GCSE English

Aspects of writing: narrative devices

By Oliver Shrouder

06 Feb 2023

GCSE English students in school uniform.

During their time in education, learners hear hundreds of different stories from a vast range of authors, narrators, and cultures. Each one of these stories uses narrative devices to help us fully understand them.

Without these narrative devices, all forms of writing would become much harder to follow, as well as become less exciting to read. The order of events could become too confusing to track and, in some cases, it is impossible for a reader to figure out a novel’s tone or atmosphere.

This blog will explore the different narrative devices which learners are most likely to encounter in the classroom: a full understanding of these devices ensures that your learners fully grasp essential writing skills that they can use throughout education, as well as in the world of work.

Narrative devices refer to how a story is told. These devices involve who is narrating the story and how they are narrating it, such as through tone, tense, or chronology.

Narrative devices are essential when first planning a story, as they help an author develop a framework for their writing. Without this framework, stories can become confusing or meandering, which can make it difficult for any reader to follow. All narrative devices are important when conveying essential information to an audience, as they help readers understand your work, as well as create new ways to connect with your readers: imagine how different Dracula would be if it wasn’t written through letters!

Understanding narrative devices is essential when reading, too, as they tell you how exactly how literature and stories work. Without a strong understanding of narrative devices, it can be difficult for learners to grasp what makes a story function, making it much harder when they begin to write their own.

Creative writing can be one of the most exciting ways to learn literacy in detail within the classroom, and this enjoyment of writing helps to strengthen writing skills across every discipline. This confidence in using language is essential no matter the age of a learner, as language forms the groundwork to allow them to communicate and convey their ideas.

A chronological narrative is a narrative where all the events occur in date order. When utilised, this allows a writer to write within a very specific time frame, without incorporating moments in the future or the past. It is important to remember that chronological order is the opposite of narrative order: when writing chronologically, an author gives an order of events as they occurred in time, whereas narrative order introduces events and key ideas as the book progresses, without the need for a timeline.

In literature, a chronological narrative works best when writing a story which needs a large amount of detail. As such, epistolary novels, such as those written by Charles Dickens, are in chronological order. This helps a reader keep track of all the detail without any confusion about when an event occurred.

For example, in a murder mystery, a chronological narrative can help readers construct a complete picture of the murder before the author reveals the perpetrator.

Some modern books are written out of chronological order on purpose to allow the reader to figure out for themselves the true version of events. A famous example of a chronological narrative is The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. The short story, about an old man catching a marlin, takes place over a handful of days. The old man describes the sun as it rises and falls, showing his exhaustion as he attempts to take the fish home. Hemingway is famous for his use of sparse prose and chronology, and most of his books are written with events in date order.

If a piece of writing is described as biased, it has been influenced by external factors or introduced the opinion of an author. Biased writing often only represents a single point of view without facts and evidence from either side and is therefore less accurate than unbiased writing. This means that, if a work is biased, it is aiming to convince you that a certain opinion is correct, avoiding any evidence that might prove it wrong.

Learners need to be able to identify bias within a given text, ensuring that they can weigh up the strength of an argument. If an argument has a large amount of bias it becomes weak, as it does not consider all information within a context.

Here are two statements:

  • 88% of people love the new Star Wars movie.
  • Frejya Sampson, film critic at the New Delhi Screenfest, gave the new Star Wars film four stars out of five.

The first statement is a biased one, as it does not say which people were surveyed, or how many. There is no way of checking whether this statistic is true of all people, nor is it clear how many people gave their opinion. This sample size is far too small for the information to be useful. The second statement, however, is unbiased, as the information provided is specific and true.

Another example could be a statistic based on science:

  • According to the Rwandan Health Organisation, people who are 5'4 or shorter are 72% more likely to love bacon.*
  • An earthquake, scoring 5.3 on the Richter scale, has hit the south of Italy.*

*Both of these facts are untrue.

It can be very easy for authors to write in a biased way about something. Any introduction of an opinion creates a biased piece of writing. Bias appears most often in non-fiction work, such as when an author explores a place they have visited or a person they have known, so it’s important to consider authorial biases even when reading texts presented factually.

Biases can appear by accident, too; some learners can internalise ideas they have found in books and articles written by biased authors. As such, it is essential to ensure that every learner has a strong understanding of what bias is in a text, how to spot it, and how to avoid it when they begin writing themselves. Not only does this improve their own writing, but it also improves their media literacy skills, protecting them from unreliable information on social media and online.

As well as this, there are times when bias is necessary for a piece of writing, such as an opinion piece or writing through an unreliable narrator. Learners should not only learn to identify bias but also how bias can change the ways a text is received.

Imagine you're meeting a friend for a cup of coffee. You might say “Hey there!” or “What’s up?” when addressing them.

Now, imagine you're walking through the gates of Buckingham Palace, about to meet the Royal Family. You'd probably say something quite different!

In different contexts, we use varying types of register. Register refers to the formality of how we talk, such as choosing in which situations to use slang and in which to use formal articles of address, like Mrs and Sir.

When speaking to friends or family, we use an informal register as we are more comfortable around them. However, when we speak to someone very important, we are more likely to use a formal register to show our respect.

If you are writing an essay or a job application, you should use formal, detailed language which allows you to communicate with complexity and precision. However, you do not need to talk like this when you are hanging out with a friend or attending something casually. For example, in a fancy restaurant, you might ask a waiter, “Please may I have another glass?” and at home, you might ask a friend to “grab you a tea” or "pop the kettle on!".

In literature, register affects the tone and atmosphere of a text. Some authors, such as Charles Dickens, use register to show the social class or economic background of a character. Oliver Twist, for example, speaks in an informal register throughout the story as he was raised in an orphanage, in comparison to the upper-class formality of other characters he encounters.

Real-time narration is a type of chronological narrative. However, rather than events just being in order, events are portrayed at the same rate they occur in the plot.

This type of narrative is most often used in film and television: as they take place over a certain amount of time, they can ensure the same period is covered within the film. TV shows such as 24 occur over a 24-hour period using 24 episodes per series. As well as this, 1917 is a recent example of a movie which uses real-time narrative, covering two hours during World War One as they occurred.

Additionally, plays often take place in real time. Classic Greek plays often used this technique and explored situations which lasted the exact length of the performance.

Some contemporary stories attempt to write real-time narratives within novels and short stories, making chapters certain lengths to mimic the length of the period being described. For example, a short story could be written in entirely dialogue. Daily comic strips sometimes age a character at the same rate that the comic is published, allowing the main characters to grow alongside an audience.

Epistolary writing refers to a literary genre which is written entirely in letters, journal entries, or diary entries. Letters are used most in an epistolary narrative, though in more contemporary novels authors use blogs, transcriptions, or emails.

A famous example of epistolary literature is The Colour Purple by Alice Walker, which tells the story of Celie through letters sent to her sister and God. This form of writing allows the reader to see the most detailed thoughts of Celie as she writes them, written through her own words rather than those of an author or a narrator.

Another example of an epistolary novel is Dracula by Bram Stoker. This novel about vampires is comprised mostly of letters sent between each of the main characters, but also includes newspaper excerpts, doctors’ notes, and parts of a diary. The use of found material alongside letters places events within a particular time frame, making the novel seem as if it really happened. In fiction, this form is used to add realism to a narrative as it imitates how people write outside of stories. Reading the diaries and letters of characters gives further depth to their personalities.

It is important to note that the epistolary form is not limited to fiction. Many authors have had their diary entries published, such as Sylvia Plath, allowing readers to explore the thought processes behind their favourite books and people. For example, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is comprised of diary entries as she recounts her feelings during the Second World War, allowing readers to understand her emotions during one of the most harrowing events in modern history.

Foreshadowing is a narrative device in which hints or warnings about future events are placed throughout the early sections of a text.

Foreshadowing is best shown through the narrative concept, Chekov’s Gun: if a gun is mentioned at the start of a story, then it must be fired by the end. This does not always have to refer to a gun - Chekov is stating that every element of the story, no matter how irrelevant it may seem at the time, must become important to the narrative by the end of the story. All story elements must become necessary. In this way, the gun Chekov mentions at the start foreshadows someone being shot at the end of the story.

Foreshadowing is sometimes obvious, such as hinting towards a murderer in a mystery novel, and at other times it is subtle, only noticed once the book has finished or been reread. Aspects such as themes, important objects or strange sentences spoken by a character can all be foreshadowing if they hint towards something that will happen later in the novel.

Foreshadowing is primarily used to introduce or increase tension in each text. As more information is given, we begin to wonder what is going to happen by the end of a text, forming our own preconceptions and making predictions. Resultantly, foreshadowing is often given at the end of a chapter, as it encourages a reader to move on to the next. In some cases, the title can be an example of foreshadowing as it hints towards the contents of the book without giving them away.

Sometimes, the narrator themselves can be an example of foreshadowing. In the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein writes about his childhood from the perspective of many years later. In knowing what is going to happen, he explores his love of science and mysticism, hinting towards the monster he creates. Similarly, in The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath foreshadows the end of the book through the narrator of Esther Greenwood, and we learn about her as a mother many years after the events of the novel.

A cliffhanger is when a story ends without resolving the central conflict. Instead, it ends with a moment of suspense and implies a conclusion in a future chapter or novel.

The phrase "cliffhanger" is said to have originated in a text by Thomas Hardy, where a chapter concludes with an important character hanging off the edge of a cliff. However, cliffhangers have been being used for hundreds of years to keep readers hooked on a story - endings such as "To be continued..." are a classic example of a cliffhanger.

Cliffhangers are used to create sudden tension for an audience to make them eager to find out what happens next. In some cases, cliffhangers are used without a resolution, leaving readers to decide for themselves what happened to the characters or narrative. This is known as an ambiguous ending and asks a reader to look for answers to the sudden ending within the text.

Cliffhangers refer to two possible events in a narrative: a big revelation changes the direction of a story, or the protagonist is placed in a dangerous situation. In both events, the audience is left wondering what will happen to the characters or how a character will get through the situation. Cliffhangers such as these are found in almost every novel, with chapters ending with moments of intrigue that make a reader want to continue the story.

Many Victorian texts end chapters with cliffhangers, as chapters would be published chapter by chapter within magazines rather than as complete novels. The suspense creates a greater demand for the rest of the story, drumming up more interest in the next instalment of the magazine. In contemporary fiction, book series are sometimes published in trilogies, with each novel ending with a sudden revelation that is resolved in the following book.

For this activity, read out a short story to your class. This story should be a mystery or something with a sudden twist at the end. Once you have done this, split your class into groups of three or four and hand out excerpts of the story. Ask the class to find moments in the story where the ending is foreshadowed, and how. This encourages your students to think on a line-by-line level when they read a text and encourages them to think laterally when reading.

This activity encourages your learners to think creatively about a story they have just read and think deeply about how a text is structured. Bring a short story to the class and read it out to your learners. However, rather than finishing the story, exclude the final one or two paragraphs. Ask your class to write their own endings to the story, using any information they have learned, before reading the true ending. You can ask them to read their endings out to the class or, alternatively, explain in groups why they decided to end the story a certain way. You can also reward the learner whose ending was closest to the real ending.

This activity asks learners to produce their own alternative ending to a fictional or non-fictional story. You could bring in examples of stories for your learners to change or ask your learners to bring in their favourite stories from home. This activity encourages your learners to place more attention on the tone of a story, giving them space to mimic different vocabulary and pacing. This puts learners out of their comfort zone when they write and asks them to think as if they were a different person, focusing on new methods of storytelling, atmosphere, and structure.

Bedrock’s GCSE English curriculum features a module on narrative devices. In this module, learners explore some of the devices and texts mentioned in this blog, as well as delve deeper into the critical reasoning and essay structure behind these techniques. Example responses are scaffolded and challenging vocabulary is taught explicitly. The techniques and devices learners encounter are saved in their unique knowledge organiser, giving them an intelligent, self-adapting bank of revision content.

And it’s not just your GCSE learners who gain insight into their progress. The improvement learners make on Bedrock’s GCSE English curriculum is collated on each teacher’s dashboard, providing visibility of learners’ improvement on Bedrock and rich insight to inform your lesson planning.

With Bedrock’s GCSE English content, taught alongside vocabulary and grammar in the core curriculum, teachers can ensure every learner has the opportunity to thrive.

Vocabulary, grammar and GCSE English taught through an intelligent, self-marking digital curriculum.