Narrators and Narrative Structure in Fiction

Narration in Film
Narrators and characters,..., are essentially 'paper beings'; the (material) author of a narrative is in no way to be confused with the narrator of that narrative. ....who speaks (in the narrative) is not who writes (in real life) and who writes is not who is.--Roland Barthes, "The Structural Analysis of Narratives"

1. Narrators

The External Narrator

An External Narrator is not a character in the story, but a persona, a disembodied "voice" the writer creates to tell the story from outside the story-world. External narration is easily recognizable because the story is written grammatically in the third person: he, she, they--which is why the External Narrator is frequently called the Third-Person Narrator.

Three major variations of the External Narrator are:

Of course, there are many variations and combinations of these three basic methods of using an External Narrator. Only studying specific stories and novels will yield an understanding of the flexibility and subtleties of External Narration.

(For a comprehensive discussion of the scholarly research on the art of narration, see Manfred Jahn's brilliant and generous online book: Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative.)

Uniqueness of the External Narrator

The External Narrator can do what is impossible to do in real life--enter directly into the minds of other human beings. In actual life, we know other people only indirectly--through their words and actions. As R.D. Laing said: "I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience. We are both invisible men. All men are invisible to one another." Only in the make-believe world of Third-Person Narration can the Narrator present transparent minds, making the invisible, visible.

Dorit Cohn in Transparent Minds defines three basic ways the External Narrator renders consciousness transparent.

Here is a paragraph from James Joyce's "The Dead," in which Joyce presents the mind of his character, Gabriel, as he is thinking about the speech that he's about to make at his Aunts' dinner party. The three types of narrating consciousness are color-coded: Red: Psycho-narration; Green: Interior Monologue; Blue: Narrated Monologue.

He ran over the headings of his speech: Irish hospitality, sad memories, the Three Graces, Paris, the quotation from Browning. He repeated to himself a phrase he had written in his review: "One feels that one is listening to a thought- tormented music." Miss Ivors had praised the review. Was she sincere? Had she really any life of her own behind all her propagandism? There had never been any ill-feeling between them until that night. It unnerved him to think that she would be at the supper-table, looking up at him while he spoke with her critical quizzing eyes. Perhaps she would not be sorry to see him fail in his speech. An idea came into his mind and gave him courage. He would say, alluding to Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the generation which is now on the wane among us may have had its faults but for my part I think it had certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity, which the new and very serious and hypereducated generation that is growing up around us seems to me to lack." Very good: that was one for Miss Ivors.What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?

Here are analyses of two complete short stories, demonstrating how External Narration renders consciousness:

The Internal Narrator

The Internal Narrator is a character within the story he or she is telling. Frequently called the First-Person Narrator because the story is told by a character who uses "I". The two variations of First-Person narration are:

Uniqueness of the Internal Narrator

A First-Person Narrator tells his own experience of the world; the story-world of characters and events is filtered through his consciousness alone. First-Person narration is a form of conscious consciousness--the self articulating what is in the mind. The First-Person Narrator is restricted in his knowledge of other characters. He does not know directly the minds of other characters like the External Narrator does. He knows the other characters in the same way that the reader knows other people--only indirectly through his interpretation of their words and actions.

2. Narrative Structure

Narrative Structure: Types of Story Structure

  1. A single story narrated by either an Internal Narrator or an External Narrator.

    • Internal Narrator

      Internal Narrators can only tell one story however complex it may be in terms of involving many characters and events. The story she tells is always a story from her point of view--her involvement with people and events. Examples: Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange.

    • External Narrator

  2. Multiple stories narrated by one narrator.

    • Only an External Narrator can narrate independent stories lines.

      • An External Narrator can intercut between different characters and their actions in simultaneous or different times and same or different places, which cannot be done by a First-Person Narrator. Examples: Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Illych, The Brother's Karamazov, Haruki Murakami, "Tony Takitani", Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky."

      • A major contemporary technique for telling multiple stories is juxtaposing story-lines narrated from several characters perceptual and experiential point of view (Vision With). The shifts are easily recognizable by the change in perceptual/experiential point of view. Examples: Mrs. Dalloway, Alice Munro, "The Runaway", Joyce, "The Boarding Room".

    • An Internal Narrator cannot narrate separate stories in which she is not present.

      • The First-Person Narrator is always in the story she tells. She can have other characters in her story tell their stories, but these stories are always embedded in her story. Examples: Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

  3. Multiple stories narrated by multiple narrators.

    • Combination of an External Narrator and an Internal Narrator.

      • Examples: The Sound and the Fury, which is structured around three First-Person Narrators--Benjy, Quentin and Jason--and one External Narrator. Ian McEwan's Atonement: Shifts from External Narration to Internal Narration. Ingo Schulze's Simples Stories: Multiple shifts between First-Person and Third-Person Narrators.

    • Multiple first-person narrators.

      • Examples: Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Akutagawa's "In a Grove", Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

Narrative Structure: Linear/Chronological and Non-Linear/Achronological

Narratives are about characters and events in time. There are two basic options for structuring a story: telling the story in linear, chronological order or in non-linear, achronological order.