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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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