Tips for Selecting Your Story’s Narrative Style
Before writers can share their stories, they have to decide what type of storyteller they’re going to hire for a particular gig. Here are the job candidates:
For this narrator, it’s all “Me,” “Me,” “Me.” (Or, more precisely, “I,” “I,” “I.”) But it’s not that simple. The first-person narrator can be integral to the story, in which case they know only what they observe or discover. Alternatively, they can be a minor character, which may actually free them up to know more than the major players. The first person might also be once or twice removed from the story: They heard it from a friend or a friend of a friend (or some other indirect source).
But keep in mind before you hire this applicant that it’s a challenge to keep the first-person narrator from telling too much, and that such a person is subjective and therefore unreliable. (Actually, that can be a good thing, dramatically speaking.)
First person is an effective device especially for action-oriented genre fiction: detective stories, thrillers, and the like, because this type of narration keeps the reader close to the action and privy to the cogitations of the protagonist, who is usually trying to solve a mystery or foil a plot.
The second person (“You”) doesn’t get much work. You might think second person is the most engaging type of narrative, because it puts the reader in the thick of the action, but the device gets old quickly. However, it can be used incidentally, in a prologue or in one or more asides, cued by the first-person or third-person narrator.
This narrative device (“He,” “She,” “They”) is the most common, for good reason(s): The third-person narrator is an objective observer who describes and interprets the characters and their actions, thoughts and feelings, and motivations without direct knowledge. (That objectively doesn’t always prevent the narrator from making satirical or otherwise judgmental observations, however.)
But before you leap up and cast this role, there’s one more decision to make: Is this narrator omniscient, meaning they know all, or are they, like the characters, limited in their knowledge? Beyond that, is the third person partisan about the proceedings, or neutral? Consider, too, that just like a first-person narrator, the third person might be unreliable: An observer, whether they have limited or unlimited access to knowing what the heck’s going on, may have a mischievous streak and decide to deceive the reader.
Regardless of who you hire, one more issue needs to be resolved: tense. Will the narrator describe occurrences in the present (“I steal over to the sofa and make sure the gun appears to have fallen out of her hand”), or in the past (“I stole over to the sofa and made sure the gun appeared to have fallen out of her hand.”)? Just as with second person, a little present-tense narration goes a long way, but a short short story can be effective in that form, or you can introduce present tense in digestible morsels in a longer work, such as when a character is recalling an incident.
Choose tense and narration form carefully, and may the best person win.
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