Literary Definition of Narrative Techniques
Narrative techniques are the methods that writers use to give certain artistic and emotional effects to a story. Although the term gets used loosely in everyday speech to talk about narrative, a “story” is just a sequence of events in time. Not until a writer chooses how to present that story in language does it become a “narrative.” Many key narrative techniques fall into four categories: plot, character, point of view, and style.
When writers put a story, or sequence of events, into language, it’s called a narrative. However, writers aren’t bound to tell the story chronologically. The “plot” is the meaningfully organized structure in which the writer presents the story. According to Aristotle’s “Poetics,” good plots should have a beginning that draws readers into the main action and makes them want to know what’s next, a middle that follows from the beginning and needs further action to satisfy readers and an end that leaves readers with a sense of completion. Aristotle writes that plots should also be unified -- readers shouldn’t be able to remove any part of the text without losing crucial meaning. Another model, Freytag’s pyramid, reworks Aristotle’s beginning, middle and end in terms of inciting action, climax and moment of last suspense.
Most narratives center on one or more characters. Characters are shaped by what readers see them do and say, and so narrative techniques surrounding characters are related to those surrounding plot, point of view and style. As M. H. Abrams notes in “A Glossary of Literary Terms,” readers interpret the characters’ speech and actions to determine their “particular moral, intellectual, and emotional qualities.” In most narratives, characters are well developed, or “round”: readers understand their motivations and can think of them as complex, real people. Other characters may be more two-dimensional, or “flat”; there’s no need, for example, for readers to understand the wolf’s conflicting motivations in “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Point of View
Point of view is the perspective from which a writer tells the story, defined by the narrator’s knowledge, presence and objectivity. The types of narrative viewpoint lie on a spectrum from first-person limited, where a single character who refers to himself as “I,” tells the story without all the information, to third-person omniscient, where an anonymous narrator tells the story about the characters and knows everything about them. Point of view can affect characterization by determining whether the author shows or tells readers about a character. “Showing” occurs when readers learn about characters mainly through their speech or actions, as in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” “Telling,” or “exposition,” happens when the author uses the narrative voice or other characters’ speech to describe a character.
Style refers to the kinds of language a writer uses to tell a story, and it encompasses several elements. The narrative’s diction is determined by the writer’s word choice. Diction can be analyzed using terms like formal or colloquial, Latinate or Anglo-Saxon, abstract or concrete and technical or accessible. The narrative’s syntax refers to its sentence structures, usually discussed on a spectrum from complex to simple; a text that switches narrators from chapter to chapter, for instance, might have one narrator speak in complex, Latinate phrases while another thinks in simple, colloquial language. Finally, the amount of figurative language, which literally says one thing while implying another, is another characteristic of style.
- A Glossary of Literary Terms; M. H. Abrams
- Poetics; Aristotle
- Carson-Newman University: Freytag’s Pyramid
- Virginia Commonwealth University: Hills Like White Elephants; Ernest Hemingway
Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.