Writing Narrative – Part Two: Ten Tips for Writing Narrative

In part one of this series, I looked at the meaning of narrative and how to use it to describe what is going on in a story. In this tip, I will provide ten nuts-and-bolts items to make your narrative portions the best they can be.

Narrative Hints

1. Provide a goal for the scene. What is the character’s objective?

The first paragraph in Reapers:

The death alarm sounded, that phantom punch in the gut I always dreaded. I touched the metallic gateway valve embedded in my chest at the top of my sternum—warm but not yet hot. The alarm was real. Someone in my territory would die tonight, and I had to find the poor soul. Death didn’t care about the late hour. Reapers like me always stayed on call.

2. Establish time, place, circumstance, and viewpoint at the start of every scene. Also add a light source if the setting might otherwise be dark (veiled moon, a flashlight, a lantern).

The next paragraph in Reapers:

I rose from my moth-eaten reading chair, blew out the hanging lantern’s flame, and stalked across my one-room apartment to the window, guided by light from outside. The internal alarm grew stronger. Prickly vibrations raced along my cloak from the baggy sleeves to the top of the hood, tickling the two-day stubble across my cheeks and chin. Time was growing short—probably less than an hour left.

3. Cap off a scene with a curtain line—a focused ending that makes the reader hope for the scene to continue.

The last paragraph in chapter one of Reapers:

“Very good.” Trying to keep my hands steady, I slid the photo stick into my pocket and fished out the pill bottle. “Let’s see what we can do for Molly.”

4. Try to avoid describing lack of action:

Lack of action: “He couldn’t find a bathroom anywhere.” Action: “He flung open door after door. No bathroom!”

Lack of action: “He didn’t move.” Action: “He froze in place.”

5. Don’t release the tension. Keep your character in some kind of “danger” at all times. Danger shouldn’t be released by accident or coincidence. It should be vanquished by the character’s actions in a way that shows that he deserves to win.

6. The beginning of your story should include both mystery and immediate tension.

7. Particular is usually better than general: “Tennessee Walker” instead of “horse.” “The six maples” instead of “those trees.”

An exception to this advice: Being specific is more visual and paints a better picture, but if your point-of-view character wouldn’t identify the specific, then use the general term.

For some people, a tree is a tree is a tree. Others would differentiate between a pine and an oak. And a few would call a tree by its scientific name and think about how common or rare it is to find it in that region.

Simply put, be specific as often as you can, that is, whenever it fits your character’s ways.

8. Use active verbs as often as possible: Verbs that show the subject actually doing something are better than static state-of-being verbs like “is,” “was,” and “were.”

Exercise: Print out the first few pages of your manuscript and use a red marker to circle all uses of “was” and “were” (Or “is” and “are” if you are writing in present tense). Most new writers will find far too many and will be surprised at how many they find. These are opportunities to make the verb phrases more active and vivid.

9. Make sure your pronoun antecedents are clear and correct.

Frank and Jim ran to the ladder. When they arrived, he offered him a hand. (Who offered whom a hand? It is impossible to tell.)

He scanned the raised hands for a volunteer. They would have to be someone strong and brave. (“Volunteer” is singular, but “they” is plural, so the pronoun, they, doesn’t match the antecedent noun, volunteer.)

10. Look for paragraphs that begin the same way more than a couple of times consecutively. Do four paragraphs in a row begin with a name? Do six consecutive paragraphs begin with dialogue? Do three begin with subject-verb? A prepositional phrase? A participle?

When you alter the construction to solve this problem, do so with care. Don’t change only for the sake of variety.

Minimize paragraphs that begin with “As” or “ing” constructions. If an action is important enough to begin a paragraph, it usually shouldn’t be subordinated to a dependent clause. If you have more than one of these paragraph beginnings on a page, consider an alternative.

Please post any questions or comments you have on narrative.

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13 replies

  1. Number four is an interesting point 🙂

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  2. This is really helpful!
    I have a question. If I am telling a story from 3rd person intimate, should I refer to relatives of the character by their relationship, or name?

    For example, in my story, one part is told from the point of view of a princess. Her father plays a prominent part in one of the chapters. When describing a conversation or action she observes, should I write, for example: [Her father strode across the room and grasped the princes hand firmly, shaking it. “It is a pleasure to meet you.” ]
    Or:
    [Amancio strode across the room and grasped the princes hand firmly, shaking it. “It is a pleasure to meet you.” ]? (Amancio is her father)
    Or even when using the occasional speaker tag at the end of something he says, should I write, [‘Amancio said’ or ‘Her father said’ ]?

    Is this one of those time when the writer has to decide what to use, or is there some sort of generally observed guideline?

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  3. I think your like button is broken. xP

    Yes… I have trouble with repeating the same beginning, and using the “As” and “ing” beginnings too often, maybe in a subconscious effort not to be repetitive.

    Good post. 🙂

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  4. Another question that I’ve been thinking of. Is it better to use general if it’s for character reasons? For example, one character in my book is more technical. If he saw a tree, he would likely know its species name and other details about it. However, my other character is less technical and sees certain aspects of the world in a more general way. If he saw a tree or plant, he might not even know what kind it is, instead he would see it as a ‘bush’ or ‘tree’. Or even animals, one might see a ‘Peregrine falcon’ while the other simply sees the bird and thinks of it as some kind of falcon.

    Should I still describe particulars, for the benefit of imagery? Or is this decision up to the writer?(This story is 3rd person intimate)

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    • Great question. Being specific is always more visual and paints a better picture, but if your character wouldn’t identify the specific, then go with the character’s identification.

      For some people, a tree is a tree is a tree. Others would differentiate between a pine and an oak. And a few would call a tree by its scientific name and think about how common or rare it is to find it in that region.

      Again, use the descriptor that best suits the character. That is more important that painting the visual.

      I appreciate the chance to make this clarification. I will edit the post to match.

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  5. Thank you, that definitely clears it up for me!

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  6. Sorry this is a bit off topic on this article, but I don’t have a Facebook account. Anyway, about crowd funding, from what I hear with Kickstarter you one keep the money if the goal is reached. I think Indiegogo let you keep whatever money you raise from the project, so make sure you look into terms like that.

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  7. How would you correct the second example you gave for tip nine?
    The use of “they” cannot simply be replaced by a gender-neutral third-person singular, as one only exists in the contemporary use of the very word you say is incorrectly used. This use of “they” could be replaced with “the volunteer”, but I think this feels repetitive. Would combining the two sentences work? For example: “He scanned the raised hands for a volunteer, someone strong and brave.”

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    • Daniel,

      The use of a plural pronoun to rename a genderless noun has become common of late. In fact, many “experts” now say that the practice is grammatically acceptable. I disagree and believe that it leads to confusion. It would be better to invent a new genderless singular pronoun.

      In any case, we could come up with multiple ways to rewrite the sentences. Your example is a good one.

      Another option:

      He scanned the raised hands for a volunteer. He or she would have to be someone strong and brave.

      Or:

      He scanned the raised hands. The volunteer would have to be someone strong and brave.

      Or if the scanning person wanted a specific gender:

      He scanned the raised hands for a volunteer. She would have to be someone strong and brave.

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