Should You Ever Use Unusual Narrative Forms?

When readers open a book, they usually know what they’re going to be getting. First- or third-person narrative voices, told in the past tense, in a linear timeline, are the most common narrative forms. Readers are familiar with these forms and comfortable with them, and, because these forms allow a nice blend of flexibility and stability, they top the popularity scale for good reason.

Most authors will never stray from this model no matter how many books we write. But does this mean we can’t or shouldn’t use unusual narrative forms?

We find unusual forms in many popular and respected works—everything from Audrey Niffenegger’s non-chronological double 1st-person present tense narrators in The Time Traveler’s Wife to William Faulkner’s script-like presentation of dialogue in Requiem for a Nun to Jay McInerney second-person narration in Bright Lights, Big City.

All of these books, and many more, break the wall of reader expectations by taking risks with style and format—and, for the most part, readers will agree they do it successfully. But how can you tell if breaking the rules and straying from the beaten path is something you should attempt in your story?

Experimentation in art is important to our growth as artists. But we have to realize that only the best of experiments deserve to be shared with our readers. We should only use unusual styles when we’re absolutely confident that

a) an unusual form is the best way to tell a particular story

b) we’re capable of mastering that form in a way that will enhance rather than take away from the reading experience should we attempt it.

In other words, when in doubt, don’t. But if you’re convinced an unusual format is right for your story, don’t be afraid to give it a whirl. Just remember to be brilliant!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever used an unusual narrative forms in any of your stories? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I think that this might be weird. A couple of my characters can talk to each other using their minds, but the readers can’t always tell whether they’re doing that or not. Is that just plain old wonky or annoying? I can’t tell. 😛

    • Bob Delmanto says

      You could have the thought conversations in italics, and have any specific thoughts the characters have to themselves in quotes.

  2. only in short works. It’s hard to sustain although perhaps with practice it would get easier.

  3. @Kate: Unless there’s a good reason for the reader not to know what’s going on, that kind of technique is probably going to run the risk of being annoying. You know readers – they always think they need to be in the know. 😉

    @MsHatch: I’ve read many books (the above mentioned and too many more to name) that pull off unusual narratives brilliantly. But I know from experience that kind of brilliance is much easier to read than to execute.

  4. I’ve done 2nd person and future narratives. just never finished writing a story in that POV..

  5. Second person is tough to write and even tougher to pull off. Aside from those “write your own adventure” stories, Bright Lights, Big City is about the only novel-length 2nd-person narrative anyone’s seen. Short stories are different though. They allow a lot more flexibility.

  6. I read a very good book but none of the dialog was in quotes. Very disconcerting … it took me about 50 pages to get used to it. But the book was excellent so I kept at it.

  7. Wouldn’t have been Cormac McCarthy, would it? In general, I’m not a big fan of the no-quotes-mark trick. It just doesn’t add more than it takes away. What it *does* offer is a kind of dreamy distance from the dialogue. But that effect has got to be super important to the story to bother messing with it.

  8. Hm, it seems to present a conundrum: use an unusual narrative form only when you think the story calls for it, but don’t use it unless you can do it well. I agree, though. In order to do it well, a writer must spend a good amount of time practicing! A bit of catch-22. Sounds like a bunch of attempts will land up in the drawer before a writer can master it and publish one.
    That being said, experimenting is one of the ways a writer grows! A good reminder. Thanks, KM!

  9. That’s what the first (and second and third) drafts are for! Practice makes perfect.

  10. LOL! You have to be brilliant. I thought we were always supposed to remember that? 😀

    No, you’re making me think of these verse novels that are coming out now. I’m leary of these, but I’ve heard some are brilliant. Who knows. For now, I’m sticking w/tradition~ :o) <3

  11. I’m a little leery of them too. I want to pick one up one of these days. Just haven’t found a good one.

  12. Kevin McCourt (@broke_writer) says

    I’ve dabbled with a novel told in first-person present tense, where the hero actually discusses the novel he’s writing as he writes it. This particular plot makes this an interesting way to tell the story, but at about 22k words in, I’m still not sure if it’s good enough to invest the time in finishing it.

  13. Interesting! The idea appeals to me, although a lot of its probability of success would depend on the execution. Be worth playing worth though, I should think.

  14. I have done a lot of writing in the present tense, as part of an ongoing competition of sorts. It is basically a literary combat sport, where writers take turns illustrating a fight through one’s character, and it is very action-oriented. I’m not sure how many people have heard of that sort of thing, but if you’re interested I mention it a bit more in my profile/blog. I think this practice has been of help in developing action scenes in short stories and novels, and from time to time I allow the narrative to shift gear and slip into the present to lend more immediacy to the action. Obviously you have to be very careful with tense changing; you don’t want the reader to notice, they should be just leaning closer to your book as the action draws them in.

    I’ve done a couple of lengthy short stories in the first person as well, but I tend to find it a little uncomfortable. I suppose I am just very used to the typical third person narrative structure, but also I always feel that first person writing ends up being flooded with the word/letter ‘I’. I this, I that, there’s an I two or three times a sentence! I don’t like that kind of repetition. Maybe it’s a pet peeve I have.

  15. Present tense has become such a fad of late years that it’s not really even that unusual anymore. I used it myself in the last book I wrote. In general, it lends itself better to introspective works with only short burst of action, since its sense of immediacy can make long action scenes uncomfortably staccato and aggressive over the long haul. Still, despite its limitations, I’m quite fond of it as both a reader and a writer.

  16. Personally, I find unusual narrative forms, even the use of present-tense, an immediate turn-off.

    Maybe this is a limitation in me as a reader, but if I bought a book and then discovered an unusual narrative form, I would be quite disappointed.

  17. It’s important for authors to realize that any use of an unusual narrative is probably going to alienate some readers. However, there are plenty readers (like me!) who *love* a well done experiment. As long as it doesn’t interfere with the storytelling, I’m willing to go anywhere an author wants to take me.

  18. Have you read The Sorrows of Young Werther? I liked it quite a bit. Unusual narrative in the form of letters sent to a friend(I found myself taking the role of the friend in my mind and reading his letters lol). I also found that Werther as a protagonist displayed the opposite of traits that many heroes/heroines might need to push a plot. He was glum, depressed, melodramatic, and self-loathing yet I kept turning the pages. If anybody’s interested in exploring some different styles might want to check this one out. Should be free if you have an ereader, too 🙂

  19. Sounds interesting! I’m off to Amazon to check it out.

  20. Nic Ford says

    I’ve used non-standard forms quite a lot: second person, first person present etc. Often I’ll delineate different characters’ POVs by using e.g. first-person present for one and third person past for another. I find it pretty effective.

  21. Michael Beedy says

    I am not exactly sure what this would fall under, but I am working on a story where there are two POVs. One of them is the protagonist and the other is the antagonist. The antagonist’s POV is kind of “2nd” person as he is talking to another character (a main supporting character.) He is telling his story to this character – this character is the catalyst for his actions and behavior. He blames the character and is telling him why and what he has done because of the actions of this character. If I were to compare it to anything I have read, it would be YOU by Caroline Kepnes.

    I have considered making this main supporting character the protagonist, but I like the idea of him being more of a Dr. Watson-esque to the MC”s Holmes. We’ll see how it goes….I just started

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.