In his book, My Reading Life, Pat Conroy says, “The most powerful words in English are “Tell me a story.”
And I agree.
Stories and narratives are far more than entertainment. Story validates us, connects us, heals us. The individual and collective narratives we live and re-tell shape us and the world we live in.
Understanding how our individual stories shape our collective narratives is essential, I think. So, as writers, giving clear and rational thought to the ways in which we tell stories is also essential.
While the list below is not an exhaustive one, it offers five narrative devices we can consider when sharing stories. (Keep in mind that narrative device is different from story arc. Think of story arc as living inside the container of narrative device.)
1. REAL-TIME NARRATIVE
Real-time narrative, is fairly self-explanatory. It is a story told in real time. For example, if a week passes in the protagonist’s life, the story will take the reader or viewer through that time period as well.
Real-time narrative is generally used in TV, film, and theater but can be found in some literature.
Examples of real-time narrative
Literature—Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf | Ulysses by James Joyce | A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Screen—24 (TV) | ‘night Mother (film) | My Dinner with Andrea (film) | 12 Angry Men (film—also a stage play)
Theater—‘night Mother by Marsha Norman (also a film) | American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown (also a film) | Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee (also a film)
2. CHRONOLOGICAL NARRATIVE
This one is also self-explanatory. It’s a story told in the order in which it occurs. It’s sequential, even though dreams, flashbacks, or memories may be used to fill in backstory or create layering.
Chronological narrative is the most common storytelling device used. Grab a novel from your shelf, and chances are, it’s told using the chronological narrative device.
Examples of chronological narrative
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (In this novel, Atwood even heads chapters with specific dates.)
The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf (It’s been a while since I read this novel, but I do believe it fits.)
Katerina by James Frey (Frey does a fair amount of dipping into the past, but the story, itself, is chronological.)
Acquaintance by Jeff Stookey (My current read. So far, chronological, with minimal mentions of the past.
3. REVERSE CHRONOLOGICAL NARRATIVE
Reverse chronological narrative is just as it sounds. A story told in reverse.
Examples of reverse chronological narrative
Literature—How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez | Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis | Counter-Clock World by Philip K. Dick
Screen—Two Friends by Jane Campion (TV movie) | “The Betrayal” (Seinfeld episode) | The Sweet Hereafter (film) | Memento (film)
Theater—Betrayal by Harold Pinter (inspired both the Seinfeld episode and The Sweet Hereafter) | Merrily We Roll Along by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
4. EPISTOLARY OR DIARY NARRATIVE
Epistolary or diary narratives are stories told through an exchange of letters or emails, or through diaries, journals, blog posts, or recordings.
This type of narrative is believed to have started in the mid-seventeenth century.
Examples of epistolary or diary narrative
Literature—Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes | The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky | The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (also a film)
Screen—13 Reasons Why (TV) | The Handmaids Tale (TV—based on the novel) | The Carrie Diaries (TV) | Bridget Jones’ Diary (film) | The Lake House (film) | Julie and Julia (film)
Theater—Love Letters by A. R. Gurney | Dear Elizabeth by Sarah Ruhl | Hate Mail by Kira Obolensky and Bill Corbett
5. BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL NARRATIVE
This is traditionally thought of as a device used in playwriting, when a character in a play breaks from the illusion of the story on the stage with the other characters and speaks directly to the audience. We also see this in film when a character speaks directly to the camera.
This narrative type can be accomplished in writing and literature, as well, in a couple of ways. The first is the use of second person “you,” when the narrator or character speaks directly to the reader. With this type of narrative, we might also see something like, “So, dear reader… What would you have done?”
Examples of breaking the fourth wall narrative
Literature—Orlando by Virginia Woolf | The Dark Tower by Stephen King | Puckoon by Spike Milligan
Screen— House of Cards (TV) | Malcolm in the Middle (TV) | Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (film) | High Fidelity (film) | Amélie (film)
Theater—William Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht plays
Check some of these out and see the effect each has on the reading/viewing experience, then consider ways you can use them in your own writing.
Please leave a comment below if you can think of or come across others. I always love adding to my lists!
Sending you mad writing mojo…