Narrative is the telling of a story, and this section covers only narrative as used as a strategy or mode within exposition writing. This means we are not covering the true, full narrative arts themselves, which are covered separately in creative writing courses. They are too expansive, involved, and nuanced to be handled in this textbook, and because they are far more persuasive, influential, and powerful than exposition (thus potentially dangerous, as Plato’s Socrates noted), they require special care and responsibility.
However, narrative within exposition still taps into some of that power. When readers are absorbing your ideas through your explanations, they are thinking, but when you give them a story that shows your ideas, they are immersed. They can embody the ideas. Narrative offers the chance for readers to feel connected to individual people, or to picture specific images, to feel involved in an event or present in a place. If you can align your thesis statements or main points to engaging stories you tell about them, your audience will find your writing to be more effective.
Since this section is focused on the techniques of narrative writing for exposition, it matters little whether the story being told is fiction or non-fiction, which means imagined or factual, respectively. They function the same, and either one is acceptable to help you convey your points, depending of course on the subject, audience, and purpose (including assignment and instructor). But it is best in your essay to make clear whether your narrative is fictional or not.
Also note that narrative includes the act of writing about yourself, which is exceptionally difficult for most writers but is nonetheless required for many circumstances in and out of college, such as scholarship application essays, statements of purpose for applying to exclusive educational programs, cover letters for employment, even appeals to college professors, departments, or administrators. The strategies for this kind of narrative writing are covered toward the end of this section.
The elements of narrative
If narrative is the telling of a story, what is a story? A story can be defined by the functions of its elements: characters striving within their worlds through occurrences and confronting important meanings. In other words, a story is the dynamic among characters, setting, plot, and theme.
These are the four elements you need to make clear in your narrative. Leaving any one of them out, or leaving any one of them vague, will leave the tale pointless or useless, and will likely leave readers confused or disappointed. Vagueness and abstraction are the antitheses of narrative, which functions through specificity: the use of words to summon concrete images, sensations, and experiences. For more information on that in particular, see the section Specificity.
Keep in mind that real or factual narratives require great amounts of selection from you, the writer. You cannot and should not try to include everything and everyone involved in the real or factual occurrence. Instead, you must choose to tell only the most vital parts, which are those associated with these four elements:
This means the overall concept, dilemma, question, point, message, or moral that the story treats. Stories essentially explore important meanings in one’s own life, or in life itself, and this exploration of meaning is theme. For our purpose here, the theme is often the thesis that the narrative supports, or the main point that the narrative illustrates. You need to know what the point of your story is, and you must make it clear for readers. The lack of explicit clarity (which is called ambiguity) is not for this kind of narrative. That is better left to the separate art and craft of creative writing.
These are the participants in the story. They can include yourself, the writer (normally by using first-person pronouns), and/or others. For your readers, characters in a narrative are not the people themselves in real life. They are constructs of words that the readers must imagine. So in a narrative, characters exist only through what you say about them, and what you say about them should show the only two things they can really do: act and speak. It is your job as the writer to create the characters by rendering their actions and/or speech through your words. Each character’s behavior and/or dialogue should be involved in the narrative and should matter to the theme, setting, plot, or other characters. If you fail to involve a characters speech and/or actions, or if they have no bearing on these elements in the narrative, you have failed to render the character.
And remember that we act and speak for reasons. In other words, action and speech are motivated–they are attempts to get or accomplish something–so clarify the characters’ motivations. Sometime such motivations are concrete or material, such as winning the trophy, getting the job, returning home alive, etc. Other times motivations are social, moral, or otherwise abstract, such as wanting acceptance, love, control, or a guilt-free conscience. What matters most is that the motivations are clarified for the characters and are reflected through their actions and speech.
Also note that characters are further realized through specifics about the kind of person they are. They are not realized through merely naming them, or through sharing generic demographic information about them. So saying that your “friend was at the party” means nothing, nor does saying your “friend’s name is Jayden” or that “Jayden has dark hair.” These are not actions or words from Jayden, nor do they give specifics about the kind of person Jayden is. What is Jayden like? What did Jayden say or do? What does Jayden want? How did Jayden affect the plot, setting, theme, or other characters? Only those answers can begin to create the character.
It is possible to describe the presence of some people in a narrative without rendering them as characters in the ways noted above. For instance, you might mention numerous cops and reporters standing around at a crime scene in order to show what the scene was like, and you wouldn’t need to render them as real characters. This is because, in cases like this, they can function merely as parts of the setting. In other words, people can be props that serve the other elements of the narrative. They don’t become true characters until you render them, as above.
Remember that narration of real or factual stories requires selection. If a person was really there in the true event but did and said nothing that had any bearing on anything, do not bother to mention them. Leave them out. Their presence will simply distract or mislead. Such a person is still real but is not a character in that narrative.
This means the time and place of the story. As with characters, the names or pure data mean almost nothing without specifics regarding what it was like and how it affected the plot, characters, theme, or other parts of the setting. So saying that the story took place in “Centralia on June 22, 2018” means nothing. Instead, say what kind of place it seemed like to you, and use specifics to render the sensations of that kind of place. What did it look like? What was around? What did that time or era seem like to you?
Narratives are subjective–which is part of what gives them the power they have–so do not fear to re-interpret reality based on your own perceptions. If you fell in love during the first weeks of the 2020 pandemic, then for you it was not a time of fear or depression but instead a time of blissful joy and electric anticipation, so describe specifics about the place and time–sights, sounds, atmosphere–with that mindset. The song on the radio that caught your ear at the time: that’s part of the setting. What crowds in masks looked like to you at the time: that’s part of the setting. The way your own home felt to you at the time: that’s part of the setting.
It is perhaps most useful to think of setting in terms of scenes: specific sets where and when the story happened, moments and locations that could be filmed directly, per the advice in the section Specificity. A common error among student writers is to forget to render setting in these ways, and by default to place the narrative vaguely over the course of a year, or during high school, or some other kind of non-setting. Instead, select one specific place and time. Again, this requires selection. You cannot render all important places and times relevant to you; you must select the few best suited to your overall narrative.
This means the events and occurrences of the story. In other words, plot is what happens, both externally (physically, historically) and internally (mentally, emotionally). This is probably the most difficult and complex aspect of narrative for student writers to achieve, largely due to the selection and arrangement it requires. In order to develop a plot, you must reinterpret what happened as certain narrative categories, or types of occurrences, often called plot beats. And then you must organize them in ways that suit the telling of a story, in ways that step the narrative along, rather than in the ways they happened chronologically. Many writers new to this idea find it difficult to re-conceive of real-life events as different kinds of steps or beats in a story to be told, or they might even be reluctant to do so for fear of being dishonest. These mental obstacles must be got over. Telling what happened (according to what you think were facts) without selection or plot-crafting results in a mere information report or chronology, which is likely to lack any bearing on the theme. Such an attempt at narrative will therefore seem to readers to be pointless.
In the workforce there are versions of narratives in which you want to seem like you are merely reporting events in a neutral, chronological fashion, such as a police report, or an incident report in a company. But even with those there are differences in quality: some of these reports are more effectively written than others. The ineffective reports fail to tell a story because they wander through disconnected or unimportant facts, or because they lack specificity regarding the important elements of narrative that the readers of the report want to know. The effective reports do all that is said here in the techniques of narrative writing: they render the factual incidents as stories, replete with characters, settings, plots, and themes; they simply do so less explicitly. The professional audiences of such reports are still human beings, and human beings respond powerfully to stories. This might shed some light on the notion mentioned above that narrative is powerful and potentially dangerous, for good storytellers could use their powers for evil. But this textbook will not address the moral responsibilities you have once you gain effective writing skill.
So what are these plot beats, these narrative categories and arrangements that make plot function? There are far too many different answers to this from writers over the centuries to cover in this textbook (since it’s not focused on creative writing), but for our purposes, we can cover the fundamental plot beats that can make a narrative function as a mode and strategy in exposition. Those plot beats are Want, Plan, Struggle, and Revelation. The examples included illustrate the plot beats within a work of fiction, and within a work of non-fiction.
Plot Beat 1: Want
First establish what the main character (whether yourself or someone else) wants, desires, or seeks to strive for. This is the character’s motivation for action and speech. As noted above, this can be concrete or abstract, as long as you make it clear. The want is often what the character thinks is the solution to something that has disrupted the ordinary world. This can also be connected to or drawn from something incomplete or flawed in the character’s life.
In the film The Wizard of Oz, or in L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy dislikes her mundane life but has been removed by a tornado to a strange land, and now she just wants to get back home. In the excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass included in the Readings in this textbook, Frederick Douglass is an American slave, and he wants his freedom.
Plot Beat 2: Plan
Next, clarify how the main character will try to get that want. This is often some plan, strategy, or set of intentions, but it can also be details about how the character normally goes about striving for goals, such as the character’s code of conduct, skills and tools, training, etc. This plan is how you engage the reader with anticipation about how things will go, and it is the only way a reader can figure out whether the occurrences are going well or poorly for the character. Without having a clear notion of the plan, readers have no lens for interpreting occurrences, and the events in the story become random, aimless, or disconnected.
Dorothy’s plan to get home is to follow the Yellow Brick Road and ask the Wizard of Oz for help. Frederick Douglass’s plan to get free from slavery is to gain the power of learning how to read and write.
Plot Beat 3: Struggle
Once want and plan are clear, the character strives forth, and the struggle begins. This is often referred to as the conflict in the story. This is when the plan goes wrong, often by something unexpected occurring, or challenges proving more difficult than the plan anticipated, or an opponent getting in the way, or even a problem more abstract, such feeling moral or spiritual strife. In longer narratives, this is the plot beat that makes up the bulk of the story: the character keeps struggling, responding, facing new struggles, responding, and so on.
Dorothy’s struggles come primarily through her opponents, the Wicked Witch of the West and her minions. Frederick Douglass’s struggles focus on the fact that slaveholders forbid literacy among slaves, forcing him to find secret ways to learn, at the risk of his torture and execution.
Plot Beat 4: Revelation
A plot does not conclude when the character achieves or fails to achieve the want. Through the struggle, the character begins to see important meanings more clearly, and the plot then leads to a moment when the character has a revelation: a new realization or lesson about the self, or about Life. Only then does the story become complete, for this revelation is a recognition of the theme, and all four elements of narrative are tied together at once.
Dorothy’s revelation is that she needs to truly appreciate her home, as she failed to at the beginning; only then can she truly return to it. In other words, she realizes that “there’s no place like home.” Frederick Douglass’s revelation through literacy opens greater doors than the narrow conceptions he at first had about his own freedom. Now he has learned the word for and the concept of freedom not just for himself but for all slaves in America: “abolition.”
For masterful examples of narrative provided in this textbook, go to the chapter Readings, and see the excerpted chapters from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which is an autobiography, and see “The Perfect Picture” by James Alexander Thom.
Read “The Perfect Picture” by James Alexander Thom carefully. Then analyze it for all of the narrative elements and components:
Read “The Perfect Picture” by James Alexander Thom carefully. Then analyze two examples of specifics in that narrative, such as items described, images detailed, etc. Which elements of narrative are those specifics associated with? And what at do those particular specifics add to the effect of the narrative?
Read the excerpted chapters from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass carefully. Then analyze them for all of the narrative elements and components:
Narrative Help for Writing about Yourself
As noted at the beginning of this section, inside and outside of college you are often required to write about yourself. Employers want cover letters, or examples of your past experiences, successes, and failures. Scholarships want you to write essays about yourself, your experiences, and your goals. Educational programs want you to write about yourself as a candidate for admission. You even have to write about yourself if you are making an appeal to a college or institution. But writing about yourself is one of the most difficult challenges a writer can confront. It’s hard to know where to begin, what to address, what to add, what to omit. And it is even harder to view yourself and your own life as a construction of words in the mind of a stranger reading your work.
But the techniques of narrative can help. First, conceive of a story (told in the same way as described above) as a type of example or illustration that you want to show your reader. The story in this way supports a point you are making. This is the same concept as the strategy for narrative in exposition noted at the beginning–narrative as support for your thesis or main points–but in this case, the point you are making will be about yourself, and it will be the third step. The three steps in writing about yourself are writing about your (1) interests, (2) abilities, and (3) example story.
Step 1: Interests
Start by discussing what you like or what you value. This can include what you feel naturally drawn to, or even what you don’t like. You should select the interest subjects that have some relevance to the purpose and audience, of course.
Step 2: Abilities
Then discuss what skills or talents you developed by pursuing these interests. This can include the skills or talents that you have naturally and that you have applied to your interests. Again, select the subjects that have some relevance to the purpose and audience.
Step 3: Example Story
Finally, use all the techniques of narrative above to share a brief illustration of when you used those abilities. This can be an example story of when you succeeded at something, or even when you faced challenges, even if you failed. In cover letters or similar writing tasks, keep this example story short, around one paragraph. Other such writing tasks, such as scholarship application essays, can handle extended example stories.
These techniques do not include the details of structure or format that are specific to certain types of writing about yourself, such as a job application cover letter. Instead, this is meant to teach the techniques needed to write about yourself as a skill that you can apply to many different tasks and challenges.
See the following example of a scholarship application cover letter, and below it find the analysis as it applies to these steps:
Dear Scholarship Committee,
I recently read about your generous Audubon Memorial Scholarship of $16,000 that will go to one fortunate nursing student, and as a future nursing student myself, I am excited at the opportunity to apply for it. With this letter of application and the enclosed materials, I ask that you please consider me for this scholarship.
Nursing has been a passion of mine since I was a little girl. I watched my mother work as an unofficial nurse to care for her own parents as well as for other elders in our neighborhood, and because of this, becoming a nurse is a way for me to carry on my mother’s legacy and to share the care and blessings I have been fortunate to receive from her.
I am enrolled to begin the nursing program next semester at Henderson Community College, and I currently work at a day-care company, which has helped prepare me for entering into the nursing field. In this job I have found that when others are in need, I am quick to jump in to help, and when a problem arises, I immediately begin developing a solution. I have been praised for this initiative by my supervisors, and I think that the driving force behind this quality is my sincere love for care-taking.
Recently, I was named as the employee of the month, which is a regional award that several locations compete for. I received this award for my initiative and my dedication in challenging situations. For example, one afternoon, right after I had ended my shift, I noticed that a fellow employee was upset with someone she was talking to on her phone. Without interrupting her, I guided her away from earshot of the day-care children so they would not be upset by her tone, and then I decided to wait around to see if I could be of any help to her. It turned out that her ride would no longer be picking her up from work, or even taking her to work, which meant that she would be in danger of losing her job. I of course gave her a ride home that afternoon, but the next day I also organized a car-pooling sign-up program so that we could not only help out that employee but also cut down on gas costs for all of us. This innovation was just a small thing, but I hope it goes to show the kind of dedication to care-giving and the initiative that I can bring to the field of nursing.
I know that many other candidates for this scholarship are in need of financial assistance just like I am, so I know you will have a difficult decision ahead, but as you consider my life-long passion for nursing and the good that I can do with a nursing degree, I hope you will find me to be the right match for the Audubon Memorial Scholarship. I thank you for your time and consideration, and I hope to hear back from you soon.
Read the following excerpt from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Then analyze it for the elements and components of narrative writing about oneself:
- Example Story:
At ten years old I was taken home to assist my father in his business… I was employed in cutting wick for the candles, filling the dipping mold and the molds for cast candles, attending the shop, going of errands, etc.
I disliked the trade, and had a strong inclination for the sea, but my father declared against it; however, living near the water, I was much in and about it, learnt early to swim well, and to manage boats; and when in a boat or canoe with other boys, I was commonly allowed to govern, especially in any case of difficulty; and upon other occasions I was generally a leader among the boys, and sometimes led them into scrapes, of which I will mention one instance, as it shows an early projecting public spirit, though not then justly conducted.
There was a salt-marsh that bounded part of the mill-pond, on the edge of which, at high water, we used to stand to fish for minnows. By much trampling, we had made it a mere quagmire. My proposal was to build a wharf there fit for us to stand upon, and I showed my comrades a large heap of stones, which were intended for a new house near the marsh, and which would very well suit our purpose. Accordingly, in the evening, when the workmen were gone, I assembled a number of my play-fellows, and working with them diligently like so many emmets, sometimes two or three to a stone, we brought them all away and built our little wharf. The next morning the workmen were surprised at missing the stones, which were found in our wharf. Inquiry was made after the removers; we were discovered and complained of; several of us were corrected by our fathers; and though I pleaded the usefulness of the work, mine convinced me that nothing was useful which was not honest.
–Excerpt from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Read the student example below, and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses using the concepts from this section. What are its strengths as a narrative essay? What are its weaknesses? What elements and components does it succeed at rendering? Which elements and components are vague, lacking, or missing?
My College Education
The first class I went to in college was philosophy, and it changed my life forever. Our first assignment was to write a short response paper to the Albert Camus essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I was extremely nervous about the assignment as well as college. However, through all the confusion in philosophy class, many of my questions about life were answered.
I entered college intending to earn a degree in engineering. I always liked the way mathematics had right and wrong answers. I understood the logic and was very good at it. So when I received my first philosophy assignment that asked me to write my interpretation of the Camus essay, I was instantly confused. What is the right way to do this assignment, I wondered? I was nervous about writing an incorrect interpretation and did not want to get my first assignment wrong. Even more troubling was that the professor refused to give us any guidelines on what he was looking for; he gave us total freedom. He simply said, “I want to see what you come up with.”
Full of anxiety, I first set out to read Camus’s essay several times to make sure I really knew what was it was about. I did my best to take careful notes. Yet even after I took all these notes and knew the essay inside and out, I still did not know the right answer. What was my interpretation? I could think of a million different ways to interpret the essay, but which one was my professor looking for? In math class, I was used to examples and explanations of solutions. This assignment gave me nothing; I was completely on my own to come up with my individual interpretation.
Next, when I sat down to write, the words just did not come to me. My notes and ideas were all present, but the words were lost. I decided to try every prewriting strategy I could find. I brainstormed, made idea maps, and even wrote an outline. Eventually, after a lot of stress, my ideas became more organized and the words fell on the page. I had my interpretation of “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and I had my main reasons for interpreting the essay. I remember being unsure of myself, wondering if what I was saying made sense, or if I was even on the right track. Through all the uncertainty, I continued writing the best I could. I finished the conclusion paragraph, had my spouse proofread it for errors, and turned it in the next day simply hoping for the best.
Then, a week or two later, came judgment day. The professor gave our papers back to us with grades and comments. I remember feeling simultaneously afraid and eager to get the paper back in my hands. It turned out, however, that I had nothing to worry about. The professor gave me an A on the paper, and his notes suggested that I wrote an effective essay overall. He wrote that my reading of the essay was very original and that my thoughts were well organized. My relief and newfound confidence upon reading his comments could not be overstated.
What I learned through this process extended well beyond how to write a college paper. I learned to be open to new challenges. I never expected to enjoy a philosophy class and always expected to be a math and science person. This class and assignment, however, gave me the self-confidence, critical-thinking skills, and courage to try a new career path. I left engineering and went on to study law and eventually became a lawyer. More important, that class and paper helped me understand education differently. Instead of seeing college as a direct stepping stone to a career, I learned to see college as a place to first learn and then seek a career or enhance an existing career. By giving me the space to express my own interpretation and to argue for my own values, my philosophy class taught me the importance of education for education’s sake. That realization continues to pay dividends every day.