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:
- The narrator of the story - This corresponds to the first-person point of view.
- The reader of the story - This is known as second-person point of view.
- 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.
Who is the narrator talking to? This question really has three answers:
- Direct narration - The narrator can talk directly to the reader.
- 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.
- 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.
|Version||Form of narration|
How does the narrator speak? How does the narrator have character's speak? There are several ways speech is handled in narratives.
- 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.
- Reported speech - Opposite of direct speech. Here the narrator summarizes what others have said and done. We are retold a story.
- 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.
When does the story take place? Really there are only three answers to this question:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
Here is another video that works well as a stimulus for creative writing.
This lesson raises a few questions about the importance of teaching literary terminology, story telling and creative writing.
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.