THE ELEMENTS OF NARRATIVE
The basic tools of telling a good story (elements of narrative) are familiar to most of us:
Story line or Structure
Stories (whether fiction or non-fiction) that feature a strong story line will be more warmly received by a publisher than those that lack a good story line. While there is no general agreement on what makes a good story, it is generally agreed that a basic story line contains conflict (internal and between individuals or groups) and changes (developments, reversals, growth and resolution) that are seen to have consequence for the main character or characters.
All stories are about characters, the people who are thinking, doing, observing or other actions in the story. Through them, the writer might be exploring an idea or an experience, or making an argument, but it is the characters, and what we learn about them, that create those meanings. Therefore, characterization – making a character believable and meaningful to the reader – is a critical writing skill. Yet not all characters are human. An animal can be a character, even a tree, as in these lines:
Every morning, the tree had looked into his window, a comforting presence, whispering, sometimes even tapping gently on the glass. But now, it seemed alien, cruel, cold, and he could not bear the sight of it.
One method of characterization is simply to tell the reader about the person: “He was a nervous, thin man with a face like a ferret, and just as restless”. Another method that is usually used in conjunction with exposition is suggestion or signing. Signs are communications that do not say what they mean, but represent meaning in some way. A frown is a sign of displeasure or concentration. Many signs are widely understood, even though on an unconscious level. Consider the meanings you can draw from the following:
His room was small and sparse, but unexpectedly untidy, as though he often rummaged through his possessions. Partially eaten apples lay around, none in a late state of decomposition, which confused me a little. I remembered a ferret I had once seen nibbling at this and that, unable to rest at any piece of food long enough to finish it. He sat on the bed, there being no other space, for the on the chair, he had a large pile of books. I waited, but he did not speak. He just sat there, quite, slender hands precisely folded, and I thought he was listening to his own breathing.
Setting or Scene
Scene creates the context in which events occur and meanings are made. The setting or scene often contains signs or symbols that reflect, intensify or contrast with what’s occurring in them, adding other layers of meaning. In the above excerpt, the tree reflects the character’s feelings of despair and his new sense (after the accidental death of his brother) of the world as a hostile place. Scene can also tell us a lot about people, or create a total mood that will colour our perceptions.
Mood or Atmosphere
This element is often established by the scene. However, it is also created through language and action. For instance, note how small changes in action alter the mood in these similar situations:
She opened the gate slowly, for it was heavy, and walked purposefully down
the little path, glancing at the tombstones on the way, resisting the temptation to linger. Then, beneath the great tree, she arrived at the marble statue.
Slowly, she drew open the heavy gate and walked down the narrow path, glancing sideways at tombstones on the way, her head bent. Then, beneath the great tree, she saw the marble statue.
Time helps establish the context for events and experiences. Sometimes, it is an important element in its own right (“The years dragged past, heavy, slow, turning into a hundred years, and still, he did not age.”) When considering time, the writer must also consider historical time: At what period in human history is this story happening? This becomes part of the setting for a story. Otherwise, time can be handled in many different ways, moving backwards, forwards, standing still, opening up to allow the reader to fully explore the experiences of one moment.
One of the writer’s most useful tools is this ability to construct and manipulate time, to contain a century in five minutes of reading time, or to stay at one moment for two pages. The writer must be aware of the time that the reader takes to read something, and the time that is being experienced through the writing.
Voice in a literary sense is somewhat difficult to explain. In the simplest terms, it is the awareness of someone’s presence in a text, their point of view, their perspective on things. It need not actually be associated with dialogue (speech), though it often is. Voice can be created through language, personality or action. In some writing, especially in novels and children’s books, there are several or a multitude of voices, each contributing a little bit of meaning to the whole story.
A good way to understand voice is to look at news programs. In a typical newscast, you may receive the voice (and viewpoint) of the news presenter, the voices of each person interviewed, if only for a moment, and if the news presenter quotes someone else who is not seen, you will also receive their voice. In this way, we learn much more about an event or situation than we could ever learn from one voice, because we see it from different perspectives.
Voice also refers to the kind of language being used. A person speaking in Australian or Japanese slang inserts a colloquial voice, and can be a vehicle for expressing popular ideology from these cultures, or contrasting with popular ideology. In this respect, voice carries symbolic meaning, being either symbolic of a group or ideology, or of non-conformity to it. The following example might help make this clearer:
“Got a stubbie?” he drawled. I said no. A few moments later, he asked, “Wanna go get one?” I agreed, and beyond my wildest expectations, was treated to an evening of conversation with one or the most articulate, sensitive and thoughtful men I have ever known.
Point of View
Linked to voice is point of view. In writing, point of view can mean ‘opinion’, or it can mean ‘perspective’ (who is thinking, saying and observing these events and experiences?) This second meaning is what we mean when we talk of ‘point of view’ as an element of narrative. Every piece of writing has a point of view: someone is saying these things. When something is written in the first person (I felt afraid; I left the room), the character is taking the role of observer and experiencer of the events in the story. This can give a sense of intimacy and immediacy.
If the writer wants us to know what’s happening in someone else’s head, he or she will have to find another way to tell us. So, we might get two first-person points of view. Multiple points of view are quite acceptable in longer pieces, and widely used in novels to give variety and depth of insight into what is happening.
The third person point of view gives a writer more leeway, for it allows the narrator (who may or may not be part of the story) to see into anyone’s head and tell us what’s happening, or to describe events going on anywhere at one time. The restrictions of time and space are more readily overcome. It is certainly the most common point of view in non-fiction writing, and perhaps even in fiction writing.
Second person plural is another option, though it might be more difficult to sustain in longer writing: “We ran to the river, and our mother screamed at us to stop”. It is often used in conjunction with first person: “Jack continued running, pretending not to hear, but I stopped, confused…” The second person plural point of view is also used when the writer is speaking for a group or an idea: “Our planet cannot sustain continuing pollution on this scale, and while none of us wants to go back to a pre-industrial life-style, we all must consider …”
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