Executive Technique Of Narration

Mode of Narration--First Person Narration--Variation--

Advantages--Disadvantages--Plausibility--Third Person

Narration--Advantages--Avoidance of Artificiality--

Consideration of Length--Maintenance and Shifting of Viewpoint

--Attitude of Author--Style--Product of Technique--

Congruity of Manner--Story of Action--Fantasy--Story of


After conceiving and elaborating his story, the writer must approach the

task of expression. The two preliminary matters to be settled are the

mode of narration and the manner or style for which the story calls.

Though preliminary, they are most properly treated as part of executive



The question of how the story may be told most easily and effectively is

much more delicate than merely to choose between narration in the first

or third person, for numerous variations in these two basic methods are

open to adoption. Each method or viewpoint has its advantages and

disadvantages, and that method should be chosen which most nearly suits

the particular story.

Variation in first person narration--the typical form of which is to

have a chief character tell his own story--is possible by shifting the

story from the lips of a major character to those of a less important

personage, who is often little more than an animated mouthpiece. The

device is really an attempt to escape from the inherent disadvantages of

typical first person narration. A just regard for the reader often

requires that more be set forth than any major character could naturally

know, but some minor character may be made to pass ubiquitously through

the whole tale, viewing the essential acts of all the major characters

and relating them to the reader. Or the device may be carried farther,

and the story told in the first person by a succession of characters.

The chief advantage in first person narration by an important or the

most important character lies in the fact that the reader is accustomed

to a more or less one-sided presentation of events. That is the way he

sees things himself, as a bare succession of happenings springing from

the conflict of human motives of which he can be sure only of his own.

Something happens, and he knows within limits why he did his part in

bringing it about, but the part of the other man is obscure to him, and

he can go only on conjecture and inference. So the story told in the

first person has perhaps a slightly greater flavor of plausibility than

that told in the third person.

There is another advantage in first person narration. Some stories

cannot be launched with a rush; the significant action must be prefaced

by a considerable mass of introductory matter that is essential to full

understanding of subsequent events; and this introductory matter can

often be made less repellent to the reader when it is artfully

introduced by a narrating character. The speaking character can be made

to tell his story with a smack of personality that appears somewhat

affected and flippant when the writer employs the third person. This

flippancy and affectation is apparent is some of Kipling's and O.

Henry's work, and probably repels as many as it attracts.

Generally, throughout a story, first person narration makes easier the

attainment of uniformity of style, if that be a merit in the case of all

stories as it unquestionably is in the case of the short story, with its

necessary emphasis on all formal unities. During the vogue of the

historical novel some years ago this mode of narration was ridden to

death simply because it lessens for the writer the labor of catching

what he conceives to be the tone of the particular society he is

portraying. As to the general matter of tone, Stevenson refers, in a

letter, to "The Ebb Tide," as "a dreadful, grimy business in the third

person, where the strain between a vilely realistic dialogue and a

narrative style pitched about (in phrase) 'four notes higher' than it

should have been has sown my head with grey hairs." Had the story been

told by one of the characters there would have been no difficulty of the


"The Ebb Tide" probably could not have been told effectively in the

first person, for much of its power derives from the way in which

Stevenson limns the lovely South Pacific scenes through which its poor

lost derelicts of people move. Their speech is "vilely realistic"

because they are common men, sea captain and clerk and middle-class

Englishman, and the lips of no one of them could have been made to state

effectively without distortion what his eyes saw. Any story has certain

matters which must be brought out justly if the whole is to have due

effect, and if first person narration renders it impossible to treat

such matters justly that mode of narration cannot be used. The example

of "The Ebb Tide" shows that in estimating the availability of narration

in the first person the writer must consider that the very nature and

being of a character may seal his eyes to many matters. Moreover, the

reader will not readily accept in a narrating character the literary

power that is even expected in the author writing in the third person. A

story is a whole, its people existing subject to the limitations of its

necessities, and the mode of narration must function naturally with the

rest, and not demand impossibilities.

One difficulty of first person narration is not so much fictional as

psychological. If the story demands emphasis upon the good qualities of

the narrator, his bravery, devotion, love, generosity, or a thousand

others, a reader will soon weary of the eternal I. It is safe to say

that if a character must be shown in a strongly favorable light, let it

be done by the author or some other character, not by himself, unless

the moral perfection of the person is a matter solely of inference from

his acts.

The very complicated plot can rarely be handled well in the first

person, particularly if the events cannot be cast in chronological

order. On the other hand, first person narration is often a useful

device to keep from the reader's knowledge, unobtrusively and without

seeming effort, matters which he must not learn prematurely. Conan

Doyle's Watson is an instance. Thus the chief disadvantage in employing

the narrating character, that he cannot be made omniscient, may be

turned to advantage. The whole question is one to be determined only

after careful consideration of the demands of a particular story, and

the chief need is not so much to state rules for its solution as to

point out the real necessity that the writer know what he is about

before pitching on a mode of narration. It is a prevalent habit, and a

bad one, to accept a story as it first takes shape in the mind,

narrative, point of view, and all.

There is a tendency among writers of fiction, particularly those who are

just beginning, to narrate in the first person, perhaps because they

feel that the reader will accept the story more readily in such shape.

Other things being equal, first person narration is a trifle more

natural and plausible than narration in the third person, but its

limitations are much more strict. At the last of it, readers are so

thoroughly habituated to the impersonal viewpoint that a writer does not

gain much in power to convince by adoption of the other. A story is

taken up because a story is wanted, and a reader is willing to accept

the conventions of the art. So incredible a fiction as Poe's "A Descent

into the Maelstrom" was probably best told in the first person, but the

average story need not strain so sedulously for verisimilitude so far as

the mechanics of narration are concerned.

Typical third person narration is illustrated by the story of action,

the wholly objective story, told in the third person. The impersonal

relator is omniscient, but his omniscience is not so obtrusive as in the

story that touches on the facts of the soul. This omniscience of the

relator is the chief advantage of third person narration, but the writer

will only infrequently find it advisable to assume omniscience absolute

and entire, involving knowledge of all the objective acts and the

subjective motives of all the characters. If the story is largely

analytical of more than one character the writer may be forced to "know

it all" in order to display his material. But omniscience carried to

such a point tends to be over-artificial, the underlying cause of much

of the artistic weakness of the story which lays bare the souls of all

characters instead of one or two of the most significant. In his own

daily life the reader is accustomed to a one-sided presentation of the

social spectacle, and complete omniscience on the part of the

impersonal relator of a fiction has the taint of artificiality, or even

of bare exposition. And exposition, which implies a mathematically

complete presentation, is not fiction, which implies shading and

suppression, absolute or temporary.

Any suggestion of artificiality may be entirely avoided, and the

frequently necessary advantages of third person narration retained, by

assuming omniscience as to all the physical facts or events of the story

while rejecting omniscience as to the souls of the characters, except

the souls of one or a few. Thus the writer may escape the inherent

limitation of first person narration, that the story is told by a

character of definite powers and knowledge, and retain the chief

advantage of that mode of narration, the more or less single viewpoint,

corresponding with a reader's own outlook on life and its happenings.

This hybrid method of narration utilizes the virtues and rejects the

vices of the two strict types. By telling his story in the third person,

but from the viewpoint of one or two of the chief characters, an author

may assume the desirable omniscience as to objective facts and the

desirable limitation upon knowledge as to subjective motives. This is

not to say that the nature of a particular story may not call for strict

first or third person narration; it is merely a suggestion that the

virtue of each type may be utilized at once. Each story makes certain

demands, and the writer is not confined to two means of satisfying them.

A reader of any catholicity of taste can recall numerous examples of the

various modes of narration, and in future reading it will be directly

profitable for the writer to note the narrative device employed, and how

it has aided or hampered the development of the fiction.

More extreme devices have been, and may be employed, such as

Richardson's of telling a story in a series of letters. They are curious

rather than important.

In estimating the availability of a mode of narration the writer should

consider the matter of length. The adoption of the omniscient viewpoint

may carry the story unnecessarily beyond due limits, for the writer who

has taken to himself the privilege to know all facts and motives may be

led into depicting events or analyzing character for his own pleasure,

rather than because the story demands it. If a story demands space,

space it must have, but the essence of literary power and artistry is to

write with the utmost brevity and pungency compatible with adequate

expression. The story must be told; every essential phase must be

brought out; but unsignificant words can only do their bit toward

spoiling the desired effect. The adoption of a too inclusive mode of

narration may lead the writer astray; conversely, the mode of narration

most nearly suited to the necessities of his story will aid in holding

his pen to the line. If the story is of action, unconcerned with motives

save by implication, and the writer tells it in the first person, or in

the third person from the viewpoint of a single character, he will be

led to confine himself to the depiction of the panorama of events, which

is the work in hand. Yet, if the story requires that the reader be given

a direct view of the spiritual workings of large numbers of characters,

the writer must tell it in the third person and assume universal

knowledge as to event and spirit. A mode of narration must be

deliberately selected for each new story with due regard to its

idiosyncrasies, and to make the choice correctly cannot fail to be of

great advantage.

It is often stated that having settled upon what is most narrowly termed

a mode of narration and most broadly a viewpoint the writer should be

sedulous not to depart from it. The writer of the short story should not

alter the narrative point of view, for obvious reasons. The short story

is short; it depends for its power upon dramatic effect; and in writing

it there is no occasion or excuse for any shifting of outlook. The short

story is artistically the strictest form of prose fiction, that is, it

is most strictly subject to the conventions of the art of fiction, of

which maintenance of the point of view is one. But the novel is a much

looser form, and unless the particular story is uniquely uniform in

texture, as the frank tale of adventure, shifting the point of view

often will prove necessary.

If the author of a novel has chosen to write with knowledge of the inner

workings of more than one of the characters, but not with knowledge of

all, so that he relates from the viewpoint of several characters, rather

than the viewpoint of some impersonal observer to whom the souls of all

are open, numerous shifts of viewpoint will be necessary. They are

implied in the mode of narration itself. The world cannot be looked at

through the eyes and souls of a succession of characters without a

succession of shifts. All this merely amounts to saying that certain

modes of narration which cannot be employed in writing the strict short

story may be freely employed in writing the novel. In the case of the

novel, or of the story that is somewhat brief without being a strict

short story, the task is not so much never to shift the viewpoint,

rather always to indicate the shift with clearness. Just as the reader's

interest should be the first consideration in choosing matter and

devising a plot, clarity to the reader must be considered when any shift

in the narrative point of view becomes necessary. Let the shift be

avowed and obvious; any uncertainty can lead only to confusion.

It follows that writers who have chosen to tell their stories from the

viewpoints of several characters will prove the most profitable for

study as to how to shift viewpoint without confusing a reader. Chiefly,

of course, they are novelists, Eliot, Balzac, Hardy, Scott, and an

infinity of lesser lights. Galsworthy, for instance, in each of his

chapters succeeds in producing a singular unity of effect, with

corresponding clarity for the reader, chiefly by making his shifts of

viewpoint coincide with shifts of scene and person.[G]

Inextricably bound up with the mode of narration and the general

narrative viewpoint of the story is the matter of the author's own

attitude toward the story. The distinction between these matters is

fine, but real. It is possible that a given story may be told,

adequately so far as the bare story is concerned, in any one of several

different ways. Narration in the first person by a major or a minor

character may be employed, or the author may write in the third person,

assuming knowledge of all events and of the inner workings of one, some,

or all of the characters. But there is another consideration. The whole

conception may depend for its appeal upon what I am forced to call very

roughly sympathy for a character or group of characters, and a mode of

narration must be employed which will enable the author to express his

sympathy that he may evoke the reader's.

I do not wish to shift the discussion into the field of ethics, but the

point is that any chain of events may be colored in the telling

favorably or unfavorably to the persons concerned. A coarse instance is

afforded by a prosecution for crime. In making their final arguments to

the jury, prosecuting attorney and attorney for the defense alike deal

with the same facts in evidence, but on the lips of one the defendant

will be a glorified and persecuted saint. A more delicate instance is

afforded by Stevenson's "The Ebb Tide," previously mentioned. Robert

Herrick commits all the criminal acts committed by Huish, the cockney

clerk, except to attempt murder, but the reader pities Herrick while

hating Huish. This is so because Stevenson writes of Herrick with a

measure of sympathy, and tells the story, though in the third person,

almost entirely from his point of view. But of Huish we have only his

acts and words. The treatment of him is wholly objective.

The story which develops a chain of events tending to show a character

or group of characters in a strongly unfavorable light should not be

told too objectively, or the reader will be repelled by its uniform

ugliness, a matter which must be considered in choosing a mode of

narration. It is not a point of morals, but one of contrast. If the

writer has no sympathy for one or some of his people, or writes in such

manner that he cannot express any predilection, they will appear all of

a piece to a reader, with a consequent loss of interest. In this very

real sense the story whose characters are uniformly repellent may be

said to be bad art.

Generally, therefore, the writer must consider the necessities of his

story in determining the mode of narration, and must also consider his

own attitude toward its people and their doings. Its appeal to him may

lie in his sympathy for some person or persons, and unless that sympathy

be given expression in some way the story may not have an equal appeal

to a reader. The perfect fiction is a congruous expression of a phase of

life, and in it the more subtle matters of life, sympathy and

predilection have their place.


The term style has been so exclusively used to denote an author's style

in general, rather than the style of some particular work, unlike the

styles of others by the same hand, that it is apt to suggest something

different from what is meant by its use here. To show the distinction I

cannot do better than to quote from Stevenson's "A Note on Realism."

"Usually in all works of art that have been conceived from within

outwards, and generously nourished from the author's mind, the moment in

which he begins to execute is one of extreme perplexity and strain.

Artists of indifferent energy and an imperfect devotion to their own

ideal make this ungrateful effort once for all; and, having formed a

style, adhere to it through life. But those of a higher order cannot

rest content with a process which, as they continue to employ it, must

infallibly degenerate towards the academic and the cut-and-dried. Every

fresh war in which they embark is the signal for a fresh engagement of

the whole forces of their mind; and the changing views which accompany

the growth of their experience are marked by still more sweeping

alterations in the manner of their art. So that criticism loves to dwell

upon and distinguish the varying periods of a Raphael, a Shakespeare, or

a Beethoven."

In the case of Stevenson himself this process is especially manifest.

With a unique earnestness he sought from the first to adapt his manner

to his matter, and, since he grew with the years, each new tale concerns

itself with matter a little more humanly significant than its

predecessor, and is told in keeping therewith. The result is that such

stories as "The New Arabian Nights" series, fantastically conceived,

fantastically told, give place to "The Master of Ballentrae," "The Ebb

Tide," and "Weir of Hermiston," fictions worthy in every sense, the

last, indeed, an unfinished masterpiece. And with each new story the

author's style gains in dignity and restraint, in the process of

adaptation to the work. I mention Stevenson in this connection not

because he is greater than many others, nor his work finer, but because

its range was so wide that it called for many manners or styles. All

will prove a profitable study, for they are all Stevenson's and yet all

different. Writers who have been somewhat more narrow in choice of

matter have not been under so pressing a necessity to vary their manner

with each new work.

Possibly it is unwise to emphasize the matter of style at all when

writing for the apprentice author. Telling the story is usually task

enough, and style in general is a product rather than an item of

technique, therefore best sought indirectly. But even if the more

delicate tones and shadings possible in writing are beyond the reach of

all save the most skilled, preservation of the broader congruities of

manner is possible by the beginner, and must be achieved if his work is

to be even passable. Such a story as "The Scarlet Letter" could not have

been told in Dickens' usual manner, nor could "The Pickwick Papers" have

been written in the style of Meredith. The manner of telling any story

must be reasonably adapted to its content, or the whole will be a shabby

burlesque, destined never to achieve the laurel of print. The writer

need not fret about his individual style, but he should ponder seriously

the manner for which each story calls.

The story chiefly of action is best told without great verbal

elaboration, which is unnecessary and tends only to hinder the march of

events. The whole thing is an objective presentation, and the open

character of its elements renders unnecessary laborious and involved

explanation. The bare facts carry their own warrant openly displayed,

and when they are shown the task is done. Sentences will tend to be a

trifle shorter than in other work, and paragraphs likewise. The writer's

chief aim will be to write not only clearly but vividly, for the story

of action must depend chiefly upon vividness for its verisimilitude. The

simpler figures will be profitable to employ, provided they are not too

good and do not call attention to themselves rather than the image they

are used to precipitate. The writer's general endeavor will be to follow

stylistically the rapid movement of events. A reading of Dumas will show

this method in use.

If there is a touch of fantasy about the tale, greater elaboration in

sentence structure and some freakishness in the choice of words will be

permissible and even desirable, for true verisimilitude lies in the

accordance of manner and matter. The story with a thread of unreality in

its essential composition will not gain in power by matter of fact

telling; the measure of verisimilitude which it can attain is strictly

limited by its very nature, and can be gained to the full only by

frankly and avowedly making it what it is.[H] An instance is afforded by

Stevenson's "New Arabian Nights" series or Hawthorne's "Tanglewood


The story placing emphasis on character, or the story of atmosphere,

unless the atmosphere itself be the onrush of events, will normally

demand more leisurely treatment than the story of action. The movement

of the story will be slower, and the style will be correspondingly

affected. Dealing with motives directly will force the writer to qualify

and distinguish, adding to length of sentences, while to precipitate an

atmosphere in words is a matter of such delicacy that the writer will be

forced to employ every resource of language, with a consequent

complication in structure. The necessity is to hold the tale in mind

before writing until its totality of character is realized, then to

strive to commit no gaucheries in execution. The right word for the

right place must be sought, indefinite advice which will prove of little

aid in writing a single story, but which will yield ample returns if

followed through careful and intelligent writing of many stories. In

dealing with this matter of manner or style, and the necessity that it

be in keeping with the particular story in hand, it is impossible to

give examples on account of lack of space. I can only refer the reader

to almost any fiction that has resisted the tooth of time. To leave

prose for a moment and turn to poetry, a reading of Milton's "L'Allegro"

and "Il Penseroso" will demonstrate the possibility and display the

result of adapting the manner to the matter. The style of both is

unmistakably Milton's alone, marked by his dignity and elevation of

tone, yet one is as sweet and light as a summer breeze, the other as

grave and sombre as a minor chord.

A reading of Jane Austen will prove profitable in this connection. Her

books are all of a piece in manner and matter. Perhaps the writer who

must please the somewhat hectic modern market will find little profit in

imitating her choice of matter, but the skill with which she weaves her

pattern will be instructive. Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights"

perfectly fits the garment to the body. The story is wild and its style

is wild. George Douglas's "The House With the Green Shutters," a more

recent book and one of singular power, is well done in this respect. It

is essentially rugged and bitter, and the author, though without

particular distinction of individual style, strikes no note not in

keeping with the general conception.


[G] I will note here a matter suggested rather than stated by the

general discussion, which is intended to be practical rather than

philosophical. Narration must be in the first or third person, but the

two fundamental types are personal and impersonal narration, and the

line between them is not drawn by the pronouns I and he. Truly, when the

story is told in the first person, the writer adopts the personal

viewpoint of the narrating character, but when the writer chooses to

write in the third person he also adopts the personal viewpoint of the

character of whose soul he assumes knowledge, if he does so as to the

soul of only one. This is the case, with a shifting personal viewpoint,

when the writer assumes knowledge of the minds and souls of several

characters, but not of all. Assuming knowledge of the soul of a

character necessarily involves looking at the world through his eyes. It

results that the only real impersonal viewpoint is to write in the third

person and either to renounce all knowledge of motives or to assume

knowledge of all events and the spirits of all the characters, when the

reader will gain the impression of an impersonal relator rather than of

a shifting personal viewpoint. The point is of no great importance, but

realization of it may be of some slight service. In particular, if the

story is told in the third person, but from the viewpoint of a single

major character, universal knowledge of events cannot be assumed.

[H] The writer should strive to realize this fact. The necessity is not

to make the reader accept a story as literal truth, but to make him

accept it as fictional truth. Many of Poe's stories are unbelievable,

but their power is felt to the full though they are not believed. In

other words, the reader will grant the author his premises.

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