In the next section, we will examine the role of the narrator and look at the types of things you should and shouldn’t put in your narrative summary. However, before we look at these deeper technical issues, we must first examine what is meant by “narrator.”
In its simplest terms, the narrator is the voice in your book which is not that of any of the characters. In other words, anything you write which does not come from the mouths of your characters is narrative summary. However, the narrator is not you.
Let me explain.
Let’s go back to a well-worn example:
John walked into the cramped three-bedroom house, carrying a large cardboard box with a massive pink ribbon tied into a bow at the top. He found his sister leaning on the door frame of the open back door, the final drags of a cigarette in her hand. When she saw John, she flicked the cigarette butt into the garden and then turned to him, her face beaming with a smile.
“John, is that for me?” she said, nodding at the box. John smiled back, pushing the box onto the kitchen table, its awkward weight evident.
“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you?” John looked around in an exaggerated motion, before leaning in and kissing his sister on the cheek.
“You’d better open it quick. It’s not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”
She danced from foot to foot, as she tugged at the pink ribbon. As soon as the ribbon fell away, the box lid forced its way open with an explosion of black fur, ears, eyes and nose. John’s sister scooped up the dog.
“A puppy! I love him.”
In the example above, all the narration has been put in italics. You can see that the narrator is the person telling you the story. The narrator is the person who is communicating directly with the reader.
Therefore, novels contain two types of voice: the characters’ voices AND the narrator’s voice.
(Please, this is not true for most non-fiction books. In non-fiction, the narrator’s voice is often that of the writer).
However, and this is important, the narrator’s voice is NOT the author’s voice.
The narrator is a character who the author controls. The narrator often says things that an author believes to be untrue; that’s why it is called fiction.
In broad terms, there are two types of narrators for fiction books:
- First person.
- Third person.
There is also a second person narrative voice but this difficult to apply well and it, therefore, rarely used. More importantly, your reader will be expecting a first or third person viewpoint.
In first person, the narrator is speaking directly to the reader from personal experience. The narrator will know nothing more of the story than is revealed by the characters. You can spot a first-person narrator a mile off, by the use of first-person pronouns (I, we, our, etc.).
Here’s a first-person narration example from the opening section of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness [without updating anything per today’s grammar and spelling rules]:
The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.
For third person the narrator is telling the story and has a wider knowledge of the story than is told by the characters. By this, I mean that the narrator knows what is happening in events beyond those described in the scenes.
As a third-person narrator example, here’s the opening to Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice [again without updating anything per today’s grammar and spelling rules]:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
“What is his name?”
At this point, all you really need to know about narrative voice is that there are two types of voice: first and third.
If you go delving into this topic elsewhere, you will find much written on the theory of narrative. It is an academic subject in its own right. You will find discussions of different types of narrators and their roles in the story. This is all good and, mostly, very interesting. However, for the context of this book, it is not needed.
That all said, there is one little wrinkle that you may find very helpful, and that’s the two main types of third-person viewpoints:
- Third-Person Limited.
- Third-Person Omniscient.
Third-Person Limited — In modern writing this is, by far, the most common type of narrative viewpoint. In short, the narrative summary is written with a focus on just one character. This means that, though each chapter will be written from a third-person perspective, the events described will focus on a single character.
Third-Person Omniscient — This is a less common narrative perspective, though it is still seen in modern writing. Third-person omniscient has the narrator’s focus on multiple characters. This means that, even though there may be one main character, you will often see chapters that focus fully on other characters. Two very popular examples of this narrative viewpoint are The Da Vinci Code and the Game of Thrones series.
OK, so let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
This book is written for authors who write in third person. Yes, the techniques will work for first-person authors, and, yes, authors of first-person stories will benefit from applying these techniques. However, the focus is on third person.
Now, before we move on, let me introduce one additional phrase: narrative summary. In the context of this book, narrative summary is everything the narrator says.
Go back and look at the example at the top of this page. Everything in bold is narrative summary.