I learnt about narrative modes pretty much on day one of my two-year creative writing course. All ‘narrative modes’ means is the different ways of telling a story. They're the techniques – the building blocks, if you like – for presenting your world, characters, themes and ideas.
Whether you’re writing a 90k-word novel or a 100-word flash fiction piece, your story will most typically be woven into existence using five key elements.
The five narrative modes (ways of telling a story) are:
1.) Dialogue – talking and that.
2.) Description – showing how objects, settings and characters look, smell, feel, sound and. . . taste.
3.) Action – characters doing stuff.
4.) Thought – listening in on characters’ inner worlds. (May be different from their dialogue, which creates lovely, juicy tension.)
5.) Exposition – background info on character and setting. (Could be backstory, could be setting up future action.)
Who cares about narrative modes?
I like sitting down and tapping out a scene to see where it goes as much as the next pantser, but there are certain gifts that only come when we stop to understand how to use these narrative modes.
All stories employ them, but how writers use narrative modes varies. Within a particular scene, or even paragraph or sentence, you will often use more than one.
The weaving in of the different narrative modes in creative ways is where things get interesting, because you can play and be creative, flex your style and writing flair. You can break the rules. You can make a point.
That’s why we writers care about narrative modes.
How to use narrative modes to hone your creative writing
It’s pretty standard to use dialogue alongside the other narrative modes in a scene or paragraph, e.g. when describing a character’s body language and showing them in action while they speak.
But mixing it up to create meaning is where the fun’s at. Take Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Woolf uses narrative modes innovatively to represent human consciousness and our simultaneous experiences of the world around us.
She uses the narrative modes to weave in characters’ less conscious perceptions alongside their conscious thoughts. We’re privy to the different characters’ experience of their world through thought, dialogue, exposition, action and description in a way we’re not used to. This can be seen right down at sentence level.
You only have to go as far as the first page to see this playing out:
How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, ‘Musing among the vegetables?’ – was that it? – ‘I prefer men to cauliflowers’ – was that it?
That’s one sentence(!) and you can see all five narrative modes employed in the most inventive ways.
Woolf stretches to breaking point all the usual boundaries around how to use narrative modes. And it works. Better than that – it’s exhilarating, captivating, dizzying at times, but always innovative and interesting.
How to be Virginia Woolf
(Just kidding: you do you.)
As a creative writer, it’s a good idea to think about the way you’re using the different narrative modes when in editing mode. Could you add a bit of interior thought here that would create tension? Could you weave in some exposition to delay action over there?
Can you combine and weave in the narrative modes in ways that make meaning, speak to your themes, develop your characters?
The good news is that for most writers, choosing when and which narrative modes to use improves with practice.
Also, if you’ve read as much and for as long as most writers, you’ll be flexing your creativity around narrative modes while writing without even thinking about it.
Still good to know though, right?