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Elements of Narrative

Elements of Narrative

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches elements of narrative: voice, point of view, character, and "show don't tell."

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Source: Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” Boston Anti-Slavery Office, 1845. Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden, and On the Civil Duty of Disobedience.” Gutenberg eBook #205, Jan. 26, 2013. Franklin, Benjamin. “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” Ed. Frank Woodworth Pine. Gutenberg eBook #20203, Dec. 28, 2006. Alexandre Dumas, Pere. “Derues.” Gutenberg eBook #2748, Feb. 20, 2012.

Video Transcription

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? Today we'll be taking another look at narratives, focusing this time on the elements of narrative writing. We'll be discussing voice, point of view, character and characterization, and the difference between relevant details and just plain details.

But before we get into all that, let me first mention that all these elements, all these writing techniques, are found in both personal narratives and fictional narratives, the difference being that personal narratives have the added task-- and some writers would say the added value-- of having to be true to the author's experiences rather than being free to invent characters, plot elements, and points of view. All the discussion we'll do about these elements we'll do in the context of personal narrative, and all the examples we'll look at will come from the genre as well.

The first narrative element we should focus on is voice, which is the way an author expresses his or her personal writing style. Voice is that hard-to-capture thing that lets you recognize your favorite writer's work the moment you see it, that thing even experienced writers can only sort of control, the thing beginning writers feel like they have to work to find. As an example of voice, take a look at this passage and Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Read how Thoreau writes about his relationship to nature, and you'll get a strong sense of the style in which he writes, even if you've never heard of him. Take a moment to read it, and you'll see what I mean.

The next aspect of narrative that we'll look at and have demonstrated is point of view. As we discussed, this is point of view in relation to personal narrative, so in virtually all the texts we're talking about, the point of view can be assumed to be the writer him or herself. But this doesn't mean writers can't make use of retrospection and reflection.

Look at this sample of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave written by Frederick Douglass. Pause the video and read it, and as you do, look for the ways Douglass makes use of the perspective he has as a much older man looking back and writing about his youth. So you see, even when the I in the text really is the writer, still we can make use of different characters. The young Douglass and the old are not the same person on the page even though in other ways they are.

And since I already brought it up, let's look at characterization next. In a personal narrative, the word "character" refers to the people within the narrative. And here's the key, they have to be portrayed in a deep and realistic enough fashion that we, readers, though we almost certainly don't know any of the characters, feel as if we've been introduced to real people.

Consider this short descriptive passage in which we are shown how a group of children behave around a strong, handsome boy named Pierre and his unfortunate classmate Antoine. Pause the video to read it. Now you should have some sense of what it was like to be Antoine, don't you? And consider this, in just a page or two later we're told, in fairly grim detail, about how Antoine murders Pierre. Imagine how differently the reader's reaction would be if we hadn't already been given such a humanizing glimpse into Antoine's lonely childhood life.

The last element of personal narrative we'll focus on today is detail, or more accurately, relevant detail. This is what we call the focused attention of a text. Attention that describes events or things that require the reader's understanding in order for the narrative to go on making sense. Basically, these are the details that aren't just relevant, they're necessary to the story.

So you can get a sense of the difference, let's look first at a short passage from the introduction of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. Take a moment to read it, and you'll see that here Franklin is writing to his children about the early history of their family and how they had to hide their religion from the authorities before coming to America. It gives us a sense of the pride he must have had in his country and zeal with which he would defend its freedoms.

Now, look at this passage. It comes from just about one page earlier, before the detail about the Bible. Notice any differences? Take a look at it and see. Even without reading the surrounding material of the later chapters in the autobiography, it should be pretty clear to you which of these two passages contain details that you as a reader really need to know.

Disclaimer. I personally haven't read all of Franklin's autobiography, but I'm pretty certain that if I did, I wouldn't really need to know that his uncle John was a dyer, probably off wool. And that's the ultimate litmus test for detail. Can the narrative bear it's loss? If so, it probably should be lost.

So what did we learn today? We learned about several elements of personal narratives, including voice, point of view, character, and relevant detail. And we took a look at examples of each form the genre. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.