Narrative Device: How do You Tell Your Story?
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As writers, we’re often concerned with how to structure our story, how to develop our character, and how we can build the best world possible.
With that, we can glance over something that’s as—if not more—important: How do we actually tell the story? Understanding and considering the way you tell the story is something you should definitely do.
So, in this article, I’ll talk about narrative device, the questions you should answer, the types of narrative devices, and how to pick one.
Watch this video below for info on Point of View, narrative device, and character goals. (Or watch it here.)
What is narrative device?
Narrative device is how you tell your story. It defined how the story is narrated.
There are many options for this. But to know which narrative device fits with your story, you need to understand three things:
Who is telling the story;
To Whom are they telling the story;
Why are they telling the story.
When you understand this, you can choose the most effective way to communicate your story to the reader. It also helps you determine which bits are relevant to telling your story. In this way, it also helps you develop your voice.
Let’s consider each of the above points before we dive into the different narrative devices.
Who is telling the story is tied to the POV. If you’ve chosen first person POV, the who is probably the protagonist (although you could also pick a secondary main character). Or you can have two or more people who tell the story.
If you’ve chosen third person, your who might not be the protagonist but an outside narrator. Who is this narrator? Are they objective about the events? Or are they very much involved? Do they hold specific views that bleed into the story?
Getting more precise about your who will help you understand how your chosen narrator will tell this story (aka, it’ll help you develop your voice).
Once you understand who tells your story, consider to whom they’re telling it. And by this, I don’t just mean “readers who enjoy an adventure story.” That may be to whom you are telling the story. Not who your narrator is telling it to.
To illustrate the importance of getting this right, let’s consider Bridget Jones’ Diary. She’s telling her story to herself. She’s keeping track of her progress. And because she’s telling it to herself intending to improve (the why), she’s brutally honest.
Now consider if instead, she would’ve told that same story to her child. Do you think she would’ve been as honest? Or do you think she would’ve left parts out, making herself seem better?
Some examples of the “to whom” are:
While the who helps you understand the tone of voice, the whom helps you figure out which bits of the story are important and which aren’t in the light of the audience. Again, it’s a part of how you’re telling the story.
Finally, understand why your narrator is sharing this story. What reason do they have? This will help you get even clearer about what’s important within your story. It aids in your telling.
We tell stories for a certain reason. Which means your narrator has a reason as well.
Some examples are:
To document the history;
To tell how someone’s parents met;
To give warning to others finding themselves in a similar position;
To give hope to those who feel as the protagonist did.
Note that the why, whom, and who don’t have to be apparent within the story. As long as you know the answers, it will shine through in your writing.
Now that you know the answers, you can consider the different ways you can tell your story and which one would be the most effective.
Related: Top 5 Writing & Editing tools
The how: Different narrative devices
The most common narrative device by far. All events follow a chronological time order. This device can also include flashbacks, memories, and dreams to show information from the past. If you’re a beginner writer or don’t want to experiment with narrative devices, you can never go wrong with this one.
This can be a reversed chronological narrative, where the story starts at the end and then goes backward. This is extremely uncommon.
More common are stories that sometimes open in the middle and then work their way to the end, while simultaneously weaving in the events that lead up to the middle. You can argue that this is still chronological, as the events within each “timeline” still follow each other chronologically. However, I feel it’s more distinct from a chronological narrative.
If you think it might be interesting to play with time within your story, then this could be a good pick.
Breaking the fourth wall
This one is also pretty common. The narrator or some characters address the reader directly. For instance, the narrator talks to the reader (perhaps even saying something like “dear reader”) to explain certain things or give their opinion about something.
Epistolic or diary
This narrative device comprises letters, diary pages, or any other types of documents to tell the story.
An oral history narrative device is part of this as well. This means that an oral telling replaces the letter or diary.
This is a story within a story. This means that, as you’re reading one story, another related story is being told within that story. You can even go further than that, using a story within a story within a story. Yes, it can get complicated.
If you’re looking to challenge yourself, this can be a great narrative device if done effectively.
Stream of consciousness
This is a type of literary style. The narrative here is within the first person narrator’s consciousness. Meaning that the reader is placed inside the thoughts and perceptions of the main character.
This can also work well with second person POV to position the reader into the character’s persona.
Stream of consciousness can be a bit much. It’s rarely used in genre fiction. But if you want to put a more literary touch to your writing, you could practice with this device.
Related: What is the theme of a story?
Can you pick more than one narrative device?
Yes, you can.
For instance, you can tell both a chronological story and break the fourth wall. Or you can write one chapter in stream of consciousness while the rest of your chapters follow a chronological form.
Picking a narrative device
It’s always good to read books within your genre to get a feel for the narrative devices they use. This will be what readers expect.
However, if your eye has fallen on a particular narrative device, and you want to experiment a little, there’s nothing wrong with that. It can work out great!
When you choose to do that, though, study that narrative device thoroughly. Practice writing it with short stories or write a few test scenes until you get the hang of it.
If you need more guidance with POV, read this article.