If you’re a teacher of writing, you may have begun to feel a little guilty about teaching narrative. Sure, you love reading it—but shouldn’t you really be spending your precious instructional time on informational writing, research, exposition, and argument? Yes, yes, yes, and yes—but don’t ignore narrative, the soul of literature. This often underrated form of writing has much to teach, and is far more complex than is typically believed.
Narrative writing has been simplistically described as the genre with a beginning, middle, and end. Unfortunately, these terms, while widely used, are too general to be helpful to most writers. Almost everything, from dinner to dental checkups, has a beginning, middle, and end. Luckily for us, the Common Core State Standards (www.commoncore.org) use more explicit, descriptive language, breaking narrative down into
- the setting up of a problem or situation (the beginning),
- development of plot and character (what a middle truly is),
- and conclusion or resolution (aka, the end).
Setup, development, resolution: Now we have a story—or at least the bones of a story. But that’s only the beginning. Narrative comprises characters, motives, turning points, pacing, life questions . . . and more. Let’s look first at some common myths about this important genre—then consider specific expectations embedded in the Common Core.
3 Myths about Narrative Writing
- Myth 1: It’s the easiest form. So, Moby Dick is actually easier to write than a report on whales. Not really. The truth is, all forms can be challenging—but good narrative (contrary to common belief) is among the most difficult of all genres because it’s complicated in both design and content, and because readers’ expectations are generally high. Readers who will silently endure prolonged tedium in a report will groan audibly when a novel proves to be anything short of a ripping page turner. Maybe you’ve heard yourself say, “I could have written a better ending than that”—?
- Myth 2: It doesn’t exist in the real world. While it’s true that much real-world writing is informational, narrative is everywhere. It’s behind every television comedy or drama, most films, and most stage productions. Pick up a newspaper—or listen to the news on TV (someone had to write what the anchor reads). Likely you keep a journal or know someone who does. Police, firefighters, attorneys, and others routinely file narrative reports. Author and university professor Tom Newkirk (in his brilliant book Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones, Heinemann, 2009) tells an amusing anecdote about his own experience filing a police report about an intruder (pp. 57-59). Newkirk remarks, “I tucked this away as evidence to use when my colleagues claim that narrative is not useful in the ‘real world’” (p. 58).
- Myth 3: To really learn how to write, you need to write informational or persuasive pieces. True. But many skills learned through narrative strengthen performance in other genres. For example, narrative writing teaches a sense of drama. Anyone who can master the complexities of plot (with its set-up, development and resolution) is far more prepared to order informational details in an engrossing way—or create a powerful argument by saving the best piece of evidence for last. It also teaches vision—and the eye for detail that goes with it. A writer who creates motion pictures you can’t get out of your head (think of the final confrontation between Moby Dick and Ahab, the match race in Seabiscuit, the mosquito attack in Hatchet, the march of the Trunchbull in Matilda) is better equipped to notice the informational details that will bring the birth of the universe to life or help a reader decide whether video games strengthen or weaken one’s intellect.
Skills Learned from Narrative
Organization—i.e., plot. A good plot just may be the most challenging organizational structure of them all. It’s far more than a list of events (and needs to be taught as such). Good plots create opportunities for characters to reveal themselves. They highlight triumphs and disasters, but (unlike real life) skim right over what doesn’t matter. Good plots often play with time. A plot may begin at the end (for an outstanding example of this, see Steve Sheinkin’s engrossing biography, The Notorious Benedict Arnold, which opens with an execution), or close in a way that seems to open a whole new chapter (remember that chilling closing scene of the men and pigs eyeing each other in Animal Farm?).
Meaning. Informational writing has meaning built in. So does argument. But in narrative, meaning is mostly sub-text. That is, it has to be put together by the reader—based on clues provided by a skilled writer who doesn’t exactly prescribe our interpretation of the text, but surely guides it. We can feel saddened by the downward spiral of Lady Macbeth, but we’re not supposed to like her. We are supposed to ask questions, though: Why did this happen? How did things get so out of hand in old Scotland? Good narrative has a message, as in Macbeth: e.g., over-reaching ambition will be your undoing. By contrast, when we read a list posing as a story, we say to ourselves, “Why are you telling me this? What is your point?” That’s why we don’t want students writing lists and passing them off as narrative; they’re not.
Character development. What motivates people? What builds character—or creates its downfall? What is moral and right? What is wrong? These important life questions may be dealt with in a tangential way in argument (Why building a small grocery store near a pristine mountain lake is or is not a good idea), but they are the very heart and soul of narrative. Good narrative is instantly recognizable from one simple fact: you care what happens to the characters. When Gus McRae (in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove) dies, we miss him. (Indeed, some readers say the book ends for them at that moment.) When Amos and Boris (in William Steig’s Amos and Boris) part ways for the last time, our hearts ache, too. We identify with such characters, pay attention to the choices they make, and suffer the consequences of those choices as if they were our own.
Firsthand research. Using what you know, what you learn from experience. Wait a minute, though . . . Isn’t that just living life? It’s not like going to a library or browsing the Internet—or even interviewing experts. So it’s not REAL research, is it? Oh yes, it is. A good narrative writer needs to notice things—the color of light through the forest, the look on a face when someone is surprised or hurt, the way a dog responds to a stranger, how it feels to be in a crowd at a rock concert. True writers are, very literally, “writing” all the time, collecting bits and pieces they can use to make their own writing breathe. They may not be making notes on paper, but they are locking information (images, reactions, feelings, sensory details) into their minds all the same. A good example is a book reviewed recently here on Gurus—Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Lai uses her own experiences growing up in Vietnam and then fleeing Saigon just before the fall to create the vivid, authentic, believable experience of ten-year-old Hà. We love this book, and respond to it viscerally because its realness touches us. Lai creates a world we couldn’t (most of us, anyway) experience without her. This is precisely what the Common Core Standards mean when they call for narrative writers to use vivid details to bring settings, events, and characters to life (see below). Where are young writers supposed to get this kind of detail? From experience and observation: firsthand research.
How to touch an audience. Any writing can do this—not just narrative. The informational writing of people like Craig Childs, Bill Bryson, Nicola Davies, Sneed Collard, Sy Montgomery, and many others is filled with echoes of each writer’s curiosity and passion for his or her subject. Curiosity and passion are the keys to informational voice. But this very personal side to writing, the opportunity to touch a human heart, is experienced first with narrative. Our lives are built upon stories. They’re our very history, personal and cultural. Just mention the word story, and to all but the most stone-hearted, it conjures up images of campfires, cozy couches, window seats on rainy days, book club chats, coffee with a friend, family tales shared by grandparents, or that special book under the covers, read by flashlight. We crave stories because we want to know if others have experienced love, rejection, fear, humility, joy, despair, and triumph as we ourselves have. And because narrative is so often based on what we know best (our own experience), it allows us to write with a confidence we don’t always feel when stretching beyond familiar boundaries. In narrative, we find our voice—a voice that, if encouraged, will eventually emerge in all genres.
In Summary: The Common Core Standards & Narrative
The expectations of the Common Core Standards (www.commoncore.org) with respect to narrative are most clearly stated (in my view) for upper grade levels, and I urge you to read these descriptions, even if you teach younger writers. For example, the standards for Grade 5 call for “an event sequence that unfolds naturally” –but it can be tricky to determine what, precisely, a word like “naturally” means. Do events in Harry Potter, for instance, unfold naturally? It could mean logically—or in an understandable way. But at the Grade 12 level, the language is a little different, calling for “a smooth progression of experiences or events.” This makes terrific sense to me. It sounds as if the events unfold in a way that is easy to follow, even if filled with unexpected moments.
Here, based on the Grade 12 language, are a few of the key points of narrative (according to the Common Core Standards), all of which provide significant challenges to young writers (I am summarizing in my own words here, so please check www.commoncore.org under W.11-12.3 for the CCSS precise wording):
- Set up a problem or situation that will form the core of the story. This is essentially the lead, but it also provides a starting point from which the plot will unfold. “Problem as plot” is an ingenious structure because it calls for decisions; it also propels the action toward solution of the problem—or compromise. Tip for young writers: Think of the problem or situation at the heart of your story first—even before you write. This will make it easier to know how and when to begin—and end.
- Introduce the narrator and/or other characters. This is the beginning of character development, but also previews the writer’s voice. This is why, when we pick out a book at the bookstore (so different from browsing online!), we can read the first page—even the first paragraph—and tell whether the writing speaks to us. Tip for young writers: Use description, action, or speech to create a strong first impression—right in paragraph one. The sooner readers know your characters, the more quickly they become involved in your story.
- Develop characters and plot through specific narrative techniques: e.g., dialogue, description, varied pacing (moving quickly or slowly through time), or the writer’s own reflection about events. This development is that elusive “middle” that is so hard for young writers to grasp. It’s really not that mysterious. As events unfold, we learn more and more about the situation and about the characters affected by that situation. In My Thirteenth Winter, her haunting autobiography (2003), author Samantha Abeel uses every one of the strategies mentioned above (dialogue, description, reflection, etc.) to show how she coped with dyscalculia, a learning disability that makes even the simplest mathematic exercises, like counting change or telling time, virtually impossible. At the beginning of the book, Samantha doesn’t know anything is wrong. She’s a young girl filled with hope and anticipation about school. Gradually, she realizes she is different. Through her blatantly honest reflections, she shares how it feels to be given two minutes to complete a math exercise and have no idea how long two minutes is, how to read the clock—or how to do any of the problems that look to her like gibberish. Her daily descent into the hell known as “school” continues until seventh grade—when her extraordinary poetic gifts are discovered. It’s this evolution from innocence to realization to despair and finally triumph that makes the book so fast-paced and allows us to know Samantha so intimately. Tips for young writers: Don’t have too many characters (be sure each one is essential to the plot), have them speak (we learn a lot through dialogue), and put them on the spot (i.e., place them in difficult circumstances and show them making hard choices).
- Create a sequence of events that build on one another. That word “build” is critical. It implies that narrative has a sense of motion, of going somewhere. Every event, every turn in the road, every decision made by a character must push the flow toward a major turning point and ultimately, toward the end. Think of No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman. The hero, Wallace Wallace, gets into trouble for his honest book report on Old Shep, My Pal—then turns a bad situation into something wildly hilarious through his scene-by-scene revision of a play that needs a lot of help. The book explodes—literally and figuratively—in the conclusion with a version of Old Shep that no one could have envisioned on page one. Tip for young writers: Lay your plot out visually like a flow chart, with a circle for each major event. That way, you won’t wind up writing about a lot of things that don’t advance the action.
- Create a particular tone—e.g., mystery, suspense, adventure. Tone is essentially voice (or a component of voice), but it comes largely from language, detail and pacing—what the author shares, when, and how. To help students understand this, read just the first few pages of any narrative and ask how it makes your students feel. The Tale of Despereaux (by Kate DiCamillo) is part adventure, part love story, part comedy. Crickwing (Janell Cannon) is mostly going to make you laugh (and cheer for its unlikely cockroach hero), while Hachet (Gary Paulsen) is going to make you bite your nails and hope that rescue is only a page away. Edgar Allan Poe, a master of tone and voice, opens his story The Cask of Amontillado during carnival season, but creates an increasing sense of horror as the narrator Montresor lures poor Fortunato into the cellar, ostensibly to taste the wine. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we know poor Fortunato is in for more than your typical wine tasting—and clue by clue, the truth comes to light: he’s about to be buried alive. This cannot be happening, we think—but we cannot stop reading. Details about the dampness of the cellar, the dark and cold, the unearthly quiet and (as we go deeper and deeper) bones and chains (!) all help to create the sense of horror that envelops us—but it’s also Poe’s superb pacing. He reveals what’s occurring just a little at a time, so we are ensnared slowly, like Fortunato. Tip for young writers: Learn by reading. Read Poe if you’re writing a thriller—see how he does it. If you’re writing comedy, read Gary Paulsen or Gordon Korman—or your favorite comic writer. Let the experts be your “coaches.”
- Use transitional words or phrases to link ideas or story events together. Good transitions serve innumerable functions. They can link ideas so the writer’s thinking is easy to follow: “Because of this,” “For example,” “In addition.” They can also shift our thinking with expressions like “however” or “on the other hand.” Transitions can be enormously helpful in leapfrogging ahead when nothing relevant is happening: “Days later . . .” or “The next month . . .” One of their most artful uses, though, is in mentally preparing the reader for the next “chunk” of information; notice how often the final line of a well-crafted paragraph leads us right into the next. Read the last few lines from any chapter of Pride and Prejudice to see how skillfully Jane Austen sets up the chapter to follow—and encourages us to read on. Stephen King does this particularly well—as does Edgar Award winning Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø. One of the best transitions ever occurs in Roald Dahl’s classic autobiography Boy. In an early chapter titled “The bicycle and the sweet shop,” Dahl (seven at the time of the story) tells how he and his friends are terrorized by Mrs. Pratchett, the surly and scruffy owner of the candy store. They want revenge, but cannot think how to get it “ . . . until suddenly, one memorable afternoon, we found the dead mouse” (Penguin, 1984, p. 34). The dead mouse? Well . . . who can resist reading on? Tips for young writers: Don’t overdo transitions. They can be very annoying (like too much pepper). Leave your writing alone for a few days; then read it aloud to a friend, asking him or her to listen for missing links between ideas.
- Make the writing vivid through precise wording, telling details and sensory language. Narrative feeds on imagery and sensory detail, as in this description of the “old sea dog” from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: “I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the indoor, his sea chest following behind him in a hand barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white” (Sterling edition, 2011, p. 10). We see the scar, we smell the filth, and we hear the thunk-thunk of the old sea chest dragging on the wooden floor. We know it’s no accident the old sea captain has shown up at the Admiral Benbow Inn, we know young Jim Hawkins is going to get involved with him—and we know from this description that they won’t be simply beachcombing. Tip for young writers: Don’t rely just on the visual. Include details that appeal to the senses of touch, hearing, smell, and taste. Your writing will have more impact.
- A conclusion that follows from the events of the story—and may offer some reflection on those events. Writers get a feeling for what makes a good ending—like knowing when the pasta’s done. A good ending feels inevitable even when it contains some element of surprise. It just feels . . . right. It’s right that Charlotte (of Charlotte’s Web) dies in the end, sad though it makes us feel. It’s right that Gary Paulsen closes his masterpiece, Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers, by saying goodbye to his beloved Cookie, the best of all sled dogs. It’s right that Elizabeth Bennet finally marries Mr. Darcy (in Pride and Prejudice)—even though she has despised him for most of the book. Good endings keep us guessing as long as possible, but ultimately satisfy us, too—leaving us feeling that this is where things have been headed right from the start. Tip for young writers: Don’t try to end everything happily ever after or your writing will lose authenticity. Many things do turn out well, but an ending with a bite of reality nearly always packs more punch.
Embrace narrative. After all, you may have a Roald Dahl, Gordon Korman, Gary Paulsen, Janell Cannon, or Laura Hillenbrand in your classroom. Someone who’ll one day write an award winning picture book, or a novel that will keep people turning pages into the night. Or a screenplay for something like—oh, say, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2012, screenplay by Ol Parker from the novel by Deborah Moggach). I can’t think when I’ve loved a film as much as this one. Ah, yes, but is it informational? Oh, trust me, it is. It teaches us about love, compassion, old age, death, forgiveness, adventure, trust, and risk. It’s also an argument for following your dream, trusting your inner voice, starting over regardless of your age, and above all, opening your heart to what’s new. Such is the power of story.
As much as we value informational and persuasive writing, let’s not abandon the genre we’ve loved since childhood. My deepest thanks to Thomas Newkirk for his eloquent words in Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones (a highly recommended book, by the way): “ . . . one could argue that English departments are built upon narratives; they would not exist without narratives” (2009, 54). A lot of us couldn’t exist without them either.
Coming up on Gurus . . . Look for more thoughts on narrative writing, as well as reviews of some stellar literature, including Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin, Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery, and one for young readers, Perfect Square by Michael Hall. Please remember, for the very BEST in writing workshops combining standards, traits, process, workshop, and literature, phone 503-579-3034. hanks for stopping by, and please come again. If you enjoy our posts, recommend us to friends. Give every child a voice.