Narrative Devices: Definitions, Benefits and Tips

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 1, 2021

Writers use narrative devices to help effectively tell stories. A narrative device might be part of the overall style or perspective of a piece that helps writers convey the events of their stories. Knowing a variety of narrative devices can help you choose the right one for your piece of writing. In this article, we discuss different narrative devices, the benefits of learning them and some tips you can use to choose the right device.

What is a narrative device?

A narrative device is a writing technique you can use to tell a story. Narrative devices combine things like tone, point of view and tense to create a consistent narrative that the reader can follow throughout a story. You can consider your genre and other examples of narrative devices when detailing your plot, characters and setting to see if a narrative device may help you tell your story or convey your purpose. There are different narrative devices you can use that can affect point of view, theme, style, plot and setting.

Related: How To Become a Writer in 7 Steps

Benefits of using a narrative device

Narrative devices can enhance the meaning of a story. A piece of writing can contain elements like plot, setting and characters, and narrative devices can help you represent each of these elements. Some benefits of using narrative devices include:

  • Provide structure: Narrative devices can provide structure to your story. You can apply these devices consistently across a story to provide a structure to the reader.

  • Communicate meaning: Using narrative devices is a method writers can use to provide meaning for their readers. You can use these devices to help readers understand the purpose of your piece of writing.

  • Connect to readers: Choosing different narrative devices can help you connect to your readers at different levels. Rather than just relating through content, you can use devices to address or ignore your audience.

Types of narrative devices

Here are some of the narrative devices that writers commonly use:

Chronological or reverse chronological

A chronological narrative tells the events in a story in order of how they happened and reverse chronological is the opposite, telling a story from the ending backward. A chronological narrative can include other literary devices like flashbacks (where the narrative shifts to a character's memory) to tell parts of the story, but the writer reveals most of the plot sequentially. This is one of the most common narrative devices as it is easy for readers to follow and reflects life.

Real time

Real time is a narrative device where the plot unfolds exactly during the length of the story. This is most commonly achieved in screenwriting or playwriting. The length of the play, for example, may correspond with the characters' experience. You might consider a single scene or following a character from location to location to capture a real-time narrative. This can be effective in involving the audience at each moment.

Breaking the fourth wall

The fourth wall is the space separating a performance and the audience. The narrative device of breaking the fourth wall shows a character in the narrative directly addressing the audience or reader. This actively engages readers in the narrative.

Epistolic

Epistolic or diary format is a narrative device where you create a narrative through a series of journal entries or other written documents. The main character may convey their emotions or reactions to certain situations or recount the details of a day. This helps the audience see the story exactly as the character does, understanding the character's fears, joys, excitement and thoughts.

Documentary

A documentary narrative is a device that records or transcribes the events of someone's life or situation. Often, characters within the story can directly address the reader or audience, as interviewers might ask them questions in responses to situations. Documentaries are great narrative devices if you want to replicate a real-life situation.

Framing story

A framing story is best simplified as a story within a story. For example, characters within a story performing a play is a framing story. This is best used to show scenes that might not directly move a plot forward, or it can highlight themes from the larger work. You can also create a framed story by a character introducing the narrative at the beginning of a story. This might use other devices like flashback to frame the narrative.

Stream of consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that transcribes what a character is thinking. This can include descriptions of what they see, immediate reactions or how they feel. This style can convey the continuous flow of thoughts in a main character. You might combine this with other narrative devices like real time to show what the character experiences and how they might process these experiences.

Other plot devices

There are several other plot devices you can use in narrative writing. You might see these used across genres and styles in combination with other devices. Here are just a few examples:

  • Plot twist: A plot twist is an unexpected event that dramatically shifts a narrative. A common example of this is a sudden death of a main character.

  • Foreshadowing: This is subtle clues that something is going to happen in the future of the narrative. These clues might not be clear to the reader right away but may seem obvious after reading the full narrative.

  • Unreliable narrator: This is when a narrator has certain characteristics that make them untrustworthy. This is a device driven by the character and you may combine it with other devices like stream of consciousness.

Other style devices

Style devices are narrative choices you can make across the general language and tone of a narrative. Some examples of this include:

  • Allegory: Allegory uses symbolism in characters and situations to represent actual situations or problems in society. You may choose to use allegory if the story has a moral to convey.

  • Imagery: Using sensory detail, imagery is when you describe items with great specifics. This helps the reader or audience experience the scene you are showing.

  • Parody: Parody is imitating something else. You might write parody to criticize elements of society.

  • Satire: Similar to parody, satire uses elements like exaggeration and sarcasm to highlight certain qualities in people or situations. For example, satire that focuses on wealthy people might describe them as surrounded by physical bills.

Related: 8 Types of Symbolism

Tips for choosing a narrative device

Here are some tips you can use when deciding on a narrative device:

Consider point of view

Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. You can write from the perspective of a main character (first person), an ambiguous perspective (third person) or have the audience be the main character (second person). These can create different intimacy levels with your reader. For example, first person allows you to explore a person's thoughts, so you might use the stream-of-consciousness device. Third-person narratives can be less intimate, so you might use imagery to increase the level of detail in a story.

Related: Guide To Writing a Second-Person Narrative

Consider purpose

Purpose is the overall aim of your piece. If you have a moral you want to convey, consider devices like parody or satire. If you want the piece to reflect reality as much as possible, you might use documentary style. Narrative devices can help move a story forward and may enhance the purpose of your piece.

Related: The Creative Writing Process

Consider form

Form is how you structure your story. For example, an epistolic narrative might have chapters separated as individual journal entries, but a stream-of-consciousness narrative might not have chapters at all. If you have yet to choose a narrative device to use, consider the form you plan to write in. This could help narrow down what might most effectively fit your narrative.

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