Narrative Modes

There are so many ways to tell the same story, and sometimes it gets overwhelming deciding how to do it.

First, you’ve got points of view. In a nutshell:

  • First person: I, we
  • Second person: you
  • Third person: he, she

Then you can have alternating POVs in the same story. And if your narrator is a character, he/she doesn’t even have to be the protagonist, either. Yipes.

Next, you have to decide if the reader gets to know the internal thoughts of the narrator.

Is the narrator an actual character in the story? And is he/she reliable or unreliable? Oh, boy. You could even unfold the story via documents like letters or diary entries.

And of course if you choose a third person point of view, you must decide if the narrator will be objective (unbiased) or subjective—conveying the thoughts of the characters. If subjective, will it be limited where the narrator only knows what one character is thinking, or omniscient where he knows everyone’s thoughts. Why not take it a step further…universal omniscient—the narrator knows things even the characters don’t know. Um…


After you’ve sorted through that whole mess, you’re not done. Oh no. Now choose your narrative time: past tense, present tense, or future tense.

Of course, this is all assuming you already know your target audience (MG, YA, adult, etc.) and genre (sci-fi, romance, mystery, etc.) and that you’ve nailed that all elusive “voice” needed to make your book stand out.

But wait, are you sure you want to go with fiction to tell your story? Maybe you want to try non-fiction, poetry, a song, painting, or even *gasp* an interpretive dance.

Now even I’m confused.

After trying out several different combinations, I’ve discovered I’m very comfortable writing YA sci-fi novels told in first person present tense with a good cabbage patch or sprinkler dance move thrown in for good measure. You can read about why I prefer this narrative mode here, but I’ve tried just about every combination under the sun. For me, the story usually dictates how I should tell it, and it might take me several attempts to find the arrangement that feels right. But when I do, everything seems to click and the story flows much easier.

What’s your preferred narrative mode?

Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.