by Robert Gray

Anyone can tell a story. Heck, every conversation you’ve ever had in your life probably contained a story on some level. So why is it so hard to write one? For one, most of those conversations wouldn’t make very good stories, at least not the ones I’ve had. And two, writing a story requires structure, and it’s your job as a writer to understand that structure so intimately that it becomes as natural as, well, a conversation.

The Five Narrative Modes

Every novel or story consists of five parts, narrative modes if you prefer the term. They are dialogue, thought, action, description and exposition. I like to think of these parts as storage bins, with dialogue, thought and action being the largest bins, and description and exposition being the smallest. Every tool you use to write – all that figurative stuff, all those thematic elements – goes into these bins, and the stronger your bins are, that is, the better you understand them, the more weight they can hold.

Dialogue and Thought

Dialogue and thought serve three purposes: first, they reveal something about the character. Second, they build tension. Third, they help advance the story. The difference between the two is that dialogue is spoken aloud, while thought is internal monologue. Often, the two can play off each other to create interesting effects.

For instance, in a conversation between John and girlfriend Marie, John might say—

“I can’t wait to see you at dinner.”

So I can rip the tongue out of that pretty little mouth of yours, he thought.


Action is that big-block V8 engine under the hood of your story. This is not to say that every scene need be explosive, but action is the driving force of your narrative, used not only to advance the story, but also to reveal information about your characters.

For example, John reached underneath his car seat and felt around for the butcher knife. It was still there, ready and waiting.

John is doing something, however minor, and we learn a little about his motives while moving the story forward.


Description is all those deep sensory images you want your reader to experience. At its best, it should invoke an emotional response by setting the mood of your story. One of the cardinal rules when working with description is not to over describe. Easier said then done, I know, but always remember that your story comes first, and if your description is not serving the story, then it’s got to go.

Let’s check back with our pal Johnny, who has his heart set on murdering Marie after dinner. To create the proper mood you might describe the scene at the restaurant something like:

He was assaulted by the smells of burnt onions and body odor as he entered. The place was bursting with people wanting to “feel like family,” as the slogan on TV suggests, and the floor was sticky with spilled drinks from the children scurrying around like an infestation, waiting to be pressed into the ground by a careless foot.

Not something I would open my wallet for, but you can see the description is brief and there is a definite mood created here, one that is obviously not happy.


Exposition is the most dangerous of the narrative modes. It refers to the details the narrator gives about a character. This can be sometimes a flashback or flashforward, or just a piece of background information or commentary. The problem with exposition is that readers like to draw their own conclusions about the characters, and exposition, because of its very nature, forces you to tell instead of show. A good rule is to limit exposition to incidental information, like a character’s age, or the fact that the character prefers apples to oranges, or, in good ol’ Johnny’s case …

To dash out this bitch’s brains while the family next to him stuffed yet another bowl of the free salad and bread into their faces. Now that would make him smile.

So now that you have your storage bins ready, go forth and fill them up with whatever you want. Me? Looks like I’ll be busy filling mine up with poor Marie’s body parts.

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