Writing Fiction & Poetry : How to Identify Narrative Style in Literature


What is narrative style in literature? It
is not to be confused with prose style which is a choice of words but narrative style is
the choice of who is going to be the narrator, who is going to tell the story? We have three
basic modes, first person, second person, third person, just like our favorite pronouns.
First person I tell the story, it is happening about me. In the second person not used very
often, you read the story and you are the protagonist. The narrator will say you get
out of bed, you go to the bathroom and so on. The most common is third person, he does
this, she does that, we look in effect, over the shoulder of the character but we’re not
actually inside the character’s head. We don’t see it through his eyes but rather as I said
over the shoulder. Now sometimes that’s a very intimate third person and it can also
be a very distant omniscient third person and an omniscient third person narrative,
the narrator knows what’s happening inside everybody’s heads. The narrator knows everything
that is going on and in an intimate third person we are looking over one person’s shoulder
and we know what that person knows but not the other stuff so for example in a mystery
story you will commonly know what the detective knows but nothing else. If you knew everything
already, it wouldn’t be a mystery. The other problem that we have to deal with is whether
we can trust the person who is telling the story. In most cases this is not much of an
issue but in a few, especially good stories we can’t believe what the narrator is telling
us. In “Lolita” for example the narrator, Humbard Humbard tells us at the beginning
he is a murderer and we know probably from the start we can’t trust what he says. He
is spinning everything to use a modern phrase to make himself look good. In the classic
story “Rip Van Winkle” the first great American short story we know the story Rip goes up
into the woods, into the hills, he sleeps for 20 years and by the wildest coincidence
he comes back several days after the wife whom he hated terribly dies but if we look
at the story carefully we realize he is lying. He is lying to us, specifically he is lying
to Dedrick Knickerbacker who writes down the story and believes all of it and swears that
it is true whose papers are then found by Washington Irving who is the actual author
of the story but we can’t understand the story completely until we understand that the narrator
is lying to us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *