Narrative Modes

Closely related to questions of narrative voice and focalisation is the issue of narrative modes. Narrative modes are the kinds of utterance through which a narrative is conveyed (see Bonheim 1982). Clearly, these are questions relating to aspects of discourse.

The distinction between narrative modes is as old as literary theory itself; Plato distinguishes between two main types: mimesis (the direct presentation of speech and action) and diegesis (the verbal representation of events). The distinction was taken up by Aristotle and can – much later – still be found in Henry James' distinction between showing and telling.

mimesis showing (direct presentation)
diegesis telling (mediated presentation)

The most mimetic literary genre is drama (and film), which consists mainly of direct presentation of speech and action, i.e. the audience actually watches people speak and act. In narrative prose (and poetry) one is necessarily limited to verbal representation. Nonetheless, even in narrative prose and poetry degrees of mimesis and diegesis can be distinguished in four main narrative modes (following Bonheim 1982):

speech  mimetic
report (of action)
comment  diegetic

Apart from these four narrative modes, there are possible non-narrative elements in any given narrative which are not strictly speaking part of the narrative itself: such as for instance an interpolated song, poem (for instance in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings or in A.S. Byatt's Possession), essay (discussions of the techniques of writing a novel for instance in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones), or chapter mottoes (as in George Eliot's Middlemarch). Sometimes these elements give a clue to the narrative's meaning, but sometimes they are simply decorations or digressions and not an integral part of the story itself.


Direct speech is the most mimetic narrative mode, since it gives an almost complete illusion of direct, i.e. unmediated, representation:

'Have the police done anything Godfrey?'
'Nothing whatever.'
'It is certain, I suppose, that the three men who laid the trap for you were the same three men who afterwards laid the trap for Mr. Luker?'
'Humanly speaking, my dear Rachel, there can be no doubt of it.'
'And not a trace of them has been discovered?
'Not a trace.' (Collins, Moonstone, p. 229)

In this excerpt only the quotation marks and the fact that the speakers address each other by name indicate that different people are speaking. Sometimes direct speech is introduced by a reporting phrase, so-called inquit formulas ('She said', 'The hoarse voice answered', etc.). Direct speech itself is nowadays usually indicated by quotation marks or other forms of punctuation (sometimes by a dash, sometimes merely by the beginning of a new paragraph). Direct speech tends to use present tense as its main tense and uses the first person when the speaker refers to him- or herself, the second person when other participants of the conversation are addressed. The use of sociolect or dialect also serves to indicate spoken language (see also Representation of Consciousness: thought as silent speech).

The element of mediation is more noticeable when speech or thought is rendered indirectly in indirect (or reported) speech.

Original utterance: She said: "I am tired, I am going to bed."
Indirect speech: She said she was tired and was going to bed.

Indirect speech also uses inquit formulas but no quotation marks. The tense of the original utterance is changed from present into past, from past into past perfect and references to the first person are rendered in the third person. (All this can be looked up in any ordinary grammar book).

The effect of indirect speech can easily be perceived as somewhat monotonous and certainly it creates a distance between the utterance and the reader's perception of it; it is less immediate than direct speech. In the following example we focus less on the young son's speech than on Moll's, i.e. the homodiegetic narrator's rendering of it.

After some time, the young Gentleman took an Opportunity to tell me that the Kindness he had for me, had got vent in the Family; he did not Charge me with it, he said, for he knew well enough which way it came out; he told me his plain way of Talking had been the Occasion of it, for that he did not make his respect for me so much a Secret as he might have done, and the Reason was that he was at a Point; that if I would consent to have him, he would tell them all openly that he lov'd me, and that he intended to Marry me: (Defoe, Moll Flanders)

But indirect speech does not inevitably create monotony. In the following excerpt Charles Dickens uses indirect speech to vary and enliven the narrator’s (heterodiegetic) report when he reproduces Jo the streetsweeps’s (ungrammatical) way of speaking when Jo is asked to give evidence at an inquest:

Name, Jo. Nothing else that he knows on. Don’t know that everybody has two names. Never heerd of sich a think. Don’t know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for him. He don’t find fault with it. Spell it? No. He can’t spell it. No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school. What’s home? Knows a broom’s a broom, and knows it’s wicked to tell a lie. Don’t recollect who told him about the broom, or about the lie, but knows both. Can’t exactly say what’ll be done to him arter he’s dead if he tells a lie to the gentlemen here, but believes it’ll be something wery bad to punish him, and serve him right – and so he’ll tell the truth. (Dickens, Bleak House, ch. 9)

This passage displays many of the characteristics of direct speech, except the use of the first person pronoun. Thus it technically remains the narrator’s voice who speaks about Jo even though he adopts Jo’s syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation.


Report is the mode that informs the reader about events and actions in the story.

Dick Boulton came from the Indian camp to cut up logs for Nick's father. He brought his son Eddy and another Indian named Billy Tabeshaw with him. They came in through the back gate out of the woods, Eddy carrying the long cross-cut saw. (Hemingway, The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife)

Report can be identified mainly through its use of action verbs ('come', 'bring', 'carry' in the example above). In practice it is often difficult to clearly separate between report and description. Also, it is very rare that a narrative presents an absolutely neutral report. Reports are mingled with narrator comment (see narrator comment).


narrative modes
direct speech
indirect (reported) speech