Choosing Your Narrative Device

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To write a story that sells, we must write a story that works and delivers a satisfying reader experience.

To write a story that works, we focus on the global genre because that’s what your story is about. A story that works is one that meets reader expectations for one of the twelve content genres, including conventions and obligatory moments. Genre conventions show you the kind of arena where your story events happen, the types of characters who inhabit the story world, and the catalysts you need to create to create the conflict we see in the genre. The obligatory moments for the global genre show you what must happen to satisfy readers, a series of unexpected events, revelations, decisions, and actions.

To deliver a satisfying reading experience, we pay attention to the point of view or vantage point of the story because that’s how we present the story to the audience. Point of view choices include first, second, and third, past, present and future. In my Story Grid Beat Point of View: Why Narrative Perspective Can Make or Break Your Story, I write about the point of view choices and help to show some of the effects we can create with them. 

There are loads of great choices when it comes to how we present a story to our audience. We can simulate a wide range of human experience with simple variations on this handful of choices. It’s wonderful to have options, but it can feel overwhelming, especially when we don’t know how or why one option is better for our story than another. 

Global content genres give us useful constraints to help us choose from among the twelve. We can examine our story’s premise (an arena with an agent with a need-based problem) alongside Story Grid’s Four Core Framework and see which of the core elements are the best fit: the need at stake, the universal human value that changes, and the emotion evoked in the core event

But what kind of constraints do we have when it comes to how we present the story? That’s the big-picture problem. If we take it down to the micro tasks of writing a novel, we might ask, how do we choose the words that transmit the vision of the story in our minds to the mind of the reader? 

Technical point of view choices alone don’t shed a lot of light on how to choose. But a solid narrative device provides constraints to help you choose your story’s point of view so you can deliver a satisfying experience of the story. 

Why is that? The simple answer is that your narrative device gives you a story-based reason to decide the way you present a story to your reader.

POINT OF VIEW

Point of view is “the vantage point the writer uses to tell the reader a Story.” This tells us from where and when the story is presented relative to the story events. For example, a story written in the first person, past tense is usually one from the vantage point of a character who participated in the story events, and those events happened in the past. Third person narration is usually from a source outside the events of the story. 

Narrative device is a fictional lens we create and through which we present the story events. The lens tells us the who or what is presenting the storyin what form, why, when, and where of the storytelling (as opposed to the story). You might say it’s a story you tell yourself (and sometimes the reader) to explain the existence of your story.

All the elements of point of view and narrative device are interconnected and affect one another—and your global genre. 

To choose your narrative device, you can begin by considering who or what is in the best position to present the story. Another option is to look at narrative types. 

NARRATIVE TYPES

Like scene types, narrative types describe basic situations, but narrative types are specific to human communication. 

Thirteen Types of Narrative by Wallace Hildick is an excellent book that explores different narrative types with sample scenes using the same basic story situation. In this book, each narrative type includes a basic situation and the point of view choice for example, “Listen While I Tell You” is written in first person past tense as if spoken and “Dear Me” is first person written in the form of a diary that might include past events and present thoughts. 

The situations presented in the book are useful for the vast majority of stories. But it got me thinking about how we can make them more specific and provide more points of entry. Just as a writer’s initial inspiration for a story could be almost any aspect of the story, the right narrative device might come from any element related to the communication.

Remember that narrative device is its own story or situation that involves communication. It doesn’t need to be very complicated, but specifics tend to be more useful. Hildick’s narrative types provide the form of communication related to point of view, but not the purpose. 

Communication involves both how and why because humans communicate to attain or obtain something for example to convince, to express, to inform, to entertain. If we combine form and purpose, we provide constraints that help us relate the narrative device to a very specific human experience that we can simulate with our point of view choice.

FORM

When it comes to the form of communication, we have three basic situations that come immediately to mind: writing, speaking, thinking. A novel is translated into writing, but we can choose another narrative device, as if it’s spoken or thought. 

Writing can take the form of a diary, letters, a collection of newspaper articles, written reports, or tweets. It can be almost any written form you choose. The heartbreaking six-word short story often attributed to Ernest Hemingway takes the form of an ad “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” 

Speech can take the form of a public speech, a meeting, or a private conversation, with a clear audience or not. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe is an example of a story that creates the effect of a spoken confession.

Thoughts can take the form of stream of consciousness like “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen or central consciousness like The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. 

Many stories include combinations of these forms, in which case, the writer usually has in mind a global narrative device that makes sense of the subordinate narrative forms. This is the case in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling. The global narrative device appears be a wizard with a Pensieve—the magic device that allows one character to experience the memories of others—and access to a vast library of memories. 

PURPOSE

I’ve written about purpose in the past, linking the narrative device to the controlling idea of the story. But I want to make the purpose more abstract here and think about it the way we think about the essential tactic in scene analysis. 

The essential tactic in a scene can be expressed as a scene goal, or what the character wants to accomplish, but it’s really about how they are enacting their subjective worldview. What are they trying to accomplish because of the way they see themselves and the world?

What do we want, what do we do to achieve it? Here are a few of examples from the cheat sheet:

  • To get someone to accept a simple truth or to see the big picture
  • To gain someone’s trust or seek support 
  • To make a confession or close the deal

Click here for the Essential Tactics cheat sheet.

Why is this useful? Again, narrative device is a story you tell yourself (and sometimes the reader) to explain the existence of the story you’re writing. Communication happens for a reason (though we might broadcast other information without being aware of it). When we understand why someone is communicating, we can immediately think of what they might reveal (or not), in what order, and how. 

Sometimes that means what the narrator consciously wants to communicate. Sometimes we focus on the nature of the narrating device or the intention of the individual who set it in motion. For example, a CCTV camera captures objective images consistent with its capabilities, but a person places the camera in a particular spot and sets it to record at certain times to fulfill some purpose. 

Let’s look at a few examples.

In Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jim Hawkins records events involving dangerous pirates for the authorities in England. Jim is providing an account. The unnamed narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” wants to convince his audience that he’s not insane. In “I Stand Here Ironing” the narrator is trying to decide what to do about a request.

These make sense, but what about when the purpose is not explicit? As I said, sometimes we don’t want to reveal the narrative device explicitly.

In “How to Be an Other Woman,” by Lorrie Moore, the narrator appears to be trying to explain how she came to have an affair with a married man. 

In Brooklyn, the purpose seems to be to make sense of a situation to make a decision about what to doThe Fishermen seems to be about making a decision about what to think about the past.

How did I reach these conclusions without a clear statement from the author? By reading the stories closely and paying attention to the details and words in the narrative and asking, what might be the purpose of the communication? You may disagree with my specific conclusions, but our agreement is not as important as learning to see and think about the intent of the narrative.

WHAT IT’S LIKE

With the form of communication and its purpose in mind, we can consider a specific scenario for our narrative device, a story that explains the existence of the story we want to write. How far you go in describing the situation depends on how much scaffolding you need to write your story. If you’re new to writing fiction, you’ll probably want to add more details to provide more constraints for yourself.

What kinds of situations are we talking about? Any situation where someone or something is communicating a message. Let’s look at Treasure Island as an example.

With Treasure Island, it’s easy to imagine Jim Hawkins sitting at a desk in his room at the Admiral Benbow Inn writing the account of his adventures for authorities. While he’s trying to provide the facts as objectively as possible, he can’t help but consider what the events mean to him and to try to explain himself. So within the narrative, we see painful revelations courtesy of hindsight as Jim considers what he did and what he might have done differently. These are unintended consequences of the work of providing an account. This helps Stevenson convey the story’s controlling idea—about the trouble with adventures—organically through the protagonist.

We also see how Jim predicts questions his intended audience might have about his actions. The authorities, though they are different from Stevenson’s audience, provide a vehicle for the writer to answer questions that would come to the reader’s mind. For example, why didn’t Jim didn’t speak up about the sailor with one leg after meeting Long John Silver before they left Bristol? If he didn’t explain that, readers might get distracted wondering why. Do you see how Stevenson solves writing problems by using the narrative device?

The key to executing a narrative device that feels authentic is to relate the scenario to a time in our lives when we were in a similar situation. Not that we’ve had adventures on the high seas with pirates! But we’ve all experienced times when we needed to give an account of events and actions that raised uncomfortable memories but also helped us see ourselves and the world more clearly. Think about what you noticed, what you felt, and how you acted as a result. These specific details create the effect of the narrative device using words. 

Capture that effect, and you’ll be well on your way to delivering a satisfying story. 

FOCUS THE MIND

When we understand the relationship between global genre (story’s content) and the point of view (story’s delivery vehicle), we can start anywhere. For example, if you think you want to use a particular point of view because it’s what writers of your genre typically use, you can think of effects that could be created by the point of view choice. Then think about situations in which that might occur and relate them to your own life situations. 

A specific narrative device is a technique to focus our minds with purpose because and helps us make a meaningful connection between the what (global genre) and the how (point of view) of our stories and our own experience. 

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About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
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What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
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