Stories are like music. They can be expressed in many different ways with infinite variations of rhythm, melody, and harmony. In writing fictional stories, we create not only the plot but also its settings and characters, as well as each individual word and sentence in order to develop a story that could be expressed in several different ways. Understanding how written and spoken narration works in storytelling, writing, and speech is a fundamental storytelling technique to get your stories to work to their maximum potential.
The Difference Between Narration and Narrative
The first thing is to be clear about the difference between the main terms used around the topic when we speak of ‘how do you narrate a story.’
Narration is the act of recounting or relating the particulars of some action, occurrence, or affair – whether in written or spoken form. A narrator is one who narrates or tells stories with written or spoken words. In this sense, a writer is a narrator.
The narrative of a story is the story itself – the systematic recitation of an event or series of events. It is the plot, which is a series of scenes that move the story forward, that acts as the major component of the narrative. The narrative is usually composed of both action and dialogue.
Therefore, when we look at how to narrate a story, we are really asking how either as the author of a story, as a character within the story, or as an external narrator (we’ll get to that) we actually tell the story in written or spoken words. As opposed to how we construct the story.
Written vs. Spoken Narration
There is a blurred dividing line between written and spoken narration.
Written narration is the narrative conveyed by written words. Narrative writing is the more formalized version of narration and has a set of practices established over time. Including the way in which a character can function as a narrator.
Spoken narration is usually connected to some form of acting or performance, in which the story or parts of it are told or recorded in spoken words. As an art form, there are many artistic and technical aspects to achieving a successful spoken narration.
Do You Need Narration At All?
Keep in mind that in written stories, you almost always need a narrator and narration in order to fill in parts of the narrative that dialogue cannot. Even in a short story.
Whereas in other formats, like plays, films, video games, and so on the story can be told entirely through dialogue and visual action – thereby eliminating the need for narration.
In this article, we’ll address the written side first, before delving into the art and craft of spoken narration. It’s worth knowing that an understanding of each form – written and spoken – will help you with the other.
The Three Key Steps to Narrating a Written Story
Step 1: Decide Who Tells the Story
One of the most important decisions as the author of a piece of creative writing is to decide from whose perspective the story is told, and which voice needs to be heard to tell it.
Although some stories have a central narrator, who might be one of the characters in the story, other stories will deliberately change the perspective and the narrator – depending on the needs of the plot and structure of the story.
An example of this is The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, in which there are four different points of view narrated by four different narrators.
Deciding who will narrate the story will affect the story’s pace, pace, the way events are narrated, and the meaning of events. The narrator’s personality can also be altered.
The narrator can be a character in the story and an objective observer, a bystander, or a combination of the two. The narrator can also be the creator of the whole story – the author.
Sometimes, discovering who would be the best narrator for your story involves simply a process of trial and error to find who tells the story best, or most naturally. Try writing a page from different points of view (see below) and consider which one flows most naturally, and starts to convey the overall feeling you want in your work.
Step 2: Determine the Narrator’s Point of View (Voice)
The point of view (POV) or Voice of the narrator breaks down into one of three basic choices, each of which has a big impact on the tone and the degree of knowledge and veracity of the narrator.
The point of view of the narrator will frame the entire story.
Let’s take each point of view in turn, to understand the impact that each choice has on what the narrator can speak about and the tone with which they will likely do it:
First Person Point Of View
First Person Narration is where the narrator speaks as “I’, “me”, or “we” and this POV tends to generate quite intimate narration – but also, because of the POV, a less omniscient take on the overall story than Third Person POV (below), even if the story is told in retrospect.
First Person POV has the feeling of the narrator speaking directly to the readers, even if the actual text was never designed to be read (for example, a journal or log).
Although a First-Person Narrator can directly address the audience – usually as “you” – a whole story can be told in First Person POV without the audience ever being called out in that way. It can be a personal narrative.
One consequence of First Person POV narration is that the audience gets to know more about the narrator – which can make it ideal when used with a protagonist or main character.
The major downside to this POV is that it’s harder for the narrator to know and speak about events in which he or she was not involved as a participant or witness – let alone speak about what is inside someone’s mind, aside from speculating about it.
Second Person Point Of View
This is where the narrator speaks using “you” in order to place the audience in the action or events. Although this has an obvious advantage, the problem with the Second Person POV is that the tone tends to become instructional and didactic unless handled with finesse.
Therefore, it’s usually best to reserve it for experimental fiction, short stories, or nonlinear adventure stories where the reader determines every next step along the way.
Third Person Point Of View
This is the classic POV for most novels and fictional work. The narrator speaks as “he” or “she” or “them”, and can still portray intimacy because the narrator can be an omniscient narrator or all-knowing, but the POV of the narrator is less intimate based on personal experience.
Nevertheless, deftly handled Third Person POV narration can unlock a lot about what is going on in the hearts and minds of protagonists, antagonists, and others.
Note that as well as omniscient Thirds Person POV, there can also be ‘Limited’ Third Person POV in which the Observer-Narrator has limited knowledge when telling the story.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of choosing the Third Person POV is that it gives the greatest degree of flexibility on how the story is told.
Point of View for a Narrative Essay
If charged with writing a narrative essay, your best bet might be to use the First Person POV (see above) because the reflection from a personal perspective can reveal more information and depth than what’s offered in Third Person or Second Person narration.
Related: How to Focus on Writing an Essay
Step 3: Treat Your Narrator as a Character
If the narrator is a participant or direct witness, you’ll need to consider the degree to which their participation in events skews their ability to provide a truthful and full account of events.
This is why you’ll sometimes see authors rotating characters into the narrator’s seat, in order to provide sufficient context and coverage for the story. Or as a way to enhance tension and conflict.
The limitations of a viewpoint character as the narrator can be used to a specific effect.
There are many circumstances in which the narrator (which might be you, the author) is not a character in the story, but can be treated as one. This includes the typical anonymous Third Person POV.
Even if you are planning quite a neutral and anonymous approach to your narration, it can be a very useful mind hack to think in terms of your narrator as being a character. This includes nonfiction writing, by the way.
The Role of an Unreliable Narrator
Aside from the Omniscient (All-Knowing) Narrator referred to above, in the POV section, there is a specific type of narrator known as an Unreliable Narrator.
This is when the narrator of a story doesn’t provide a faithful and accurate account of events. Because their credibility is in doubt, or they are somehow compromised.
- There are many reasons why an author may choose to use an unreliable narrator as a narrative technique, such as adding suspense or drama or making the story more interesting
- The unreliable narrator can mislead the reader by omitting or downplaying the key points of the story, creating a false sense of reality or security.
- An unreliable narrator can help to break a linear narrative – making it more intriguing and exciting.
Some good examples of an unreliable narrator are:
- Pi Patel in The Life of Pi
- Alex in A Clockwork Orange
- Nick in The Great Gatsby
How to Narrate a Story With Spoken Narration
Having personally narrated 26 audiobooks up on Audible, there are a number of things I’ve learned about what really matters when it comes to delivering an excellent audiobook narration.
Related: How to Become An Audiobook Narrator
The Emotional Subtext
The real secret to excellent narration in voiceover, audiobooks, stage storytelling, and so forth is to dial into the emotional subtext of every scene or chapter.
As a performer, which is what a spoken narrator always is, this means coming to a realization about the emotional meaning and impact of a scene, based on analysis, feeling, and intuition, and bringing that to mind at the point that you actually speak the words.
The individual words and sentences matter far less than the correct interpretation of the emotional subtext. This is true even for factual stories.
If you listen carefully to a skilled audio narrator, you’ll start to notice the way in which they build pauses into their delivery. The pauses accrue a rhythm of their own and are every bit as important to the impact of a great story as the actual words.
The pauses allow the words to sink into the mind of the listener.
They also allow the narrator to breathe normally!
Learn about the artistry of building pauses into your delivery.
As a narrator, you don’t need to do much to differentiate one character from another. Much less than you might think, in fact.
Once you’ve correctly interpreted the emotional subtext, the chances are that your voice will already be adapting subtly to minor character differences – which in turn allow the listener to know who is speaking – before you start to use various vocal placements, accents, and so forth.
With accents, it’s usually enough to tilt at an accent rather than deliver it full-blown, by the way.
A skilled narrator can deliver distinct character voices without worrying too much about accents or vocal placements.
Voice acting in narration is not the same as stage acting. You don’t need to project to the back of the theatre.
However, you do need to project a little above what would be a reading of the story. Your job is not to read, but to perform! Which means, to act.
This goes equally for nonfiction as for fiction, by the way. In nonfiction, your character is usually that of a wise guide.
Related: Guide to Character Arcs
Scan the Structure of the Book
I would advise against preparing every sentence with side marks.
Your time and energy will be better spent assessing the way the book works overall.
- Where is the main setup?
- How does the arch-villain appear on the scene?
- Where is the denouement, and how does it play out?
- Are there any indicators in the text that would determine how a particular voice needs to sound? (a classic is to find two-thirds thorough a book that someone has a Scottish accent, and you’ve been doing it with a Hampshire accent because you didn’t at least scan the book before narrating it!)
Read the book beforehand to get a general idea of the structure, and then scan it to get a better idea of what needs to be read.
Hydrate and Take Breaks
Narration can be tough on the vocal cords. Especially if there are battle scenes!
So, make sure to take breaks after every half hour or so. And drink enough water and tea to keep your throat hydrated.
Remember that even professionals record for a minimum of two or three hours to get one hour of finished audio.
Even if your preparation is only to skim through the book, pre-book time can be a good time to hydrate.