Basics of writing

The five narrative modes in one easy lesson

From Rick:

In several past posts we’ve talked about the five narratives modes found in fiction and have talked about some of them in depth.

Recently I encountered some confusion on the part of a writer regarding the meanings of prose and creative writing and what it means to create pictures with words.

Exactly what do we mean by prose? The dictionary says that prose is the broad definition of any writing that is not poetry. Although some poetry reads like prose, there is no easy or precise definition of what poetry is or isn’t.

Wikipedia delves into the definition prose more deeply: “Prose is a form of language that exhibits a grammatical structure and a natural flow of speech, rather than a rhythmic structure as in traditional poetry. Where the common unit of verse is based on meter or rhyme, the common unit of prose is purely grammatical, such as a sentence or paragraph.”

Wikipedia expands this definition: “Prose in its simplicity and loosely defined structure is broadly adaptable to spoken dialogue, factual discourse, and to topical and fictional writing. It is systematically produced and published within literature, journalism (including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting), encyclopedias, film, history, philosophy, law, and in almost all forms and processes requiring human communications.”

These definitions all come back to that dictionary definition I first gave: Prose is any writing that isn’t poetry or verse.

Creative writing is a subdivision of prose. It’s writing that focuses on being, well… creative. By this I mean writing that deviates from the straight factual or reporting. I consider creative writing as writing with significant reliance on the writer’s imagination.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the five narrative modes of fiction: Description, Exposition, Dialog, Thoughts, Action.

Some articles include more than just five narrative modes. For example, one list has these: action, dialogue, thoughts, summary, scene, description, background, exposition and transition. For me, that’s going a bit too far because we’re getting away from actual narrative forms and moving into what the narrative is saying as opposed to how it’s being expressed. “Background” for instance isn’t a narrative mode by itself because it can be expressed in the five basic modes. Anyway, I’m not here to argue fine details. Nearly all authorities use just the five narrative modes.

So, why don’t we dig in and look at a scene with examples of each? I’ve labeled each narrative form with curly braces and {CAPS}.

I do want to mention a couple of things before we look at the example. Thoughts can be direct (sort of dialog in the character’s head; usually expressed in present tense and sometimes italicized) or indirect (how the character feels about what he sees or does; usually expressed in the normal story tense, which is often past tense). Sometimes there’s a fine line between indirect thoughts and exposition.

Think of exposition as basic information (apart from description), where the writer is telling about things rather than showing them or inserting a character’s thoughts or feelings. Exposition is kind of the catch-all for what doesn’t fit in the other four modes and it’s used as to fill in the narrative and explanations.


{ACTION}Jack grabbed his backpack and hopped off the bus. {THOUGHTS} Perfect. The bus stop was right in front of the library. That way he could get right to work on his AP History term paper and wouldn’t have to waste time walking to his destination. {EXPOSITION} Most of the time, he simply rode his bike to the local library branch near his house, but they didn’t have the books he needed. {THOUGHTS} Okay, let’s get to work.

{ACTION} Swinging the backpack over one shoulder, he jogged up the library steps. {EXPOSITION} Because he didn’t have his driver’s license yet—he would next year if all went well—his mother would normally have driven him here, but she’d already promised his younger sister a trip to the zoo on the next nice Saturday, and the zoo was in the opposite direction of the library.

{ACTION} He pushed through the revolving door and into the massive lobby. {EXPOSITION} It had been a couple of years since he’d been to the main library. He’d forgotten how huge this place was! {DESCRIPTION} In front of him, in the center of the lobby and under the four-story-tall dome, sat the long, information and check-out desk. To either side, stairs curved up along the wall to the second-floor balcony. Straight ahead, behind the desk stood two elevators.

What surprised him were how many people he saw in here on a sunny morning. He didn’t see any other students, just mostly adults and older folks. {THOUGHTS} Well, it was only ten o’clock. They might still be in bed, or more likely planning on going other places than the library.

Enough gawking, Jack. You have a lot of work ahead of you. He’d figured it would probably take him all day to do this paper. {EXPOSITION} At the information desk a young lady was typing something on her computer.

{DIALOG} “May I help you?” she asked, looking up.

“Sure. Where is the archaeology section?”

“Third floor.” She pointed behind her at the elevators. “Turn right off the elevator and go all the way to the end of the hall.”

He smiled and said, “Thank you.”

{THOUGHTS/EXPOSITION} With a glance back at the gorgeous day outside, he almost—almost—regretted coming here today. After all, the paper wasn’t due for another month. But this time he wasn’t going to wait until the last minute, not like last year. He’d barely finished that paper for English in time, and he only got a B on it. This year he wouldn’t mess around or take any chances. He wanted an A!


This is certainly no earth-shattering scene. It would need some work to make it into a story, but with a little imagination and the addition of some conflict, perhaps a little foreshadowing, it could turn into a cool adventure. Consider which section of the library Jack is going to. What if he finds a rather unusual book there during his research?

But the purpose of this example wasn’t to show you how to turn an idea into a story. The purpose was to demonstrate the mixing of the five narratives modes in fiction.

What you should note in this scene is that there are spots where we’ve blended modes together. In the last paragraph, you could argue that it’s really exposition instead of thoughts, with a bit of action as well. Segregating the five narrative modes isn’t always black and white, except perhaps for direct thoughts and dialog, but even in dialog, we may have some thoughts, description, or action in the dialog tags (as with “He smiled and said”).

It’s not required that a story include all five modes. You can have all-dialog stories, for example, but these exceptions are seen mainly in shorter works. In general, most fiction will mix these in various proportions in order to keep the reader engaged. Some stories may be heavier on dialog than others. All-exposition stories (that is, all tell and no show) can be boring and distant, but again, exceptions do exist. Remember, too much of anything can be bad unless you’re careful.

The next time you write, pay attention to how you’re mixing your narrative modes. Most likely you’re doing it unconsciously, but sometimes it helps to make sure you’re doing a decent job of blending and not focusing too much on one mode.


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