Narratology: Understanding Narrative Modes

To write fiction you must understand the following narrative modes and learn how to write well in each of them. As you write, if you ensure that you’re always in one specific mode, you’ll always know what you’re doing and why. You should always have a reason for switching modes.

By piecing together passages written in various modes, you can produce a tight, well-written novel.

The six narrative modes are briefly delineated and defined in this first table:

Narrative ModeSub-modeSub-sub-modeDefinition
DialoguedirectDirectly presents character’s speech in quotation marks
indirectSummarizes character’s speech
Thoughts, feelingsdirectstream of consciousnessDirectly presents character’s thoughts in first person
interior monologueDirectly presents thought as in direct speech
indirectnarrated monologueMix between interior monologue and psychonarration
psychonarrationNarrator reports character’s thoughts to reader in third person
ActionPresents real-time action and events in chronological order
DescriptioncharacterDescribes story people
placeDepicts story settings
thingDepicts objects
timePresents the season, time of day, or passage of time
ExpositionbackgroundIntroduces backstory or other information for the story to make sense
summaryReports events in a condensed narrative form
CommentNarrator evaluates story events or characters, shares observations or judgments

The following table fully defines the narrative modes, their sub-modes and, in some cases, their sub-sub-modes. From top to bottom, they progress from showing to telling. Examples are in purple text.

Narrative ModeSub-modeSub-sub-modeDefinition/ Example
DialoguedirectPresents the speech of characters directly, in quotation marks.

Use this mode to advance your plot, to pit opposing forces against each other.

“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m going to bed.”
indirectSummarizes the speech of characters.  The tense is changed from present to past, from past into past perfect and references to the first person are rendered in the third person.

Use this mode when a character explains something to another character when the reader doesn’t need to hear the exact words because it’s long and boring or routine or mundane, the exact words don’t really matter, or because the reader already knows the information.

She said she was tired and was going to bed.
Thoughts, feelingsdirectstream of consciousnessDirect presentation of a character’s thoughts in first person, usually without the logic of structure or punctuation, sometimes a jumbled sequence of associations, whether thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Often italicized.

Calm down, get a grip now… oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it?  A sort of… yawning, tingling sensation in my… my… well I suppose I’d better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway […] so let’s call it my stomach.
Thoughts, feelings (cont’d)direct (cont’d)interior monologueDirect presentation of thought as in direct speech.  Interior monologue is usually a longer passage of uninterrupted thought.  It is intended to present a character’s thoughts directly, imitating as much as possible the way the character might actually have thought his thoughts.  Thoughts are more coherent and structured. Sometimes italicized.

What is she doing up there? She’s always fumbling around in the attic, trying to find some memento from her college days, opening boxes, unwrapping nests of newspaper to find something to transport her into the past. I don’t understand what she sees in those things.
Thoughts, feelings (cont’d)indirectnarrated monologueThis is a mix between psychonarration and interior monologue.  The narrator often sets the scene but the character’s thoughts are reproduced directly and in a way the character would think, though the narrator continues to talk of the character in the third person. The syntax is less formal (incomplete sentences, exclamations, etc.) and the character’s mind style is reproduced more closely.  We hear a dual voice; the voices of the narrator and the character are momentarily merged.

This can create an impression of immediacy but it can also be used to introduce an element of irony, when the reader realizes that a character is misguided without actually being told so by the narrator.

What could she be doing up there, he wondered.  Probably trying to find some memento from her college days. He didn’t understand what she saw in those things.
Thoughts, feelings (cont’d)indirect (cont’d)psychonarrationThe narrator reports the character’s thoughts to the reader, representing them in third person.  The narrator remains in the foreground and may add some general observations (comment) not part of the character’s thoughts. We hear the narrator’s voice more than the character’s.

He wondered what she could be doing in the attic.  She spent a lot of time up there, reminiscing. He failed to understand what she saw in those things.
ActionUsed to present real-time action in the story.  Events are presented in strict chronological order, using action verbs.  Follow the pattern of action–result.

You will use this mode most in the writing of your novel.  Sometimes action is interspersed with dialogue and narration.

Jim climbed out of the car and strode toward the house through the dry, dead grass. He stepped onto the porch and banged on the dilapidated screen door.  He waited.
DescriptioncharacterRepresents objects in space (existents of the story), things that can be seen, heard or felt in some way. Character description describes story people.

One of these boxes was occupied […] by a stern-eyed man of about five-and-forty, who had a bald and glossy forehead, with a good deal of black hair at the sides and back of his head, and large black whiskers.  He was buttoned up to the chin in a brown coat; and had a large seal-skin travelling cap, and a great-coat and cloak lying on the seat beside him.  (Dickens, Pickwick Papers)
placeDepicts setting—either broadly, or specifically and up-close.

On one side of this broad curve in the straight seaboard of the Republic of Costaguana, the last spur of the coast range forms an insignificant cape whose name is Punta Mala. From the middle of the gulf the point of the land itself is not visible at all; but the shoulder of a steep hill at the back can be made out faintly like a shadow on the sky. (Conrad, Nostromo).
thingDepicts an object:

A brass plaque fastened to the front gate read:  “Financially supported by the Garvanter Historical Society.”
timeDepicts the season, time of day, or the passage of time.

Five o’clock had hardly struck on the morning of the nineteenth of January […] (Brontë, Jane Eyre)
ExpositionbackgroundUsed to introduce backstory information into the narrative, information the reader needs for the story to make sense.  It should be doled out sparingly only when readers need to know it.  It should be presented to the readers in a way they’re hardly aware they’re getting it:

• Reduce it as much as possible.

• Don’t repeat it (tell the reader once). If you must repeat it, expand on it.

• Keep the reader guessing about it.

• Chop it up (no big hunks of it).

• Convert it to other modes such as action or dialogue.

• Create a flashback, but only if necessary (to show the reader exactly how something before the story happened—who did what, who said what, what was thought and felt. Structure it as an action sequence.)

• Get it over with (get backstory out of the way by the end of Act 1).
Exposition (cont’d)summaryReports events in a condensed narrative form.  It is a telling mode that distances the reader and should be used sparingly.  Use this mode to:

• Report mundane story events (things not important to plot):

She went inside to freshen up and change. Then she skipped back out to the car.

• Condense story time (to mark a passage of time quickly in which nothing important to the story happens, or to report events that happen regularly or over a long period of time.

The last three weeks of school passed in a flurry of activity.

Each morning for the next week she saw him behind the security desk in the lobby, and every time she passed him he nodded once and gave her a big, handsome smile.

• Emphasize emotions instead of events:

During the month Kevin was in Cincinnati, Sherry wandered about the apartment, not doing much of anything except eating, sleeping and watching TV.  She had never been so lonely in her life.
CommentThe mediator (narrator) is most apparent. We find evaluations of the story’s events and characters, general observations or judgments.

In the absence of any precise idea as to what railways were, public opinion in Frick was against them; for the human mind in that grassy corner had not the proverbial tendency to admire the unknown, holding rather that it was likely to be against the poor man, and that suspicion was the only wise attitude with regard to it.  (Eliot, Middlemarch)

Evaluations can also be made less explicitly.  The choice of pejorative diction, a hint of irony or the use of modifiers (such as “unfortunately”) also work as comment.

Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks. […] He is a gentleman of strict conscience, disdainful of all littleness and meanness, and ready, on the shortest notice, to die any death you may please to mention rather than give occasion for the least impeachment of his integrity. He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man. (Dickens, Bleak House)

When mixing dialogue with a character’s feelings, thoughts, and gestures, use F-A-D order:

An icy chill passed through him.His hands began to shake.“But Helen died a year ago…”


The Marshall Plan Workbook, ch. 18.

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