveying a character’s thinking.
· Sensation is the mode of presenting the five senses, or maybe even six.
· Transition is the mode of moving from one place, time, or character to another.
· Emotion is the mode of conveying how a character feels.
· Recollection is the mode of describing a character recalling something.

An appreciation of narration, as a fiction-writing mode, requires an understanding of the issues involved:
· Choice of narrator
· Point of view
· Person
· Tense
· Obtrusiveness
· Tone
· Reliability
· Disguised narration
· Distance

One of the most important decisions a fiction writer makes is the choice of narrator. According to Orson Scott Card, in Character & Viewpoint, “The story always has a narrator.” Instead of the audience seeing events directly (as in plays and films), the story is unavoidably filtered through the perceptions of a narrator.

To understand the role of the narrator in written fiction, the writer must keep four mindsets in perspective.
· The author is a living, breathing person. He is the creator, doing the brainwork, making decisions, writing.
· The narrator is the teller of the story, the orator, doing the mouth work, or its in-print equivalent.
· The point-of-view character, if the story has any, is from whose consciousness the reader hears, sees, and feels the story.
· The reader is not merely the intended audience; he is a critical participant, reacting to the presentation, and thus influencing how the story is told, even before it is written.

An author’s choice of narrator comes down to three alternatives:
· Self-narration by the author (“Now dear reader . . .” is an example of author self-narration, sometimes referred to as author intrusion);
· One or more of the characters in the story (“Call me Ishmael,” from Moby Dick is an example from a story narrated by a point-of-view character, Ishmael.); or
· Some other assumed persona.
Each is a valid choice for narrator, but few choices made by an author have more impact on how the reader will perceive the story and react to it.

Once the author has decided who will tell the story (the author himself, a character, or some assumed persona), then he must decide from whose viewpoint the story will be told. The choices are:
· The author himself,
· A character, or
· Some assumed persona.

This may seem redundant, but:
· A self-narrating author may tell the story from his own point of view or he may tell it from the viewpoint of a character;
· A story narrated by a character would most likely be from the viewpoint of that character (as with Ishmael in Moby Dick), but the story could also be told from another character’s point of view.
· An assumed persona may tell the story from his own point of view or from a character’s point of view.

Point of view is sometimes described from the perspective of a movie camera, but a better analogy is the media coverage of a professional football game.
· An author narrating a story from his own point of view is comparable to a radio announcer describing the game from a broadcast booth.
· A character narrating the story from his own point of view is comparable to play-by-play coverage from a football player rigged with a microphone and a helmet camera.
· Having the story told by an assumed persona (omniscient or objective) compares to coverage by television commentators with the aid of a dozen cameras stationed at various angles around the field, including a movable camera hanging over the players.

Regardless of whom the author selects to be the narrator, the story may be told in one of three persons, singular or plural:
· First person (I, we)
· Second person (you)
· Third person (he, she, it, they)

Novels are rarely told in second person or plural, but an Internet search reveals plenty of examples in short fiction. For novel-length fiction, the choice is usually either first-person singular and third-person singular.

The author also has three basic choices for tense:
· Present tense
· Future tense
· Past tense
As described by Orson Scott Card, in Character & Viewpoint, some writers have experimented with stories using subjective, superlative, or imperative tenses. An Internet search reveals examples of fiction written in the present and future tenses, but the vast majority of novels are written in past tense.

Obtrusiveness is a measure of how noticeable the narrator is. Very noticeable narrators are described as obtrusive, while barely noticeable narrators are described as unobtrusive.

The obtrusiveness of narrators may vary from story to story, even stories written by the same author. Obtrusiveness may also vary from one part of a story to another part of the same story.

Stories narrated by a character have an obtrusive narrator (the character, narrating in first person). Stories narrated by the author or by an assumed persona may range from very obtrusive to so unnoticeable there appears to be no narrator at all.

Through the narrator flows a story’s tone, its mood. According to Nancy Kress, in Writer’s Digest, July 2003, “A very general definition of tone is ‘the way a story feels.’”

Tone, explains Kress, can range from literary (with its attention to diction, descriptive detail, slower pace, and loftiness) to straight forward (which is designed to tell the story with a faster pace, and without distractions).

Within the broad spectrum of tone are a multitude of attitudes which may be projected into the story through the narrator: playfulness, absurdity, mockery, humor, grittiness, jadedness, romance, lust, mystery, irony, satire, indignation, irreverence, dreaminess, seriousness, nostalgia, cynicism, horror. “This attitude,” as stated by Kress, “is embodied in diction, pace, detail, characterization—almost everything on the page.”

Usually the reader may rely upon the narrator to tell the truth, at least the truth as the narrator perceives it. But sometimes an author toys with the reader and causes the narrator to misstate the events or some perception of the story’s truth. As observed by Les Edgerton, in Hooked, “. . . unreliable narrators almost always carry the promise of at least some fun (for the reader) in the story. It’s just plain fun to figure out the truth of a character from the clues the author provides.” And according to Orson Scott Card, in Characters & Viewpoint, “The use of an unreliable narrator can add a delicious element of uncertainty to a story . . . .”

Even though all written fiction is narrated and thus has a narrator, some stories, including entire novels, have no apparent narrator. The author has chosen to camouphlage narration, to make the narrator so unobtrusive that the narrator never addresses the reader directly. Instead of direct address, the author presents the entire story through a viewpoint character, converting direct narration to other fiction-writing modes: description, action, conversation, exposition, summarization, introspection, sensation, transition, emotion, or recollection.

Also referred to as narrative distance, intimacy, or penetration, distance exists in three dimensions: time, space, and emotional intimacy. Distance comes into play in five areas:
· Between the events of the story and the telling of the story,
· Between author and narrator,
· Between narrator and reader,
· Between narrator and character, and
· Between reader and character.

As explained by Orson Scott Card, “The narrator, as a participant in the events, is telling about what happens in the past. He is looking backward. He is distant in time from the story itself.”

The more an author attempts to self-narrate, the less distance there exists between the author and the narrator. The more an author narrates through a character or an assumed persona, the more distance between the author and the narrator.

Depending upon the technique and attitude used by the author, an obtrusive narrator may appear anywhere on a continuum from quite remote to downright chummy with the reader. On the other extreme, a very unobtrusive narrator may be virtually unnoticeable to the reader.

Distance between narrator and character may seem as pronounced as between a radio announcer in a broadcast booth and the players on the football field. Or it might be as close as a character on the field narrating the story with a microphone and helmet camera.

Distance between the reader and the character may be a far as a spectator watching the character from the nosebleed section of the stadium, or so close that the reader feels he has been transplanted into the body and mind of the character.

The diminishing role of direct narration is consistent with trends over the last two hundred years. Donald Maas, in Writing the Breakout Novel, notes that since the invention of the novel it has been transformed by a progressive narrowing of point of view: from the once-essential author’s voice, to omniscient narration, to objective narration, to first- and third-person narration, and most recently to close third-person narration.

Narration as a rhetorical mode may include all written fiction, but as a fiction-writing mode in modern storytelling, it plays a shrinking role.

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More Blogs by Mike Klaassen
•  Narration as a Fiction-Writing Mode - Tuesday, February 19, 2008  
• FICTION-WRITING: How to Portray Your Character's Perception of the Senses - Saturday, January 05, 2008
• YOUNG-ADULT FICTION: What Makes a Great Novel for Boys? - Friday, January 04, 2008
• Review of HOOKED: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Go - Monday, November 12, 2007
• Mechanics of the Introspection Fiction-Writing Mode - Tuesday, September 25, 2007
• INTROSPECTION: The Thinking Mode of Fiction-Writing - Monday, September 24, 2007
• SUMMARIZATION: An Unfairly Maligned Fiction-Writing Mode - Monday, September 24, 2007
• Review of BY CUNNING & CRAFT, by Peter Selgin - Monday, August 06, 2007
• Review of - How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author, by Janet Evanovich - Wednesday, June 06, 2007
• VIOLENCE IN YOUNG-ADULT FICTION: Acceptable, Beneficial, or Inexcusable? - Monday, May 21, 2007
• The Next Great American Novel - Thursday, May 17, 2007
• Review of ON WRITING WELL: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

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