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Introduction to Narrative

Introduction to Narrative

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson provides an overview of narrative writing. 

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Source: Grant, Ulysses S. “Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant.” Gutenberg ebook #4367, June 1, 2004. Montaigne, Michel. “Of Experience.” Essays of Michel de Montaigne, trans. Charles Cotton, 1877. Saint Augustine. The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, trans. E. B. Pusey, A.D. 401.

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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 talk about narratives, how to read for them in an academic perspective, including understanding the different types of narrative and the different purposes they are used for. Then we'll talk about narrative arcs, and how understanding them can help you as a reader and writer.

First, let's make one thing clear. When we in composition refer to narrative, we basically mean story. If you remember, narrative writing is writing that's driven by story. So it makes sense that story writing is writing that's driven by narrative. For the most part, we can use the terms interchangeably.

And in the realms of academia, you're most likely to encounter personal narrative, which is the form of storytelling that relies on the writer's personal experiences and memories. There are other kinds of narrative. Fiction, for example. But today will focus on personal narratives.

And there are several different types of personal narrative, autobiography, memoir, life writing, and the current catch-all term of creative nonfiction. Of these, autobiography is probably the most familiar term. It means telling the story of one's own life.

In contrast is memoir, which is writing that's focused on and primarily about memory. The difference between the two is that a memoir isn't necessarily the story of the writer's life, but a story. Thus, a writer can have more than one memoir. For example, one about childhood and another about the death of the writer's mother to cancer. But writing a second autobiography would be redundant.

Life writing is a more general term, similar to memoir, but not necessarily focused on the writer's life. If, for example, a close personal friend to a recently deceased rock star wrote a book about that star's later years, it wouldn't be a memoir, and it wouldn't quite be an autobiography, but it would count as life writing. Creative nonfiction is an even broader term encompassing all three categories and more. Technically, the only requirement for creative nonfiction is that it be true, in some sense of the word. Essays are creative nonfiction, as are just about anything besides poetry or fiction that you're likely to find in a composition course.

Modern creative nonfiction also makes use of the stylistic elements of fiction, often incorporating narrators and non-linear narratives, metaphor, and hyperbole. It's a broad term, because the nature of nonfiction is broad. And many writers are constantly working to stretch the term.

We write personal narratives for many reasons. Chief among them are reflection, simply taking the time to collect and present one's thoughts and memories, as well as education, wanting to teach readers something. And we also write to record memories or to share meaning or insight that our experiences have given us. What these purposes have in common is that the writer has a story and wants to tell it.

Let's look at a couple different kinds of narrative. Take a moment to read this first selection, which is a short passage form the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant. Pause the video if you need more time.

So what do you think was Grant's primary purpose here? I already gave away that this is autobiography, the telling of one's life story, but is there another purpose? Does Grant seem to have been trying to teach us anything or share any insight or meaning? Not that I see. At least not in this section. His primary goal, here at least, seems to have been to record the facts of this life and perhaps to reflect on them.

As a form of contrast, look at this, a short paragraph taken from an essay titled "Of Experience" by Michel de Montaigne, a 16th century statesman and writer who had often been credited as being one of the first, if not the first, essayist. The language itself can be a bit hard to swallow, so take some time with this one pausing the video for as long as you need to get a real sense of what Montaigne is trying to say and do with this excerpt.

Compared to Grant, Montaigne seems much more interested in conveying his thoughts and insight, doesn't he? Though the material can be hard to penetrate, it should be pretty clear that Montaigne was trying to reflect not only on what he's done, but why, and what that means in the broader world. Unlike Grant, who seemed most interested in just telling the story of what happened to him, in the selection we see Montaigne thinking on the page, musing, perhaps ironically, about his tendency to muse too much when he's writing.

So these are just two examples of the range of material that personal narratives can work with. Don't worry, there'll be more. But first, we need to talk about narrative arcs and how they work.

Despite the huge variety in types and purposes of personal narratives, one thing they all have in common is a narrative arc of some kind. An arc, in the context of writing, is a structure or sequence of events. And all narratives have one. Multiple events occurred, and multiple events are told, though here, too, there are different strategies employed by different writers to achieve different effects.

Before we look at a couple examples, let's talk briefly about the different parts of a narrative arc. As we do, please keep in mind that not all arcs will include each aspect, and not always in this order. But a standard chronological narrative arc would be presented as follows.

First, we have exposition, which functions as introductory material grounding us in the story's situation. This is followed by rising action when the important events in the story begin to transpire. Climax follows this as the events lead ultimately to a confrontation or, more common in academic narratives, an important realization or moment of clarity. Then we have falling action and denouement, where the last strings of narrative are tied back together bringing, a writer hopes, a sense of closure to the readers, or at least of closing to the piece.

Let's take a look at a couple very different narratives. Given the time and space constraints, we won't be looking at a complete arc, but each example should give you a sense of the pacing of the whole narrative as well as the chronological assumptions the writer was working under. The first is a paragraph taken from The Confessions of St. Augustine, who wrote 1,600 years ago. Take a moment to go through this, looking for how the events are laid out.

So what do you think? Besides the language, it seems pretty straightforward, right? One event causes another, which causes another, leading us, we can only assume, to another later event, right? This is the general format most personal narratives will take, but they should also be prepared for non-linear narrative structures, which have become more commonplace in the ever changing genre of creative nonfiction.

Take this piece, for example. It's the majority of a very short narrative about losing a child. The language should be much easier to get through than with St. Augustine's, but still, pause the video and take your time while reading. And as you do, try to piece together the chronology. As I hinted, this one doesn't play by the usual rules.

So could you tell what was going on? It's backwards, right? This is the kind of narrative that starts with the most recent event, the father standing and looking into the empty room, and cycles backwards in time from there taking us back to the quiet dinner, to the drive home, and finally to the hospital room where, as it would become more clear in the later and/or earlier parts of the narrative, their son was stillborn.

What would you say about the effect of the structure? How does it change the telling of the story? If the narrative arc were not reversed, what might have been different? Now, these aren't questions I have answers for. As with many aspects of writing, the answers should come from you, since you, as the reader, are the purpose and the effect of the writing.

What did we learn today? We learned all about narratives, the different kinds of personal narratives, and how they can serve different purposes. Then we discussed narrative arcs and looked at a couple different ways to use them. My name is Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

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