Welcome to Writing Power, the site that aims to help people enrich their lives by improving their writing. If you like what you read, I hope you’ll become a regular reader by subscribing to Writing Power’s RSS feed. In addition, please consider sharing your favorite posts through sites like digg, StumbleUpon, or del.icio.us using the “Share This” link below. Thank you for your support!
Narration is one of writing’s building blocks, the basic strategies that writers employ to tackle a variety of writing situations, genres, and purposes. For our earliest human ancestors, as for us, storytelling functioned as an important social and cultural construct, a way of organizing experience. It’s no surprise, then, that a writer will draw on his or her storytelling skills, no matter what he or she is writing.
If you’re working on a novel or a short story, you probably pay attention to narration already. But what if you’re writing a blog post, or an academic argument, or a news profile? You may not think about narrative strategy, but chances are, you’re using narrative principles in these pieces, too.
For example, I might begin a blog post with an anecdote about something I experienced that got me started thinking about the post’s topic: a day at the library, for example. But the point of my post is not just to relate that story; in other words, my post’s overall genre is not autobiographical narrative. The point of my post is to share strategies for writing in a way that is compelling for readers. Although my library narrative merely served an introductory function, I still needed to pay attention to the way I told that story.
I often use narrative strategies here at Writing Power to present examples that will help to clarify my arguments. These are usually super-short vignettes in which I imagine writers trying to communicate or readers trying to understand. These examples, where for a moment you see a bleary-eyed writer massaging his or her temples in hopes of coaxing out a fresh idea, are mini-narratives.
As I hope the above examples show, narratives can pop up just about anywhere, whether you’re “writing a story” or not. We humans just gravitate toward stories. If you need further proof, just sit down and watch the advertisements during an hour of prime time TV: you’ll see a parade of 30- and 60-second narratives, each with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Okay, so writers use narratives in all sorts of ways. What techniques should writers pay attention to in order to construct strong narratives?
The first thing to consider is the narrative’s sequence. A narrative relates events happening in time, and a writer can play with the way he or she presents those events. A linear narrative would have a chronological arrangement; it would present the events in the order they occurred. If you’re telling your roommate a story about what happened to you today, for example, you’d start with what happened this morning and proceed to what happened this afternoon.
Readers are comfortable with chronological narratives; they know what to expect. But writers often manipulate those expectations to add interest. For example, a writer might organize a narrative in reverse chronological order, starting with the most recent event and working back in time. This technique is not suitable for all events, but it can be powerful.
A writer might choose to construct a nonlinear narrative by incorporating flashbacks or flash-forwards. These techniques establish a “present” narrative, which they then interrupt by jumping to a moment before the present (flashback) or a moment yet to come (flash-forward). If any of you are a fan of the TV show Lost, you’ll be familiar with the dramatic potency of these techniques. The show has a clearly-defined “present,” in which the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 are stranded on a mysterious island awaiting rescue. However, since the first episode, Lost has given its audience insight into each of the survivors by means of flashbacks that show episodes in their lives prior to the crash. This season, Lost has gone one step further: in addition to flashbacks, the audience has been presented with flash-forwards depicting some of the survivors’ existential struggles after leaving the island. The show’s fans are glued to the screen.
As the above example shows, nonlinear strategies can be compelling, but they’re also risky. Clarity is key. To employ flashbacks or flash-forwards, the most important thing to do is to establish a strong sense of the narrative’s “present.” This will ground the readers in a linear world, which will help them assimilate the time shifts. Second, make sure the flashback or flash-forward clearly relates to the narrative’s theme or purpose. The payoff has to be worth the risk: make sure the flashback/flash-forward enriches the narrative as a whole.
Now that you’ve decided on your narrative’s sequence, you should attend to its organization. Use time markers to situate your readers within the narrative’s sequence and move the narrative along. Time markers can be specific points in time, like “On Wednesday, April 2, 2008.” More often, however, time markers are relative. Phrases like “later that day,” “after three hours,” “the night before,” and “two weeks later” signal the passage of time in relation to other events within the narrative.
Writers can also use transitions to clarify a narrative’s structure. These words don’t delineate a specific amount of time, as time markers do, but they do indicate sequence and imply time’s passage. For example, the direction: “Bake the cake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes” includes a time marker. However, the direction “Bake the cake until the surface is golden brown and the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan” includes a transition. Other examples of time-related transitions include first, second, third, when, meanwhile, and suddenly.
Today, we covered a narrative’s sequencing and organization. Tomorrow, we’ll explore techniques for including detail and criteria to use to construct the right narrative for the rhetorical job.
Always give credit where it is due: I consulted The Norton Field Guide to Writing, With Readings when writing this post.