Narration is the use of commentary, either written or spoken, to tell a story or “narrative.”
The narrative story is directed at an audience who is either reading the written narration or listening to it. The narrator, or person telling doing the narration, might be named or unnamed. They might be someone in the story or an omniscient figure whose only purpose is to convey information to the audience.
There are many different forms that narration can take, but it is a required element of all written stories. This includes poems, short stories, and novels. In other media, such as plays, films, etc, narration is optional. In these formats, narration might take away more than it adds.
Definition and Explanation of Narration
Narration is a crucial part of many written works. It includes who tells the story as well as how the story is told. The latter might be through a specific type of writing such as a stream of consciousness. There is no single type of narrator that fits all works. Some are more reliable than others, some fictitious, some factual, some known to the reader, and others not.
When seeking to understand narration, it is important to consider the narrative mode of a written work. This is the set of choices the writer makes when crafting the narrator and their narration. There are three parts of the narrative mode.
Narration Types and Narrative Modes
- Narrative point of view. This includes the perspective or voice of the narrator. It’s the way that the narrator refers to everyone in the story. It is used to help the reader understand whether or not the narrator is part of the story or if they’re separate and how much knowledge the narrator has about the events of the story. It includes first-person, second-person, and third-person narrations.
- First-person narrative point of view. The first-person narration means that the narrator is a part of the story and has relationships with the other characters in the story. It also helps bring the narrator closer to the reader. They acknowledge their existence and may or may not be able to witness everything happening in the story.
- Second-person narrative point of view. A second-person narrator means that the audience is involved as a character. They use pronouns like “you” and “your” and may or may not be literally addressing the audience.
- Third-person narrative point of viewA third-person narration involves the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they” and never second or first-person pronouns. It is the most common narrative mode because the narrator doesn’t have to be a part of the story. They’re only there to tell it.
- Narrative tense. This is the choice of grammatical tense, either past or present. This established whether the narrator is looking back on events or is narrating them as they happen.
- Narrative technique. Other methods used to help create the narrator’s perspective. This might be the story’s setting, the themes, and storytelling devices.
Examples of Narration in Literature
The Catcher in the Rye is a wonderful example of an unreliable, first-person narrator in the form of Holden Caulfield. Holden’s unreliability stems from the fact that he carries a great deal of anger with him throughout the narrative. He sees adults as phony, his friends as annoying and/or weak, and his life as fairly pointless. Here is a passage that demonstrates his first-person, unreliable narration:
[…] I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – […]
In this passage, which alludes to the title of the novel, Holden contemplates childhood, adulthood, and his role in the world.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s best-known novel and one of the most successful, if not the best, examples of stream of conciseness is found in Mrs. Dalloway. The novel follows Mrs. Dalloway while utilizing an omniscient third-person narration. It allows the reader to delve into the characters through dialogue, discourse, and their personal interior monologues. Here is a passage that represents this kind of narration:
She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.
In Coleridge’s most famous poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ the narrator uses the first-person past tense, within a frame narrative, to tell a harrowing story of his time at sea. Here are a few lines that demonstrate this narrative perspective:
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
Depending on how one reads the poem, the Mariner may or may not come across as an unreliable narrator whose mind has been scrambled by the loss of his crew and severe dehydration.
Related Literary Terms
- First Person Point of View: a literary style in which the narrator tells a story about him or herself.
- Second Person Point of View: a literary style in which the narrator tells a story about “you”.
- Third Person Point of View: a literary style in which the narrator tells a story about a variety of characters.
- Tone: how the writer feels about the text, at least to an extent. All forms of writing, aside from the academic have a tone of some sort.
- Unreliable Narrator: a narrator whose credibility is in doubt, or somehow compromised.
- Stream of Consciousness: a style of writing in which thoughts are conveyed without a filter or clear punctuation.