Understanding Narrative Mode in your Academic Writing

Good storytelling deals as much with how a story is told as it does with what a story is. The dramatic moments and insight into the characters and their conflicts all come from information gathered about those characters. One of the easiest ways to build that drama is through an understanding of narrative voice. Each narrative mode has its own strengths and weaknesses, and thus each will benefit different types of stories.

First Person

Though the First Person narrative mode has been used throughout the literary ages, the particular style has recently come back into vogue, perhaps spurred by the rise of two particular genres—blogs and memoirs. Like both of these mediums, the First Person narrative makes use the first person pronouns “I” and “me”.

With regards to informational limits, the First Person mode is exceptionally restricted. As the narrator is a character in the story, the narrator’s knowledge is limited to what the character knows, sees, hears, feels, or is told.

This narrative voice is exceptionally flexible and can go very far to illustrate the personality of whoever is telling the story. However, this mode can also create confusion for the reader, blurring the line between character and author. While this might seem trivial, bear in mind that you will likely have to defend your character’s actions to your mother.

Third Person

The vast majority of stories are narrated from the third person. As First Person makes use of the pronouns “I” and “me,”The third Person uses the third person pronouns like “he,” “she,” and “they,” as well as proper names. To boil that down to an easier explanation, a story told in the Third Person is a story told about someone else.

The third person is a very common form of storytelling, and because of that, there are many different narrative modes within the greater realm of the third person.


Third Person, Limited has a great many similarities with First Person mode. The two methods are largely identical, albeit with a pronoun shift. The Third Person, Limited mode also bears similar knowledge constraints as First Person. When using this narrative mode, it’s important to remember that if the character does not witness something, then the narrator didn’t either. This compartmentalization of knowledge extends all the way to the reader. Because of the limited knowledge scope, this mode works exceptionally well for creating anticipation and frustration through unknowing.


When employing the Third Person, Selective mode, the narrator shifts from scene to scene, and even within scenes, based upon the characters which are present. This type of narrative mode allows for the showcasing of multiple viewpoints while still allowing for compartmentalized information.

To understand the difference between the Limited and Selective modes, picture a conversation between two characters. In a Limited mode, one character can provide internal monologue about what she is saying and about what she is hearing, while the other character in the conversation can only be taken at their word. When using Selective mode, insight can be gathered from both characters, but only by the audience. Each character is still isolated from the thoughts of the other, but the audience would thus be privy to the information possessed wherever the narrative currently resides.


As the name suggests, the Third Person, Omniscient mode sees and knows all. While Selective can be a significant jump up in knowledge from Limited, an Omniscient storyteller possesses an exponentially larger amount of knowledge. Every insight of every character is fair game. Every action anywhere in the plot can be used to tease and taunt the reader.

This type of narrative is very difficult to master. With the narrator knowing everything, the role of doling out that knowledge is left up to the author. Displaying too much information too soon will spoil the mounting pressure of the work. Giving away too little knowledge will leave your story sluggish. However, strike that perfect balance within the Third Person, Omniscient mode and you can play the reader like an instrument, inducing emotion at your whim.


The roles of differences between Limited, Selective, and Omniscient modes all deal with how much insight into the internal works of characters that the narrator has. Objective, on the other hand, provides insight into none. This very restrictive mode is ultra-precise and relies on description. In this sense, the Objective mode is very close to a cinematic or documentarian standpoint. Without insight into the thoughts or feelings of characters, the narrator merely records what is seen.

Second Person

I would be remiss if I did not address the Second Person mode. In the second person voice, the narrator is speaking directly to the audience, making explicit use of the word “you.” This means that the narrator is narrating the actions of the audience. If the idea sounds cumbersome, it is because the Second Person is cumbersome. While it works in articles and self-help books, the second voice usually feels out of place in works of fiction that aren’t published under the “Choose Your Own Adventure” banner. To that end, my advice regarding the Second Person mode is simple: do not use it.

When telling your story, it’s important to choose a narrative mode which does the most justice to that story. Remember, as the author, you are already in the omniscient role, but that doesn’t mean your narrator has to be. The greatest source of drama stems not from knowing, but rather from not knowing.

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