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I'd like to put a name to the group of expectations established by the narration of a story, including explicit framing devices, verb tense choices, and the narrator's omniscience.

Examples:

  • A story in diary or epistolary format implies that each day's entry or letter is informed only by events up to and including the time of writing.
  • A story told in limited first person implies that the narrator is or was privy to all the information being given to the reader.
  • Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda is about the long-dead ancestors of a first-person narrator. The action of the novel does not concern the narrator's discovery of the "facts", only these "facts" themselves. The action all takes place in past tense and, since the narrator is informed, with a near-omniscient viewpoint. Characters are described as being at a loss when confronted with problems, but the narrator knows how they responded.
  • The very first page of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight is in first person and references the narrator's arrival in Forks in the past. This creates the expectation that Bella, the first-person narrator of the subsequent story beginning with her arrival in Forks, will survive at least until the events on the first page occur.

There are of course no guarantees that these implications will be followed. In real life as in fiction, a diary entry can be edited days later. Plot twists revealing that there were multiple first-person narrators don't necessarily fail to make sense, but the point of them is to defy expectations. I'm looking for the concept/field of study/terminology that describes these expectations.

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  • Do you mean something more than just point of view? – verbose Nov 16 '20 at 9:16
  • I mean the effect of point of view on what the reader expects. I don't know if it's a subconcept of or if it's academically folded into the concept of point of view. For example, that Wiki article says of 3rd-person narration that it "makes it clear the narration is done without the need for a narrator who is identified and personified as a character within the story." That's an expectation the reader (perhaps) rightfully has based on previous works, but it's not necessarily true. – Tranquilled Nov 16 '20 at 18:35
  • Academically it would be folded into point of view, yes. – verbose Nov 18 '20 at 8:19
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The boundaries of expectation set by a story's narration fall under the general heading of point of view. In itself, point of view is a simple concept: what is the relationship of the narrator to the narrative? Or more simply still, who's telling the story, and when? This simplicity itself reveals the foundational nature of point of view to the unfolding of a story. Writing in 1921, Percy Lubbock says that narrative technique comes down entirely to point of view:

The whole intricate question of method, in the craft of fiction, I take to be governed by the question of the point of view — the question of the relation in which the narrator stands to the story. (p. 251)

The writer's choice and deployment of point of view determine how the reader is situated vis-à-vis the world of the story. Point of view is what sets the boundaries of expectation for the reader. For example, a story told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator engenders the expectation that this narrator is trustworthy and represents the author's own point of view. A story told from a first-person perspective can be used to engender either sympathy for the narrator or, by portraying the narrator as unreliable, ironic distance. By switching points of view within a narrative, as in an epistolary novel, the writer can ensure that the reader has access to multiple perspectives on a single situation, and perhaps to information that the characters themselves don't all know.

Point of view allows the writer to not only control what information the reader has about the action, but also manipulate the reader's response. One of the most celebrated of such manipulations occurs in Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

The novel is narrated in the first person by Dr James Sheppard. Sheppard tells the reader that he has been to a dinner party at Roger Ackroyd's place, and that following the dinner, he had a private conversation with Ackroyd. He further narrates how later that evening, he receives a phone call asking him to return to Ackroyd's home as Ackroyd's murdered body has been discovered. At the end of the novel, we learn that Sheppard himself murdered Ackroyd during their conversation, then returned home. Sheppard has just omitted that part from his narration until the detective, Hercule Poirot, uncovers the truth and taxes him with it.

Christie superbly manipulates the expectations set by the first-person narration. Sheppard is presented as intelligent and kindly, and even as Poirot's collaborator in solving the crime. His own culpability comes as a huge shock simply because there has been no hint in the narration that he is an unreliable or untrustworthy narrator. This plot twist was considered very controversial in its day, and its effect on first-time readers of the novel remains powerful.

Christie's novel exemplifies the importance of point of view in not only telling a story, but also shaping the reader's response to it. Point of view engenders certain expectations in the reader; a large part of the effect of a narrative depends upon the writer's conforming to or subverting those expectations.

References

  • Lubbock, Percy. The Craft of Fiction. London: Jonathan Cape, 1921, rept. 1963.

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