Exploring Narrative Styles

I’ve read works of literature with vastly different narrative styles—from instant messaging to an old bowl with different owners. Some of the books I’ve read have impacted the way I write and challenged me to be more creative with narration.

When first writing short stories in high school, I never wrote anything other than first-person, and my narrator was usually a girl my age. Sometimes I would write in third-person, but I didn’t venture out and try anything experimental.

The books that I read at the time didn’t exactly help spark my creativity. Then, during my junior year of high school, I read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and it was as if  I had an epiphany. The story is told alternating between the two main characters’ perspectives. I had never read a book with two narrators prior to that. I wanted to try this narrating style in my own writing. I wrote several stories with two narrators, and it really challenged me to be more creative with my narrative.

The first time I wrote with two narrators, I started with my typical, first-person teenage girl. I didn’t want to have two identical narrators, so I tried writing from the perspective of the girl’s mother. It was an interesting experience trying to write from the perspective of a middle-aged mother, and I wasn’t sure if I really pulled it off. Regardless, it made me want to try writing from other perspectives that I wasn’t comfortable with. I found that I liked writing with an older narrator as well as using other genders. It got me interested to research what other types of narrators were used in literature.

One narrative type is the child narrator. This type of narrator tends to be innocent and unaware of the complex situations going on in the story. One narrator I liked was Jack, a 5-year-old from Room by Emma Donoghue. Jack’s innocence was showcased through the narration style used in the book. There was a lot of dramatic irony as well. Jack is completely oblivious to many of the circumstances his mother goes through, and it presents a unique point of view to a rather dark story. It got me thinking about how I could go about writing from the perspective of a child; they can be oblivious to main points in the story. A sad or dark story could be told from an innocent point of view. The syntax can be altered to make it sound like the sentence were leaving the mouth of a 5-year-old.

A common type of first-person narrator is the unreliable narrator. The most prevalent one for me is Twyla from Toni Morrison’s short story Recitatif. This narrator has repressed memories and made me unsure if anything she shared about her past was accurate. When writing with an unreliable narrator, memories can be cloudy, the narrator can be contradictory, and it can add a sense of distrust and suspicion when reading.

I also found books with narrators that I wasn’t sure how to feel about. I found everything from a dog to an old bowl. I started reading a book that didn’t have a narrator actually telling a story— the book was written as emails and instant messages between the two main characters. It felt like I was going through someone’s phone. Stripping away the traditional narrator gave the book a real sense of intimacy between the main characters; I felt like I was keeping their secrets. I can’t say that I tried any of these narrative styles, but I got a glimpse of how diverse the voices in literature can be.

If you’d like to create a unique narrator in your writing, start by doing a little research and reading books with perspectives you aren’t used to. Even if you can’t relate to the narrator or it is simply bizarre, it can be helpful when trying to find a different voice for your story. Maybe you can successfully create a story in which ancient bowl discusses its long life, or maybe a story like that can help you come up with an abstract narrator that works for you. Trying out different narration styles can help you create your own voice in your writing.

– Darby FreemanDarby Freeman

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