Teaching Narrative Mode with Short Stories
Narrative mode is what makes fiction different from essays, history, and art forms like video and images. Without fiction, we stay in the external world of facts. This happened then that happened. We receive only what we can perceive with our senses. We hear the pedestrian shout at the taxi in the rain, we see a cat run across a dark alley. We only get the internal thoughts of a character through the words they speak out loud or in monologues like voiceovers or asides. But when a person speaks out loud, they must be mindful of etiquette, the code of wrong and right, and sounding polite. So the audience must constantly guess at the feelings of the characters because there are a million reasons why someone might not speak honestly or articulate exactly what they really feel.
Point of view changes how we see the world. History and the news, just like fiction, selects its stories to tell and its points of view. What information do we know and what information is kept hidden? It is this hidden information that leaves us longing for the complete truth. As Jane Austen puts it in Emma: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure”.
In my short story unit, I first introduce the various narrative modes and then study stories where the reader must work to understand the missing point of view. In Virginia Woolf’s “Together and Apart”, omniscient narrator shifts between the internal thoughts of two characters by using free indirect discourse, a technique where you may be reading a description of the external world of the characters, a description of the internal world of the character, or the actual voice of the character, a narrated monologue in the third person. This voice could also be one character’s interpretation of another character’s thoughts, or it could be the point of view of two characters at the same time. Throw in flashbacks or memories, and now the reader has time travel to consider on top of everything else. Or there’s the epistolary approach, where any character can jump in to write new, previously unknown facts about what they experienced. We never think about these things when we read, but it’s super fun for students to figure it all out in a close reading.
In “Together and Apart”, the reader knows the thoughts of both characters, but the characters are only aware of the few words they speak out loud to each other. An encounter between strangers fails to become anything but that even though they long to connect. The story then becomes about the impossibility of knowing what someone else feels. It’s about how we rely on gesture to know the truth. How we try to read each other with our eyes. Literature helps us become better mind readers: our thoughts and feelings are only half the story when there are two minds in the room.
In “Bad Girls” by Joyce Carol Oates, we don’t know the full story because Orchid leaves the room and in “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, the protagonist desperately wants to know what’s going on with his brother, but he only figures it out when he listens to him play piano at the end of the story. Consciousness becomes language which becomes music.
In “Videotape” by Don DeLillo and “The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever, the characters don’t know the truth because they only get a small slice of the real story through technology. The technology gets close to capturing private life, but ultimately falls short. The radio tunes into conversations happening in nearby apartments just as the narrator tries to tune into the thoughts of the main characters. The videotape that captures a homicide, is well, a videotape. It can only show you moving images and not their context, or the big picture. You only get the videotape, not the life story of the people in it. Both stories demonstrate how the news is an incomplete story. Literature tries to answer the questions, or fill the holes left by the news or history.
Once we study these stories, students realize that a first-person narrator is the worst case scenario. You must put the puzzle pieces together on your own, just like in real life. In the end, the third person narrator (or multiple first-person narrators) teaches us that it’s possible for anyone, not just a writer, to capture the thoughts and feelings of another person. We only have to use our imagination.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers