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Narrative Mode

Stories have been told in countless ways, but what is narrative mode and how does it affect the way a story is told? The narrative mode is a key element of fiction that refers to the method and style of description used by the author to convey the story to the reader. In this article, we will explore the definition of narrative mode, provide examples of this mode of description in literature, and analyse the elements that make it such a vital part of storytelling.

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Narrative Mode


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Stories have been told in countless ways, but what is narrative mode and how does it affect the way a story is told? The narrative mode is a key element of fiction that refers to the method and style of description used by the author to convey the story to the reader. In this article, we will explore the definition of narrative mode, provide examples of this mode of description in literature, and analyse the elements that make it such a vital part of storytelling.

Narrative mode: definition

Modes of fiction refer to the various ways in which a story can be told. Narrative mode is the way in which a story is presented to the reader, and it can be classified into several types, including first-person, second-person, and third-person. The narrative mode of a story affects how the reader perceives the events in the story and the characters involved. Understanding the different narrative modes and their elements can help readers better appreciate and analyse works of fiction.

Narrative mode is an umbrella term for all the methods that writers utilise to tell a story. These are the processes by which the author must go through to develop their narration.

Narrative mode encompasses the ways in which a story is told. Writers must craft a structure that best suits their story and in the process, and they must prudently consider each element.

Elements of narrative mode

There are five major elements of narrative modes in fiction:

  1. Description

  2. Action

  3. Thought

  4. Dialogue

  5. Exposition

Within these processes, writers can make different choices to help tell their story, enhancing or emboldening various storytelling elements.

Narrative Mode, a woman writing in a book, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The purpose of narrative mode is to shape how a story is presented to the reader or audience.

Narrative modes of description

A description is key. It sets the scene for the narrative to unfold, exploring the details of how a thing, person or place appears, behaves or functions.

The function of description is to engage the readers' senses to immerse them into the fictional world of the characters.

Writers must make appropriate descriptive choices that best serve the story. This might include deciding what kind of language to use. For example, flowery, heavily metaphorical descriptions might suit some narratives, whereas subtle, succinct and realistic descriptions might suit others better. Even within the same narrative, writers must decide which scenes require more descriptive detail and which don't.

Narrative modes of action

The action of a story propels the plot forwards, fully capturing the attention of the reader.

Action is the depiction of the events as they happen in the story. Usually, this reveals aspects of the characters and drives the narrative.

Scenes with action might also include dialogue, description and other narrative modes. At the discretion of the author, various activities can be incorporated as they suit the story or elevate the action.

Narrative modes of dialogue

Dialogue is conversation between characters that usually happens within speech marks.

It is spoken action that can help move the plot forward, develop characters, or explore the world of the story.

Writers might choose to include dialogue to draw the reader's focus to a specific detail or interaction, adding further meaning when combined with other narrative modes, including action or description.

Dialogue can help create a sense of pace in a narrative. It often slows the plot down, giving the characters, and the readers, a chance to digest action that might have taken place.

Narrative modes of thought

When a character is by themselves, a writer might choose to illuminate their thoughts. This might also be called a monologue.

This works similarly to dialogue, serving even further to deepen the reader's understanding of the character.

This can be used in many ways for various narrative effects. For example, a writer might choose to contrast characters' thoughts with each other, exploring differences in personality and hinting at how that might affect the story.

Another way thought can be used is alongside dialogue. A writer might include the thoughts of the main character alongside simultaneous dialogue with another character. This helps to reveal details about a character's true feelings and intentions.

Narrative modes of exposition

Exposition is the telling of details and information.

Usually, exposition is used at the beginning of the narrative to provide context for the reader, telling rather than showing important details about the story or the characters.

It is also frequently used during transitions between scenes to explain changes in the story, including the passage of time, relocation, or the adoption of a different character's point of view.

Exposition allows writers to bypass the complete details of events that might be insignificant to the plot. Showing the full scene may be irrelevant and cumbersome, so writers might instead choose to summarise the important parts.

Narrative mode: examples

The best and most memorable stories include creative uses of narrative modes. One example of a unique narrative mode is a stream of consciousness, which presents the thoughts and feelings of characters in a continuous flow without a clear distinction between internal and external events. Another example is epistolary fiction, where the story is told through a series of letters or documents exchanged between the characters, often providing multiple perspectives and insights into the plot.

All stories contain elements of the narrative mode; however, it is the balance between these that makes them unique. Writers can decide what ratio suits their narrative style, determining how to incorporate the different modes together in the best way.

We can consider Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë as a primary example of a unique narrative mode.

Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë's 1847 novel Wuthering Heights incorporates all narrative modes in such complex, inventive ways that they all come together to tell the dramatic love story of Heathcliff and Cathy.

Emily Brontë deftly weaves together stories from different timelines, creating a multi-layered narrative that remains continuous throughout, despite the large temporal shifts.

Rather than exploring different viewpoints in the same timeline, Brontë toys with the narrative, building stories within other stories, each branching out further to explore the story and characters with more depth and complexity.

Exposition through Lockwood

Wuthering Heights operates as a frame narrative, largely told from the outside perspective of Lockwood, acting as a vessel for the reader themselves.

A frame narrative is a literary technique that tells a story within a story. The frame story is the outer narrative that sets the stage for another more emphasised narrative or multiple shorter stories.

Lockwood's story acts as the frame story for the novel. Brontë uses this as exposition for the main story of Heathcliff and Cathy, immediately making contextual details available but in a more interesting way.

Lockwood draws attention to the main character, Heathcliff, and the titular setting:

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house [...]

(Chapter 1)

Brontë introduces important details and information about the story to the reader through Lockwood's narration. Descriptions are incorporated to create an idea of a 'stormy' atmosphere, introducing the reader, through Lockwood, not just to the setting, but also to the mood of the narrative.

Nelly Dean's narration

Mr Lockwood's narration forms the outer structure of the novel; however, the primary story is relayed to him from the perspective of Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, who is recounting events as an eyewitness.

Nelly, unlike Lockwood, was present to observe the main events of the story and was involved in them. All descriptions, action and dialogue, therefore, are told through the lens of Nelly's narrative. To add to this, there are moments throughout the novel in which conversations and stories are told by other characters, adding another layer of narration to the story.

Constantly changing perspective destabilises the narrative, overwhelming the reader in the violent drama of the story.

Emily Brontë presents an incredibly creative use of narrative mode, creating a story that engages all its major elements in unique ways. The reader is immersed in the novel's shifting narratives but can still orient themselves in the world of the story due to Brontë's effective storytelling techniques.

Narrative Mode - Key takeaways

  • Narrative mode is the term for the methods writers use to tell a story.
  • Narrative modes help create structure within a narrative, making it easier to convey information to readers.
  • There are five key elements of narrative mode: description, action, dialogue, thought and exposition.
  • All five are included in all narratives, but the degree to which each is used is unique to the writer and the story.
  • Interesting uses of narrative modes can be seen in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847).

Frequently Asked Questions about Narrative Mode

Description, action, dialogue, thought and exposition.

Narrative modes are tools used by writers to tell a story. Description, action, dialogue, thought and exposition can be identified easily in a text.

Narration can occur through five major ways: description, action, dialogue, thought and exposition.

The narrative mode is the set of techniques used by fiction writers to tell a story.

One example of an element of narrative mode is dialogue.

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