Narrative Technique

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Narrative Technique

James Phelan

Narrative technique is the umbrella term for the multiple devices of storytelling. In the terms of narratology's distinction between story and discourse or the what and the how of narrative, narrative technique is a rough synonym for discourse. Narrative technique is so central to our understanding of storytelling that, throughout history, theorists of narrative in general (e.g., Aristotle in the Poetics, ca. 335 BCE) or the novel in particular (e.g., Henry Fielding in his Preface to Joseph Andrews, 1742) invariably comment on it. But ever since Henry James wrote his Prefaces to the New York edition of his novels (1909—10), theorists have paid increasing attention to the subject, as they have proposed and debated various ways of achieving a more adequate understanding of its workings. Here I will focus on four key concepts: transmission, temporality, vision, and voice.

Narrative Transmission

Seymour Chatman (1978), building on the work of Wayne C. Booth (1983), Gerald Prince, and Gérard Genette (1972, 1980), among others, developed an influential model of communication that traces transmission from author to reader through the textual intermediaries of the implied author, narrator, narratee, and implied reader (see diagram in NARRATION).

“Implied author” is Booth's term for the version of herself that the real author constructs through her choices in writing the narrative; the “narrator” is the teller of the tale; the “narratee” is the audience (characterized or uncharacterized) addressed by the narrator; and the “implied reader” is the ideal audience addressed by the implied author.

Not surprisingly, Chatman's model has been contested in various ways. Some theorists, including Genette (1988), argue that the implied author is an unnecessary concept. Some, including Phelan (2005), endorse the concept but argue that it should be located outside the text in order to signal the implied author's role as the agent who produces the text. Others, including Richard Walsh, adopt a “no narrator” position, arguing that the author is the teller unless the novel employs a character narrator (2007, Rhetoric of Fictionality). There is more consensus about the audience side of the model, but Peter J. Rabinowitz has made a strong case for the explanatory value of the “narrative audience” as distinct from the narratee (1976, “Truth in Fiction,” Critical Inquiry 4:121—41). Whereas the narratee is a textual construct identifiable through the teller's address, the narrative audience is a role the real audience takes on as it assumes an observer position in the storyworld and regards the characters and events as real. In a novel with a characterized narratee, the concepts of narratee and narrative audience nicely complement each other. In Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Nelly Dean tells her tale to Lockwood, the outsider who does not believe in ghosts, while the narrative audience listens in and concludes that in this world ghosts roam the moors.

The various disagreements with Chatman's model nevertheless reinforce its value as a useful starting point in analyzing narrative technique. A more significant objection is that the model neglects the role of characters as independent agents of transmission because it subsumes dialogue under the narrator's reporting to the narratee. One task for the future, then, is to remedy this flaw in the model.


Genette (1980) offers what is still the most influential analysis of techniques for representing time, as he compares time in the story to time in the discourse under the rubrics of order, duration, and frequency. Order refers to the relation between the chronological sequence of the story events and the sequence in which they appear in the discourse. In some novels there is a close match, but in others the discourse significantly rearranges the story order by means of analepsis (flashback), as in Nelly's narration in Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847) or prolepsis (flashforward) (as in chap. 3 of Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001), when the temporal location of the narration suddenly jumps from 1935 to “six decades later.”) Duration refers to the relation between the length of time an event takes and the amount of space given to it in the novel. The events of many years can be narrated in a single sentence, and an event that takes a few seconds can be narrated over many pages. Frequency refers to the relation between the number of times an event occurs and the number of times it is narrated. Singulative narration recounts once what happens once: “Reader, I married him” (Charlotte Brontë, 1847, Jane Eyre); iterative narration recounts once an event that occurs many times: “Every morning the world flung itself over and exposed itself to the sun” (Zora Neale Hurston, 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God). Repeating narration reports multiple times an event that happens once, as in Joseph Heller's revisiting of the scene of Snowden's death in Catch-22 (1961).

David Herman (2002, Story Logic) has built on and revised Genette's work by noting that not all novels allow us to specify fully the temporal relations between story and discourse. In such cases we have what Herman calls “fuzzy temporality.” Brian Richardson (2007, Unnatural Voices) goes further and argues that Genette's model does not work well for what he calls the “unnatural narration” of novels that eschew mimesis in favor of other effects and that deliberately frustrate any efforts to find a clear sequence of story events.


Genette (1980) astutely observes that the term “point of view” conflates two different concepts, voice (the answer to the question, “who speaks or tells?”) and vision (“who sees or perceives?”), an observation that paved the way for more precise understandings of author—narrator—character—audience relationships. Genette proposed a taxonomy of three kinds of vision or what he called focalization, based on the ratio between the narrator's knowledge and characters' knowledge. In zero (or free) focalization, the narrator's knowledge exceeds that of the characters (e.g., the first chapter of Bleak House). In internal focalization, the narrator's knowledge is equal to the character's knowledge (e.g., James's center of consciousness narration). In external focalization, the narrator's knowledge is less than the character's knowledge because the narrator does not have access to the character's consciousness (e.g., Dashiell Hammett, 1930, The Maltese Falcon—Genette's example).

Virtually all theorists accept Genette's initial distinction between vision and voice, but many have sought to improve his specific account of vision. Mieke Bal, for example, pays more attention to the agent and the object of focalization. This attention reduces Genette's three types of focalization to two: that by the narrator (zero and external focalization) and that by the character (internal focalization). Other theorists such as Chatman (1990) object to regarding both narrators and characters as focalizers since that conception violates the boundary between story (the realm of characters) and discourse (the realm of narrators). Still other theorists such as Phelan and Manfred Jahn side with Bal rather than Chatman. Phelan (2005) suggests that rather than basing a taxonomy of focalization on ratios of knowledge between narrator and character we should base it on the possible combinations of their visions and voices: narrator's focalization and voice; character's focalization and voice; character's focalization, narrator's voice; narrator's focalization, character's voice; and blends of vision and voice as in much free indirect discourse. Jahn emphasizes that focalization can vary along a spectrum from weakly to strongly located, and that it can be either on-line (about objects immediately within the perceptual frame) or off-line (about objects outside that frame). Jahn also notes that perception is not simply visual, a point that Herman has developed in suggesting that theorists replace the term focalization with the term conceptualization, which would include the cognitive activities associated with all aspects of our embodied human experience. Like Herman, Alan Palmer moves beyond focalization as he emphasizes what he calls the thought-action continuum and the way representations of characters' consciousness can be indicated by descriptions of behavior as well as thought (2010, Social Minds in the Novel). In addition, he calls attention to novelistic representations of intermental (or group) thinking, and, thus, identifies the “social mind” of many novels.


Genette (1980), with characteristic insight, points out that a taxonomy of narrators based on grammatical person is imprecise because any narrator can use the first-person. He proposes an alternative model, his Diegetic Family Tree, that seeks precision by attending to the crisscrossing branches of (1) the narrator's participation in the action (participants are homodiegetic and nonparticipants heterodiegetic) and (2) location along various narrative levels. The level at which the main action takes place is the diegetic; narration at that level (e.g., Nelly's telling to Lockwood) is intradiegetic; narration above (about) that level (e.g., George Eliot's narrator's telling to the uncharacterized narratee in Middlemarch, 1871—72) is extradiegetic; and narration embedded within the diegetic level (a character narrating a story told by a different character) is hypodiegetic. Thus, different combinations of participation and level are possible: the Middlemarch narrator is heterodiegetic—extradiegetic, while Jane Eyre's retrospection marks her as homodiegetic—extradiegetic. A character who narrates a story about others (e.g., Sam Spade's account of Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon) is heterodiegetic-intradiegetic, while one who narrates a story about himself (e.g., the Man of the Hill in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, 1749) is homodiegetic-intradiegetic.

Mikhail BAKHTIN work on voice goes beyond concerns with form to those of IDEOLOGY. His core principles are that any use of language always carries with it some ideological force and that the novel is the genre characterized by the interaction of multiple voices and their attendant ideologies (heteroglossia). More particularly, he examines what he calls double-voiced discourse, narration in which a single utterance contains two voices. In the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice (1813), “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 juxtaposes the voice of someone such as Mrs. Bennet who would utter the statement as gospel, and that of someone such as Mr. Bennet, or of course Austen herself, who would utter it ironically and thereby undermine the ideological values implicit in the first voice.

Bakhtin's concept of double-voicing connects nicely with Booth's concept of distance as a key variable in our understanding of the relationships among authors, narrators, and audiences. In Austen's sentence author, narrator, and implied reader stand together as they distance themselves from the ideology of the literal statement. In unreliable narration, on Booth's account, implied author and implied reader stand together as they distance themselves from the narrator. Phelan (2005) has extended Booth's model by observing that because narrators perform three main functions—reporting about facts, characters, and events; interpreting those entities; and evaluating them—they can be unreliable by underreporting or misreporting, underinterpreting or misinterpreting, and underevaluating or misevaluating. In addition, Phelan (2007a) argues that any one kind of unreliability can either increase or decrease the interpretive, affective, or ethical distance between narrator and implied reader, and, thus, the effects of unreliability can range along a spectrum from strong bonding at one end to extreme estranging at the other.

FEMINIST theorists combine Genette's interest in the formal dimensions of voice with Bakhtin's interest in its political and ideological dimensions as they consider the gender politics of technique. Robyn Warhol (1989, Gendered Interventions) analyzes direct address by heterodiegetic narrators to their narratees in nineteenth-century British fiction and finds a pattern of “engaging” addresses by female authors and “distancing” addresses by male authors. Susan S. Lanser (1992, Fictions of Authority) argues that narrative authority is a function of both the rhetorical and social properties of any given voice, and she analyzes the various strategies—and the attendant risks—that women authors have employed to claim or to eschew authority in different cultural and historical contexts. Alison Case (1999, Plotting Women) identifies and explores the formal and political dimensions of “feminine” narration in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novel, i.e., narration by a narrator, male or female, who is unable either to plot or to preach, unable to shape the tale into a well-designed configuration with a central thematic point.


The careful study of narrative technique that began with James continues to develop as theorists carry out such projects as exploring the links between technique and ethics (see Booth, 1988; Newton, 1995, Narrative Ethics; Phelan, 2007a) and analyzing the various phenomena of unnatural narration. Since narrative technique is so central to the art and power of the novel and since novelists themselves continue to invent new ways of telling stories, we can expect the past century's close attention to narrative technique to continue into the foreseeable future.


1. Bakhtin, M.M. (1981), “Discourse in the Novel,” in Dialogic Imagination, trans. C. Emerson.

2. Bal, M. (2009), Narratology, trans. C. van Boheemen, 3rd ed.

3. Booth, W.C. (1988), Company We Keep.

4. Booth, W.C. (1983), Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed.

5. Chatman, S. (1990), Coming to Terms.

6. Chatman, S. (1978), Story and Discourse.

7. Genette, G. (1972), Figures III.

8. Genette, G. (1980), Narrative Discourse, trans. J. Lewin.

9. Genette, G. (1988), Narrative Discourse Revisited, trans. J. Lewin.

10. Herman, D. (2009), “Beyond Voice and Vision,” in Point of View, Perspective, Focalization, ed. P. Hühn, W. Schmid, and J. Schönert.

11. Jahn, M. (2007), “Focalization,” in Cambridge Companion to Narrative, ed. D. Herman.

12. Phelan, J. (2005), Living to Tell about It.

13. Phelan, J. (2007a), “Estranging Unreliability, Bonding Unreliability, and the Ethics of Lolita,” Narrative 15: 222—38.

14. Phelan, J. (2007b), Experiencing Fiction.

15. Prince, G. (1973), “ Introduction à l'étude du narrataire,” Poetique 14: 178—96.