There’s no secret formula to writing a bestselling book or a Pulitzer-worthy article. Each piece is as varied and diverse as the writers who create them, but they do all share a common thread: the use of narrative techniques.
In this post, you’ll learn how to define narrative technique, exactly what is a narrative technique when it’s used in both fiction and non-fiction stories, and how you can start to incorporate some of these ideas into your own work.
What are Narrative Techniques?
You’ll most commonly hear narrative technique referred to when talking about fiction or literature, with “literary device,” “fictional device,” and “literary technique” often being used in academic and professional circles to mean the same thing. But what do we consider to be the main narrative technique definition? What does narrative technique mean? At its core, narrative technique is the way in which a writer conveys what they want to say to their reader and the methods that they use to develop a story.
The individual elements of different narrative techniques can be broken down into six distinct categories:
Each of these plays an important role in developing a story — taking the writer’s message and presenting it to their audience in a deliberate way.
What Is Narrative Structure?
It’s easy to think that narrative structure and narrative technique mean the same thing when they sound so similar, but they don’t. It’s best to think of narrative structure as the overall blueprint for the house, whereas narrative techniques are the individual bricks used to build the house.
Structure is fundamentally about your plan for the story and the different elements you’ll be using to create that content—how everything works together to form the bigger picture.
Of the four types of narrative structure, the most common is linear, where the story moves from beginning to end in chronological order. If you think about some of your favorite books and even films, a typical linear structure will follow a pattern of five acts, otherwise known as Freytag’s Pyramid:
- Beginning/Character Introduction
- Plot Climax
- End/Character Conclusion
When thinking about how we define narrative technique, these are the different pieces that are used within this structure to help us get to the finish line and make the reader’s journey more complex or interesting.
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This technique is particularly popular in Gothic fiction, where a house or landscape are used almost as an additional character in the story, setting the mood and having a significant influence on the protagonist.
Example of Setting
The buildings of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë are often described as cold and miserable places, reflecting the characters that live inside.
As the name suggests, writers will use foreshadowing to suggest events or outcomes that will happen later in the writing, using either characters or objects within the story.
Example of Foreshadowing
“My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.” – Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
A cliffhanger is when a story is left open-ended and unresolved. This is a commonly used narrative technique in television and film, as creators want the viewers to come back for the next episode or sequel to see if the answers are revealed.
Example of Cliffhanger
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens has plenty of examples of cliffhangers throughout the story. It was originally released in weekly newspapers and chapter endings were left deliberately open ended to encourage readers to purchase the next week’s issue.
4. Flashback or Flash Forward
Taking the reader out of an otherwise chronological story, a flashback or flash forward will show events that happened in the past or future that impact the characters in the present day of the story timeline.
Example of Flash Forward
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is one of the most notable examples of flash forward in classic literature.
5. Red Herring
Red herrings are popular in crime and mystery writing in particular, where writers divert the attention of the reader onto another character or element of the story in order to distract them from the truth.
Example of Red Herring
A staple of the mystery genre, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sees Sherlock Holmes navigating numerous red herrings while solving a murder.
A sudden realization by a character can have a dramatic impact on a story. This is usually in relation to a problem that a character has been facing and a solution or different perspective emerges.
Example of Epiphany
In Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the title character realizes that he must take revenge for his father’s murder while sailing to England.
7. First-Person Narrator
When using this narrative perspective, a writer tells the story from the point of view of one character. In most cases this is the protagonist, but not always.
Example of First-Person Narrator
The narrative of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is told through the eyes of Jane ten years after the events of the novel.
Backstory reflects on events that happen before the main body of the story being told, giving context for what happens in the present time. This is often featured as a prologue but can also be shared throughout a linear timeline using character reflections.
Example of Backstory
Throughout Frankenstein, references are made to the past events of both Dr. Frankenstein and the creature. Those events impact the reader’s understanding of the characters.
9. Author Surrogate
Most writers will write elements of themselves into their characters, but an author surrogate is a more defined version of this. A character will take on the personal views, morals, and even personality traits of their author when using this narrative technique.
Example of Author Surrogate
The character of Jo March is commonly believed to represent author Louisa May Alcott in the classic American novel, Little Women.
10. Repetitive Designation
Repetition is common throughout works of fiction and is often used to further a particular point in the story. This technique makes use of repeated references to either a character or object. At first, this reference appears unimportant, but is later proven to be a crucial part of the narrative.
Example of Repetitive Designation
The green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock is used throughout The Great Gatsby to symbolize the gradual destruction of Gatsby’s dream.
11. Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
As the name suggests, a writer will use this technique to have characters make predictions about the future, which then come true as a result of them thinking about that event.
Example of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
If you were worried about being late for school and continually thought about this, then ended up being late for school because of your constant worrying, this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
12. Unreliable Narrator
To some extent, most first-person narrators can be seen as unreliable as they’re often a key character in the story and show an element of bias. An unreliable narrator will deliberately mislead a reader to add intrigue to the story.
Example of Unreliable Narrator
Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is one of the best examples of an unreliable first-person narrator. He intentionally withholds key information about major characters and is dishonest about his own behavior.
13. Narrative Hook
The best stories are the ones that grip you from the beginning, and that’s exactly what a narrative hook does. Usually found at the start of the narrative, they entice you to keep reading.
Example of Narrative Hook
As one of the world’s most famous opening lines, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the perfect example of a first chapter narrative hook.
An allegory is a symbolic story, often religious or spiritual in nature, that reflects on elements of what it’s like to be human.
Example of Allegory
The story of The Tortoise and the Hare is framed around a moral, that you can be more successful if you are slow and steady rather than being fast and careless.
This technique uses extreme exaggeration to create a lasting impression or create strong feelings in the reader.
Example of Hyperbole
“I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking from head to foot, and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far.” – Old Times on the Mississippi by Mark Twain.
16. Sensory Detail
Without images to support the writing, the reader is left to their own imagination. Sensory detail and imagery is a commonly-used method to help readers create mental images of a scene, using descriptive language that touches specifically on the five senses.
Example of Sensory Detail
“Its pendulum swung to and fro with a heavy monotonous clang; there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical.” – The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe.
Used throughout literature and nonfiction, an onomatopoeia is a word that sounds similar to the word that it’s describing.
Example of Onomatopoeia
“Buzzing bee” or “roaring lion” are examples of onomatopoeia.
Parodies are typically used to mock or convey humor through exaggerated and over-the-top imitation.
Example of Parody
The story of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is framed as a parody of English society.
They say opposites attract and that’s the case with oxymorons. These are two words that are deliberately used together to imply the opposite of each other.
Example of Oxymoron
“Alone together” or “known secret” are examples of oxymorons.
20. Anthropomorphism or Personification
Personification is commonly used to give human-like characteristics and traits to non-human elements. Anthropomorphism is a form of this, specifically referring to animals.
Example of Personification
“Wind howling” or “heart skipped a beat” are examples of personification.
21. Pathetic Fallacy
This is where the mood of a character is reflected in non-human objects surrounding them. Weather is typically used in fiction to suggest a character’s frame of mind in a given moment of the story.
Example of Pathetic Fallacy
Violent thunderstorms or driving rain are often used throughout fiction to depict and convey the anger or sadness of key characters.
A story can have both multiple narrators and perspectives. This technique is used to show different character’s viewpoints throughout the story, often in the form of an all-knowing, or omniscient, third-person narrator.
Example of Multiperspectivity
The story of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, through the lens of multiple main characters.
We use metaphors throughout our daily lives, and it’s one of the most popular literary techniques. A writer will use descriptive language as a figure of speech to describe a scene or character, rather than being completely literal in their description.
Example of Metaphor
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” – As You Like It by William Shakespeare.
24. Story Within a Story or Frame Story
A narrative can contain multiple stories or subplots and this technique is a good example of that. Writers using frame stories will often create “mini stories” within the main narrative to highlight other characters or develop the plot.
Example of Frame Story
The plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a compilation of short stories about the characters Alice meets on her journey.
25. Plot Twist
When something unexpected happens in a story, this is often described as a plot twist. Used throughout all manner of storytelling, the expected ending is usually shifted at a pivotal moment in the plot.
Example of Plot Twist
Spoiler alert! The revelation in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility that Miss Steele is married to Robert Ferris, not Edward, is a turning point for main character Elinor Dashwood, and a significant plot twist toward the end of the novel.
Now that you have a better understanding of the narrative technique definition, it’s time to try some of these in your own writing!
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