Narrative technique

Have you ever read a story of which you already knew the ending? Why can such a story still be enjoyable? Often times, how a story is told is more important that what is told. Writers use narrative technique to deliver a story. Interesting narratives make for interesting reads. In short narrative technique consists of four components: point of view, narration, speech and tense. We can understand the importance of all four and how they function by asking a few questions:

Point of view - Who tells the story?

Narration - Who is the narrator speaking to?

Speech - How do the narrator and the characters of a story speak?

Tense - When did the events of a story happen?

Writers can accomplish a lot with these four tools. In this lesson we will see how one story can told in multiple ways using these four tools. The texts are taken from Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau. You can split up the work among four groups, but eventually everyone should have experience working with each aspect of narrative technique. Each aspect is accompanied by a printable worksheet. By the end of this lesson, you should be able to discuss narrative technique using various literary terms, which ties in to the third learning outcome for Part 4.

Point of view

Who is telling the story? This question can only really have one of three answers:

  1. The narrator of the story - This corresponds to the first-person point of view.
  2. The reader of the story - This is known as second-person point of view.
  3. Someone else, an outsider looking in - This is what we call third-person narration or point of view.

Below you see three versions of the same story. Which is told in the first, second and third person? What is the effect of telling this story differently? In the table below, describe the effects of each point of view.

Point of view

Version Point of view
1)
One day, at about midday, I got onto an S bus which was nearly full. In an S bus which was nearly full there was a rather ridiculous young man. I got into the same bus as he, and this young man, having got into the same nearly full S bus before me, at about twelve noon, was wearing on his head a hat which I found highly ridiculous. I, the person who happened to be in the same bus as he, on the S line, one day, at about twelve noon.
First person - The story is told in such a way that the narrator is at the center of all action. The effects of telling the story this way is that the reader senses the narrator's frustration and outrage.
2)
On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone's been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it
Third person - The story feels like a series of notations. The events are unfolding before the reader's eyes. We trust the narrator's understanding of the events.
3)
When midday strikes you will be on the rear platform of a bus which will be crammed full of passengers amongst whom you will notice a ridiculous juvenile: skeletal neck and no ribbon on his felt hat. He won't be feeling at his ease, poor little chap. He will think that a gentleman is pushing him on purpose every time that people getting on or off pass by. He will tell him so but the gentleman won't deign to answer. And the ridiculous juvenile will be panic-stricken and run away from him in the direction of a vacant seat.
Second person - Placing the reader in the story as an agent is rather engaging. 'You' feel the nervous and uneasy about this standing next to this 'chap'.

Narration

Who is the narrator talking to? This question really has three answers:

  1. Direct narration - The narrator can talk directly to the reader.
  2. Frame narration - A form of direct narration, this is where the narrator tells us someone else's story. Although the story is technically told in the first person, we see more of the third person.
  3. Indirect narration - The narrator may not be talking to us. The narrator may be talking to a nebulous, or absent audience, telling for the sake of telling a story.

Read the following three versions of the Raymond Queneau story and state which form of narration is used in each. Comment on the effects of each.

Narration

Version Form of narration
1)
Let me tell you about this incident: On the S bus, in the rush hour there was a chap of about twenty-six. He had a soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon. His neck too long, as if someone had been tugging at it. People were getting off. The chap in question got rather annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accused him of jostling him every time anyone went past. He had a snivelling tone which was meant to be aggressive. When he saw a vacant seat he threw himself onto it. It made a lasting impression on me. I'll always associate those hats with rude people.

Frame narration - The story starts and ends with the first person, but everything in between is about a third person. This feels like an anecdote. There is something about someone else's story that affects the narrator. He shares this kind of 'life lesson' with us.
2)
How tightly packed in we were on that bus platform! And how stupid and ridiculous that young man looked! And what was he doing? Well, if he wasn't actually trying to pick a quarrel with a chap who - so he claimed, the young fop! - kept on pushing him! And then he didn't find anything better to do than to rush off and grab a seat which had become free! Instead of leaving it for a lady!

Direct narration - We feel like the narrator is talking directly to us. He makes a lot of exclamations. Again, he sounds defensive and angry.
3)
Midday was struck on the clock. The bus was being got onto by passengers. They were being squashed together. A hat was being worn on the head of a young gentleman, which had was encircled by a plait and not by a ribbon. A long neck was sported by the young gentleman. The man standing next to him was being grumbled at by the latter because of the jostling which was being inflicted on him by him. As soon as a vacant seat was espied by the young gentleman, it was made the object of his precipitate movements and it became sat down upon.
Indirect narration - This is a rather ridiculous version of the story because everything is written in the passive form. There are no agents. We do not know whom the narrator is or to whom he is talking. This latter aspect is what makes it an example of indirect narration.

Speech

How does the narrator speak? How does the narrator have character's speak? There are several ways speech is handled in narratives.

  1. Direct speech - The characters speak for themselves. Direct speech includes the use of dialogue and quotations. We hear the character's speak directly. Nothing is summarized for us.
  2. Reported speech - Opposite of direct speech. Here the narrator summarizes what others have said and done. We are retold a story.
  3. Free indirect speech - This is a clever device typical of third person limited narration, where the narrator slips from telling us about the character's thoughts to simple writing the character's thoughts.

Read three versions of the Raymond Queneau story below and state which form of narrative speech is being used. Comment on the effects of each style on the reader.

Narrative speech

Version Narrative speech
1)
Dr. Queneau said that it had happened at midday. Some passengers had got onto the bus. They had been squashed tightly together. On his head a young man was wearing a hat which was encircled by a plait and not by a ribbon. He had a long neck. He had complained to the man standing next to him about the continual jostling which the latter had been inflicting on him. As soon as he had noticed a vacant seat, said Dr. Queneau, the young man had rushed off towards it and sat down upon it.
Reported speech - This version of the story sounds like a detective's report. It sounds like Dr. Queneau was interviewed, and now the interviewer is retelling us his story. This creates an emotional distance between the reader, the narrator and the main character, Dr. Queneau.
2)
I get on the bus.
"Is this the one for the Porte Champerret?"
"Cantcher read?"
"Sorry."
He grinds my tickets on his stomach.
Ee yar."
"Thanks."
I look around me.
"I say, you."
He has a sort of cord round his hat.
"Can't you look what you're doing?"
He has a very long neck.
"Oh look here, I say."
Now he's rushing to get a free seat.
"Well well."
I say that to myself.
Direct speech - We as readers overhear the characters as they speak. The characters speak for themselves. The narrator is somewhat involved in narrating the story, but the dialogue is almost like that of a drama. We are even asked to ascertain who says what. This kind of speech is very
3)
The man with the chord on his hat stood tall and proud on the bus. His neck was long, longer than most people's. Damn these people! Why must they all travel at this hour? As passengers came on and off, he had to step aside. Every time he nudged up against something, or was it someone? A voice exclaimed, "Must you do that?" The nerve of him! There, a seat freed up and the man with the chord could sit down. Peace at last. Never mind the old woman. (Written by Brad Philpot after Raymond Queneau)
Free indirect speech - Although the narrator tells us the story in the third person, we get to hear the main character's thoughts. No quotation marks are used, but they could have been placed around several lines such as 'peace at last.' The effect of free indirect narration is that the reader feels sucked into the character's life from an emotionally detached vantage point.

Tense

When does the story take place? Really there are only three answers to this question:

  1. Past - The story is told in the past tense. Since events are already over, the narrator can decide in which order to tell them and which events are most important.
  2. Present - In the present tense, event unfold before the reader's eyes. The narrator is just as surprised by the events as the reader and has no knowledge of where the story is going. Sometimes the story really took place in the past but is told in the present for dramatic effect. This is called the historical present tense.
  3. Future - Sometimes entire narratives are about events that will happen in the future. These take the form of predictions or instructions.

Read these three versions of Raymond Queneau story below and state which tense is used in each story. Comment on the effects of verb tense on the reader of each story.

Narrative tense

Version Narrative tense
1)
I got into the Porte Champerret bus. There were a lot of people in it, young, old, women, soldiers. I paid for my ticket and then looked around me. It wasn't very interesting. But finally I noticed a young man whose neck I thought was too long. I examined his hat and I observed that instead of a ribbon it had a plaited cord. Every time another passenger got on there was a lot of pushing and shoving. I didn't say anything, but all the same the young man with the long neck started to quarrel with his neighbour. I didn't hear what he said but they gave each other some dirty looks. Then the young man with the long neck went and sat down in a hurry.

Past tense - The story may have happened long ago. Because it is told in the past tense, the narrator can comment on the importance of the events. They are told in chronological order in a rather boring way.
2)
At midday the heat coils round the feet of bus passengers. If, placed on a long neck, a stupid head adorned with a grotesque hat should chance to become inflamed, then a quarrel immediately breaks out. Very soon to become dissipated, however, in an atmosphere too heavy to carry ultimate insults very vividly from mouth to ear. Thus one goes and sits down inside, where it's cool.

Present tense - This version is very focused on the here and now. Sense perception is very important in this version of the story.
3)
When midday strikes you will be on the rear platform of a bus which will be crammed full of passengers amongst whom you will notice a ridiculous juvenile: skeletal neck and no ribbon on his felt hat. He won't be feeling at his ease, poor little chap. He will think that a gentleman is pushing him on purpose every time that people getting on or off pass by. He will tell him so but the gentleman won't deign to answer. And the ridiculous juvenile will be panic-stricken and run away from him in the direction of a vacant seat.
Future - The effect of telling the story in the future is that reader feels part of the story and engaged. It sounds like a prediction or a prognosis. The narrator sounds like a fortune-teller.

Check for understanding

Now that you are familiar with each aspect of narrative technique, try applying this knowledge to a text. Try writing a paragraph on narrative technique in preparation for an oral commentary or a Paper 1 commentary. Below is a text that is rich in narrative technique, the opening lines from The Gods Must Be Crazy by Jamie Uys. You can read this text and watch the video clip. What are the effects of narrative technique on the text's audience? Write a paragraph that comments on all four aspects of narrative technique: point of view, narration, speech and tense.

  The Gods Must Be Crazy
Jamie Uys
1989

NARRATOR: It looks like a paradise, but it is the most treacherous desert in the world: The Kalahari. After the short rainy season there are many water holes, and even rivers. But after a few weeks, the water sinks away into the deep Kalahari sand. The water holes dry, and the rivers stop flowing. The grass fades to a beautiful blond colour that offers excellent grazing. But for the next nine months, there'll be no water to drink. So most of the animals move away, leaving the blond grass uneaten.

Humans avoid the Kalahari like the plague because man must have water. So the beautiful landscapes are devoid of people. Except for the little people of the Kalahari. Pretty, dainty, small and graceful, the Bushmen. Where any other person would die of thirst in a few days they live quite contentedly in this desert. They know where to dig for roots and bugs and tubers and which berries and pods are good to eat. Of course they know what to do about water. In the early morning, you can collect dewdrops from leaves that were carefully laid out the previous evening. Or a plume of grass can be a reservoir. If you have the know-how, a clump of twigs can tell you where to dig and you come to light with an enormous tuber. You scrape shavings off it with a stick that is split for a sharp edge. You take a handful of the shavings, point your thumb at your mouth and squeeze. They must be the most contented people in the world. They have no crime, no punishment, no violence, no laws no police, judges, rulers or bosses. They believe that the gods put only good and useful things on the earth for them. ln this world of theirs, nothing is bad or evil. Even a poisonous snake is not bad. You just have to keep away from the sharp end. Actually, a snake is very good. In fact, it's delicious. And the skin makes a fine pouch.

They live in the vastness of the Kalahari in small family groups. One family of Bushmen might meet up with another once in a few years. But for the most part, they live in complete isolation unaware there are other people in the world. In the deep Kalahari, there are Bushmen who have not heard of civilized man. Sometimes they hear a thundering sound when there are no clouds. They assume the gods have eaten too much and their tummies are rumbling. Sometimes they can even see the evidence of the gods' flatulence. Their language has an idiosyncrasy of its own. It seems to consist mainly of clicking sounds. They're very gentle people. They'll never punish a child or even speak harshly to it. So the kids are extremely well behaved. Their games are cute and inventive. When the family needs meat the hunter dips his arrow in a brew that acts as a tranquilliser. When he shoots a buck, it feels a sting and the arrow drops out. The buck runs away, but soon it gets drowsy and it stops running. After a while, it goes to sleep. The hunter apologizes. He explains that his family needs the meat. The characteristic which really makes them different from all other races is that they have no sense of ownership at all. Where they live, there's nothing you can own. Only trees and grass and animals. These Bushmen have never seen a stone or a rock in their lives. The hardest things they know are wood and bone. They live in a gentle world, where nothing is as hard as rock, steel or concrete.

Only miles to the south, there's a vast city. And here you find civilized man. Civilized man refused to adapt himself to his environment. Instead he adapted his environment to suit him. So he built cities, roads, vehicles, machinery. And he put up power lines to run his labour-saving devices. But he didn't know when to stop. The more he improved his surroundings to make life easier the more complicated he made it. Now his children are sentenced to years of school, to learn how to survive in this complex and hazardous habitat. And civilized man, who refused to adapt to his surroundings now finds he has to adapt and re-adapt.

Sample student response

Point of view
The narrator speaks in the third-person omniscient point of view. He knows the history of 'civilized' man. He knows all about how the bushmen survive in the Kalahari Dessert. It is tempting to say that the narrator speaks from the third-person limited point of view, because he seems to speak from the perspective of the bushmen. But 'omniscient' does not always mean 'objective'. We must also be careful with sentences like "Sometimes they hear a thundering sound when there are no clouds. They assume the gods have eaten too much and their tummies are rumbling." This sounds like the limited perspective. But notice the word "assume". The narrator knows that the thundering sound is an airplane, and he knows what kinds of assumptions the Bushmen make. Thus it is third-person omniscient, a narrative technique that is characteristic of nature documentaries.

Narration
Like point-of-view, the style of narration is also deceptive. You may think that this is an example of indirect narration. After all indirect narration is when the narrator shows us action. Film is thus almost always indirect narration. But there is a problem here. The voice over is telling us how to interpret the events that we see. He calls the Kalahari "treacherous", the Bushmen's games "cute" and the civilized world "complicated". These are all his opinions that he tells us directly. Thus we are looking at direct narration. The voice-over eventually stops and characters begin to develop without him telling us how to interpret them. And so, after the initial 10 minutes, the movie slips into indirect narration. Here too we should remember that Uys also made nature documentaries, a genre where voice-overs (indirect narration for film) is a common technique. Again an example of how the context of composition influenced the writer's choice of style and structure.

Speech
There are examples of all three types of speech in the video clip. The narrator summarizes a lot of action for the viewer, which is characteristic of reported speech. "When he shoots a buck, it feels a sting and the arrow drops out. The buck runs away, but soon it gets drowsy and it stops running. After a while, it goes to sleep. The hunter apologizes. He explains that his family needs the meat." The narrator summarizes how the buck feels and how the Bushman apologizes to the buck. In the video a dialogue begins between two people in the editing room of a newspaper office. The same woman begins to talk to another colleague at lunch. These conversation are examples of direct speech. Film usually relies on direct speech exclusively. Unique to this film, though, is the use of free indirect speech, which is where we see that the narrator is biased towards the Bushmen. He goes from third person, "Of course they know what to do about water," to second person, "In the early morning, you can collect dewdrops from leaves that were carefully laid out the previous evening." And finally we see free indirect speech, "Or a plume of grass can be a reservoir." The Bushmen see a plume of grass as a reservoir. We probably do not. This is where a context is created in which the narrator is quite biased.

Tense
The narrator tells the story in the present tense. For example he states, "It looks like a paradise, but it is the most treacherous desert in the world." The focus is very much on the here and now, which is also characteristic of nature documentaries, where viewers watch scenes unfold before their eyes. Even after summarizing the history of mankind, who "refused to adapt," he switches back into the present tense, "Now his children are sentenced to years of school."

Creative writing!

Perhaps the best way to develop an understanding of narrative technique is to try a bit of creative writing. You will watch a short music video that functions as a stimulus for the writing process. You can write alone or in groups. You can write with or without a word limit. Ideally the stories that you write should be read out loud in class, so that others can comment on the effects of the narrative techniques, including the use of tense, speech, narration and point of view.

  Save the world tonight
Swedish House Mafia
2011

Sample story
Heidi Andrews, Helen Cass, Kenney Macrae
St. Clare's workshop, June 2012

Beautifully groomed, immaculate and poised, the super dog squad was ready for another night of action. Fido, the supervisor was the one to take the call, urgently asking for volunteers:

“ Who is going to save the world tonight?”

The first to volunteer were the Cute sisters: Claudio and Claudia “Ooh! we’ll go, we’ll take the car-jacking. We’ll save the world!”

Bonzo, the elegant afghan, uncrossed his paws.
“Mine’s the damsel” he volunteered.

‘Just the thing for an elegant female in need,’ thought Fido approvingly, looking towards Butch the terrier Lady lab.

Never one for self restraint, quivering with excitement, Butch leapt up. “Hey man, leave it to me. I’m your Bitch”.

And so for yet another evening of human depravity and criminality, super dog squad proved to be the saviours of the world.

Here is another video that works well as a stimulus for creative writing.

  Validation
Hugh Newman
2008

Teacher talk

This lesson raises a few questions about the importance of teaching literary terminology, story telling and creative writing.

Literary terms, story telling and creative writing

What is the place of literary terminology in the English A: Language and Literature classroom? While we would like to see students use terms like 'free indirect speech', teaching literary terminology should not be a goal in itself. Instead, students should be able to comment on how different writing styles and forms create different effects on their audiences.

Many teachers give students a glossary of literary terms and ask them to memorize them for a test. While this is effective as a short-term memory exercise, this knowledge will not 'sink in' or reside in long-term memory if students are not regularly faced with a range of literary texts. Rather than giving a list of literary terms out of context, try giving a few short stories in which only three of those terms are relevant. The activity that involves the stories of Raymond Queneau is perfect examples of how a range of literary texts can be offered to achieve an appreciation of literary devices. Rather than only focusing on (only) 4 works at Standards Level and 6 works at Higher Level, it is worth exploring several smaller works as 'side dishes'. This will help develop an appreciation for literature.

Story telling, after all, is an art form. If we are to foster an appreciation of this art form, then one has to engage in the art of story telling. This is where the importance of creative writing comes in. Imagine you gutted your entire garden so that all that was left was a patch of dirt. Chance are high that the next time you walked around the block, you would look very carefully at your neighbor's gardens to gain inspiration and ideas. How do we expect students to notice the subtleties of literature, if they have never taken a stab at writing it? Ernst Hemingway once said that literary critics are those who stand on the shore and watch in envy as true writers take the risk of sailing.

Towards assessment

Individual oral commentary - On your individual oral commentary, be sure to comment on the use of narrative technique. Every text has a narrator and a voice. How are these used to construct meaning? What are the effects of narrative technique on the reader?

Remember: Although the creative writing activity from this lesson may be fun and engaging, it does not qualify as a potential written task 1. Just because you have studied narrative technique in class does not mean that any short story can be submitted as a written task 1. Not only must you demonstrate your understanding of form, but you must demonstrate your understanding of content, meaning that there must be some reference to a text that you studied.