Narrative theory Part I: the narrative voice

Updated: Jan 12

By Fariha Uddin - English Student @ Keble College, Oxford

How often have you wondered why you liked a specific book? You could read a book that explores a clever idea, but a badly written one will always ruin the reading experience. Much of a ‘good’ book has to do with the narrative techniques that a story is told through. So ‘narrative theory’ is a study of those narratives. Applying narrative theory is another way of studying how the ‘form’ of the text is created. Much of this article is indebted to Mieke Bal’s Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Rather than taking the following definitions and explanations as strict guidelines, consider them as a start to your own interpretations.

o A ‘narrative text’ is a text in which a subject tells a story to an assumed listener. Note that ‘story’ is different to the ‘narrative text’. (Bal, 2017)

o A ‘story’ is simply the content in the narrative text, such as plot and characters. Narrative techniques arrange the way a story is told, and the story itself affects the ‘fabula’. (Bal, 2017)

o A ‘fabula’ is the chronological events that the characters experience. The fabula is affected by time, place, events, and the actors (Bal, 2017)

The story and fabula are two very different elements of narrative texts as you can see, although they are often wrongly used as synonyms.

Using The Handmaid’s Tale as an example of a ‘narrative text’, the ‘story’ is about the oppressive experiences of the Handmaid Offred in the totalitarian regime of Gilead. The ‘fabula’ is the chronology of the events: although it is written in a non-linear time frame due to the flashbacks (also known as analepsis), once you finish reading the novel and arrange the events in a sequential and logical format – you have the ‘fabula’. The story is completed in the end due to the fabula when the reader can finally connect the dots in a chronological fashion.

But of course narrative texts would not be complete without the narrative voice(s). The point of

perspective from which the story is told is the narrative voice. There can be multiple narrative voices in a text depending on who the narrator is. Here are a few types of narrators that texts can feature side by side to tell the same fabula, just different stories due to changing perspectives:

o An ‘external’ narrator is not involved in the fabula and makes no direct impact on the events and characters (Bal 2017) other than the way things are revealed or left out.

o The narrator can also be an observer that tells the story as it sees (Bal 2017). Imagine a ghostly specter in the room witnessing and consequently narrating your every move!

o The ‘character-bound’ narrator is a character itself in the story (Bal 2017): “Sara and I organized a zoom quiz for our friend’s twentieth birthday in lockdown”. An external narrator would have instead said: “Sara and her friend organized a zoom…”. The “I” makes all the difference.

The narrative voice is manipulated by different narrators for different types of texts. A bildungsroman, for example, suits a character-bound narrator more than an external narrator because it is about the protagonist’s personal circumstances of childhood and education. See Dickens’ Great Expectations, or Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. A murder-mystery, on the other hand, could suit an external narrator so that accounts are narrated on an unbiased basis should that be the writer’s intention.

Further reading:

  1. Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, third edition, 2017

  2. ‘Narrative Theory Introduction’ on