Writers use narrative devices to effectively tell stories. These might be part of the overall style or perspective of a piece that helps writers convey the events of their stories. Knowing a variety of narrative devices can help you choose the right one for your piece of writing.
In this article, we discuss eight different narrative devices, the benefits of learning them and some tips you can follow to choose the right device.
What is a narrative device?
A narrative device is a writing technique you can use to tell a story. Narrative devices combine elements like tone, point of view and tense to create a consistent narrative that the reader can follow throughout a story. You can consider your genre and other examples of narrative devices when detailing your plot, characters and setting to see if a narrative device may help you tell your story or emphasize your purpose. There are different narrative devices you can use that can affect point of view, theme, style, plot and setting.
Benefits of using a narrative device
Narrative devices can enhance the meaning of a story. A piece of writing can contain elements like plot, setting and characters, and narrative devices can help you represent each of these elements. Some benefits of using narrative devices include:
Providing structure: These devices can provide structure to your story. You can apply these devices consistently across a story to provide structure to the reader.
Highlighting meaning: Using these devices is a method writers can use to provide meaning for their readers. This can involve the order you reveal information or styles that can change what you hope a story means.
Connecting to readers: Choosing different narrative devices can help you connect to your readers at different levels. Rather than just relating through content, you can use devices to address or ignore your audience.
8 types of narrative devices
Here are some of the narrative devices that writers commonly use:
A chronological narrative tells the events in a story in order of how they happened. This can include other literary devices like flashbacks, in which the narrative shifts to a character’s memory, to tell parts of the story, but the writer reveals most of the plot sequentially. This is one of the most common narrative devices, as it’s easy for readers to follow and reflects real-world events.
2. Reverse chronological
Reverse chronological is the telling of a story from the ending backward. This can be a captivating way to tell a story as you reveal what happens and then guide the reader toward that moment. Sometimes, the author might revisit the ending several times or continue the story after the ending once they reveal information.
Real-time is a narrative device where the plot unfolds exactly during the length of the story. This is most commonly achieved in screenwriting or playwriting. The length of the play, for example, may correspond with the characters’ experience. You might consider a single scene or following a character from location to location to capture a real-time narrative. This can be effective in involving the audience at each moment.
4. Breaking the fourth wall
The fourth wall is the space separating the performance and the audience. The device of breaking the fourth wall shows a character in the narrative directly addressing the audience or reader. This actively engages readers in the narrative and helps them feel as if they’re part of the story.
Epistolic or diary format is a device where you create a narrative through a series of journal entries or other written documents. The main character may convey their emotions or reactions to certain situations or recount the details of a day. This helps the audience see the story exactly as the character does, understanding the character’s fears, joys, excitement and thoughts.
A documentary narrative is a device that records or transcribes the events of someone’s life or situation. Often, characters within the story can directly address the reader or audience, as interviewers might ask them questions in responses to situations. Documentaries are great devices if you want to replicate a real-life situation.
7. Framing story
A framing story is a story within a story. For example, characters within a story performing a play would be a framing story. This is beneficial to show scenes that might not directly progress a plot forward, or it can highlight themes from the larger work. You can also create a framed story by a character introducing the narrative at the beginning of a story. This might use other devices like flashbacks to frame the narrative.
8. Stream of consciousness
Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that transcribes what a character is thinking. This can include descriptions of what they see, immediate reactions or how they feel. This style can convey the continuous flow of thoughts in a main character. You might combine this with other narrative devices like real-time to show what the character experiences and how they might process these experiences.
Other devices in a story
There are other types of devices you might use when writing a novel, story or screenplay, including:
There are several other plot devices you can use in narrative writing. You might see these used across genres and styles in combination with other devices. Here are just a few examples:
Plot twist: A plot twist is an unexpected event that dramatically shifts a narrative. A common example of this is a sudden death of the main character.
Foreshadowing: Foreshadowing means including subtle clues that something is going to happen in the future of the narrative. These clues might not be clear to the reader right away but may seem obvious after reading the full narrative.
Unreliable narrator: This is when a narrator has certain characteristics that make them untrustworthy. This is a device driven by the character and you may combine it with other devices like stream of consciousness.
Other style devices
Style devices are narrative choices you can make across the general language and tone of a narrative. Some examples of this include:
Allegory: Allegory uses symbolism in characters and situations to represent actual situations or problems in society. You may choose to use allegory if the story has a moral to convey.
Imagery: Using sensory detail, imagery is when you describe items with great specifics. This helps the reader or audience experience the scene you’re showing.
Parody: Parody entails an imitation of something else. You might write parody to criticize elements of society.
Satire: Similar to parody, satire uses elements like exaggeration and sarcasm to highlight certain qualities in people or situations. For example, satire that focuses on wealthy people might describe them as surrounded by physical bills.
Tips for choosing a narrative device
Here are some tips you can use when deciding on a narrative device:
Consider point of view
Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. You can write from the perspective of the main character, which is first person, an ambiguous perspective, which is third person, or have the audience be the main character, which is second person. These can create different intimacy levels with your reader. For example, a first-person narrative allows you to explore a person’s thoughts, so you might use the stream-of-consciousness device. Third-person narratives can be less intimate, so you might use imagery to increase the level of detail in a story.
Purpose is the overall objective of your piece. If you have a moral you want to convey, consider devices like parody or satire. If you want the piece to reflect reality as much as possible, you might use documentary style. Narrative devices can help progress a story forward and may enhance the purpose of your piece. Consider trying different narrative devices to see which might be most effective to reflect the purpose of your story.
Form is how you structure your story. For example, an epistolic narrative might have chapters separated as individual journal entries, but a stream-of-consciousness narrative might not have chapters at all. If you have yet to choose a narrative device to use, consider the form in which you plan to write. This could help narrow elements that might most effectively fit your narrative.
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