54 Narrative Writing

Dr. Karen Palmer

What is Narrative?

Narrative writing is used in almost every longer piece of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. When an author writes in a narrative style, they are not just trying to impart information, they are trying to construct and communicate a story, complete with characters, conflict, and settings.

Examples of Narrative Writing

  • Oral histories
  • Novels/Novellas
  • Poetry (especially epic sagas or poems)
  • Short Stories
  • Anecdotes

Using Narrative

Mark Twain once wrote, “Don’t say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream.”  What he is really saying is, “Don’t tell, show!” In other words, bring readers into the story so that they can hear the old lady screaming, rather than just telling them what happened.

A narrative essay is usually focused around a single event or person, and is often personal in nature.  A narrative essay is a writing occasion in which you will likely use “I.”  But, a narrative does not necessarily have to be biographical; it could be a story about someone you know, or even an event from popular culture or history.  The important thing is that the story is compelling (if it’s not going to interest your reader, why would you tell it?) and that it makes some kind of point. Remember, even though it is a narrative essay, it is still an essay.  Although a narrative essay is not a traditional argumentative essay, in which you have a thesis and several supporting points, it still has a purpose and tries to get the reader to think a certain way about something; it just seeks to achieve this purpose through a story rather than facts and quotations, etc.

Writing Tips:

  • Choose your topic carefully. A good narrative essay is about an event or a person who inspired or changed you.  Don’t just tell a story to tell a story–it should have significance.
  • Think about why your story matters. What lesson do you want your readers to learn from the story?
  • Think about the plot. How do you want to tell the story? For example, you could start at the beginning and write the story as it happened, or you could start at a different point in the story for dramatic impact. Think like a film-maker–which parts of the story would be filmed? What dialogue would you hear? Which parts would a narrator recount?
  • Use strong details from all five senses, but choose those details carefully. You don’t want to overwhelm readers with a lot of description, but you do want them to feel like they are in the story.
  • Use action verbs.
  • While you should generally show, not tell, in your conclusion, you should spell out what you hope the readers have learned–or at least what you learned or why you think the story is significant enough to share.

The “Who Am I Story” AKA The Memoir

One type of narrative is a memoir. A memoir is a nonfiction story based on the author’s personal memories. A memoir is a bit different from a biography or an autobiography. A biography or autobiography tells the story “of a life,” while a memoir often tells the story of a particular event or time, such as important moments and turning points from the author’s life. Because a memoir is based on the author’s memories, the story might not be completely accurate. However, the assertions made in the work are understood to be factual.

 

In her book, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling, Simmons talks about seven different kinds of stories everyone should learn how to tell. One of them is the “Who I Am” story. Simply put, a Who I Am story shows something about its author, and this type of story fits into the genre of memoir or creative nonfiction. Here is an example from Simmons’ book:

Skip looked into the sea of suspicious stockholders and wondered what might convince them to follow his leadership. He was 35, looked 13 and was third generation rich. He could tell they assumed he would be an unholy disaster as a leader.

He decided to tell them a story. “My first job was drawing the electrical engineering plans for a boat building company. The drawings had to be perfect because if the wires were not accurately placed before the fiberglass form was poured, a mistake might cost a million dollars, easy. At 25, I already had two masters’ degrees. I had been on boats all my life and frankly, I found drawing these plans a bit . . . mindless.

One morning I got a call at home from a $6/hour worker asking me ‘are you sure this is right?’ I was incensed. Of course I was sure—‘just pour the damn thing.’ When his supervisor called me an hour later and woke me up again and asked ‘are you sure this is right?’ I had even less patience. ‘I said I was sure an hour ago and I’m still sure.’ It was the phone call from the president of the company that finally got me out of bed and down to the site.

If I had to hold these guys by the hand, so be it. I sought out the worker who had called me first. He sat looking at my plans with his head cocked to one side. With exaggerated patience I began to explain the drawing. But after a few words my voice got weak- er and my head started to cock to the side as well. It seems that I had (being left-handed) transposed starboard and port so that the drawing was an exact mirror image of what it should have been. Thank God this $6/hour worker had caught my mistake before it was too late.

 

The next day I found this box on my desk. The crew bought me a remedial pair of tennis shoes for future reference. Just in case I got mixed up again— a red left shoe for port, and a green right one for starboard. These shoes don’t just help me remember port and starboard. They help me remember to listen even when I think I know what’s going on.” As he held up the shoe box with one red and one green shoe, there were smiles and smirks. The stockholders relaxed a bit.

If this young upstart had already learned this lesson about arrogance, then he might have learned a few things about running companies, too. (1–2)

This example shows some of the reasons people tell Who I Am stories. Chances are that if Skip had gone into this meeting and said “Look, I know I’m young, but I’ve got a lot of experience, I know what I’m doing, I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes. Just trust me,” he would not have won over his audience.

Think about it…

Why do you think using a story was an effective tool for Skip? Can you think of a time when you were able to overcome a difficult situation by sharing a story? How did sharing a story help?

Characteristics of Narratives

Storytelling, or narration, is a powerful composition strategy that can connect and engage an audience. Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story and WALL-E) believes that “Stories can cross the barriers of time–past, present, and future–and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.”1 These connections help make the audience care. And when an audience cares, or is invested in your story, that’s powerful.

Standton, Andrew. “The Clues to a Great Story.” TED2012, Feb. 2012, TED, www.ted.com/talks/andrewstantonthecluestoagreatstory?language=en.

Why Narration?

As writers, we use narration for many purposes and in varying situations. Most often, when people think of narration, they associate it with fiction or novels–storytelling for entertainment. Yes, this is true, but narration can also be very effective in other writing. We may choose to recount a historical event through a first-person narrative. Or we may even use a compelling story to persuade an audience to take action. How and when you use narration depends primarily on your purpose.

Narrative Elements

No matter the purpose or situation, there are common features to narrative writing:

  1. Event: What happened? Who was involved? The event or series of events drives your story.
  2. Setting: When and where did it happen? Create and build the story world. This helps to establish context for the story.
  3. Descriptive Details: What makes the story come alive? Use vivid words, sensory details, and figurative language to build a dominant impression. Try to show, not tell (See Description chapter).
  4. Consistent Point of View: Who’s telling the story? Narratives are often told in first person or third person. It’s important to choose the appropriate point of view because your entire story is filtered through this perspective and lens.
    • First Person: I, we
    • Second Person: you, your
    • Third Person: he, she, it, they
    • Omniscient Third Person: all-knowing
  5. Clear Organization: How does the story unfold? The story should flow and have a clear sense order. For clarity, narratives are often written in chronological order (beginning to end). But remember, not all stories start at the beginning. Many stories include flashbacks and flash forwards. Use transitions (finally, next, later, earlier, three days later, as the season changed from fall to winter, a week passed) to clearly guide your audience through the story.
  6. Point: Why does the story matter? Before you even begin composing the story, it’s essential to determine the significance of the event and the purpose of sharing the story. Ask yourself: Why am I sharing this story?
  7. Dialogue: Dialogue is another way to bring life to your narrative. Dialogue is conversation or people speaking in your story. Engaging dialogue goes beyond what is simply being said to include description of non-verbal communication (facial expressions, body movement, changes in tone and speed of speech) and characterization. The way people speak and interact while talking reveals much about them and the situation. Writing natural sounding dialogue is not easy. Effective dialogue must serve more than one purpose – it should:
    • Drive the plot forward,
    • Reveal information about the characters, and
    • Build tension or introduce conflict.
  8. Characters: Generally speaking, authors reveal their characters in two ways: direct and indirect characterization. With direct characterization, the author simply tells the audience something about a character. The line “He was 35, looked 13 and was third generation rich” from the Who I Am story at the beginning of this chapter is an example of direct characterization. With indirect characterization, the audience learns about characters by watching or listening to them. Indirect characterization can also include descriptions of characters.

An Example: Mark Twain “A Cub Pilot on the Mississippi”

Read this excerpt from Mark Twain’s memoir Life on the Mississippi. Then consider the questions that follow.

DURING the two or two and a half years of my apprenticeship, I served under many pilots, and had experience of many kinds of steamboatmen and many varieties of steamboats; for it was not always convenient for Mr. Bixby to have me with him, and in such cases he sent me with somebody else. I am to this day profiting somewhat by that experience; for in that brief, sharp schooling, I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history. The fact is daily borne in upon me, that the average shore-employment requires as much as forty years to equip a man with this sort of an education. When I say I am still profiting by this thing, I do not mean that it has constituted me a judge of men—no, it has not done that; for judges of men are born, not made. My profit is various in kind and degree; but the feature of it which I value most is the zest which that early experience has given to my later reading. When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river.

The figure that comes before me oftenest, out of the shadows of that vanished time, is that of Brown, of the steamer ‘Pennsylvania’—the man referred to in a former chapter, whose memory was so good and tiresome. He was a middle-aged, long, slim, bony, smooth-shaven, horse-faced, ignorant, stingy, malicious, snarling, fault hunting, mote-magnifying tyrant. I early got the habit of coming on watch with dread at my heart. No matter how good a time I might have been having with the off-watch below, and no matter how high my spirits might be when I started aloft, my soul became lead in my body the moment I approached the pilot-house.

I still remember the first time I ever entered the presence of that man. The boat had backed out from St. Louis and was ‘straightening down;’ I ascended to the pilot-house in high feather, and very proud to be semi-officially a member of the executive family of so fast and famous a boat. Brown was at the wheel. I paused in the middle of the room, all fixed to make my bow, but Brown did not look around. I thought he took a furtive glance at me out of the corner of his eye, but as not even this notice was repeated, I judged I had been mistaken. By this time he was picking his way among some dangerous ‘breaks’ abreast the woodyards; therefore it would not be proper to interrupt him; so I stepped softly to the high bench and took a seat.

There was silence for ten minutes; then my new boss turned and inspected me deliberately and painstakingly from head to heel for about—as it seemed to me—a quarter of an hour. After which he removed his countenance and I saw it no more for some seconds; then it came around once more, and this question greeted me—

‘Are you Horace Bigsby’s cub?’

‘Yes, sir.’

After this there was a pause and another inspection. Then—

‘What’s your name?’

I told him. He repeated it after me. It was probably the only thing he ever forgot; for although I was with him many months he never addressed himself to me in any other way than ‘Here!’ and then his command followed.

‘Where was you born?’

‘In Florida, Missouri.’

A pause. Then—

‘Dern sight better staid there!’

By means of a dozen or so of pretty direct questions, he pumped my family history out of me.

The leads were going now, in the first crossing. This interrupted the inquest. When the leads had been laid in, he resumed—

‘How long you been on the river?’

I told him. After a pause—

‘Where’d you get them shoes?’

I gave him the information.

‘Hold up your foot!’

I did so. He stepped back, examined the shoe minutely and contemptuously, scratching his head thoughtfully, tilting his high sugar-loaf hat well forward to facilitate the operation, then ejaculated, ‘Well, I’ll be dod derned!’ and returned to his wheel.

What occasion there was to be dod derned about it is a thing which is still as much of a mystery to me now as it was then. It must have been all of fifteen minutes—fifteen minutes of dull, homesick silence—before that long horse-face swung round upon me again—and then, what a change! It was as red as fire, and every muscle in it was working. Now came this shriek—

‘Here!—You going to set there all day?’

I lit in the middle of the floor, shot there by the electric suddenness of the surprise. As soon as I could get my voice I said, apologetically:—‘I have had no orders, sir.’

‘You’ve had no orders! My, what a fine bird we are! We must have orders! Our father was a gentleman—owned slaves—and we’ve been to school. Yes, we are a gentleman, too, and got to have orders! Orders, is it? Orders is what you want! Dod dern my skin, I’ll learn you to swell yourself up and blow around here about your dod-derned orders! G’way from the wheel!’ (I had approached it without knowing it.)

I moved back a step or two, and stood as in a dream, all my senses stupefied by this frantic assault.

‘What you standing there for? Take that ice-pitcher down to the texas- tender-come, move along, and don’t you be all day about it!’

The moment I got back to the pilot-house, Brown said—

‘Here! What was you doing down there all this time?’

‘I couldn’t find the texas-tender; I had to go all the way to the pantry.’

‘Derned likely story! Fill up the stove.’

I proceeded to do so. He watched me like a cat. Presently he shouted—

‘Put down that shovel! Deadest numskull I ever saw—ain’t even got sense enough to load up a stove.’

All through the watch this sort of thing went on. Yes, and the subsequent watches were much like it, during a stretch of months. As I have said, I soon got the habit of coming on duty with dread. The moment I was in the presence, even in the darkest night, I could feel those yellow eyes upon me, and knew their owner was watching for a pretext to spit out some venom on me. Preliminarily he would say—

‘Here! Take the wheel.’

Two minutes later—

Where in the nation you going to? Pull her down! pull her down!’

After another moment—

‘Say! You going to hold her all day? Let her go—meet her! meet her!’

Then he would jump from the bench, snatch the wheel from me, and meet her himself, pouring out wrath upon me all the time.

George Ritchie was the other pilot’s cub. He was having good times now; for his boss, George Ealer, was as kindhearted as Brown wasn’t. Ritchie had steeled for Brown the season before; consequently he knew exactly how to entertain himself and plague me, all by the one operation. Whenever I took the wheel for a moment on Ealer’s watch, Ritchie would sit back on the bench and play Brown, with continual ejaculations of ‘Snatch her! snatch her! Derndest mud-cat I ever saw!’ ‘Here! Where you going now? Going to run over that snag?’ ‘Pull her down! Don’t you hear me? Pull her down!’ ‘There she goes! Just as I expected! I told you not to cramp that reef. G’way from the wheel!’

So I always had a rough time of it, no matter whose watch it was; and sometimes it seemed to me that Ritchie’s good-natured badgering was pretty nearly as aggravating as Brown’s dead-earnest nagging.

I often wanted to kill Brown, but this would not answer. A cub had to take everything his boss gave, in the way of vigorous comment and criticism; and we all believed that there was a United States law making it a penitentiary offense to strike or threaten a pilot who was on duty. However, I could imagine myself killing Brown; there was no law against that; and that was the thing I used always to do the moment I was abed. Instead of going over my river in my mind as was my duty, I threw business aside for pleasure, and killed Brown. I killed Brown every night for months; not in old, stale, commonplace ways, but in new and picturesque ones;—ways that were sometimes surprising for freshness of design and ghastliness of situation and environment.

Brown was always watching for a pretext to find fault; and if he could find no plausible pretext, he would invent one. He would scold you for shaving a shore, and for not shaving it; for hugging a bar, and for not hugging it; for ‘pulling down’ when not invited, and for not pulling down when not invited; for firing up without orders, and for waiting for orders. In a word, it was his invariable rule to find fault with everything you did; and another invariable rule of his was to throw all his remarks (to you) into the form of an insult.

One day we were approaching New Madrid, bound down and heavily laden. Brown was at one side of the wheel, steering; I was at the other, standing by to ‘pull down’ or ‘shove up.’ He cast a furtive glance at me every now and then. I had long ago learned what that meant; viz., he was trying to invent a trap for me. I wondered what shape it was going to take. By and by he stepped back from the wheel and said in his usual snarly way—

‘Here!—See if you’ve got gumption enough to round her to.’

This was simply bound to be a success; nothing could prevent it; for he had never allowed me to round the boat to before; consequently, no matter how I might do the thing, he could find free fault with it. He stood back there with his greedy eye on me, and the result was what might have been foreseen: I lost my head in a quarter of a minute, and didn’t know what I was about; I started too early to bring the boat around, but detected a green gleam of joy in Brown’s eye, and corrected my mistake; I started around once more while too high up, but corrected myself again in time; I made other false moves, and still managed to save myself; but at last I grew so confused and anxious that I tumbled into the very worst blunder of all—I got too far down before beginning to fetch the boat around. Brown’s chance was come.

His face turned red with passion; he made one bound, hurled me across the house with a sweep of his arm, spun the wheel down, and began to pour out a stream of vituperation upon me which lasted till he was out of breath. In the course of this speech he called me all the different kinds of hard names he could think of, and once or twice I thought he was even going to swear—but he didn’t this time. ‘Dod dern’ was the nearest he ventured to the luxury of swearing, for he had been brought up with a wholesome respect for future fire and brimstone.

That was an uncomfortable hour; for there was a big audience on the hurricane deck. When I went to bed that night, I killed Brown in seventeen different ways—all of them new.

TWO TRIPS later, I got into serious trouble. Brown was steering; I was ‘pulling down.’ My younger brother appeared on the hurricane deck, and shouted to Brown to stop at some landing or other a mile or so below. Brown gave no intimation that he had heard anything. But that was his way: he never condescended to take notice of an under clerk. The wind was blowing; Brown was deaf (although he always pretended he wasn’t), and I very much doubted if he had heard the order. If I had two heads, I would have spoken; but as I had only one, it seemed judicious to take care of it; so I kept still.Presently, sure enough, we went sailing by that plantation. Captain Klinefelter appeared on the deck, and said—

‘Let her come around, sir, let her come around. Didn’t Henry tell you to land here?’

No, sir!’

‘I sent him up to do, it.’

‘He did come up; and that’s all the good it done, the dod-derned fool. He never said anything.’

‘Didn’t you hear him?’ asked the captain of me.

Of course I didn’t want to be mixed up in this business, but there was no way to avoid it; so I said—

‘Yes, sir.’

I knew what Brown’s next remark would be, before he uttered it; it was—

‘Shut your mouth! you never heard anything of the kind.’

I closed my mouth according to instructions. An hour later, Henry entered the pilot-house, unaware of what had been going on. He was a thoroughly inoffensive boy, and I was sorry to see him come, for I knew Brown would have no pity on him. Brown began, straightway—

‘Here! why didn’t you tell me we’d got to land at that plantation?’

‘I did tell you, Mr. Brown.’

‘It’s a lie!’

I said—

‘You lie, yourself. He did tell you.’

Brown glared at me in unaffected surprise; and for as much as a moment he was entirely speechless; then he shouted to me—

‘I’ll attend to your case in half a minute!’ then to Henry, ‘And you leave the pilot-house; out with you!’

It was pilot law, and must be obeyed. The boy started out, and even had his foot on the upper step outside the door, when Brown, with a sudden access of fury, picked up a ten-pound lump of coal and sprang after him; but I was between, with a heavy stool, and I hit Brown a good honest blow which stretched-him out.

I had committed the crime of crimes—I had lifted my hand against a pilot on duty! I supposed I was booked for the penitentiary sure, and couldn’t be booked any surer if I went on and squared my long account with this person while I had the chance; consequently I stuck to him and pounded him with my fists a considerable time—I do not know how long, the pleasure of it probably made it seem longer than it really was;—but in the end he struggled free and jumped up and sprang to the wheel: a very natural solicitude, for, all this time, here was this steamboat tearing down the river at the rate of fifteen miles an hour and nobody at the helm! However, Eagle Bend was two miles wide at this bank-full stage, and correspondingly long and deep; and the boat was steering herself straight down the middle and taking no chances. Still, that was only luck—a body might have found her charging into the woods.

Perceiving, at a glance, that the ‘Pennsylvania’ was in no danger, Brown gathered up the big spy-glass, war-club fashion, and ordered me out of the pilot-house with more than Comanche bluster. But I was not afraid of him now; so, instead of going, I tarried, and criticized his grammar; I reformed his ferocious speeches for him, and put them into good English, calling his attention to the advantage of pure English over the bastard dialect of the Pennsylvanian collieries whence he was extracted. He could have done his part to admiration in a cross-fire of mere vituperation, of course; but he was not equipped for this species of controversy; so he presently laid aside his glass and took the wheel, muttering and shaking his head; and I retired to the bench. The racket had brought everybody to the hurricane deck, and I trembled when I saw the old captain looking up from the midst of the crowd. I said to myself, ‘Now I am done for!’—For although, as a rule, he was so fatherly and indulgent toward the boat’s family, and so patient of minor shortcomings, he could be stern enough when the fault was worth it.

I tried to imagine what he would do to a cub pilot who had been guilty of such a crime as mine, committed on a boat guard-deep with costly freight and alive with passengers. Our watch was nearly ended. I thought I would go and hide somewhere till I got a chance to slide ashore. So I slipped out of the pilot-house, and down the steps, and around to the texas door—and was in the act of gliding within, when the captain confronted me! I dropped my head, and he stood over me in silence a moment or two, then said impressively—

‘Follow me.’

I dropped into his wake; he led the way to his parlor in the forward end of the texas. We were alone, now. He closed the after door; then moved slowly to the forward one and closed that. He sat down; I stood before him. He looked at me some little time, then said—

‘So you have been fighting Mr. Brown?’

I answered meekly—

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Do you know that that is a very serious matter?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Are you aware that this boat was plowing down the river fully five minutes with no one at the wheel?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Did you strike him first?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘What with?’

‘A stool, sir.’

‘Hard?’

‘Middling, sir.’

‘Did it knock him down?’

‘He—he fell, sir.’

‘Did you follow it up? Did you do anything further?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘What did you do?’

‘Pounded him, sir.’

‘Pounded him?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Did you pound him much?—that is, severely?’

‘One might call it that, sir, maybe.’

‘I’m deuced glad of it! Hark ye, never mention that I said that. You have been guilty of a great crime; and don’t you ever be guilty of it again, on this boat. But—lay for him ashore! Give him a good sound thrashing, do you hear? I’ll pay the expenses. Now go—and mind you, not a word of this to anybody. Clear out with you!—you’ve been guilty of a great crime, you whelp!’

I slid out, happy with the sense of a close shave and a mighty deliverance; and I heard him laughing to himself and slapping his fat thighs after I had closed his door.

When Brown came off watch he went straight to the captain, who was talking with some passengers on the boiler deck, and demanded that I be put ashore in New Orleans—and added—

‘I’ll never turn a wheel on this boat again while that cub stays.’

The captain said—

‘But he needn’t come round when you are on watch, Mr. Brown.

‘I won’t even stay on the same boat with him. One of us has got to go ashore.’

‘Very well,’ said the captain, ‘let it be yourself;’ and resumed his talk with the passengers.

During the brief remainder of the trip, I knew how an emancipated slave feels; for I was an emancipated slave myself. While we lay at landings, I listened to George Ealer’s flute; or to his readings from his two bibles, that is to say, Goldsmith and Shakespeare; or I played chess with him—and would have beaten him sometimes, only he always took back his last move and ran the game out differently.

Questions

Consider the following questions:

  • How does Twain set the stage for his story?
  • How does Twain organize his narrative?
  • How does Twain use description? Give at least one example.
  • How does Twain use dialog?
  • What voice/tone does Twain create?
  • What do you think Twain’s overall message is? What did he learn from this experience, and what does he hope the reader will learn?

____

Attributions

“What is Narrative” from About Writing: A Guide by Robin Jeffrey. Licensed CC BY.

“Who Am I Story” from “Storytelling, Narration, and the Who Am I story” by Catherine Ramsdell. Licensed CC BY NC SA.

“Characteristics of Narratives” adapted from Writing Unleashed. Licensed under CC BY NC SA.

“Characters” adapted from “Storytelling, Narration, and the Who Am I story” by Catherine Ramsdell. Licensed CC BY NC SA.

A Cub Pilot on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain. Licensed Public Domain.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Narrative Writing Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book