Gremble’s Narratology, Part I

“All I want,” I lamented, “is an Intro to Narratology textbook that takes its examples from slash fanfic instead of from Joyce and Proust. Is that too much to ask?”

To which my friend replied, “I think you’re going to have to write that one yourself, bb.”

Alright then.

So everyone who’s been through public school has been exposed to at least a smidgen of narratology, in that there are three main types of narrative point-of-view: first-person, third-person omniscient, and third-person limited. (With wanky po-mo options on second-person and first-person-plural.) Your teachers may also have talked about tense: in that most novels are written in past tense, with some ballsy outliers who experiment with present tense.

None of which is wrong, but is way insufficient when it comes to understanding what’s going on, structurally, in the stories you read. Good news is that a lot of really smart people have been throwing their brains at this problem and producing some really insightful work on the subject — bad news is that they’ve all invented their own idiosyncratic terminology for it. (For fuck’s sake, they can’t even agree on what “narrative” means.)

It is a clusterfuck of everyone using the same terms (mood, mode, voice, speech, story) to refer to completely different concepts. I have been doing so much reading trying to wrap my head around this, trying to find the “right” way to talk about it, the right words for the ideas I need to discuss, and have concluded that… it’s a clusterfuck. People are mostly talking about the same concepts, but they make distinctions and create subcategories that others don’t, and they aren’t ever calling them by the same words.

So. My own research on the subject was most strongly influenced by Dorrit Cohn and Gerard Genette — and Cohn was good at picking/coining terms and I will follow her lead when appropriate, but Genette is the reason we have this problem in the first place, so I’ll tell you what he calls ‘em, and then mostly proceed to not follow suit.


Narratology covers a lot of territory, but my interest is in characters: how we get access to their interiority (i.e., their thoughts and emotions), how much access we get, and what’s the relationship between the character(s) and the narrator. So I’m skipping the part about tense and semiotics, and going straight to methods of narration.

Narrative Approaches

[Genette (1980) calls this “mood,” in a rather strained analogy to grammatical mood. He writes about the concept very lucidly and concretely, but that is a terrible term for it, because (a) it’s not actually analogous to grammatical mood, (b) most people don’t know what grammatical mood is anyway, and (c) the informal understanding of “mood” means it’s likely to get confused with the atmosphere or “feel” of a work. See Exhibit A: the Wikipedia entry on narrative mood.]

So I’m going to discuss this under the vague umbrella term “narrative approaches,” but use his definition, which is “the regulation of narrative information” (162), and his formulation of the two directions that “regulating” information can come from:

(1) How much information is shared with the reader (which Genette calls “distance” and most other scholars call “mode” — but they call a lot of things mode, so I’m going to designate this specifically as presentational mode.)

(2) Which character that information is originating from (Genette’s “perception,” everyone else’s “point of view” or “focalization.” I go with focalization.)

Bear with me, I promise this gets much clearer.

Presentational Mode

The two main presentational modes are scene and summary, which correlate with showing vs. telling.

Scene – presents a stream of actions as they are happening — “in the moment,” so to speak. Story time (the fictional time taken up by a series of events) is roughly the same as discourse time (the time it takes the reader to read it). Scene is characterized by quoted dialogue, quoted monologue, and a play-by-play of all events that are occurring.

Summary – condenses the events or trends of a longer span of time into a short summary. No limit to how long or how short the condensed time is — can be a character’s entire upbringing summed up in a paragraph, or, for example, if two characters are talking in a restaurant, it can be eliding the conversation when the waiter comes by to take their orders, because that’s not important, in order to more quickly get back to their previous discussion, which was.

Here’s an example of the two modes used in combination, with summary underlined, from Odsbodkins’ “Gravitation”:

As the weeks drew on, they actually started to properly get to know the people in their class. [Bucky] didn’t quite get as far as apologising to Ralph, but he had a couple of civil conversations with the guy, which seemed to please Steve. The story of their disastrous date with Sylvia and Vivian got told and retold, until it involved Sylvia putting them on a list of repressive persons and giving that list to a shady Russian in a black car.

“You were very nearly trophy proletariat,” said Annie, leaning around the side of her canvas to talk to them.

“What?” said Bucky.

“Only reason they agreed to go on a date with you,” said Martin, nodding to the other side of the room, where Sylvia and Vivian were arguing again about their latest ‘triumph of the workers’ painting. Communist collective artwork looked to consist of three-fourths fighting to one-fourth working.

Annie grinned, “Genuine working class boys they could take along to their meetings like show dogs.” ( x )

This is also a really good example of why anyone who tells you categorically to “show not tell” is a moron who doesn’t actually know what they’re talking about. (Usually what they mean is “don’t forget to also show.”) There is a time and a place for both, and a story that consisted of nothing but showing would quickly get just as tedious as a story with nothing but telling. (Just from the above example — estimating “weeks” of classes to be ~4 hrs a day x 5 days a week x 3 weeks = 60 hours of scene that nobody in their right mind wants to read every second of.)

Moreover, well-written summary isn’t devoid of characterization either. Calling Ralph “the guy” echoes Bucky’s idiom; it’s Bucky’s impression that Steve’s pleased they’re getting along better; and it’s telling that, of everything that happened over those weeks, Steve’s approval was something worth mentioning in the narrative.

So that’s presentational mode — pretty easy. Other people have also argued that “description” should be considered a separate mode, or that scene should be further subdivided into “dialogue” and “action.” I don’t have an opinion on the matter, because scene/summary suits my purposes just fine.


(By the way, today I’m only discussing third-person narration, because first-person is a whooole different kettle of fish.)

So a number of theorists (Genette, Brooks & Warren, Stanzel, Freidman) have all come up with their own typologies for how many different kinds of narrators exist, with three on the low end and eight on the high end. I’m going to go with three (as Genette and Stanzel both proposed), with options on subdividing them, and define them using Genette’s formulation:

(1) Non-focalized narration: Narrator > Character: narrator knows (and says) more than the character does. This is your archetypal “omniscient” narrator, who gets to survey the story from a godseye view and tell the reader things that the characters may not necessarily know. Genette calls this the non-focalized narrator, because the narrator’s perspective/point-of-view is not rooted in any character’s knowledge or perceptions. (Sometimes called “authorial” narration, which is a goddamn terrible idea because it conflates the narrator’s voice/opinions with the author’s, which it frequently is not.)

(2) Internally-focalized narration: Narrator = Character: narrator says only what a given character knows. Your basic “limited” third-person narration, where information and perceptions are filtered through only one character at a time, though different sections of the narrative can switch to a different character’s outlook. Genette calls this internal focalization because you are getting to see the inside of that particular character — their thoughts, their emotions, their memories & knowledge. (In another rare example of someone proposing an even worse term than Genette, Stanzel calls this “figural narration.” Yeah, because “figure” is what we usually call the viewpoint character.)

(3) Externally-focalized narration: Narrator < Character: narrator tells you less than what the characters know. This is not particularly common (to the point where public-school English classes often don't even talk about it), seen mostly in Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett. Sometimes calls "objectivist" or "behaviorist" narrative, because the narrator only tells you what can be objectively observed, without giving you insight into anybody's head. Genette calls this external focalization, because you’re seeing them entirely from the outside.

(1) Non-focalized Narration

This is becoming less common in published fiction, and is almost entirely absent from fanfic. In fact, I can think of all of one example, Closer’s “The New Deal,” which employs occasional use of non-focalized narration. Here’s how the fic begins:

It’s December, 1998. Bill Clinton’s in the White House (maybe not for long; impeachment hearings are set for the new year) and Barenaked Ladies are on the radio a lot.

Harvey knows the former, because he’s following the legal twists like all the other students. He’s sketchy on the latter because at the moment he’s in the middle of 2L at Harvard Law and despite giving every impression of never working, working is basically all he does. Learning how to make what he does seem effortless is, he thinks, one more part of the training that started with Jessica plucking him out of juvie and will end —

Well, in a Senior Partner position at Pearson Hardman, but he doesn’t know that yet. ( x )

[emphasis mine, in this and all following excerpts]

Right off the bat, we’re being given information that Harvey doesn’t know for sure (what’s playing on the radio) and information that he doesn’t know at all (that someday he’s going to be a senior partner at Pearson Hardman). A narrator who knows more than character is the definition of non-focalized narration.

It’s 1998, and most people don’t have cellphones yet, so Harvey thinks detachedly that he’s going to have to climb over the dead body in his apartment building’s doorway to get to a phone to call the police.

It’s clear that in this moment Harvey is not actually thinking about cellphones — their absence is not part of his worldview at this time. It’s an anachronistic observation to remind us that 1998 was a different time, coming from a narrator who obviously has a separate point of view from 1998-Harvey.

A final example, describing Harvey during the nation’s collective shock in the wake of the Columbine shooting:

Theoretically, Harvey knows this won’t be the last time; there have been day-stopping events before and will be again. Assassinations, earthquakes, hurricanes, bombings — they happen, and they leave everyone dazed. He doesn’t know the concrete: that a little over two years from now, in his second week at Pearson Hardman, he’ll be able to see smoke from the Twin Towers at eye level. Or that four years from now, on a nice summer day, the lights will go out across the entire eastern seaboard and he’ll end up with four associates and three junior partners staying with him for a night because they live too far away to walk home.

Fanfic doesn’t do non-focalized narration very often, probably because we’re from the generation that tends to view narratorial intrusions as unsubtle, as the cheater’s way to tell-not-show. We’re reaching a point where the “Little did he know…” school of narration either has to be played tongue-in-cheek or not at all. Because in the pursuit of emotional involvement and character subjectivity, non-focalized narration doesn’t really deliver — it gives the impression of looking down on the characters from a great height, an omniscient but distant observation on their behavior and the workings of their brains, but not up close and personal with their emotions.

And, tellingly, Closer doesn’t maintain this narrative perspective for the entire fic. Most of the fic is (in the more conventional manner) internally-focalized through Harvey — his thoughts and feelings as he experiences and reacts to events. These flashes of non-focalized narration are only deployed occasionally to draw attention to the differences between the Harvey we know from the show (Harvey-the-big-shot-lawyer in 2011) and Harvey-the-law-student in 1998.

Moreover, they’re still rooted in Harvey’s interiority — just not in the present narrative time. They’re almost all things that Harvey will know someday, as if Harvey from the future were telling the story retrospectively, and remarking on the disrepancies between what he knew then vs. what he knows now. (This is very similiar to the way that first-person narratives will often exhibit a temporal distance between the experiencing self — the “I” who is taking part in the events of the story — and the narrating self — the older and wiser “I” who is looking back on those events and telling you about it now.)

(2) Internal Focalization

…is the bestest.

We know that for post-Jamesian partisans of the mimetic novel, the best narrative form is what Norman Friedman calls “the story told as if by a character in the story, but told in the third person” (a clumsy formula that evidently refers to the focalized narrative, told by a narrator who is not one of the characters but who adopts the point of view of one). (Genette 1980:168)

(Which made me lol, and go, “Hokay, a ‘post-Jamesian partisan of the mimetic novel’ I am then, and proudly.”)

I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to picking examples of internal focalization, because that’s what ~99.9% of fanfic (and contemporary novels) are written in. Moreover, I have so much to say about it, courtesy of Cohn, that the entire next entry of Gremble’s Narratology is going to be dedicated to techniques employed in internal focalization.

But you’re here for the fanfic, so here are some brief examples, with the focal-character-specific portions of the narrative underlined:

Raven’s humming something Charles doesn’t recognise while she goes through their kitchen cupboards, which currently contain candy corn, three boxes of Pop Tarts, a forgotten jar of Marmite, half a packet of Oreos and some unappetising-looking ramen; Charles knows, because he did the same thing earlier.

“Are you going to talk to me about Sean at any point?” Charles asks, because he hasn’t slept in two days and he has no idea what he’s supposed to be writing about and he already gave himself a French manicure while Raven was at school.

“Get out of my life already,” Raven tells him, standing on tip-toes to see if there’s anything on the top shelves. There isn’t.

“It’s my responsibility as brother and guardian to know about any gentleman callers you might have,” Charles reminds her, taking great pleasure in Raven’s annoyed sigh.

“Stop torturing me and go get laid,” she spits back. “There must be some nerds at your university who are desperate and unpicky.”

( If You Liked the Book, You’ll Hate the Movie )

It’s after dark when he lifts his head and notices that Ariadne is long gone, and Eames is standing and shrugging on his jacket.

“Leaving?” Arthur says. Eames smiles.

“Drop by anytime,” he says.

“Thought we’d go together,” Arthur says, leaning back and smiling up at Eames as guilelessly as he can. Eames puts his wallet and his phone in his pocket.

“I thought you were working late,” he says. Arthur is hungry and tired and he doesn’t know where Eames lives and he spins in his chair a little, trying to figure out how to get Eames to take him home.

“How about—can we go back to your place and eat and I can work there?” Eames looks skeptical; yeah, motherfucker, Arthur thinks, try to get out of this one. “I just thought it would be nice,” Arthur says, trying on a sincere expression. He almost adds “to spend some time together,” but chokes it off at the last minute. He has a tendency to overdo it sometimes. Less is more.

( Pants on Fire )

Then the crowd in front of the public stables parted long enough for Marcus to see blocky capital letters, clumsily executed – if it was graffiti, it certainly wasn’t done by a professional … And then he recognized the vivid reddish-purple paint. The same color that his very own bodyslave had been hastily scrubbing off his arms just two hours earlier.

Marcus forgot his leg as he elbowed his way forward, praying to the Lord of Light that the words were something along the lines of AVE DIANA or ESCA HIC ERAT. No such luck, of course.


He shook his head in confusion. “The people called Romanes, they go … the house? I do not know what it wishes to say.”

Esca looked momentarily concerned before shaking his head and correcting Marcus almost gently. “I read Latin poorly, even more poorly than you speak British, but I can read capitals. It says, ‘Romans go home’. Does it not, Master?”

Master. That sealed it. Esca only called Marcus ‘master’ (rather than ‘Centurion’ or ‘hey you, Roman’) when he was being very, very polite or had been very, very bad.

( How To Learn Latin in 10 Days )

“So you could promise, as my – sex friends – that you wouldn’t go and fall in love with me?”

He means it as a rhetorical question, but Parker takes it seriously. “Wellllll,” she says, “I probably could. You’re like a brother to me. A brother that I want to have sex with,” she adds hastily, as if she’s worried about offending him.

Eliot manfully doesn’t say anything in reply to this. It’s real easy for a conversation with Parker to get off track if you start chasing every rabbit.

( Odd One Out )

Of note in these examples is:

1) You’re getting information about the characters’ interiority that you couldn’t get from simply observing them. (Hence, internal focalization)

2) In any given scene, you’re only getting that privileged perspective from one character. Charles’s thoughts not Raven’s; Arthur’s not Eames’s; Marcus’s not Esca’s; Eliot’s not Parker’s.

Much more to come about internal focalization next time.

(3) External Focalization

This one’s hard to provide illustrative examples of, because it’s defined by the absence of character interiority or a distinct narrative voice. Also, because Hemingway is practically the only guy who uses it for extended periods of time, and I hate his face and am not interested in quoting him in my blog. This is a Hemingway-free zone.

Furthermore, it is the furthest thing from character subjectivity, and character subjectivity is what I read for, which means most stories told largely or exclusively using external focalization are deadly boring to me. In my considered opinion, there is only one situation that calls for dipping into external focalization:

Creating and sustaining mystery.

Caper plots are a lot less suspenseful if you know exactly what the plan is, which is why writing those is all about managing audience knowledge. In movies and television (Ocean’s 11 and Leverage come to mind) they do it by not showing the scenes where the characters explain the plan, and only showing tantalizing glimpses of their preparations for it.

In books, the same effect is achieved by (1) switching to an outsider point of view (such as the mark, who doesn’t know about the con being run on him, or a sidekick who doesn’t deduce on the same level as the detective-protagonist), (2) withdrawing to external focalization (so we see the character’s actions, but are not privy to thoughts that would spoil the surprise), or (3) keeping internal focalization but selectively omitting spoilers (which I think different people have different levels of tolerance for — some accept it as a genre convention, some feel like the author’s cheating).

Lies of Locke Lamora does this very well, because Lynch is at his finest when he’s writing capers not feels. He tends to give you a brief glimpse into Locke’s head, just enough to alert you to the fact that a caper is going down, and then for the rest of the operation you’re an invisible bystander watching Locke work. Likewise, characterization in fiction that operates predominantly in external focalization tends to come through dialogue; it’s no coincidence that LOLL — an external-focalization success story — also has really excellent and expressive dialogue.

Sherlock Holmes is a sort of hybrid case, external focalization on Holmes achieved by internal focalization on Watson. It’s well-played, because it allows Doyle to maintain the mystery (since Holmes is the one whose monster-brain has all the answers) and yet still enjoy the “hook” provided by narration that originates from a character’s subjectivity.

I don’t have any fanfic examples of external focalization, because that is sooooo not what fanfic is about. Not even caper-fic (which is rare, and tends to arise from caper-fandoms like Leverage) employs external focalization — they do business-as-usual with internal focalization, just with a greater emphasis on the character’s immediate thoughts and perceptions, things that lend color to the narrative but don’t give the game away. (Speranza’s Four Minute Window is a good example of restricted internal focalization — you know that Steve is engineering an escape, but you don’t what he plans to do until go-time.)

And frankly, that is alright. There’s a reason why most writers don’t use external focalization, and it’s not because they’re sheeple who aren’t creative enough to think outside the box. Can you write a story with external focalization that gets readers curious about the outcome despite themselves? Sure. And if you’re the first one to do it (::cough:: Hemingway ::cough::) critics will be falling all over themselves to fawn over you for doing something ~different~. But there’s a reason why it didn’t catch on — and why if you tried to submit a novel like that, it would get rejected by 10 out of 10 publishers, and get panned by 10 out of 10 readers. It feels unsophisticated, unsubtle, and not the slightest bit engaging on an emotional level.

In conclusion, fuck a lot of Hemingway.


So mode and focalization aren’t hard, but still, the easiest way to internalize these various concepts is by seeing lots of examples — so let’s share our favorites! Gimme a catchy example of summary; a catchy example of scene; a book you know that uses non-focalized or externally-focalized narration to good effect. :D

6 thoughts on “Gremble’s Narratology, Part I

  1. I’m a sucker for a good internally-focalized narration. Well-written Supernatural fanfiction can be especially good at this, particularly when from Castiel’s perspective, since that character has alternating moments of piercing insights and cluelessness. One of my favorite writers in the fandom to accomplish this is scaramouche:

    “Would you rather I dip you?”

    Dean chortles. “You can’t dip me.” He bleats when Castiel does exactly that, keeping a firm grip on Dean’s hand and waist, and lowering him just enough to prove his point before pulling him back up.

    Castiel very much enjoys Dean’s poleaxed expression. “I don’t say things I don’t mean.”

    “Yeah,” Dean says distantly. He licks his lips, glances down at the hand Castiel still has on his waist, and then back at Castiel’s face. “Yeah, okay.”

    And then later in the same fic:

    “He’s giving in too easily.” Castiel passes the letter over to Dean to read. “There’s no negotiation, and he’s not proposing any alternatives.”

    Dean frowns. “What do you think that means?”

    “The situation may be more fraught than we know.” Castiel leans back in his chair and exhales slowly. “There may be other matters on his plate, leaving us lower down his priorities.”

    “Good for us, but not necessarily good for everyone else.” Dean takes a slow, thoughtful swig of his beer. “Okay then.”

    (Elephant in the Room Makes Three)

    Both excerpts clearly show a Castiel that is misunderstanding the most obvious of social clues (Dean flustered and hiding an erection), and yet extremely aware of political and tactical motivations that Dean is not.

    It’s the sort of thing I delight in when reading fiction of any kind, because the well-written ones can be easily overlooked because they’re done so well, and is part of what makes it so important for a viewpoint character to be interesting enough to engage a reader. (You brought up Sherlock Holmes and it reminded me that the two stories written from Holmes’ perspective were two of the least popular that Doyle had written. Partly from how contrived he then had to make the “mysteries,” and partly, I think, because Holmes’ analytical mind is not as engaging as Watson’s more emotional and humane one.)

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I feel as though I’ve learned a lot! I love writing internally-focalized narration so much so I’m glad to have a name for it that makes sense. Recently I’ve been doing a DA2 rewrite of a Jane Austen (S&S) which has pushed me into the more omniscient type, though I’ve been trying to balance it with my own style by trying not to get into other characters’ headspace unless absolutely necessary and interspersing extensive summary descriptions with a few more scenes.

  3. Hah, so Castiel is the fandom answer to What Maisie Knew, the go-to example of a story in which there is not an information gap between character and audience, but an interpretation gap — that we know how to interpret and understand what’s going on, even if the character doesn’t. Good to know. :D

    And interesting to learn that about Sherlock Holmes — I read a bunch of the stories when I was a kid, but it’s been years and I don’t remember any from Sherlock’s POV. Possibly I never read those, or possibly they were just forgettable.

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