In my last post, I discussed narrative’s importance to all sorts of writing, and I offered tips on narrative sequencing and organization. Today, I want to focus on how writers make decisions about including details in narratives, and how writers can evaluate a piece’s rhetorical needs in order to create the best narrative for the job at hand.
Narratives tell stories: what happened, how it all began, who did what to whom…. Details can enrich and enliven narratives, contributing to their purpose or theme. However, if they’re not used judiciously, details can clog and distort narratives. For example, say you have a narrative in which a man checks his watch. Do you describe the watch, or not? The answer is that it depends.
In one narrative, the watch might be nothing more than a means to an end. For example:
He checked his watch as he left the building. Dammit, he thought. I’m already behind schedule. As he hurried to his car,…
Here, it didn’t matter what the watch looked like; the writer might not mention it again. Moreover, the character is in a hurry, and taking time out to describe the watch would slow the narrative’s pace.
But what about another example?
He looked at his wrist, at the watch he still thought of as his father’s. The band was metal, the links heavy, solid, deliberate. Its inner workings were silent and dependable; he couldn’t remember the last time it needed winding. Yet its face was delicate, a contradiction that often puzzled him. A single gold hash mark delineated each hour on the platinum face, while gossamer-thin needles slowly traveled around it. He often caught himself staring at the watch, as if it could give him a clue about the strange, silent man who had worn it for 35 years.
In this case, a watch is not just a watch. The watch takes on symbolic meaning as the narrator projects his impressions of his father onto this object. After a description like this, readers would expect the watch – and its associations with time and memory – to be thematically relevant to the story.
If a writer includes a lot of detail about something in a narrative, the readers will assume that the thing being described is important. As they’re reading, they will temporarily forget about the story being told – the narrative – and will instead focus on the object that is being described.
All this is fine – if the details are relevant to your narrative. If they’re not, then all of that detail merely serves to water down the narrative. It’s like going through a box looking for something and getting sidetracked by something else in the box. After a while, it occurs to you that you hadn’t intended to spend an hour of your Sunday afternoon perusing the programs from each of your high school band concerts. What were you supposed to be looking for? Ah, yes. Your scrapbooking scissors.
A subset of detail that requires its own mention is background detail. Sometimes, writers don’t include enough background because they don’t realize how unfamiliar their audience is with their topic. If you’re writing an argument in favor of tax breaks for hybrid vehicles, you may want to jump right into your argument. However, you will likely need to include some background information on hybrid vehicles: how they work and what their environmental and economic benefits are. A great way to do this would be to provide that background by means of a narrative that follows a car shopper through his or her decision to buy a hybrid.
But some audiences won’t need much background, and writers can try readers’ patience by including too much. If you’ve ever read Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, you know what I mean. That story is wonderful – exciting, dramatic, amazing. But the first 100 pages is largely exposition: nothing much is happening, and readers are being introduced to dozens of characters and their personal histories. 100 pages. That much background is tough for readers to slog through. Of course, after 400 more pages, you’ll be glad that Dumas constructed the narrative that way: he doesn’t have to slow things down once they get exciting to give exposition. Boy, are those first 100 pages worth it. Nevertheless, my advice is that unless you have a Count-of-Monte-Cristo-style payoff – and, let’s face it, how often do you have that? – keep your readers on a need-to-know basis. That is, tell them what they need to know when they need to know it.
What other questions should a writer ask him- or herself when constructing a narrative?
- What is the overall purpose of the piece you’re writing? Within that overall purpose, what is the narrative’s specific purpose? In other words, what do you want the narrative to get across, and how will the narrative you’re envisioning contribute to your main point?
- Would a certain anecdote help you to connect with your piece’s audience more effectively than another? For example, I used to use examples from The Simpsons when discussing parody with my classes. Now, however, a specific Simpsons reference is likely to be met with vague nods. A Family Guy, example, however, will have students enthusiastically quoting exact lines. I have to tailor my examples to my audience, and so should you.
- Could a narrative help you to establish your piece’s tone? A funny story can set a humorous tone, while a tragic vignette can set a serious, emotionally wrenching one. And there are a thousand gradations between those two extremes; indeed, there’s a tale for every tone.
I hope these ideas have helped you to grab the reins of your natural storytelling tendencies. Once you have harnessed them, you’ll be amazed at how far they can take you.
Always give credit where it is due: I consulted The Norton Field Guide to Writing, With Readings in writing this post.