Writing Narrative – Part One: What is Narrative Text?

Narrative

Narrative is a collection of descriptions of scenes and actions, one of the three major vehicles used in storytelling:

Dialogue – The characters talk, explaining their thoughts.

Interior Monologue – A character thinks, explaining what’s going on inside his or her head.

Narrative – Pretty much everything else. The author explains what is going on, often through the sensory input of a character. When you use an intimate point of view, it feels like the character becomes the narrator.

To illustrate, let’s break down the sentences in the following paragraph:

(1) I sat on my bed tapping on my laptop computer while Clara peered out the window. (2) She was being paranoid again. (3) The Mustang driver who followed us to the motel had really spooked her. (4) “Chill out, Clara. He can’t possibly guess where we are.”

  1. Narrative: Explains what is going on. The narrator is the “I” character instead of the author.
  2. Interior monologue: Explains what the “I” character is thinking.
  3. Interior monologue.
  4. Dialogue.

Here is another example:

I pushed the laptop to the side, slid out of the bed, and looked over Clara’s shoulder. The Mustang sat parked under a tree, the driver watching the motel’s front door. An intermittent shower of leaves, blown around by Chicago’s never-ending breezes, danced about on the convertible’s ragtop. “He’s not Colombian, Clara. He’s Middle Eastern.”

In this case, all but the last sentence is narrative. Notice that every description and action is reported through the eyes of the point-of-view (POV) character, making him the narrator. These sentences describe what the character sees, not necessarily what the character thinks about the visuals.

Yet, in intimate POV, narrative and interior monologue can often blur. In this example, the character inserted “never-ending” because of his experiences in Chicago. He doesn’t actually see “never-ending” at this moment, so the sentence isn’t pure narrative. It is a blend of narrative and character commentary.

This character narration and blurring is especially evident in first-person POV, but an intimate third-person, limited POV narrative can achieve the same results. Here is the same paragraph rewritten in third-person, limited:

Nathan pushed the laptop to the side, slid out of the bed, and looked over Clara’s shoulder. The Mustang sat parked under a tree, the driver watching the motel’s front door. An intermittent shower of leaves, blown around by Chicago’s never-ending breezes, danced about on the convertible’s ragtop. “He’s not Colombian, Clara. He’s Middle Eastern.”

Only one word changed: “I” became “Nathan.” He is still the narrator, and every part of the narrative comes through his sensory input, including his observation that the breezes are never-ending.

In omniscient POV, however, the author is the narrator. While using this POV, an author might insert opinions, historical facts, or other observations. These are all narrative, though the insertions are not popular at this time and are often derisively called “author intrusion.”

Here is a classic example of omniscient POV narrative from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

This is filled with the author’s observations and opinions. No story character could have provided this insight.

When you write narrative, you are usually simply describing the action taking place, but be careful to avoid providing every detail. This is called stage direction. For example, when Bradley opens the door, you don’t have to explain that he grasps the doorknob with his right hand and turns the knob. Most readers will assume that. Just report that he opens the door. Readers will fill in the gaps. One exception: if the detail is important for the story, leave it in. For example, sometimes turning the knob can add tension as the character thinks about what dangers might lie in wait beyond the door.

In the example below, the first paragraph is an example of stage direction, while the second takes out the actions that readers will assume.

Stage direction: Eammon flung the peavey to shore, reached down, and lifted Sunshine by grabbing his jacket collar with his left hand and his belt with his right hand. He then spun around, clutching the Indian’s left shoulder, leaned down to put his right shoulder into Sunshine’s belly, his right arm between the Indian’s legs, and straightened up. He slowly turned on the log that was supporting them, moved down its length toward the bank, jumped to another log, walked the length of that one, then stepped on top of several logs running lengthwise of the river until he finally stepped down into the shallow water near shore.

Stage direction removed: Eammon flung the peavey away, grabbed Sunshine by his jacket collar and belt, threw him over his shoulder, and made his way across the logs to shore. (Self Editing for Fiction Writers)

Leaving out unnecessary details is especially important when writing action scenes. Each detail you include slows the pace. Before the action begins, set the scene with all necessary descriptions. Then when the action begins, readers will have the setting in mind, and the action can take place without a lot of details.

Save your detailed descriptions for slow, contemplative scenes. Employ longer sentences and include colors, textures, etc. This will create a meditative mood that will allow you to dive into the character’s thoughts through interior monologue.

Also, be sure to maintain proper proportions. In your narrative, do you spend a lot of time on minor issues? Do you cut important scenes too short? If solving a character’s personal issues leads to the resolution of a conflict, then spend more time on the personal issues. If a cool invention created by a character’s intelligence and inventiveness saves the day, then write more about those attributes and how they developed.

In my next writing tip, I will provide more hints on writing narrative.

Any questions or comments? Please post them.

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2 replies

  1. Once again, good tips to keep in mind!

    In a novella I’m editing, I have to cut it down quite a bit to fit within contest limits, so I’m definitely learning how to tighten up my prose and spend time on only the important things. 🙂

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