Narration is, for many readers, one of a book’s most appealing features, perhaps second only to story. Narration is all the writing that is not dialogue. Dialogue consists of directly spoken words, words with quotation marks around them — everything else is narration.
Narration shouldn’t be confused with the Narrator, which is the consciousness that tells the story. I wrote about the Narrator in an earlier blog.
Plays and movies do not have narration. They have actions which help tell the story, they have settings, they have movement and color, and they have, above all, dialogue. But they do not contain overarching words that tell the story, both present and past — words that do not come from any character within the play or movie, but words which come from the consciousness that’s telling the story. (Some movies and plays do have narration, but it is usually brief and often serves to provide background information that it might be tedious to listen to as dialogue.)
In fiction and nonfiction, narration adds richness, texture, and scope to the story. It allows the reader to know the depths of the story and to intuit the writer’s views.
Barbara Kingsolver begins Prodigal Summer with narration, not dialogue. Here is the first paragraph of the novel:
Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed.
This is narration written by a great writer. The reader can sense that the story about to unfold may place non-human life on the same plane of importance as human life . . . that the story may be about making choices . . . and revealing secrets. Prodigal Summer offers readers a good story told through strong narration. You can see how readers would be drawn in by this narration: by this consciousness that knows the whole story and will reveal it the way it sees fit. The narration contains unstated but discernible beliefs and judgments.
Narration serves many purposes, one of which is providing necessary information, usually in condensed form, in order to introduce the story or move it forward.Note how much information is contained in the narration of the second paragraph of Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides.
I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family’s table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders.
Through narration a writer can write description, can show action, can reveal a character’s thoughts, and can provide exposition (necessary information for the reader to know). A writer can provide description and exposition through dialogue if she chooses, but most times that will sound unlikely or even false, resulting in bad dialogue.
In writing, Voice is the distinct personality and artistry that every good writer has, the thing that makes Faulkner Faulkner, that makes Stegner Stegner. A writer’s voice is established through various aspects of narration, including but not confined to choices such as sentence structure, vocabulary, and breadth and topic of observation. You can see that in the two examples I quoted earlier, Kingsolver and Conroy are both writing, in part, about nature — but each writer has a distinct voice. Through voice as well as through narration, the author’s world view emerges.
Because the narration of a book of fiction or nonfiction does so much work (story line, exposition, summary, condensation, description, setting of tone, etc.) and because it’s such a large part of any book (well over 50%, perhaps even 80%), some writers take the writing of narration for granted. That is, they don’t pay much attention to perfecting their writing of narration, thinking that maybe their story is so gripping that narration doesn’t matter much.
The opposite is true. Narration matters immensely. The great writers of the world have been masters of narration, lifting readers out of the the mundane and into a different world.
For nonfiction narration, read Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers