Who Says: Styles of Narration


Okay, for the final academic post of the year, let’s plunge into some technical terms. Take a deep breath – this one gets a tad complicated.

Diegesis & Mimesis

It can get even more complicated than that but lets stay simple for now

It can get even worse than this but lets stay simple for now…

Choosing your narration style is absolutely critical to telling the story in the best possible way. I usually have to experiment with both first and third person for at least a chapter before I work out which one suits this particular tale better. With Corpus, I actually got about 20,000 words in before realising that 1POV wasn’t the best choice. Be open-minded, and willing to change. It’s for the good of the story.

Now, I previously thought that the options were basically limited to first person, third person (close or not), or omniscient. Strictly speaking, second-person exists but it’s frankly weird and the stories that it works for are so rare as to be on the list of endangered species. According to Jeremy Hawthorn, author of Studying the Novel, however, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Fair warning – a lot of this blog post will be based on what he had to say on the subject.

First, what is diegesis and mimesis? They’re Ancient Greek terms that, according to the Wikipedia definition, mean ‘narration’ and ‘imitation’. Or, to put it another way, ‘tell’ and ‘show’.

Mimesis shows rather than tells, by means of action that is enacted. Diegesis is the telling of the story by a narrator. The narrator may speak as a particular character or may be the invisible narrator or even the all-knowing narrator who speaks from “outside” in the form of commenting on the action or the characters. ~ Wikipedia

So, basically, diegesis involves a narrator of some kind to tell the story whereas mimesis doesn’t. Mimesis is therefore non-personified omniscient POV. You can have personified omniscient – where there’s an actual person who sees and knows all, and is telling the story – but again, it’s pretty rare. Given that this post is primarily about narration, we can happily forget about mimesis and concentrate on diegesis.

Within diegesis, Hawthorn breaks it down into three sub-types: extradiegetic, intradiegetic, and autodiegetic. Confused yet? Totally fair. I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.

  1. Extradiegetic: the narrator is apart from or in some way above the story they are narrating. Usually means it’s a second-hand account and the narrator isn’t a character in the main action. Frame narrators are often extradiegetic (see below).
  2. Intradiegetic: the narrator is involved in the story they are narrating, but not the central character. A lot of crime books have intradiegetic detective narrators, as the protagonist is usually either the victim, the survivor or the criminal.
  3. Autodiegetic: where the narrator is also the main character. Like ‘autobiography’.

Note that diegesis doesn’t just apply to 1POV. If you’re doing 3POV, you’ll still make these distinctions.

Frame Narration

A frame narrator is a third person recounting what has been told or is being told to them. It can vary in how it’s done – either with an introduction of the framing at the beginning and end of the story, or with narrator’s comments interspersed throughout. The advantage is that you get the personal and emotional touches of 1POV, but with added authorial reliability (see below). The risk is the loss of tension and immediacy. It’s a less common technique these days although, having said that, it’s how both The Imitation Game and Interview with a Vampire were done.

Walton is the frame narrator for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Walton is the frame narrator for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, repeating what Victor Frankenstein told him

Authorial Reliability

Or lack thereof. Can your readers trust the narrator? It’s not just a question of whether the narrator is actively lying or misleading – you also need to consider questions of bias, and what information the reader will therefore take away that isn’t necessarily the whole picture.

Source affects the selection , the authority and the attitude towards what is recounted of the narrative – and thus, of course, the effect on the reader or listener. ~ Hawthorn

The closer the reader is to the narrator, the less reliable that narration becomes. What you lose in reliability, you gain in manner and emotion. It’s a balance you as the writer need to decide.

First person narrative is limited in scope… [but] unlimited in manner… Third-person narrative can hardly be subjective, but is basically reliable in the sense of being authorial. ~ Dieter Meindl

Is the narrator at ease or under pressure? Are they telling the whole truth, the partial truth, lying through their teeth – what do they gain by each? What does the reader gain by your narrative choice? These are all important things to consider.

Audience Complicity

This sort of ties into authorial reliability, and is mainly applicable to 1POV. Who is the narrator talking to, and why? Because that will impact the amount and type of information given. It may sound like a stupid question, but think about it. In Jane Eyre, the narrator is clearly talking directly to the reader – “Reader, I married him.” That’s unusual but not unknown. It could be that this is a written confession/will/letter to another character, who is also the reader, and therefore being addressed directly with a specific purpose in mind. It could be a lengthy inner monologue, in which case it’s likely to be far more honest. The point is that the style will be different for each recipient.

Then there’s narrative complicity, which works in both 1POV and 3POV:

A process whereby the reader is sucked into complicity with the narrator. We are amused with the narrator at [character]’s obtuseness and self-importance, and as a result of such passages we are likely to be far more malleable in the hands of the narrator, far more willing to accept his value judgements and assessments of characters. ~ Hawthorn

Essentially, it’s possible the narrator is aware of the audience in some way, and brings them on-side. This improves the amount of trust the reader places in the narrator, and therefore allows the narrator to manipulate that trust more. This technique can also be used to impact how emotionally connected the reader feels with the narrator. Frank Underwood in House of Cards is a brilliant example of a protagonist deliberately building audience complicity:

Types of Discourse

This also ties into authorial reliability, in that it depends on how things are reported. There’s three basic types of discourse:

  1. Direct: ‘He said “I love her.”‘
  2. Indirect / Reported: ‘He said that he loved her.’
  3. Free Indirect: ‘He loved her.’

There’s an important difference between Free Indirect Discourse and the other two. Direct and Indirect both have the character vocalising his thoughts, and he could be lying. Free Indirect is much closer to inner monologue – it’s a statement of fact, and therefore carries much greater weight of authorial reliability. More than that, it can be omniscient. The character in question may not realise yet that he loved her, and thus the audience is given insight before the character achieves it.

[Free Indirect Discourse] allows writers to move backwards and forwards between narrative comment and character consciousness, often with no apparent seams. ~ Hawthorn

Principle of Inertia

Basically, a fancy way of saying that readers will attribute statements or dialogue to the last named subject, so be careful of your labelling. Also called obstination.

Unless we are given good reason for changing the way we attribute statements to a particular source or consciousness, we tend to go on attributing them to the one already established as the operative one. ~ Hawthorn

Right, that was a bit of a gallop through a whole bunch of technical terms. To be honest, knowing the names is totally unnecessary, except that they help differentiate between concepts.

Anyway, thanks for your continued interest, have a lovely Christmas break, and I’ll be back in 2016!


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