All narratives have a narrator. However, plays have maintained uniqueness in how stories are shared with an audience, leaving writers with a great deal of freedom and responsibility to choose the best type of narrator. The type of narrator you write for your play dramatically affects how the audience receives the story. 

You should write a narrator into your play as a single character if you want to create a special connection with the audience. A dedicated narrator is also helpful when the story is told from only one perspective or if you want to mislead the audience with an unreliable point of view.

If you’re struggling to decide if you should write a narrator into your play, keep reading. This post considers the importance of narrators in a play and how you can use them to effectively tell your story. 

Writing the Right Narrator for a Play

Writing a play is more comparable to writing a screenplay than writing a novel or short story. 

Similarly, watching a play offers the audience a movie-like experience, seeing the story presented on the stage from a panoramic view rather than interpreting your literal descriptions in their imagination. 

Unlike a movie, however, a play is much more intimate. For instance, breaking the fourth wall is generally accepted and more commonplace on stage, as this is a critical part of how a connection is made between the players and the audience. 

Indeed, this gives writers plenty of creative freedom in how the narrator interacts with the audience. Writing the narrator in a play allows for easier transitions between scenes and helps the audience follow the story. 

For example, an omniscient narrator is helpful when explaining multiple characters’ backstories and motives, or if the story spans decades and you need to jump into the future quickly without confusing the audience. 

The Value and Effectiveness of Narrators In All Writing

Selecting a narrator and point of view is a critical decision in all narrative writing, as it significantly influences the level of engagement a story offers its audience. A narrator should hold a unique perspective and provide essential information about the story and its characters.

Whether the narrator is the antagonist or protagonist, reliable or unreliable, and limited view or omniscient, a successful narrator captures the audience’s interest.  

When deciding on a narrator, writers must first determine whose story is being told and identify which character or characters are the most compelling or intriguing. Ask yourself, “Who can best capture the interest of the audience?” 

Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be the main character or even the most likable one, as likability doesn’t automatically translate to effectiveness.  

The Importance of Choosing Effective Narrators 

The narrator doesn’t always have to be a named character in your story. In a typical play, the settings and players on stage essentially serve as an all-encompassing, third-person narrator, constantly communicating information to the audience in everything they say or do. 

Yet, some writers select one character or the leading players to serve as the narrator(s). This way, they can isolate themselves from the other characters to provide a different and more personal connection for the audience.  

Whether you choose to use the general ensemble and script en masse as the narrator or designate the responsibility to one character, the decision can significantly affect the overall effectiveness in communicating and engaging with the audience. 

How To Write a Narrator in a Play

If you’re not writing the narrator as a single character in your play, the general ensemble or a few select players act as the narrator.  

Little difference exists between first-person and third-person narration as far as the audience is concerned. Perspectives may change from scene to scene or in each act or remain consistent. Regardless of the media used, the audience receives the story from one point of view at any given time. 

Thus, the writer must choose between two sets of other defining characteristics:

  • Limited vs. omniscient
  • Reliable vs. unreliable

For instance, if your story shifts between character perspectives, you’ll likely write reliable third-person limited narrators for each scene. This allows you to give the audience an omniscient narration overall, as each character provides their version of the story. 

A Narrator by Any Other Name…

Writing a narrator in a play can create more of a “storybook” feel for the audience, reminiscent of how parents and teachers read children’s books and fantasy novels to kids. The narrator can provide the audience with the supplemental narrative of prologues, epilogues, and other intermittent commentaries. 

For example, let’s consider the narration in William Shakespear’s infamous Romeo and Juliet. The narrator has both the opening and closing lines of the play. 

Here’s the narrator’s prologue at the open, which summarizes the entire narrative to come:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end nought could remove,

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

And here are the closing lines providing an emotional overview to help drive the moral of the story: 

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;

The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;

Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Another interesting point about the narrator in Romeo and Juliet is that it isn’t written necessarily for one actor. 

Typically, the ensemble (or chorus) is designated the prologue, and the last lines are written for the Prince of Verona. Yet, in the countless interpretations of this classic throughout the years, the role of the narrator has been played by various characters, sometimes changing from act to act, or even by one dedicated outsider. 

As a writer, this is something to consider. It can leave room for artistic interpretation in performing your play, which could appeal to various directors and producers. 

Final Thoughts

Whether the narrator is an objective storyteller or a character who takes part in the story and offers a limited perspective, this part must be of value to the audience. If you find that writing a narrator into your play doesn’t offer anything special to the audience, don’t.

Categories: Playwriting

Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.