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Q & A On Learning to Think About Narration in Literary Fiction To Write Better Stories

by William H. Coles


Thank you for the information in the essay Writing in Scene: A Staple for Reader Engagement in Fiction, for the information in all of them.

I would like to understand types of narrative within fiction. I have read the following:

Expositional Narrative: narrative by the author that reveals information about the setting, characters, etc, all necessary background.

Commentary Narrative: narrative by the narrator or author (3PPOV) who comments on the events or people of the story usually in reaction to a triggering force and reveals his/her reactions/observations. Narrative may be conceptual, introspective.

Anecdotal Narrative: narrative that relates a brief or long tale (past or present) or part of the story itself. This distinguishes it from scene narrative. Scenes always occur in fictive present. The camera is on; you are watching the characters as they act and talk (regardless of verb tense) as if they are actors in a play.

Pre-Scene Narrative: narrative that sets up the scene.

I would appreciate your elaboration on these narrative types. Are there other types? Sub-types?


William H. Coles REPLY

Thank you for reading and special thanks for the comment.

All you’ve said is accurate and useful. Rather than identify other sub types, however, let me present the way I think about this, which is like learning about a frog when it is live and whole rather than dissecting it in death into brain, gut, head, extremities, etc.–when it becomes no longer an integrated entity but separate parts.

I write and teach “literary-fiction” storytelling. Literature, for purpose of discussion, is creative writing considered to be of lasting artistic merit–of course there are many definitions and fiction is imagined story and characters.

Historically, successful literary stories engage readers. The writing creates a specific story-world that the reader feels a part of, and in this story world, imagined characters are as accepted by readers as credible and truthful for the story world, and stories are created with action, dramatic plots, emotional arcs, story structure that helps to propel the reader through the story specifically to create a memorable, enjoyable, and, in literature, enlightening experience about the nature of human existence.

John Gardner introduced the concept of the fictional dream, the idea that a writer creates a dream for the reader (volumes have been written on this) that is like diving into the oceanic world–in this metaphor, a fictional world–and not breaking the surface to emerge from story world to reader’s real world. In essence, if the reader’s story dream is broken too often by the writer, the effectiveness of the story and characterization in the story-world are damaged.

Lack of skillful narration is one of many ways a fictional dream is broken (others are non-sequiturs, lack of logic or credibility, grammar errors, misspellings, inaccurate word choice, etc.) as the narrator is telling story and creating story world through characters or speaking directly to reader.

An essential guide is to recognize that authors create imagined stories, narrators narrate (tell) stories, and characters act in stories. So, in telling a literary story, we think of the story as a unit that has most success in pleasing receptive readers by guidance using the great historic principles gleaned from the past—beginning, middle, end; credible reliable characterization for the story world; a feeling of story momentum by progression on a timeline; concrete rather than abstract prose; and a series of interrelated scenes that deliver setting, plot, characterization, and theme and meaning. As story evolves, characters, narrator, and author all have individual real-world views, ideation, and experiences.

The literary author must write with attention to time of the story moment, never the author’s (that’s memoir), and the involvement of narrator and character in that story moment. And there is always story information that is not in the worldview, experience, sensory stimulation, intellectual capacity of the character and the narrator is used to build characterization, develop plot, and the setting of the story world which would be impossible for the character. The trick for the author is to achieve delivery of story information without bringing attention to who is telling and therefore breaking the fictional dream.

Exposition, where background to the main conflict is introduced in fiction, is essential but is best when it doesn’t break the fictional dream. This is achieved best by showing mainly in scene action–with telling being secondary to creating story unity—that allows continuous reader engagement in the fictional world.

The author’s role in all of this can best be understood through reading parts of Virginia Woolf’s “Common Reader.” The author’s presence in a story is delivered by how the author creates the setting, characterization, and plot of the story as a whole; authors don’t insert themselves in the story as characters or narrators (that would be memoir, autobiography, essay, etc.). Incandescence is a useful concept for discovering the author’s personality characteristics through storytelling. As Woolf implies, Jane Austen is always present in Pride and Prejudice, but she is never in the drawing room.

It can become confusing without crisp thinking. A writer is creating a story with two major techniques, both necessary—showing and telling. There should be little or no author intrusion in the great literary story. Narrators are always present in some degree, but in the best fiction, narrator delivering the story by telling is minimized and the story—setting, characterization, plot, meaning—is delivered through character action, dialogue, internalization, in-scene development (and reflection) all though character point of perception in the moment.

Commentary, anecdotal material, are not helpful in maintaining story unity and momentum, and backstory, critical to storytelling, should be delivered subtly through front story in the timeline-progression.

Now, for narrative writer concepts, think like this. The story is being told by the narrator. Narrator and author often seem to be collapsed into one, as in 1st person point of view, but it should not be memoir as fiction. Instead, the author is creating a story with a distinct narrator intellect and personality telling as if this is his or her story. (When the author is telling the story from his or her world, remembering rather than creating, the writing is memoir or autobiographical, not wrong, but it denies imaginative characterization for literary fiction.

To keep the fictional dream, have characters and narrator perceive rather than just view, i.e. keep the reader immersed in scene rather than in a “theater seat” starring at a stage drama–show, don’t just tell; keep exposition immersed in story and dialogue; keep story line logical and credible; keep character desires and motivation logical for story; have character, and sometimes narrators, change in the way they perceive and think about the world.

Commentary is inherently judgmental and when delivered by a character or narrator is not effective. The goal is to let the writing and the storytelling stimulate the reader to make critical assessments through enlightenment rather than character or narrator telling.

So, I haven’t specifically answered your question about sub types. My purpose is to have you think about narration for the literary story as a culmination of creative choices that contribute to story unity, in which the elements of narration are embedded and not thought of as dissected parts from the whole.

All the best in your writing,
William H. Coles

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