Glossary of Narrative Techniques

Good stories begin with more than just "once upon a time" and end with more than "they lived happily ever after." Developing solid, engaging narratives requires understanding of the tools writers have at their disposal and how to use them. Knowing the definitions of major narrative techniques can help you read stories for more detailed meaning and employ these devices in your own writing.


Characterization is the process where an author develops an idea for a character into a fully fleshed out personality. According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, characters and plot cannot function independently; a story needs people to act in order to move the events forward. Characterization can be accomplished either directly, though passages of description, or indirectly, through showing their behavior instead of telling.


A flashback occurs when events in the story cause a character to remember an incident from the past. Flashbacks can be triggered by sensory details, such as the smell of a particular food or a memorable song, conversations between characters where a similar incident comes up or meeting someone who reminds the character of someone else. Flashbacks usually parallel events happening in the present day narrative and often help develop character by giving readers a sense of his values and past experiences.


Foreshadowing is a technique where the writer "clues the reader in" about something that may happen later in the story. Good foreshadowing leaves readers surprised by what eventually happens, but makes them remember the hints that were planted early on. A story that opens with a character who checks into an old, isolated motel during a thunderstorm presents a foreboding tone through its setting and use of detail.

Point Of View

Point of view includes who is telling the story and from what distance. In first-person point of view, the narrator is a major or minor character in the story. In limited third-person, an objective voice narrates the story from only one character's perspective. Third-person omniscient uses the same objective narrative voice, but has access to all the characters' thoughts. In rare cases, authors use second person, the use of the pronoun "you," to put readers in the position of actually being the character in the story.


Plot is the sequence of events that unfolds in a narrative. The story opens with an inciting incident that reveals the main character's primary conflict. As the action rises, the conflict escalates and the character faces increased obstacles in his quest to restore order. At the climax, the conflict reaches its most intense point, followed by falling action when the conflict is solved and the story's world is restored to order. The resolution is where characters are left at the story's conclusion.

Scene Versus Summary

A common confusion for beginning writers is the distinction between scene and summary. Scene occurs when the author dramatizes a significant point in the plot through dialogue and the characters' actions. Summary, by contrast, is used to link scenes together and move readers from one scene to the next. For example, if a character is going on a blind date, the author would be more likely to summarize her getting ready and driving to the restaurant, then provide a scene of the date itself.