Tips for Selecting Your Story’s Narrative Style

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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:

First Person
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.

Second Person
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.

Third Person
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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5 thoughts on “Tips for Selecting Your Story’s Narrative Style”

  1. I think writers could visit their local bookstores and see what’s being published. Find your favorite authors and peruse their material to get an idea about what’s selling.

  2. Rebecca, It’s certainly good advice for a writer to read a lot.

    But as for choosing a narrator that way, I can tell you right now without visiting a book store what’s selling most: Third Person, Past Tense….because that’s what’s most often used!

    That doesn’t mean you should always stay with that choice though.

    Dan Brown probably outsells Melville right now, but can you imaging what Moby Dick would be like if it WASN’T told from Ishmael’s POV?
    “Call him Ishmael…?” Naah….

    I think the story and the desired experience needs to drive the choice.

    Eg, if my character is a military recruit in a situation that’s way over his head and I want the reader to feel that same lack of control, I may use second person from his drill sergeant’s POV. Very disconcerting.

    On the other hand, you should have a compelling reason for choosing a different style. You’re probably right that if you’re not seeing a compelling reason to keep the reader in one character’s head, or to talk at him, then the most popular choice is probably the most popular choice for good reason!


  3. I personally don’t like reading novels written in present tense, probably because I’ve always felt like novels are a story being retold by a character or observer after it happens. Usually people don’t retell stories in the present tense, unless they are short, humorous anecdotes. However, I have read and enjoyed many present-tense novels, though the tense always counts as a strike against my opinion on it.

  4. Great post. Very informative and great observation. I love the first person narrative. Two books that instantly come to mind are Great Expectations by Charles Dickens ( the master story teller) and Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie. I think both were excellent pieces of fiction.

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