Is a scene not working? Are you failing to create intrigue, establish tone, or captivate an audience? Consider what narrative mode you’re using to tell your story.
If words are the building blocks then narrative modes are the design of your story. Whichever ones you pick will yield a different construction, and therefore, a different experience for your readers.
There are five narrative modes: description, dialogue, action, thought, and exposition. Today we will look at these five forms and how you can experiment while editing to determine which works best.
To put it in context, we’ll explore how different authors use varying narrative modes to start their stories—but this approach works anywhere: beginning, middle, or end. If something isn’t working, change the narrative mode and see what happens.
Let’s get into it!
Descriptions are great for establishing a setting or character.
It’s most effective if it’s an intriguing image. If you waste too many words describing something obvious or mundane, you won’t hook your audience or keep them turning the pages. To write effective descriptions, activate the senses: what do you see, hear, smell, feel, or taste? What’s unusual?
Alternatively, you can use descriptions to establish context, for example, a before or after image. Take the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (Amazon). He starts the story with a description of an average house before the chaos and destruction:
The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means — it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.
– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Starting a story with dialogue can grab the reader’s attention. It jumps right into the middle of a scene, introducing a character and building a connection. Hearing a character speak makes them more personable and is often more engaging than having the writer paraphrase what’s been said. When it’s well-written, dialogue can give a sense of who the character is, where they are, and what they want.
However, bad dialogue can confuse readers because they don’t know who’s talking or why they should care. Don’t begin with your characters making small talk or a boring conversation that the reader may have in their own life. If you’re opening your story or maintaining narrative momentum, make sure the dialogue is compelling. If you want to hit your reader with something unexpected, dialogue is a great way to do it. Check out how Douglas Coupland opens his novel Jpod (Amazon):
“Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”
“Who does he think he is?”
“Come on, guys, focus. We’ve got a major problem on our hands.”
– Jpod by Douglas Coupland
In medias res is Latin for “in the midst of action” and that’s what you should consider when writing an action scene. Start your scene in the middle of an event and create stakes, tension, and strong pacing that will hook your reader while still giving them relevant details like time and place. It doesn’t mean you begin at the climax or the most intense part. It means you place your readers at a link in the continual chain of cause and effect: Because this is happening, this is happening — and because that happened, this is now happening.
In an energetic action sequence, use active voice and remove filter words, such as saw, felt, and thought. Writing a good action scene doesn’t need to include characters, although a goal or a conflict is necessary. Action is great, but always ask: Why should the readers care?
Take a look at this opening to The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (Amazon).
The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp. The waves rose to goliathan heights, crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage; the white sprays caught in the night sky cascaded downward over the deck under the force of the night wind. Everywhere there were the sounds of inanimate pain, wood straining against wood, ropes twisting, stretched to the breaking point. The animal was dying. – The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
A story that opens with a thought, is a story that opens in the past, a reflection, a flashback. How is this effective?
Thoughts allow the readers to understand a character. By seeing how they think or relive a significant memory, readers learn about their motivations and personalities. We view the conflict from their perspectives. Thoughts allow the author to convey the theme quickly. With thoughts, you can establish a pivotal scene, like a murder, a love loss, or an important lesson, and have that guide the character for the rest of the story.
A great example of this is The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (Amazon). The narrator, Nick Carraway’s thought has nothing to do with the plot directly, but it shows his principles. The opening gives him the integrity he needs to tell the story and for us to trust him.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ – The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
We are told that expositions should be avoided because they’re info dumps. Unskilled authors use them to give the readers all the information they need to understand some convoluted plot. Think of the opening crawl of any Star Wars movie where the floating text sets the stage for the galactic confrontation. Phantom Menace literally begins by explaining the details of space tax and trade routes.
While exposition has a bad reputation for pushing the readers out of an emotional or visceral experience, it’s a reliable mode for explaining a character, a historical event, or a critical mission. With that said, here are a few notes to consider when using expositions for your story:
- Make sure the details are intriguing: don’t share information that the reader can assume.
- Create a sense of place: ground your story and connect it with a specific scenario.
- Pay attention to the tone and mood: Just because it’s an info dump, doesn’t mean it should take the reader out of the story. When writing ask: how do the characters feel about these details? Is it dark and scary, or is it hopeful like at the beginning of The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (Amazon)?
This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time. – The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
Whether you’re editing the beginning, middle, or end of your story consider the narrative mode. Remember, you are not tearing down your house, you’re redesigning it so that everything works better together. If you’re stuck and a section isn’t working, consider changing how you deliver the information. Switching the narrative modes can give strength to different aspects of the story; you change the pace, mood, and intensity. Practice each one, because you never know when a dialogue scene can work better as an exposition, or an action can become a thought.
For more writing ideas and original stories, please sign up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, they’ll only include my proudest works.
Join my YouTube community for videos about writing, the creative process, and storytelling. Subscribe Now!