What Is 'Narration' in English Grammar?

By Carly Forsaith, updated on April 19, 2023

What is ‘narration?’ A grammatical concept often used in storytelling, narration can be a tricky concept to grasp. After you read this article, all will become clear.

In short:

  • Narration means to report what has been said.
  • There are two ways to narrate: direct and indirect speech.

What is Narration?

‘Narration’ is the noun from the verb ‘to narrate,’ which means, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

  • to tell (a story) in detail
  • to provide spoken commentary for

As well as a word, narration is also a grammar concept, which is explained quite well by definition given above since to narrate is to report someone’s speech either directly or indirectly.

The word ‘narration’ is commonly used in the context of storytelling, but not only that. It’s pretty much used to refer to any type of speech reporting.

  • Want to tell a friend what you heard someone say? You’ll use narration for that.
  • Writing a scene for your novel where two characters interact. That’s narration, too.

Let’s dive into the two different types of narration:

  • Direct
  • Indirect

Narration with Direct Speech

Also called ‘reporting speech,’ direct speech reports what somebody said word-for-word.

You won’t need to make any changes to the verb tenses, pronouns, or anything else.

  • Just use quotation marks or inverted commas and the exact words the person used.

You’ll introduce them with a reporting clause, like ‘she said’ or ‘Paul exclaimed.’

  • The reporting clause can also be placed after the quote, as long as you set it apart with a comma.

Here are some examples of what direct speech narration can look like:

She stopped and said: “I heard a strange sound”

My father asked: “How are you feeling?”

“I just want to go home,” complained my mom.

Top tip! The quote within the speech marks must always begin with a capital letter, even if it starts in the middle of the sentence.

Narration with Indirect Speech

Also called ‘reported speech,’ indirect speech is a way of reporting what a person has said without quoting them directly.

  • Therefore you won’t use quotation marks in this instance.

I’ll use the same examples as earlier to illustrate how you can report the exact same dialogue using both techniques.

She stopped and said that she had heard a strange sound.

My father asked me how I was feeling.

My mom complained that she just wanted to go home.

In the above examples, although we haven’t directly quoted the person, we’ve still used their exact words. It isn’t compulsory to do this. You can also paraphrase. I’ll use the same examples again, but this time I’ll change the wording slightly.

She stopped and said she had heard something weird.

My father asked me if I was okay.

My mom said she wanted to head off.

These sentences are still correct. That’s the beauty of indirect speech, and you have a lot more creative freedom. As long as you’re careful to stay as close as possible to what was originally said, you’ll be fine.

Top tip! Ever heard of ‘Chinese whispers’? When indirect speech is reported from one person to the next, and the next, and so on and so forth, each person involuntarily changes one small part of the sentence so that, in the end, the event that is reported is completely different. That’s how false rumors get started!

Structuring Your Narration with Indirect Speech

Structuring indirect speech can be quite complex, so it deserves its own section. You might have noticed that when you report speech indirectly, a lot of things change:

  • the tense
  • the pronouns
  • the demonstratives, and so on.

We’re going to take a look at the formatting in a little more detail, and we are going to take a step-by-step approach to this using this simple example:

Sally said, “The book I am reading is amazing!”

Introducing the Reported Clause

The first thing you’ll need to consider is how to introduce the reported clause (“This book is amazing!”). The first part will begin the same:

Sally said

That’s the first part of the reporting clause. But there’s still a piece missing.

Then you’ll need to choose between words such as ‘that,’ ‘if,’ ‘whether,’ ‘who,’ and ‘to’ to complete your reporting clause. Which one you use will depend on whether you’re reporting a statement, a question, or a command.

In our example, we’re reporting a statement, so we will use ‘that.’

Sally said that

Using Pronouns

When we report speech indirectly, we are now speaking for someone else. In this example, Sally is no longer the one talking; we are. But we are still reporting something that Sally said. So we’ll need to replace the first-person singular pronoun (“I”) with a third-person singular pronoun.

Let’s see how this pronoun change looks:

Sally said that the book she

Changing the Verb Tenses

When you’re reporting speech without quoting it directly, you’re talking about something that is now over. It’s happened, it’s over, and it’s in the past.

  • When it happened, though, it was in the present, of course.

This is called a ‘backshift.’ Because time has passed since the person said what they said, we now have to report it in the past indefinite tense.

With our current example, it’ll look like this:

Sally said that the book she was reading

A backshift requires a change from the present indefinite to the past indefinite when converting direct speech to indirect speech, but what if the original sentence isn’t in the present tense? Well, it turns out each tense has a different backshift tense to match it.

Here they are, courtesy of the Cambridge Dictionary.

present simple → past simple

present continuous → past continuous

present perfect simple → past perfect simple

present perfect continuous → past perfect continuous

past simple → past perfect simple

past continuous → past perfect continuous

future (will) → future-in-the-past (would)

past perfect ↔ past perfect (no change)

Here’s the thing though: no backshift is required when what was originally said is still true, like in Sally’s book. Though what she said about it being amazing is in the past, we have to assume that the book is still amazing in the present day.

So we would say:

Sally said that the book she was reading was amazing.

But if you want to use backshift anyway and say, “Sally said that the book she was reading was amazing,” that is absolutely fine too, and actually preferable, in my opinion. I just think it sounds better to have the two verb tenses match.

And there you have it. That’s our example completely converted to indirect speech.

So we went from:

Sally said, “The book I am currently reading is amazing!”


Sally said the book she was reading was amazing.

Modal Verbs

There are a few more rules to be aware of when switching speech from direct to indirect that we haven’t covered yet because they weren’t represented in the example we were looking at. So we’ll take a look at them now.

The first one is modals. Modal verbs - also known as helping or auxiliary verbs - are paired with other verbs to indicate the possibility, probability, necessity, etc.

Here are some common modal verbs:

Remember when we were talking about ‘backshift’ earlier? Well, some modal verbs also backshift when being converted from direct to indirect speech.

These are the ones that get changed and what they get changed to:

Will → would
Shall → would / should
Can → could
May → might / could
Must → had to / no change

So, to illustrate, I’ll use an example direct speech sentence which I’ll then convert to indirect speech.

Sally said, “You must read this book!”

→ Sally said I had to read that book.

Notice that ‘this’ also gets changed to ‘that.’ This brings me to my next point.

Demonstratives and Adverbs

Since demonstratives and adverbs serve to denote something in time and space, it makes sense that these should change when reporting speech indirectly since that happens at a different time and probably also in a different place.

As noted in the last example, ‘this’ got changed to ‘that.’ Which other words might change?

Here are some examples:

Here → there
This → that
These → those
Now → then
Today → that day
One week ago → one week before

The list goes on; I can’t list them all here, but hopefully, you get the picture!

Examples of Narration

We’ve pretty much covered the basics of narration in English grammar and the difference between direct and indirect speech. So now, we’ll look at some more examples.

I will list some direct speech examples, and then I’ll use the same sentences for the direct speech examples, but I’ll convert them into indirect speech. That way, as well as seeing examples, you’ll be getting some more demonstrations of how to convert narration from direct to indirect speech.

Sentences with Direct Speech

“My favorite color is red,” said Macy.

The coach asked: “Do you want to practice today or tomorrow?”

Wait for us!”, ordered the twins.

“I’m thinking of buying a house next year,” Owen tells me.

Patrick told me last week: “I know where the key is hidden.”

“We will see you at the party!” they exclaimed.

He promised me: “I was running errands when I ran into her.”

“Had you ever met her before?”, she asked me.

He inquired: “Why did you come here yesterday?”

“List the capital cities of the following countries,” question four of the test instructed.

Sentences with Indirect Speech

Macy said that her favorite color was red.

The coach asked whether we wanted to practice that day or the next day.

The twins ordered us to wait for them.

Owen tells me he’s thinking of buying a house next year.

Patrick had told me the week before that he knew where the key was hidden.

They exclaimed that they would see me at the party.

He promised me that he had been running errands when he ran into her.

She asked me whether I had ever met her before.

He inquired as to why I had gone there the previous day.

Question four of the test instructed us to list the capital cities of the countries that followed.

Concluding Thoughts

So there you have it; the basics of narration in English grammar and how to differentiate direct and indirect speech.

Let’s review what we’ve learned:

  • ‘Narration’ refers to the way we report what was said.
  • You can narrate in direct speech or indirect speech.
  • When converting speech from direct to indirect, a lot of words and tenses need changing.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did, check out our Grammar Rules blog for many more like this one.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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