Writing

Making the Most of Your Narrative Premise

Three kids with luggage in a burning building on the cover of A Series of Unfortunate Events
We’ve discussed choosing the right perspective and narration style for your story, but for many stories, this is not uniform. Instead, the narration changes with the story’s content. One of the biggest factors in whether these changes are smooth or jarring for readers is your narrative premise – what I’ve previously called a framing premise. This is the implied explanation for how the story is being told to the reader, and it sets expectations for how narration will work for the whole story. Using your narrative premise as a logical framework can help you take advantage of different styles while avoiding changes that are off-putting.

Almost all stories fit into one of four categories for their narrative premise. Let’s go over these categories, the expectations that come with them, and the easiest ways to change narration.

A Tale by an All-Knowing Storyteller

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy cover

The most traditional narrative premise is that an outside storyteller is conveying the story to the audience. It’s accepted that this storyteller has perfect knowledge of everything that happened, even things that are impossible for a person to know. In other words, the narrator is omniscient.

Omniscience is a conceit stemming from the subtle acknowledgement that the story is fictional and the narrator is a real person making it up. That’s why most stories using this premise keep the narrator out of the story. As long as the narration doesn’t contradict this divide between the imaginary and the real, readers won’t look too closely at the narrator or question how they know so much. Readers can then enjoy the story without distraction.

Mr. L. Prosser was, as they say, only human. In other words he was a carbon-based life form descended from an ape. More specifically he was forty, fat and shabby and worked for the local council. Curiously enough, though he didn’t know it, he was also a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan.

– Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Establishing the Premise

A strong story opening makes the writer’s narrative choices clear. This prevents readers from making incorrect assumptions and then feeling disoriented when they learn otherwise. That’s why the narrative premise should be evident right at the opening.

For the all-knowing storyteller premise, readers may assume the narration is in limited third person rather than omniscient third person. So, I recommend presenting information that is unknown to any character in your first paragraph or so. That can be done with phrases like “little did he know” or by describing a bird’s eye view instead of what a character is seeing.

Another thing that can distinguish this premise is meta commentary about the story or the storytelling process. Referring to the reader in second person or making references to the real world is a natural part of the all-knowing storyteller premise, but not every work using this premise does it.

It is useless for me to describe to you how terrible Violet, Klaus, and even Sunny felt in the time that followed. If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you can’t possibly imagine it.

– Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1

If you spend the first half of your novel focusing on the story without these kinds of meta commentary or references, readers may find it jarring when they happen. If you plan to include these, consider putting them in your first scene and then using them periodically.

What’s Easy With an All-Knowing Storyteller

Because the narrator knows what characters are thinking, the narration can zoom into a character’s head without violating any rules. This makes it easier to transition the scene from omniscient to limited and even close narration. The key is to do it deliberately. Start by discussing the character from an outside perspective. Next, summarize the character’s internal processes from a distance. Then, finally, you can start altering the narration to reflect the character’s thoughts.

Here’s an example of what that looks like. In this excerpt, Char the security chief is responding to Terl’s plan to head up the mountains.

Char looked at the empty door. The security chief knew no Psychlo could go up into those mountains. Terl really was crazy. There was deadly uranium up there.

– Ron L Hubbard, Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000

However, if you stick around in close narration long enough, readers may assume that the rest of the text will remain there. Since it’s almost certain the viewpoint character you zoom into won’t be omniscient, transitioning back to an all-knowing narrator could violate expectations. It may still be possible to do it by slowly zooming outward, but the easiest method is to wait for the next chapter or another large boundary. At that point, your readers will expect a change, and you can simply move back to omniscient.

What’s Difficult

Some writers try to combine this premise with a first-person narrator who is a character participating in the story, rather than a real-world storyteller or a stand-in for one. If the narrator’s identity isn’t presented right away, it will be jarring for readers to suddenly discover the narrator is a character. However, the biggest downside is that it will call attention to the narrative premise and make it less believable.

It’s normal for a real storyteller to know about their creation, but characters in a story are almost never all-knowing because it would break the plot. So when the narrator is a character instead of the author’s avatar, it can leave readers wondering how the narrator knows so much. For instance, how could they know what all the other characters were thinking? Most stories can’t offer a sufficient answer.

There are a few rare works with a good answer to this, such as The Book Thief, which is narrated by Death. Other works offer a partial answer in the form of a character who’s done extensive research, and then they ask for the suspension of disbelief about things like characters’ thoughts. This is easier for readers to grant if the narrator is presented at the beginning. It sets appropriate expectations and allows readers’ time to get used to the conceit.

However, many writers are tempted into offering the identity of the narrator later as a reveal. For readers who expect their omniscient narrator to actually be omniscient, these twists are deeply unsatisfying.

A Character Retelling From Memory

John Dies at the End cover

If you take the all-knowing storyteller premise and optimize it for use in first person instead, this is what you end up with. Here, the idea is that you are hearing from a character in the story after the story takes place, and they are recalling their past experiences.

The narrator in this premise shares some characteristics with the all-knowing storyteller. They have the freedom to insert commentary that their past self is not thinking about as events unfold. They can also make allusions to events that haven’t happened yet, as the excerpt below does. However, they don’t have full omniscience. They can’t, for instance, know what other people are thinking unless they specifically state how they know that.

The place I was sitting was a small city in the Midwest which will remain undisclosed for reasons that will become obvious later. I was at a restaurant called “They China Food!” which was owned by a couple brothers from the Czech Republic who, as far as I could tell, didn’t know a whole lot about China or food.

— David Wong, John Dies at the End

Establishing the Premise

It used to be assumed that first-person past tense was a retelling by a future version of the character, but that’s not the case anymore. First-person past tense may simply be used to describe story events as they occur. The difference can be subtle, and any given paragraph may be written the same. The distinction lies in that a character retelling events offers hints about the future character telling the story.

In the below excerpt, the narration switches to present tense to describe things that are still ongoing for the narrating character.

I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn’t sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed.

Then he knocked.

I winced. My mail comes through the mail slot unless it’s registered. I get a really limited selection of registered mail, and it’s never good news. I got up out of my office chair and opened the door.

— Jim Butcher, Storm Front

You can also establish that the character’s future self is narrating by prefacing statements with transitions like “back then” or making references to the future.

The presence of the future narrator can be subtle or obvious, blurring the line between a character retelling and simple first-person past tense. The important thing is to use the first scene to introduce anything you’ll want to pull in later, whether they’re tense changes, meta commentary, or second-person references to readers.

What’s Easy in a Character Retelling

Like for the all-knowing storyteller, the retelling narrator has the ability to get more fully into the head of the character in the action. In this case, it’s their past self. Diving into the head of the viewpoint character will make readers momentarily forget this is a retelling and experience the narrative as unfolding action. The best part is that it’s easy to change back to narration from the future version of the character.

However, with the ability to change back and forth comes a higher risk of losing clarity. Readers might have trouble telling whether pieces of the narration are written from the perspective of the past self or the future self. That can create confusion over the story’s timeline or obscure what the character is actually thinking or feeling. Watch out for this, and add transitions like “at the time,” “back then,” “years later,” and “these days” as needed.

Besides diving into the moment, the narration can easily jump backward and forward in the character’s timeline or even leave the past self behind and switch to present-tense action. However, since people don’t narrate what they’re doing as they’re doing it, this usually means abandoning the idea that there’s an actual audience listening to the character’s retelling. In these cases, I would avoid using meta commentary or second person to refer to readers.

What’s Difficult

The biggest dilemma for this premise is how to relate scenes where the narrating character wasn’t present. The harder the narration leans into the idea that a future version of the character is relating the story to readers, the more cognitive dissonance is created when the person telling the story is suddenly swapped out for someone else. That’s on top of the confusion that can occur simply because it’s unclear who “I” refers to.

One way to address this is to set up a framing device that includes different third-person characters showing up to retell their pasts. The issue here is that you are using a framing device. Even when the framing device manages to feel like more than useless filler, it can make the story feel like backstory, which lowers excitement. However, if the framing device is extremely minimal – nothing but chapter headings and tiny intro blurbs – this could work. And if you’re switching viewpoints in first person, I recommend labeling your chapters with the name of the narrator anyway.

You can also have your narrator retell what they’ve heard from other characters. This will naturally transition the narration to third person, but having the character narrate a full scene instead of summarizing it can stretch believability. Plus, your narrator wouldn’t be able to dive into the head of any character, at least not without explanation. However, this might work if you only want the occasional short foray into what other characters are doing.

Unfolding Action

The Hunger Games Trilogy cover

Many modern stories remove the storyteller as a middleman and otherwise omit any sign that the story is being recalled by something or someone. Instead, the idea is that the readers are directly witnessing it, even for past tense. Generally, this premise is used to streamline the narration and increase immersion, so it’s a good fit for close perspective.

Unfolding action in first and second person is often written in present tense, because the immediacy of present tense suits them well. For first person, present tense also more clearly distinguishes it from a character retelling, which can be important for setting readers’ expectations. For instance, it allows that character to die without anyone asking how they are able to retell events.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the Reaping.

— Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

Establishing the Premise

This premise is very flexible and can executed in different ways. That’s great, but it means that you have to use more care in setting expectations. Your main focus should be on clarifying who your viewpoint character is, whether you’re referring to them in first, second, or third person, and what tense you’ll be using for the story. You’ll usually want to name your viewpoint character and describe their current situation in your first paragraph.

Other aspects of the narration usually fall naturally into place unless you switch things up too much in your opening. Changing narrative distance, inserting thoughts, or diving into backstory immediately after starting the story can confuse readers.

What’s Easy to Do With Unfolding Action

The unfolding action premise is ideal for switching between viewpoint characters. Any number of third-person characters can switch off in close narration. Using several different first person narrators also works smoother for unfolding action than it does for a retelling. When you switch to a new viewpoint character, readers will expect other aspects of the narration, like tense, to stay the same.

If you’re using present tense, switching to past tense for backstory should work fine. But don’t leave readers to puzzle over why a tense change just happened. Make sure they know you are diving into backstory before the tense change becomes obvious.

You can also switch to a different premise by letting one of your characters tell a story. Just keep in mind that this has the same liabilities as using a third-person framing device to switch your first-person narrator. Relegating the action to backstory isn’t good for engagement, and if the character’s story is fictional within their world, it could seem completely superfluous. It isn’t impossible to write a good story within a story, but it takes some care.

What’s Difficult

Many writers want to switch between first- and third-person viewpoints. If you’re going to do it, unfolding action will make it less jarring than if you were changing storytellers, but it still raises the question of what tense to use. Changing up first-person narrators feels smoother in present tense, but unfortunately, third-person present tense still isn’t common enough to be universally palatable.

To give an example of the effect this can have, I have a short story that switches from second person to third person. I asked my beta readers to tell me if the switch worked for them or if it was confusing. For the most part, the change of pronouns worked well, but one beta reader reported the change in tense was confusing. Except there was no change in tense; the whole story is in present. The reader thought the tense changed because they were used to second-person present, but not third-person present.

Despite that, there are novels written in present third that do just fine, and over time it will hopefully feel more normal to readers. I still recommend sticking to either first or third person in the same story, but mixing them isn’t out of the question.

Epistolary Recordings

Person in Space Suit in Red Haze - Cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

Last, the story might be told through some kind of documentation or recording. This is called epistolary narration, and it is a hugely varied format that includes emails, letters, audio transcripts, newspaper articles, journal entries, and more. If you take a regular first-person retelling and just put “Dear Mia,” at the top, it is now an epistolary story.

Epistolary narration is fun but challenging. Its primary strength is the feeling of authenticity it gains by mimicking documentation. However, adhering to the conventions of real-world documents is very limiting, and so it’s difficult to do the story justice without breaking readers’ expectations and losing that authenticity.

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Six days into what should be the greatest month in my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

— Andy Weir, The Martian

Establishing the Premise

How you establish epistolary narration depends on the format:

  • For letters, it’s enough to address them to someone and sign them at the bottom.
  • Journals often have dates at the top, but that isn’t enough to make the format clear. The first entry should either come with a note that says, “from the journal of so-and-so,” or the narrator can mention they are writing in a journal.
  • Emails and chats do best when they are formatted to look like emails or chat messages, but when the full look isn’t feasible, a note at the top saying what they are will work.
  • Newspaper articles come with a distinctive tone that sets them apart, but readers will want to know the name of the paper and the date anyway. You might as well make the format crystal clear by mentioning that first.
  • Audio transcripts need a note, a mention by the narrator, or both.

What’s Easy to Do in Epistolary Narration

All of the different formats of epistolary can easily be mixed together. While it’s startling when a real-world storyteller is suddenly replaced with an in-story character, it’s perfectly understandable for one document to end and another to begin. A journal entry can be followed by an email and then a letter.

That also means you can switch first-person narrators easily just by moving on to the next letter or journal entry. Jumping forward and backward in time between documents is also natural. There’s never a need to summarize the passage of time.

However, you still need to communicate to readers about each document. Label them so readers know what they’re moving to, who wrote it, and when. When you’re jumping in time, don’t count on readers to keep track of dates and do addition or subtraction on top of that.

It’s also conventional to include bits of epistolary writing at the beginning of chapters that are using a different premise. If you put a short letter or newspaper clip there, readers won’t be surprised when the narration changes to unfolding action. However, once you set the expectation that your whole story will be in epistolary format, readers may find a shift in premise disconcerting.

What’s Difficult

Staying authentic to the type of documentation makes narrating scenes a challenge. Most documents don’t realistically include blow-by-blow accounts. Many formats such as letters are intended for a specific recipient and need to be narrated with that in mind. If you include exposition the recipient knows, can feel like “as you and I both know” dialogue.

What happens if you slowly wander away from this format into regular narration? Some readers will expect a letter to actually sound like a letter and feel frustrated if it doesn’t. Other readers won’t notice because they’re used to writers doing that.

When in doubt, use journal entries for the bulk of the story. They don’t have to be tailored to a specific recipient, and they’re common enough that readers aren’t as likely to be surprised by something that doesn’t quite fit.


The conventions we use for narration are complex, evolving, and full of edge cases. Readers have different levels of sensitivity and preferences that are often based on the convention of the time. When in doubt, pick the narrative premise that best conveys the content of your story, and if you need to change your narration style, look for ways to make it feel logically consistent with what you’ve established.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. Charles Lee

    One of the best examples of epistolary narration is the classic short story, Flowers for Algernon. Not only do you get a feel of the character, but the character’s change in intelligence is mirrored in the writing. It begins with journal entries rife with spelling and grammar mistakes, and the writing gradaully improves as the protagonist’s intelligence improves. It makes for a terrific hook.

  2. Kenneth Mackay

    I’ve read at least one story (a murder mystery) where the narrator is recounting events they participated in, but concealing their identity by speaking of their past self in third person (while addressing the reader in first person). What would you call that?

    • Chris Winkle

      Technically that’s a character retelling with an unreliable narrator, but maybe it’s presented as something different to the audience at first. If the character is describing themself in third person, what is their given explanation for knowing these things? Are they pretending they were a different character in the scene?

  3. Kenneth Mackay

    If I remember the narrator was describing a small group of characters (including a murderer and victim) referring to each of them by name, but not identifying which one was the narrator, so that at the beginning of the story the reader couldn’t tell which one would turn out to be the murderer or the victim.
    The rationale given was that the events had changed the narrator’s outlook so much that they didn’t see themselves as the same person they were then.
    The narrator didn’t describe anyone’s thoughts (otherwise there would have been no mystery) – just events and the characters reactions to them.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yeah, that’s what I describe in my last paragraph on the character retelling premise. The character is telling a story about other people (lying in this case, but similar effect), but then there’s no viewpoint character AND the narrator isn’t omniscient. This is an extremely restrictive narration style that I wouldn’t recommend doing for any length of time, but for a single scene it might be worth it.

      I think I’d have trouble buying that rationale. If the character was deliberately trying to cover something up that’s one thing, but that doesn’t sound like it would motivate someone to actively mislead the audience. But maybe it sounded better in context. If it had been many years and the narrator was really ashamed of something they had done… maybe.

  4. Cay Reet

    I like the way “Moriarty. A Novel” made use of its first-person perspective. We get a very close view of what happens and what the narrator thinks about it, but not much thinking along other lines, which allows for the narrator to disguise his real identity until the big twist right as it seems the climax is over. There’s so many hints to it, but they’re just going to pass you by until it’s happening.

    With a different perspective, it might have been easier, I think. Third person and not all that close, for instance, but the first person perspective makes it so much more unexpected when the twist happens and it turns out the narrator is not who he claimed to be before.

    • Chris Winkle

      Do you know if that was a character retelling? It’s actually not too hard to hide information in that case, because a retelling character may simply choose to hide things like an omniscient narrator would. But it sounds like you’re saying this was more immersive unfolding action and the writer had to word things really carefully.

  5. Robert Billing

    That was very interesting, thanks. My model is that the story is an historical novel, except that being SF the history hasn’t happened yet. In theory the novels are written by someone a century and a half later who has access to all the documents and personal diaries, and knows the characters well enough to write about them in pretty close third person. On my website I have put a prologue by this historian, in which he complains about the problem involved in finding the protagonist’s personal journals.

    The major reason for this is wanting to do plot and counter plot to ramp up the tension. If I have the protagonist in deep trouble in one plot thread, and somebody else trying to find her in another I really need to be in third person.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.