Playing with Narrative Mode

Photo © 2006 Demetri Mouratis CC BY-NC 2.0

There’s one more post I wanted to do in this series on narrative mode, to write and rewrite a short snippet in a number of different narrative modes, just to show how each would turn out.

This is not an exhaustive list, because when you combine all the different possible narrative persons with all the possible narrative tenses with all the possible narrative voices, you can easily end up with dozens (if not hundreds) of possibilities. Even just this short list of samples gets pretty long, so feel free just to skim it.

Here’s the scene: Rosie (played by Jen in the photo), after drinking a little, makes a derogatory comment to Tom (played by Alex, on the left) about short, stocky guys asking her out, not knowing that Tom has always had a huge crush on her. Meanwhile, her brother Nat (played by John, in the background) is preparing a salad nearby and overhears the conversation, eventually intervening and trying to convince Tom to find someone else.

Third-person Omniscient, Past Tense

“Way too Danny DeVito. I don’t believe he asked me out!” Rosie was running on a fine buzz. She took another swig of her drink.

Tom stood quietly by, saying nothing, trying not to think of how deeply Rosie’s words affected him. He glanced at Nat’s back, listened to the regular slice-chop, slice-chop of Nat’s knife as it passed through a lettuce bunch and hit the cutting board.

“I guess there’s something about me that draws guys like that,” Rosie continued. “What I wouldn’t do for an old-fashioned tall, dark, and handsome.” She chuckled just as Tom gazed directly across to her eyes, his face blank, and a sudden self-consciousness gripped her. She drank again, avoiding Tom’s probing stare. “A lot of girls like those big and strong types, I guess,” she said, backpedaling, “but my tastes always ran elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that, you know.”

Nat had been listening to the entire conversation, and he knew what must have been going through Tom’s mind. How he had gotten in the middle of this, he didn’t know. All he knew is that his best friend had a thing for his sister, and it wasn’t going to go anywhere but down. He dumped a handful of chopped lettuce into the salad bowl, knowing he needed some excuse that would get Rosie out of the kitchen and end this tragic scene. He turned to his sister. “Rosie, did you see Amy? I think she wanted to talk to you.”

“Amy’s here?!” She had been waiting for her cousin to arrive from Bakersfield, and she could hardly believe that she missed the grand entrance.

“Just a few minutes ago. She might be upstairs.”

“I’ll go find her,” Rosie said, as she excused herself.

“Look,” Nat said to his friend, “I get it. I’ve been there, too. It takes over your mind, and you can’t help it. But all she does is make you feel like shit, and I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t tell you the truth.”

Tom nodded, knowing what Nat was going to say.

“You have to drop it and just find someone else. She’s just— Well, she’s always been opinionated and flighty. You’re a good-looking guy, and I know loads of girls who would love to, get to know you better, if you know what I mean.”

This is just a quick-and-dirty snippet of a scene. Before it would be a short connection to the previous scene in the timeline. After might follow Tom’s reaction to Nat’s advice and its implications. I’m also sure I could make it better, especially if I fleshed out its setting and its context in the broader storyline, but it will serve our purposes here as-is.

Third-person Objective, Present Tense

“Way too Danny DeVito. I don’t believe he asked me out!” Rosie says a little too loosely. She takes another swig of her drink.

Tom is standing quietly by. His eyes wonder to Nat’s back, as Nat’s knife passes through a lettuce bunch and hits the cutting board, sounding out a regular slice-chop, slice-chop.

“I guess there’s something about me that draws guys like that,” Rosie continues. “What I wouldn’t do for an old-fashioned tall, dark, and handsome.” She chuckles just as Tom gazes directly across to her eyes, his face blank. Rosie’s expression turns suddenly sober. She drinks again, diverting her eyes from Tom’s probing stare. “A lot of girls like those big and strong types, I guess,” she says, “but my tastes always ran elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that, you know.”

Dumping a handful of chopped lettuce into a salad bowl, Nat turns to his sister. “Rosie, did you see Amy? I think she wanted to talk to you.”

“Amy’s here?!” Her eyes widen.

“Just a few minutes ago. She might be upstairs.”

“I’ll go find her,” Rosie says, and exits the kitchen.

“Look,” Nat says to his friend, “I get it. I’ve been there, too. It takes over your mind, and you can’t help it. But all she does is make you feel like shit, and I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t tell you the truth.”

Tom is nodding silently.

“You have to drop it and just find someone else. She’s just— Well, she’s always been opinionated and flighty. You’re a good-looking guy, and I know loads of girls who would love to, get to know you better, if you know what I mean.”

As you can see, big pieces of internal context are missing from this rendition of the scene, because the narrator cannot see into the minds of the characters. We don’t know how Tom feels about Rosie, although we get an inkling of it from his actions. We also don’t really see that Nat is caught in the middle. These points (if they are important to the story) would need to be established elsewhere in the story.

You can also see the difference between past tense and present tense. Present tense feels closer to the action, because the scene is being described as it happened.

First-person, Past Tense, Rosie’s POV

“Way too Danny DeVito. I don’t believe he asked me out!” I was feeling fine, reeling from a fine buzz, and I took another swig. What had he called this drink? Something red and fruity, but boy did it pack a wallop.

I hardly heard Nat slicing lettuce just a few feet from me. Nor did I pay any attention to Tom’s reaction. He was my brother’s best friend. We were all friends. We always had conversations like this. What did I know?

“I guess there’s something about me that draws guys like that,” I went on. “What I wouldn’t do for an old-fashioned tall, dark, and handsome.” I chuckled.

Without a word, Tom stared directly at me, his face blank. I suddenly realized that I was describing him, short and stocky—at least shorter than me, as if that meant anything, like shorter than Godzilla. And he wasn’t really big, more like athletic. Why didn’t I think of that word. Athletic, sounds so much better than “fat.”

I put my glass to my lips, looked somewhere else where Tom couldn’t see what I was thinking. I had to recover the situation, let him know that I wasn’t talking about him.

“A lot of girls like those big and strong types, I guess,” I said, “but my tastes always ran elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that, you know.”

Nat turned from the counter. “Rosie, did you see Amy? I think she wanted to talk to you.”

“Amy’s here?!” This was news to me! I had been psyched for her arrival, and where exactly was I when I missed her grand entrance? Huh, Johnny? Tell me that.

“Just a few minutes ago,” Nat said. “She might be upstairs.”

“I’ll go find her,” I said, and I almost ran from the room. But not so fast that I couldn’t overhear Nat.

“I get it. I’ve been there, too,” he said. What was going on?

First-person gives more of an opportunity to inject the personality of the narrator character into the narrative, especially if it is written in a conversational style (rather than in the more formal style of a memoir or autobiography). I don’t know that I did so very well here, because Rosie is not a fully-formed character in my mind; I just improvised her. But I tried to give an idea of how it might work. (If you want a better example, check out the first chapter of Twenties Girl, by Sophie Kinsella, which you can preview on Amazon.)

At the same time, first-person means that the narrator only knows what Rosie knows. She can’t see into Tom’s thoughts, or into Nat’s. But I can write the story to hint at the things that Rosie denies noticing, while making it clear to the reader that she is fooling herself. (Again, see Twenties Girl for a good example.)

I also wrote this example in past tense, and that gave Rosie opportunity to allude to things that she would find out in the future, that is, after the events of the scene. “What did I know?” That implies that she was missing something important to the story, which she later understood.

First-person, Present Tense, Nat’s POV

“Way too Danny DeVito. I don’t believe he asked me out!” Rosie is running on a fine buzz. Even though I cannot see her, I can tell by the cadence of her voice. She’s speaking too… loose.

Tom stands quietly behind me, but I know Rosie’s words are affecting him. How I got in the middle of this, I don’t know. But I do know my best friend has a thing for my sister, and it isn’t going to end up anywhere but in hell. I take another slice at the lettuce, holding the knife firmly, like an extension of my right hand. Slice-chop, slice-chop, smoothly and regularly, as it passes through the green leaves and hits the cutting board.

“I guess there’s something about me that draws guys like that,” Rosie says. “What I wouldn’t do for an old-fashioned tall, dark, and handsome.” She chuckles.

Slice-chop, slice-chop.

“A lot of girls like those big and strong types, I guess.” Something is different about her voice. I feel uneasy. “But my tastes always ran elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that, you know.”

I don’t know if there’s any way to keep this situation from eventually blowing up in my face, but for now, if I can just put it off for a little while, it’ll make my life a little easier. I think of our cousin Amy, who I know Rosie has been anxious to see. Dumping a handful of chopped lettuce into the salad bowl, I turn to my sister. “Rosie, did you see Amy? I think she wanted to talk to you.”

“Amy’s here?!” Rosie’s eyes widen.

“Just a few minutes ago,” I say. “She might be upstairs.”

“I’ll go find her.” Rosie leaves, and I breathe a little easier.

“Look,” I say to Tom, “I get it. I’ve been there, too. It takes over your mind, and you can’t help it. But all she does is make you feel like shit, and I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t tell you the truth.”

Tom nods, but I don’t know whether he’s really listening.

Still, I continue. “You have to drop it and just find someone else. She’s just— Well, she’s always been opinionated and flighty. You’re a good-looking guy, and I know loads of girls who would love to, get to know you better, if you know what I mean.”

This is similar to third-person objective, but we know everything Nat knows, as he chooses to reveal it to us, and perhaps feel closer to him as a result. It’s a Holmes-Watson style of narration, where the narrator is a story character, but not the main character.

We also know nothing that Nat doesn’t know, especially the visible interaction between Rosie and Tom, which the third-person narrator would see, but which Nat cannot see, because he’s occupied elsewhere.

Second-person, Present Tense, MC Rosie

“Way too Danny DeVito,” you remark with a dismissive inflection in your voice. “I don’t believe he asked me out!”

You are running on a fine buzz. You take another swig of your drink, something red and fruity that you don’t remember the name of, but it packs a wallop.

You hardly hear Nat slicing lettuce just a few feet away. Nor do you pay any attention to Tom’s reaction.

“I guess there’s something about me that draws guys like that,” you continue. “What I wouldn’t do for an old-fashioned tall, dark, and handsome.” You chuckle.

Without a word, Tom stares directly at you, his face blank. You suddenly realize that you are describing him, short and stocky, at least no match for your own prodigious height. He’s athletic, like a tiny wrestler who could take out anyone who dares threaten him. And here you’ve just compared him to a diminutive, bald-and-overweight actor.

You put your glass to your lips, looking away from Tom’s penetrating gaze.

“A lot of girls like those big and strong types, I guess,” you say, backpedaling, “but my tastes always ran elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that, you know.” Matter-of-factly.

Nat turns from the counter. “Rosie, did you see Amy? I think she wanted to talk to you.”

“Amy’s here?!” you ejaculate. You have been looking forward to her arrival, and you wonder how you could have missed her grand entrance.

“Just a few minutes ago,” Nat says. “She might be upstairs.”

“I’ll go find her.” And you hurriedly excuse yourself.

But as you leave, you overhear Nat talking to Tom. “I get it,” he says. “I’ve been there, too…” And you wonder what he means.

As you can see, second-person allows you to step into Rosie’s shoes, but much of Rosie’s distinct personality can get lost in the process, because it is subsumed by how you the reader perceive yourself. I have to give you a compelling reason to step into the crap pile you find yourself in. It not only has to be something that Rosie might have done; it also has to be something you could see yourself doing in the same situation. This can increase sympathy between the character and reader, but it also limits how the writer can express the main character. The reader not only knows how the character perceives the world; the read also sees the world in the same way.

First-second-person, Past Tense, Nat’s POV, MC Rosie

One more example, an alternative narrative mode that I’ve never actually seen used, but I’ve always wanted to try, just for kicks.

“Way too Danny DeVito. I don’t believe he asked me out!” You were running on a fine buzz. Even though I could not see you, I could tell by the cadence of your voice. You were speaking too… loose.

Tom stood quietly behind me, but I knew your words were affecting him. How I got in the middle of this, I didn’t know. But I did know my best friend had a thing for my sister, and it wasn’t going to end up anywhere but in hell. I took another slice at the lettuce, holding the knife firmly, like an extension of my right hand. Slice-chop, slice-chop, smoothly and regularly, as it passed through the green leaves and hit the cutting board.

“I guess there’s something about me that draws guys like that,” you said. “What I wouldn’t do for an old-fashioned tall, dark, and handsome.” You chuckled.

Slice-chop, slice-chop.

Then something changed in your voice.

“A lot of girls like those big and strong types, I guess. But my tastes always ran elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that, you know.”

I didn’t know if there was any way to keep the situation from eventually blowing up in my face, but for now, if I could just put it off for a little while, that would make my life a little easier. I remembered our cousin Amy, who I knew you had been anxious to see. Dumping a handful of chopped lettuce into the salad bowl, I turned to you. “Rosie, did you see Amy? I think she wanted to talk to you.”

“Amy’s here?!” Your eyes widened.

“Just a few minutes ago,” I said. “She might be upstairs.”

“I’ll go find her.” You left, and I breathed a little easier.

“Look,” I said to Tom, “I get it. I’ve been there, too. It takes over your mind, and you can’t help it. But all she does is make you feel like shit, and I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t tell you the truth.”

Tom nodded, but I didn’t know whether he was really listening.

Still, I continued. “You have to drop it and just find someone else. She’s just— Well, she’s always been opinionated and flighty. You’re a good-looking guy, and I know loads of girls who would love to, get to know you better, if you know what I mean.”

This is most similar to First-person, Nat’s POV, but it’s written as a letter to Rosie, putting the reader in her place. The reader knows everything Nat knows, as he chooses to reveal it to Rosie, but the reader doesn’t necessarily know everything Rosie knows. In this scene, the narrator cannot reveal the silent interaction between Tom and Rosie that Nat didn’t see. So this extra knowledge (whatever Rosie knows that Nat doesn’t know or chooses not to reveal), if it’s important to the story, you have to let the reader in on it some other way.

One way to accomplish this, in this story, might be to write it as a series of letters between Nat and his sister Rosie. Of course, it would probably then be written in a different style, one that feels more like personal correspondence. I don’t know whether any novel has been written in this form before—probably yes, and probably a famous novel that I just am not remembering right now. Even if not, it might be fun to try, at least as an indie novel.

Keep writing!
-TimK

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

Catch me on:  my web site Facebook Twitter 

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