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Features of Narrative Prose_

Novels and short stories can use language in such a wide variety of ways that it is difficult to be specific about linguistic and stylistic features. There are, however, certain features that are worth looking out for.


The manner can be formal or informal, depending upon the relationship the author wants to create with the reader. Often the modern novel will try to re-create the language of everyday, particularly in first person narratives (stories told from the point of view of one individual, using the first person singular pronoun I). Older novels tend to be more formal in their address to the reader. It is also important to decide what the author's attitude to characters and events is: irony, for instance, allows the author to write in a contradictory way - what is actually meant is contrary to what the words on the page appear to say. An author may use irony to show the difference between how things are and how they might be; to mock certain characters; to highlight a discrepancy between how characters see a situation and its true nature; or to emphasise that a reader knows more than the characters themselves.

Point of View

The point of view is central to narrative prose because the reader needs to know who is telling the story. In a first person narrative, the I narrator relates the events she or he experiences. This allows the reader a direct insight into the character's mind. Often the experiences are viewed retrospectively so that there is a difference between the character's mature and immature personalities (for instance, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; Great Expectations by Charles Dickens; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess). The choice of a first person narrator produces a personal relationship which tends to encourage the reader to empathise with the main character. Because this approach gives only one person's view of the story, however, it can biased, showing a limited understanding of the events and other characters.

In a third person narrative the narrator is often omniscient - all-seeing and all-knowing. Such narrators tend to give an overview of the story. Because there is no I, the narration is presented to the reader directly without an intermediary. There are two kinds of omniscient narrator: the unintrusive and the intrusive. The unintrusive narrator allows the author to tell the story from a distance, without the reader being aware of a persona telling the story or making judgements. The action is presented without many explicit comments or judgements. Writers like Graham Green and E. M. Forster are known for their invisible narrators. The intrusive narrator, on the other hand, explicitly comments on events and characters, often pointing to the significance of what they are presenting and providing a moral interpretation. Authors like Jane Austin and George Eliot intervene in their novels, explicitly guiding and influencing the reader's judgements.

Normally, third person narrators relate events and make descriptions using the declarative mood.The interrogative or imperative moods can be used to make direct addresses to the reader, inviting judgements or opinions on events and characters. Such addresses will often be marked by a change from simple past tense to simple present. Novelists are interested in more than just events. The thoughts and opinions of characters are central to the creation of a fictional world. In the nineteenth century, many novelists used interior monologues to build up the thought patterns of their characters. Although supposedly reflecting a character's thoughts, the author would order and pattern these so that they were fluent and logical. In the twentieth century, writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were some of the first to experiment with stream of consciousness writing, in which thought patterns appear on the page randomly. To show how chaotic and jumbled thoughts often are, writers can manipulate syntax and layout. This approach attempts to convey on the page the complexity of the human mind.


The lexis can be simple or complicated, formal or colloquial, descriptive or evaluative. The choices made depend upon the author's intentions.

Words may be subject specific, belonging to a particular field; they may be idiosyncratic, clearly linked to a particular character; or they may be linked to a real or imaginary dialect appropriate to the setting of the novel. The connotations of the words chosen will build up a particular viewpoint of the fictional world. Nouns may be abstract or concrete, depending upon whether the prose focuses on events or states of mind. Proper nouns may be used to give the fictional world and its inhabitants a concrete basis. The intentional omission of names may create a mysterious atmosphere.

Modifiers may provide physical, psychological, emotive or visual detail. They may focus on colour, sound or noise to create the fictional world. It is through the modifiers that authors can influence the reader - they can describe or evaluate using words with positive or negative connotations which direct the reader to respond in chosen ways. Modifiers are crucial in forming a parallel world; in helping the reader to make decisions about events, characters and places; and in adding depth to any underlying message.


Verbs tell the reader about the kinds of actions and processes occurring. The use of stative verbs suggests that the author's interest lies in description, whether it be of setting or states of mind; dynamic verbs place an emphasis on what is happening, implying that the author is more interested in action than in contemplation. All consideration of the lexis of fictional prose must take account of the time and place in which the novel is set. Authors' lexical choices will vary depending upon the kinds of worlds and the people they are creating.


Writers can adopt a variety of approaches to convey the speech of their characters on the page. Direct speech is an exact copy of the precise words spoken, allowing characters to speak for themselves. This approach gives prominence to the speaker's point of view. If writers vary spelling, vocabulary, word order and so on, it is possible to produce an accurate phonological, lexical and syntactical written version of characters' accents and dialects. Indirect speech reports what someone has said, using a subordinate that clause. The person who is reporting the conversation intervenes as an interpreter by selecting the reported words. This submerges the original speaker's point of view.

Free indirect speech is a form of indirect speech in which the main reporting clause (for instance, he said that ...) is omitted. This merges the approach of both direct and indirect speech. It uses the same third person pronouns and past tense as indirect speech, but reproduces the actual words spoken more accurately. It can be used to create irony because it gives the reader the flavour of characters' words, while keeping the narrator in a position where he or she can intervene. Free direct speech can also be used to direct readers' sympathy away from certain characters or to indicate changes in the role of a character. Writers can present a character's thoughts in a similar range of ways.


The grammar of narrative prose will reflect the kind of world created and the kind of viewpoint offered. In many ways, novelists are freer in their potential choices than writers are in other varieties - in fiction, non-standard grammar and lexis are acceptable because they are part of a created world and are an integral part of the characters who inhabit that world.

Most of the fiction is written in the simple past tense - extensive use of other tenses or timescales is worth commenting on. The effects created by writing completely in the present tense, for instance, can be quite dramatic. Mood will vary depending upon the requirements of the author. Declarative mood is most common, but interrogatives and imperatives are used to vary the pace and change the focus. In fiction, sentence structures are often complex. When simple sentences are used, they are often emphatic or striking. Because writers can experiment, there can also be sentences that do not appear to conform to standard grammatical patterns. Writers vary the kind of sentence structure they use, to maintain readers' interest and to make their fictional world seem alive.

Metaphorical Language

Metaphorical language is a writer's way of personalising the world created. Metaphors, symbolism and so on tell the reader something about an author's relationship with the fictional world. Such language usage makes the imaginary world real and guides the reader in judging the characters, setting and events.

Rhetorical Techniques

The rhetorical techniques a writer chooses persuade readers to involve themselves or distance themselves from the fictional world. Juxtapositions, listing, parallelism and so on can be used to influence the reader's perception of characters, settings and events. Patterning may be stylistic or phonological, but the end results all guide readers' responses. Marked themes, the passive voice and end focus all throw emphasis on certain elements of the text, highlighting things that the author considers to be important.

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