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Some Advice on Narrative Writing
When many people hear the word “narrative,” they think of a made-up story. But not all stories are fiction. In this chapter we are not concerned with writing literary short stories—that’s a skill you may work on in a creative writing class—but rather with nonfiction expository narratives, stories that are used to explain or prove a point. We most often use two kinds of these stories:
1. the extended narrative—a long episode that by itself illustrates or supports an essay’s thesis
2. the brief narrative—a shorter incident that is often used in a body para- graph to support or illustrate a particular point in an essay.
Let’s suppose, for example, you wanted to write an essay showing how confusing the registration system is at your school. To illustrate the problems vividly, you might devote your entire essay to the retelling of a friend’s seven-hour experience signing up for classes last fall, thus making use of ex- tended narration. Or take another example: in an argumentative essay advocating the nationwide use of side-door air bags in automobiles, you might use a brief narrative about a car wreck to support a paragraph’s point about such air bags’ ability to save lives. Regardless of which type of narrative best fits your purpose, the telling of a story or an incident can be an interesting, persuasive means of informing your readers.
WRITING THE EFFECTIVE NARRATIVE ESSAY
Know your purpose. What are you trying to accomplish by writing this narrative essay? Are you, for example, offering an objective retelling of a historical event (the dropping of the atomic bomb) to inform your readers who may not be acquainted with this story? Or are you presenting a subjective narrative, which persuasively tells a story (Susan B. Anthony’s arrest for voting) from a clearly defined point of view? Perhaps your narrative is a personal story, whose point you wish readers to share. Whatever your choice—an objective, factual retelling or a subjective interpretation—your narrative’s purpose should be clear to your readers, who should never reach the end of the story wondering, “What was that all about?” Knowing your purpose will help you select your essay’s point of view (objective third-person reporter? subjective first-person storyteller?), kinds of details, and tone.
Make your main point clear. To ensure that readers understand their purpose, many writers of subjective narration present a thesis statement; others, however, choose to imply a main point or distinct point of view through the unfolding action and choice of descriptive details. An implied thesis is always riskier than a stated one, so unless you are absolutely convinced that your readers cannot fail to see your point, work on finding a smooth way of incorporating a statement of your main idea into your essay.
Follow a logical time sequence. Many narrative essays—and virtually all brief stories used in other kinds of essays—follow a chronological order, presenting events as they naturally occur in the story. Occasionally, however, a writer will use the flashback technique, which takes the readers back in time to reveal an incident that occurred before the present scene of the essay. If you decide to use shifts in time, use transition phrases or other signals to ensure that your readers don’t become confused or lost.
Use details to present the setting. Most extended narratives are set in particular times and places. If the setting plays an important role in your story, you must describe it in vivid terms so that your readers can imagine it easily.
For example, let’s suppose you are pointing out the necessity of life preservers on sailboats by telling the story of how you spent a stormy night in the lake, clinging to your capsized boat. To convince your readers, let them “feel” the stinging rain and the icy current trying to drag you under; let them “see” the black waves and the dark menacing sky; let them “hear” the howling wind and the gradual splitting apart of the boat. Effective narration often depends on effective description, and effective description depends on vivid, specific detail.
Make your characters believable. Again, the use of detail is crucial. Your readers should be able to visualize the people in your narrative clearly; if your important characters are drawn too thinly or if they seem phony or stereotyped, your readers will not fully grasp the intensity of your story, and thus its meaning will be lost. Show your readers a picture of the major characters (as you see them) by commenting unobtrusively on their appearances, speech, and actions. In addition, a successful narrative depends on the reader’s under- standing of people’s motives—why they act the way they do in certain situations. A narrative about your hometown’s grouchiest miser who suddenly donated a large sum of money to a poor family isn’t very believable unless we know the motive behind the action. In other words, let your readers know what is happening to whom by explaining or showing why.
Use dialogue realistically. Writers often use dialogue, their characters’ spoken words, to reveal action or personality traits of the speakers. By presenting conversations, writers show rather than tell, often creating emphasis or a more dramatic effect. Dialogue often helps readers identify with or feel closer to the characters or action by creating a sense of “you-are-there.” If your narrative would profit from dialogue, be certain the word choice and the manner of speaking are in keeping with each character’s education, background, age, location, and so forth. Don’t, for example, put a sophisticated philosophical treatise into the mouth of a ten-year-old boy or the latest campus slang into the speech of an auto mechanic from Two Egg, Florida. Also, make sure that your dialogue doesn’t sound “wooden” or phony. The right dialogue can help make your characters more realistic and interesting, provided that the conversations are essential to the narrative and are not merely padding the plot. (
Problems to Avoid
Weak, boring narratives are often the result of problems with subject matter or poor pacing; therefore, you should keep in mind the following advice:
Choose your subject carefully. Most of the best narrative essays come from personal experience or study, and the reason is fairly obvious: it’s difficult to write convincingly about something you’ve never seen or done or read about. You probably couldn’t, for instance, write a realistic account of a bullfight unless you’d seen one or at least had studied the subject in great detail.
The simplest, easiest, most interesting nonfiction narrative you can write is likely to be about an event with which you are personally familiar. This doesn’t mean that you can’t improvise many details or create a hypothetical story to illustrate a point. Even so, you will probably still have more success basing your narrative—real or hypothetical—on something or someone you know well.
Limit your scope. When you wish to use an extended narrative to illustrate a thesis, don’t select an event or series of actions whose retelling will be too long or complex for your assignment. In general, it’s better to select one episode and flesh it out with many specific details so that your readers may clearly see your point. For instance, you may have had many rewarding experiences during the summer you worked as a lifeguard, but you can’t tell them all. Instead, you might focus on one experience that captures the essence of your attitude toward your job—say, the time you saved a child from drowning—and present the story so vividly that the readers can easily understand your point of view.
Don’t let your story lag or wander. At some time you’ve probably listened to a storyteller who became stuck on some insignificant detail (“Was it Friday or Saturday the letter came? Let’s see now. . . .” “Then Joe said to me—no, it was Sally—no, wait, it was. . . .”). And you’ve probably also heard bores who insist on making a short story long by including too many unimportant details or digressions. These mistakes ruin the pacing of their stories; in other words, the story’s tempo or movement becomes bogged down until the readers are bored witless. To avoid putting your readers to sleep, dismiss all unessential information and focus your attention—and use of detail—on the important events, people, and places. Skip uneventful periods of time by using such phrases as “A week went by before Mr. Smith called . . .” or “Later that evening, around nine o’clock. . . . ” In short, keep the story moving quickly enough to hold the readers’ interest. Moreover, use a variety of transition de- vices to move the readers from one action to another; don’t rely continuously on the “and then . . . and then . . .” method.
✒ ESSAY TOPICS
Use one of the following topics to suggest an essay that is developed by narration. Remember that each essay must have a clear purpose.
1. An act of courage
2. An event of historical, medical, or scientific importance
3. An event that changed your thinking on a particular subject
4. Your best holiday or special occasion
5. A family history passed down through the generations
6. Your worst accident or brush with danger
7. Your most frightening or wonderful childhood experience
8. A memorable event governed by nature
9. A time you gained self-confidence or changed your self-image
10. A meaningful event during travel in another culture
11. The day everything went wrong (or right)
12. An event that led to an important decision
13. Your experience with prejudice or with an act of charity or friendship
14. Giving in to or resisting peer pressure
15. A gain or loss of something or someone important
16. A risk that paid off (or a triumph against the odds)
17. A nonacademic lesson learned at school or on a job
18. A special first or last day
19. A bad habit that got you into (or out of) trouble
20. An episode marking your passage from one stage of your life to another
A Topic Proposal for Your Essay
Selecting the right subject matter is important to every writer. To help you clarify your ideas and strengthen your commitment to your topic, here is a proposal sheet that asks you to describe some of your preliminary ideas about your subject before you begin drafting. Although your ideas may change as you write (they will almost certainly become more refined), thinking through your choice of topic now may help you avoid several false starts.
5. What is the critical moment in your story? At what point, in other words, does the action reach its peak? Summarize this moment in a few descriptive words.
6. What difficulties, if any, might this narrative present as you are drafting? For example, if the story you want to tell is long or complex, how might you focus on the main action and pace it appropriately?
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