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This topic sheet was originally devised for the Exciting Writing for Radio course. There is a table of links to other teaching resources towards the bottom of this page.

 

The concept of a narrator is potentially at odds with the "show, don't tell" principle (which is that events should be shown directly to the audience whenever possible, rather than relayed through narrative). In other words, the impact of a play is much greater if the listener is able to share the experience of the action rather than simply hearing a second-hand account of it. Insofar as narration is a substitute for action, it must be used sparingly.

Even so, narrators have their uses.

Narrators in radio drama may be broadly categorised as either being detached from the action of the play or else in some way involved in the action.

 

DETACHED NARRATORS

The detached narrator is usually a structural imperative. Specifically, if the writer needs to convey information that cannot be conveyed, or at least cannot be conveyed economically, by action and sound, the situation is usually explained by a narrator. Detached narration is commonly used to:

  • describe events that have happened or are happening outside the action of the play, but have some bearing on the action of the play;
  • set the scene in visual terms that cannot readily be expressed through sound;
  • describe significant visual characteristics or behaviours of the characters,
  • pitch a scene precisely in time, for example if the action suddenly moves forward or back by several years;
  • mark the passage of time;
  • vary the pace of the play (for example, a gentle narration between two frenetic scenes may serve to heighten the emotional impact).

 

"SEMI-DETACHED" NARRATORS

The narrator may stand outside the action without being completely detached from it, of course. The narrator's role becomes blurred as soon as s/he speaks in judgmental terms, for example by describing the characters in a prejudicial way or by expressing his/her opinion of the events being described.

Judgmental, "semi-detached" narrators of this sort suggest the presence of none other than the writer as a moderator of the action, actively interfering with the listener's interpretation of the action. This form of narration can have a profound effect on the play, particularly if the narration challenges the listener's instinctive interpretation of the action. For example, if the characters of the play behave reprehensibly but are described by the narrator in commendatory terms, the listener may be forced to question his/her moral standpoint.

Arguably, semi-detachment is an unstable state for a narrator because a judgmental narrator seems to become a character in his/her own right. The listener ponders the relationship that must exist between the narrator and the characters for the narrator to judge the characters so. If the semi-detached narrator is not the writer him/herself, it may become necessary to make the narrator engage fully with the action of the play.

 

CHARACTERS AS NARRATORS

Like semi-detached narrators, character narrators can fulfil any or all of the same functions as detached narrators. However, their relationship to the action is much more explicit.

In effect, it is as if we were hearing the play inside the head of the character who performs the narration. The character narrator is all powerful. For example, s/he can:

  • deliver prejudicial comments on other characters without comeback,
  • freeze the action, in order to describe his/her thoughts or emotions (as does the novelist),
  • move forward or back in time,
  • filter out information that s/he does not want the listener to hear,
  • distort the words and actions of other characters,
  • distort the action of the play.

Accordingly, character narrators influence listeners' perceptions in ways that cannot easily be achieved without narration or with the help of exclusively detached narration. For example:

  • The character of the narrator may be explored in much greater depth because the listeners see into the world of his/her mind;
  • The emotional impact of the play may be heightened by placing the audience in the character's emotional shoes, as it were;
  • The emotional engagement of the character narrator enables him/her to relate events without compromising the "show and tell" principle, by turning the narrative into an emotional event in itself;
  • The potential for conflict is increased by the character narrator's ability to expose conflicts to the listener that may not be made apparent through speech or sound (such as when the narrator speaks to another character in agreeable tones but confesses his/her loathing to the audience).

Insofar as character narrators serve a truly dramatic purpose as opposed to a purely structural one, several character narrators may be used in the same production, so that listeners are able to gain a number of contrasting, even conflicting, views of the action.

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