By Glen C. Strathy
Choosing the right narrative mode for your story matters a great deal. It is a decision that determines the perspective or point-of-view from which your reader experiences the story, as well as the perspective the main character has on the story events. It establishes the relationship between the reader and the main character, and in many cases the relationship between the narrator, reader, and main character.
When we first start writing, we often choose a mode of narration that is similar to that of our favourite books. Because our brains have spent a good deal of time with that mode, it's familiar and comfortable.
However, just because your favourite author uses a particular mode doesn't mean it will be the best one for the book you're writing. If you take the time to consider other modes--or, even better, to try writing in several different modes--you may discover that another mode brings your story to life more powerfully. So lets look at some of your options.
On the most basic level, narrative mode can be categorized in three ways:
Let's start with this last category because point of view is really the key to differentiating between all narrative modes.
Though it has fallen out of favour in recent decades, omniscient narration has been the standard narrative mode for most stories throughout history.
"Omniscient" literally means "all knowing," and omniscient narration involves writing from the perspective of a godlike entity who knows and perceives everything about the story but is not actually part of the story world. The omniscient narrator tells the story objectively and can change his focus from place to place, from character to character, as if he has access to multiple roving cameras and microphones throughout the story world.
You can think of the omniscient narrator as the voice of the writer. It is a mask of impersonality and authority the writer assumes when telling a story.
Most novels today are written in a narrative mode that is limited to one character's perspective. This point-of-view character is usually the one Dramatica calls the "main character," to distinguish it from the protagonist. The main character can be the protagonist, but it is also possible for the main character to be someone other than the protagonist. For instance, in The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is the protagonist (pursuing the goal of Daisy and all she represents) but the story is told from the point of view of Gatsby's neighbour, Nick, who is the main character.
Several narrative modes fall under the category of limited:
Third person, limited narration is similar to omniscient except that the narrator describes the story from the main character's point of view. The reader is only told what the main character knows or perceives, and is privy only to the main character's thoughts and feelings. Anything going on in the heads of other characters can only be inferred from what the main character perceives about them (their speech, actions, facial expressions, gestures, etc.).
Third person, limited, is in many ways the gold standard of narration, offering a middle-ground between omniscient and first person narrative modes.
First person narration is very common today. It's biggest advantage is how it dispenses with the narrator as the middle-man between the main character and the reader. In past tense, the main character tells his/her own story directly to the reader, who assumes the role of the main character's confidant. To the reader, this type of narration feels like sitting down privately with the main character as he or she tells you their life story.
In this variation, the main character seems to be narrating events to him/herself as they happen. There is generally no illusion that the reader is the main character's confidant. The reader is not present in the main character's consciousness at all. (Well, I suppose you could write a story where the main character is sending his thoughts via technology to someone else, but that would be an unusual device.)
Of course, writers have been experimenting with narrative modes for a very long time and have invented many variations on the basics. Here are are few to consider...
Character narrators can be seen as a variation on both first person and omniscient narrative modes. By "character narrator" I'm referring to stories that are told, not by the main character, but by a minor character in the story world -- often someone who plays no major role in the outcome of the story and is neither the protagonist nor main character.
Some novels are told from the perspective of more than one character. In effect, this gives the novel multiple main characters, though not every POV character may get the same amount of development.
Sometimes there is one "true" main character whose decision determines the story's outcome while other point-of-view characters play lesser roles. Other stories try to have two or three POV characters play more balanced roles in the story.
In Romance novels, for example, it is common for both the main character and her love interest to be POV characters with roughly equal development.
These are novels written in the form of letters, or sometimes journals. Some of these novels consist of a series of letters or journal entries written by one character, or the entire novel may be one long letter. The mode is very close to first person, past tense narration, except that the letters or entries are often dated.
Other epistolary novels consist of a series of letters written by two or more characters, often to each other. This is one of the oldest ways to tell a story from multiple perspectives.
Stream of consciousness is not the same as first person, present tense narration, although there are similarities. Both give the reader a lot of detail regarding what's going on in the main character's head. Both are about what's happening to the character in the present. However, first person, present tense, narration, gives one the sense that the POV character is telling the story, if only to themselves.
Stream of consciousness, on the other hand, feels as though a recording device has been hooked up to the main character's thoughts and perceptions. These thoughts and perceptions have a rawness to them, as though they are generated without conscious selection. There is far less attention paid to grammar or punctuation, and the character's mind is free to wander off-topic.
Stream-of-consciousness is used mostly in literary fiction and hardly ever in plot-driven, genre fiction.
To find the right narrative mode for your story, you might start by choosing one event from your plot. Write this event using whatever narrative mode feels natural.
Next, write the same event again, but this time choose a different narrative mode. The simplest way to do this is to write the scene from the point of view of a different character, or to switch from omniscient to limited narration (or vice versa). You can also choose to change the tense or the person.
Feel free to repeat this exercise several times.
Often you will discover that the narrative mode that feels right for your story is not the first one you chose. In fact, sometimes you might think you know who your main character will be, but doing this exercise shows you that another character is actually far more interesting, and that discovery changes the entire story.
You may also find that writing from other characters' points of view helps you get a better sense of who they are, how they think, and why they do what they do.