How to Use The Narrator in Interactive Stories
Whether you’re writing on Episode, Chapters or Tap by Wattpad, the chances are that you’re going to need to use a narrator at some point in the story. In fact, they can be one of the most important parts of the writing process! They’re definitely a character in their own right! So it’s important to know how to use them well. Your reader is going to be spending a lot of time with them, after all! It would be silly not to put some thought into how you’re writing that all-important character and whether there could be a better way to go about it.
But after all the time I spent and Google searches I did for this blog post, I can safely say that there’s not a lot out there to help you figure out how to make your narrator work. People speak about how they’re used in books and the different types you can have, but very few dedicate their time to explaining how to go about making each one work. Especially on apps like Episode! Interactive stories are so new as mediums that it’s very hard to find much info on how to write well at all.
That’s where I come in. As an Episode and Chapters author myself, I’ve spent a lot of my time experimenting to find out what works and what doesn’t. So keep reading and I’ll let you in on what works, what doesn’t and how you can choose the best narrator for your story.
What Is the Narrator For?
Of course, if we’re going to talk about narrators, it is worth knowing why they’re in stories in the first place! What purpose do they serve? Why do so many authors use them? What do they add to the story? Well, they serve many purposes. They’re there for both practical and stylistic reasons. Here are some of the most important ones.
They Save Time
One of the biggest appeals of interactive stories is the fact that chapters are short. Yes, you might see people complaining about short chapters on the Episode forums. You might get a fanmail or two thousand telling you that you need to make your chapters longer. However, then it comes down to it, people tend to fill small amounts of free time with a chapter or two of their favourite story. They’re in charge of how many chapters they read and how much time they take enjoying the action. That’s a very different experience when compared to watching a Game of Thrones Episode for almost 2 hours! You aren’t stuck reading for ages, but you’re welcome to read as much as you want. It gives you more control.
Narrators help with this process. You can sum up info quickly and efficiently without much fuss. This is especially true at the beginning of the story when you have so much to say! The reader can know what’s going on as soon as possible so that you can get on to the fun parts you want to write about. They can establish things like time and place in a few words when another character might take paragraphs to say the same thing. It makes life so much easier for the writer and the reader alike!
They Don’t Feel Unnatural
You’ve probably heard of “show, don’t tell” before. You might have also read my post on exposition! Either way, you’ll know that it’s never good when a character tells you too much when they could just show it instead. But showing can take way more time than telling! And I have already said that this can take time away from all the great action you could be writing. So you’re going to need to tell the reader what’s going on from time to time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the rule should actually be “know when to show and when to tell”. Its the narrator’s job to show all the things you don’t want to spend time explaining through your characters.
When you don’t have a narrator, your characters are going to have to do a lot more of that anime-style exposition I spoke about before. There’s nothing wrong with that if you do it right! However, it can come across as fake and forced. Like when the MC introduces themselves with their whole back story to the person they just met. In real life, the other person would look at them weirdly and ask why they’re finding out the person’s whole life story. With a narrator, we can avoid that by telling the reader what’s going on directly.
You see, the narrator knows that there’s a reader looking in at this story. Unless you’re breaking the fourth wall, the characters don’t. We’ll discuss in another post when you should and shouldn’t break the fourth wall — but as a rule of thumb, it tends to make the story less serious. The narrator doesn’t have to worry about that, so they can talk for the sake of the reader and it won’t feel wrong.
They Help Explain the Things You Can’t Show
As much as some interactive story apps share a lot of similarities with film, they are not the same thing. Sure, you can pan the camera on Episode and zoom here and there. However, you still rely on making the reader read. Then there are the limited animations. On Episode, you can’t even make a character walk angrily with INK! Chapters and Tap have no animations at all! And even though art thrives within limitations, you’ll find yourself quite stuck if you try to only use speech bubbles and actions on Episode. So you’re going to have to describe the things you can’t show.
That’s where the narrator comes in. They can say that the MC looked up into the LI’s eyes even though the avatar is just staring blankly ahead. They can say that a dragon flew over the sky when all you might have is a drawing of a dragon still in mid air with its wings outstretched. The narrator helps the reader to imagine the things that they can’t see. That allows them to fill in the gaps and turn all your coding into a real story. You’re going to need to do that even more when the app has no animations at all! And you can’t rely on just speech. It might make something artistic, but I promise you that the readers aren’t going to get what’s going on. I’m sure you don’t want to confuse the reader!
So the narrator’s main job is to describe what the characters can’t. They can do it from hindsight because they’re not stuck in the action of the story. That means they have a bigger picture of what’s going on and what’s important to show and tell.
The Narrator and the Author
So now that we’ve covered what they’re there for, let’s have a look at what the narrator isn’t. 99 times out of 100, I can safely say that you are not the narrator. Even if they act a lot like you! Even if they share your name! The chances are that you’ve made a characterised version of yourself to put in your story. You’ve made a version of yourself that you want to show your readers. And we all put on personas for the public, but it’s very different when you’re writing a version of yourself on an app! They have to fit the story, be likeable and engage the reader. Chances are that they’re not quite you!
So it’s time to separate the narrator from you as a real person. It will do you a lot of good in the long run! It will allow you to see them as a part of the writing process without forcing yourself onto the story too much. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using your thoughts, feelings and beliefs in the story! In fact, most writers do! However, you need to be aware of what you’re doing and why. Otherwise, it can come across as preachy. Or worse — you might look like you have no clue what you’re doing.
Thought Bubbles vs Narrator’s Bubbles
I’ve seen a lot of people use this badly. In fact, this is the thing that made me want to write the post in the first place! You see, if you use thought bubbles when you should be using narrator’s bubbles, you can end up confusing the reader. Confusion can be a great, useful part of writing a story! But only if it’s on purpose. If the reader is confused when they’re not supposed to be, you’ll find that they’ll ditch the story ASAP. So let’s take a look at the three kinds of bubbles on Episode and how to use each one of them.
The Narrator’s Bubbles
There are two types of narrator’s bubbles that you can have in your story: the plain narrator’s bubble and the character narrator’s bubbles. They are both great for narrating the events in the story. They can describe the things we can’t see, introduce characters and make the story easy to understand. Both types of narrator’s bubbles are there for a character who isn’t in the action of the story at that moment. It could be because they’re telling a story that has already happened or because they aren’t a character in the story. Either way, they have the beauty of hindsight on their side. That means that they can comment on big picture things and are aware of the fact that there’s someone reading the story.
But that’s just one use for them! In a story, there are many ways you can use narrator’s bubbles without confusing the reader. So here some of the ways you can use each bubble and why.
The Plain Narrator’s Bubble
The plain narrator’s bubble is great for any story where you don’t have a name for the narrator. They’re just speaking in second or third person. Usually, you will be writing in the past tense. That’s common for stories, after all! However, the present tense works really well with second-person narration, too! It’s just about the kind of vibe you’re trying to make. If you have a survival story, it might be worth using the second person and present tense to up the tension and make the reader feel like their life is at risk right now!
But that’s not all you can use them for. Plain narrator’s bubbles are great for any of those faceless voices you need to show in your story. For example, a voice-over or radio station. A TV show. The text of a note or poster. Anything where there’s someone speaking and it’s not important who they are. The reader only cares about what they’re saying. That’s the important thing, so that’s the only part you need to show.
I find that the plain bubble works really well for automated voices, too. If you want your MC to surf the internet or put their details into a computer, you can use the plain bubble to give them commands like “enter pin” or “insert name”. It works well and gets rid of all the extra words you might have to use otherwise. The plain bubble screams anonymity. When we don’t know and don’t care who’s speaking, you can throw the plain bubble in there.
The Character Narrator’s Bubble
This one is pretty much the same as the plain bubble, but it has a little name on the top. Obviously, you can use this when you know who the narrator in the story is and it matters. For example, if the MC is the one telling the story, you’ll put their name on the top of the bubble and they will speak in the first person and in the past tense. Why? Well, this is their life so they’ll use the first person! But it’s common to use the past tense so that you understand that there’s a difference between the MC in the story and the MC who is speaking to the reader right now. They have the gift of hindsight and know more than the reader does because the events in the story happened in their past.
You don’t need to just use the MC, though. It could be told from the LI’s point of view. Or maybe another character telling the story of their best friend or someone they knew. But the important thing to note is that the story has to be personal to them in some way — they have to have personal experience with the things that went on in the story. Otherwise, why would we care who the narrator is? Why not just use the plain bubble? It needs to have a reason to be there.
Other than that, these bubbles are super useful. They can be used for phone calls and dialogue from people off-screen. It can be used if you don’t know who the person speaking is, but (unlike with the plain bubble) it does matter. Add three question marks at the top instead of a name and you’ll have a great time!
The Thought Bubble
This is where things can get confusing. I’ve seen people use thought bubbles instead of narrator’s bubbles often and it does jumble up the whole story. As a rule of thumb, thought bubbles are for the things your characters are thinking as the action is happening in the story. Narrator’s bubbles are for thoughts that happen outside of the story from someone who’s looking in.
So if you have an MC as the narrator, we want to see the thoughts she had in the moment of the action shown through thought bubbles. All of the thoughts and ideas she has in hindsight should be shown through the narrator’s bubbles. That stops people from wondering what happened when with a quick, easy visual without your writing seeming clunky.
This can be a great way to show that a character has changed since when the story started. With the narrator’s bubble, you can have an MC narrator comment on how silly they were back then or take note of the things they missed. You can have them comment on the thoughts they had back when the story took place. This shows that they’ve had their arc and they’ve come out the other end as a changed person who can assess and critique the things they did in the past. But you can only do this if you make a clear distinction between thought bubbles and narrator’s bubbles.
The Main Character or Someone New?
So you can have loads of different people as your narrator. But which one should you use? Well, as with most things when it comes to writing, it really depends on what kind of story you want to write. Some of them will benefit from an anonymous third-person narrator. Others will do well with a first-person narrative. There are many reasons why!
When the MC is the one telling the story, you can usually trust that they’re not going to die, so that can undermine one of the main story stakes. And if they do die, you’d better be ready for some questions about how they’re telling the story from beyond the grave! Even if no one sends you a fan mail to ask, they will wonder. You need to have a reason that you’re writing in the first person and making the dead MC tell the story. Otherwise, you’re drawing attention to something that has no use in your story. And as I said in my post about Chekhov’s Gun, you need to be aware of the things you’re drawing attention to and do it on purpose. Otherwise, you just look like an amateur!
On the other hand, telling the story through the MC’s eyes and words makes the reader empathise with them more. We can see why they did things because we can see into their mind! And, as I said before, it gives you the chance to show that the MC grew and became a better person by having them comment on their own actions in the past. That makes them so likeable!
Romance stories can also work very well when told by the MC. We can feel like we are the main character. The most intense scenes can feel really real when they come from the MC and it can make the whole story much more hot and steamy. It’s a great way to up the romance if you’re struggling!
The main thing about having another character tell the story is that it pins death flags on the MC. It tells the reader that the MC’s story had such a big impact on this other character that they felt it was important to share or document the events. So the MC is someone who affects the lives of the other people around them. But it also says that the MC either can’t or won’t tell the story for themselves. And why wouldn’t they? After all, if they made such a big impact on other people’s lives, wouldn’t their story be in demand? Well, one of the main reasons why this might happen is because the MC is no longer around to tell their story, but the narrator thinks it’s important enough to tell others.
This could be in remembrance of them or because the MC is now a historical figure and the narrator is being asked to make an account of their lives. Or it could be because the narrator feels affected by the story themselves. That it spoke to them personally. Think of The Great Gatsby. The fact that Nick is the one who tells the story lets us know that Gatsby is free to die without everyone wondering how he’s telling his story from the grave. It also shows that the story is worth telling. It matters to Nick even though the story is clearly about Gatsby.
When the narrator is another character, they are still emotionally attached to the story, but they have the distance to be able to tell it from a different point of view. You’re free to kill off your MC or just make your readers worry about the fact that they could die. In fact, it’s a common trope to play around with!
The anonymous narrator is the storyteller who never gets a name or an identity in the story. They are just there to tell an interesting tale and they have no links or ties to the people they’re talking about. This means that the reader trusts the narrator more. They have no reason to lie to us or hide some facts, do they? Sure, they might have a point of view and some political ideas, but they don’t have to protect a character. They don’t have any ties! That’s usually true. An MC or another character as a narrator is much more likely to have an agenda. They might want to hide the truth. They might have someone to protect and some facts that they want to muddy. The anon narrator is much less likely to be unreliable. They’re often impartial and objective!
They also free you up. You can kill characters if you want to. Keep those stakes high. You can make them omniscient or close. You can choose how much we get to see of the MC’s thoughts and feelings.
When the MC is the one telling the story, it is weird if we don’t get to see in their mind. After all, who knows what they were thinking better than them? Why would they be hiding it? Are they unreliable? When the narrator is just some random person who has no link to the other characters, you can choose how much they know about the MC’s mind. If you’re looking for a mystery where we don’t know what’s going on, this is a good style to use.
Of course, having a character as the narrator is always going to be more personal. However, an anon narrator has a lot more versatility.
First, Second or Third Person?
This is very linked to what we were speaking about before. Each person has its pros and cons and it really depends on what you’re going for.
Of course, first person narrative works with the MC narrator. It can also work quite well when the narrator is another character in the story. However, it does mean that we get less of a chance to see what everyone else is thinking about. And yes, it does usually mean that the person telling the story is safe from death. It gives the story a personal edge that works really well for dramas and romance stories.
Second person works best with an anonymous narrator. It’s really good for making the interactive story feel like a game. You put your reader into the story and make them feel like they have control of the world. After all, they are the ones doing the actions. The con that comes with this is that you’re going to have to give them choices that matter in the story. This works well with thriller, mystery and horror stories where the reader needs to be in charge.
Third person works pretty well for everything. There are different kinds of third person and it can be applied for all kinds of stories. However, it is much harder to make this personal, so it making a character likeable might be a challenge for a new writer.
Of course, none of these are set in stone. You can mix it up! But this is a great place to start.
Reliable vs Unreliable Narrator?
How reliable do you think you need your narrator to be? Should they be someone that the reader can trust from the start of the story? Is it a good idea to make the reader not trust them from the start? Or do you want the narrator to slowly show that they’re not as trustworthy as we might have thought? Well, that’s up to you and how it will add to your story.
In a romance, the chances are that there’s no much reason why you’d need your narrator to be untrustworthy. I mean, we want to like them, don’t we? And if we can trust them, we’re one step closer to liking them. Unless, of course, you’re telling a story from the mean girl’s POV. Now that would be an interesting read! It would be cool to find out how far you can push the reader into sympathising with someone who is trying to ruin a relationship!
In a mystery or crime story, it might be worth making us question if the reader can be trusted. They do it really well in Hannibal. While TV doesn’t have narrators the same way that interactive stories do, we see the story through his eyes. At the start of the show, we trust him. By the end, he’s shown us that he can’t be trusted. The feeling of not being able to trust anyone, even the narrator, is a great way to build tension in some stories.
Can They Be Objective?
No writer can ever be 100% objective. They have political views and ideas that they are going to share with the reader whether you know it or not. If you don’t think about it, the chances are that the narrator is just going to match your views. There is nothing wrong with that! In fact, stories are a great way to share your views on the world and learn about other people’s. However, if you aren’t aware of your biases and the fact that they affect your narrator, you can seem preachy.
When you make it clear that your narrator has their thoughts and feelings, this can be quite refreshing to the reader! You’re being open and honest and allowing them to come up with their own views, even if the narrator has views of their own. This shows that the narrator can be trusted and the reader is going to be more likely to believe what they have to say about the story.
You’re never going to make an objective narrator no matter how hard you try. However, you can have an honest narrator who is trusted with the facts and valued for their views on the story.
The narrator is like a pair of glasses (hence the picture). You might have all of the info there in front of you, but the narrator is the character who puts the events in focus so that the reader can understand them. That’s why it’s a very good idea to take some time to think about what kind of character you want telling your story.
Is it worth giving the MC that kind of power? Do you think it’s better for the person telling the story to be anonymous? What about other people? And why did you make that choice? What does it add to your story?
Take some time to think about who’s telling your story. A good narrator puts you five steps closer to a great story!
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