Whenever we read a novel, short story, poem, or academic essay, we're looking at a form of narration. The art of storytelling (or academic writing) takes a lot of consideration. Choosing a topic isn't enough. We must also choose how to convey the topic to the reader. In a moment, we'll work through three types of narration: first person, second person, and third person. Each serves its own purpose.
But, before we enjoy some examples of narration, it's important to distinguish between a narrative and narration. The two terms are often interchanged, but they don't mean exactly the same thing. A narrative is a story. It recounts a series of events that have taken place. We see this a lot in narrative essays. These essays are telling a story in order to drive a point home.
Narration, however, is the act of telling a story. Narration is like the voiceover. Consider your favorite documentary. If you're a nature buff, you'll come to love the way David Attenborough narrates his films. We see this in major motion picture too. Fight Club and Forrest Gump are great examples of movies with narration. With that in mind, let's discuss the various forms of narration and enjoy a few samples.
As a writer, you can choose to tell a story any way you'd like. This is known as point of view. There are three popular forms:
- First Person - In this point of view, a character (typically the protagonist, but not always) is telling the story. You'll notice a lot of "I" and "me" or "we" in first person narrations.
- Second Person - In this point of view, the author uses a narrator to speak to the reader. You'll notice a lot of "you," "your," and "yours" in second person narration.
- Third Person - In this point of view, an external narrator is telling the story. You'll notice a lot of "he," "she," "it," or "they" in this form of narration.
Choosing how to tell your story is almost as important as the story itself. Do you want to write from the perspective of a single character, like the protagonist? If so, you'll probably use a lot of "I," "me," and "mine." Or, do you want to take on a more omniscient tone as a third-party observer who is detached from the action? Let's enjoy a few samples of each form and see which one stands out the most to you.
First person narration allows you to "get personal" with your audience. It's as if one of the characters is speaking directly to his or her audience; we're able to listen in on their thoughts. The audience will understand how the narrator is feeling and how he or she interprets the events taking place around them. Let's take a look at a few samples of this form.
The Catcher in the Rye will go down in history as one of the most intriguing stories of all time. It uses first person narration to relay some of the teenage angst most of us experience. Here's a glimpse at how the main character, Holden, feels:
Where I want to start telling is the day I left Pencey Prep. Pencey Prep is this school that's in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. You probably heard of it. You've probably seen the ads, anyway. They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence.
It's worth mentioning the concept of reliable versus unreliable narration at this point. Some might say Holden Caulfield is not a reliable narrator because he's far from objective. He seems increasingly jaded about the world around him. You'll note a lot of sarcasm with underlying waves of anger in his retelling of the story of his life.
Turns out (spoiler alert) he's retelling these events from a mental facility, making his recounting utterly unreliable. Others would most likely have a different version of the events Holden lays out.
Given the title, you'd think Sherlock Holmes was told from Holmes' perspective. Arthur Conan Doyle chose a different approach. Holmes' sidekick, Dr. John Watson, is actually the one engaging in first person narration.
This is an interesting technique also employed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. We don't hear the story from Gatsby himself, but rather his friend (and narrator) Nick. Let's take a look at a sample from A Scandal in Bohemia:
I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other. My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention, while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.
Richard Mason wrote a novel about an aspiring artist. By writing in the first person, we quickly understand some of the main character's personality traits. He says he's not envious of other artists, yet he seems to have a lot of negative remarks about their work. He also seems to stand on principle more than anything else, refusing to sell his work for a quick paycheck. Here's a glimpse into Julian's mind in Us:
It happened because I took my class on an outing to the National Gallery… It's important for kids to be exposed to art and culture, if only so that they'll see that media conmen like Jake Hitchins aren't the only artists our civilization has ever produced. Not, by the way, that I'm bitter about Jake's success. If I could persuade people to spend thousands of pounds on my melted garden furniture, I'm sure I would.
Second person point of view isn't quite as popular in literature. It takes on more of an instructional tone. It uses a lot of "you should" or "you can." That said, it can forge a nice bond with the audience because it treats the reader like they're part of the story. Our first sample comes from a popular book that went on to become a movie and a play.
Bright Lights, Big City is the highly successful novel that went on to become a major motion picture and a Broadway musical. It details the narrator's time spent in fast-paced New York City but, interestingly, it's written in second person. Watch McInerney tell his story using the pronoun "you":
You have friends who actually care about you and speak the language of the inner self. You have avoided them of late. Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment, and until you can clean it up a little you don't want to invite anyone inside.
The Night Circus is a fantasy novel set in Victorian London. It features a magical circus that's only open when the sun goes down. Interestingly, Morgenstern manages to write the novel in all three points of view. But, we enjoy a fair share of the second person point of view in excerpts like this:
What kind of circus is only open at night?" people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.
You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.
Now, this is an interesting feat. Actor Neil Patrick Harris wrote the story of his life in the second person. You'd think an autobiography would contain a lot of "I" and "me." Never one to conform to society, Neil Patrick Harris takes an interesting approach to his life story. Watch how he lures us into the story by making it seem like he's speaking directly to us:
Then you go backstage and get a tour, and this to you is truly the coolest thing in the world. You're shown the set and the lights and the costumes and learn another variation on the same basic lesson about showbiz you will learn over and over again-it's all, fundamentally, just a bunch of crap glued together and spray-painted over. But the wonderful paradox is that knowing this does not detract from the experience of watching it a second time. On the contrary: it makes it that much more miraculous.
Third person narration is quite popular. It allows the author to open up the hearts and minds of several characters. With this form of narration, you could have two lovers, for example, who don't remain a mystery to the audience. Both of their thoughts and feelings are exposed to the reader and the reader is now able to take the journey to discovery or heartbreak. Let's enjoy a few examples.
Whiskey Beach is one of many novels by New York Times bestselling author Nora Roberts. It details the story of a man who's trying to reclaim his life after being falsely accused of murdering his wife. Throughout the novel, we get to know the romantic partners quite well. We enjoy glimpses into Eli's mind, as well as his love interest, Abra.
He shoved at his hair, wished he could delude himself so he could just go back to sleep, but he knew if he closed his eyes again, he'd be right back in the little library, right back beside the body of his murdered wife. And yet he couldn't think of a single good reason to get out of bed.
Continuing with the theme of romance, let's go to one of the classics. Jane Austen also allows us to peer into the minds of two love interests in Pride and Prejudice. Here's a glimpse into Elizabeth's mind:
Elizabeth allowed that he had given a very rational account of it, and they continued talking together, with mutual satisfaction till supper put an end to cards, and gave the rest of the ladies their share of Mr. Wickham's attentions. There could be no conversation in the noise of Mrs. Phillips's supper party, but his manners recommended him to everybody. Whatever he said, was said well; and whatever he did, done gracefully.
J.K. Rowling was the master at letting us into each of the character's lives. Perhaps that's why the novels have gone on to become such a cultural phenomenon. Each of the characters are unique in their own way and we're allowed detailed glimpses into everyone's mind. Take a look at this bit of third person narration from Chamber of Secrets. It allows us to understand more about The Dursleys and Harry in one succinct clip:
The Dursleys hadn't even remembered that today happened to be Harry's twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes hadn't been high; they'd never given him a real present, let alone a cake - but to ignore it completely…
It's freeing to know we can choose how to tell a story, isn't it? If you're tasked with writing a narrative essay for school, you might want to opt for the first person. This will really connect you to the reader and emote your story. Explore how to use direct address as a way to instantly connect with your readers. Use these tips for writing a personal narrative essay to help you get started.