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Observational Narration

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In Observational Narration, the Narrator interjects their own opinions, observations, and interpretations, breaking the fourth wall to address the Reader directly even if neither Reader nor Narrator is part of the story.

This can occur on a spectrum of intrusion. At its lightest, it includes narrative rhetoric such as “obviously,” “naturally,” and “of course.” Heavier applications manifest as parenthetical asides and expositional tangents wherein the Narrator briefly (or not so briefly, as the case may be) steps into frame.

Observational example from Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (1819):
It was in vain that Cedric’s cupbearer looked around for his young master—he saw the bloody spot on which he had lately sunk down, but himself he saw no longer; it seemed as if the fairies had conveyed him from the spot. Perhaps Oswald (for the Saxons were very superstitious) might have adopted some such hypothesis, to account for Ivanhoe’s disappearance, had he not suddenly cast his eye upon a person attired like a squire, in whom he recognised the features of his fellow-servant Gurth.

Such insertions establish a rapport between Reader and Narrator that exists beyond the scope of story events. They drive the Reader toward a logical or emotional conclusion. The best Observational Narration feels like a story told between friends. 

However, while it can introduce a playful or chummy tone, Observational Narration is generally considered old-fashioned, corny, or folksy. It can quickly become patronizing, condescending, or grating if used without care—basically, the “mansplaining” of the narrative world.

Narratorsplaining, if you will.

A Classic Masterpiece

The ultimate Observational novel, IMHO, is Henry Fielding’s TOM JONES, in which the Narrator, who has no direct part in the story, constantly addresses the Reader. In fact, Fielding warns early on that he’s going to digress on any tangent he feels necessary.

And he overtly cues the Reader when he does.

Observational quote from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book IV, Chapter 3:
The amiable Sophia was now in her eighteenth year, when she is introduced into this history. Her father, as hath been said, was fonder of her than of any other human creature. To her, therefore, Tom Jones applied, in order to engage her interest on the behalf of his friend the gamekeeper.
But before we proceed to this business, a short recapitulation of some previous matters may be necessary.

Published in 1749, when the English Novel was still in its infancy, TOM JONES serves as a guidebook for how an Audience should consume fiction. Fielding’s frequent narrative intrusions are instructive in nature, an understandable byproduct of the era.

This is the same time period in which writers still blurred the lines between fiction and truth. But Fielding, in his solidly Observational voice, draws a clear boundary between reality and his fabricated plot. He tells a tale that could have happened while playfully teaching his Readers how to process the story.

Observational quote from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book IX, Chapter 3:
Though the reader, we doubt not, is very eager to know who this lady was, and how she fell into the hands of Mr Northerton, we must beg him to suspend his curiosity for a short time, as we are obliged, for some very good reasons which hereafter perhaps he may guess, to delay his satisfaction a little longer.

A Modern Surprise

Although Observational Narration is supposedly out of fashion, we have a rather stunning modern example in Brandon Sanderson’s TRESS OF THE EMERALD SEA. As the Narrator, Hoid, recounts Tress’s story, he frequently breaks the fourth wall to offer his own opinions and interpretations directly to the Reader.

Quote from Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson:
The girl had been given the unfortunate name of Glorf upon her birth (don’t judge; it was a family name), but her wild hair earned her the name everyone knew her by: Tress. That moniker was, in Tress’s estimation, her most interesting feature.
Tress had been raised to possess a certain inalienable pragmatism. Such is a common failing among those who live on dour lifeless islands from which they can never escape. When you are greeted each day by a black stone landscape, it influences your perspective on life.

This playfulness lends a sort of nostalgic charm to the book as a whole. It’s also an example of Observational Narration in the First Person, because Hoid is an in-universe character and story participant.

So, once again the narration type does not tie to one specific Point of View category.

If you want to write Observational Point of View, TRESS proves you can disregard the naysayers1. And justly so. Writing trends always cycle around.

  • What is your favorite example of Observational Narration?
  • In what circumstances might you wish to read or write this type of narrator?

Up next: Omniscient Narration
Previous: Objective Narration
Index Page: Point of View

  1. Speaking of naysayers, I’ve written about Observational Narration before, in my Liar Liar series. Check out that post for more on the rhetorical effects this type of narration creates. Also, ignore my claims about the 3 Os tying specifically to Third Person. That’s what they taught in my formal English classes, but I know better now. ↩︎