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Narrative Language

Narrative Language

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches elements of narrative: description, concrete detail, relevant detail, active verbs, and figurative language.

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Welcome back to English composition. I'm Gavin McCall, thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We'll focus on narrative language, the remaining tools and tricks writers of personal narratives and fictional narratives use to tell their stories effectively. We're going to talk about description, and the principle of show don't tell, as well as concrete details, active verbs, and figurative language.

Description is one of the key elements of any personal narrative. It's primarily through description of places, people, things, events, and emotions that writers can make their narratives begin to come alive in their readers' imaginations. And in order to do that, writers need to show their readers what exactly these places people, things, events and emotions were like, something that can't be accomplished through telling language.

If, for example, if I were to tell you that yesterday afternoon it was so hot I didn't want to go outside, or that it was 95 degrees according to the evening news, that would convey the required information. But it wouldn't do much to really give you a sense of what it was like to be me yesterday afternoon, would it? If however, I said something to the effect of it was so hot that when I first cracked the door of my air-conditioned car, the blast of hot air felt like I'd opened an oven, that would probably do more to put you there with me.

Another important tool writers use to make their personal narrative mean something to the readers is detail, concrete detail. And by this I mean all five senses. Too often, beginning writers, when asked to describe something, will stop after writing what it looks like. What about sounds, smells, and tastes? What touch, what sensations did you experience? And what can you convey to your readers?

Vision is important, but it keeps readers furthest away from what you're trying to create. Let us hear it, smell it, touch it, and we'll come away from the text with a greater understanding than all the bland description in the world could possibly have given us. If, for example, I was going to describe what it's like to welcome beneath a tall alpine forest canopy, I'd of course describe the way the dappled light cuts through in beams, illuminating only some of the forest floor. But I'd also describe the sound of leaves and pine needles crunching under your feet, and the hushed, barely audible hissing of the wind so high above your head. And I'd have to include something about the heady pervasive smell of pine and decomposing plant matter.

If I really wanted to bring you to that place, I'd mention how the cool, dry, thin mountain air causes the hair on your forearms to raise, even though the sunlight feels hot when you step into it. And I might even mention the oddly metallic taste that comes to your mouth whenever you hike in that kind of altitude. It's a little like blood, or maybe the memory of blood, something that comes in the base your throat-- something both pleasant and a little bit troubling. Anyway, I might have got a little carried away, but hopefully, you get the idea.

It's also important for writers of narratives to pay attention to the verbs they use. Active verbs, by which I mean verbs that are driven by a clear agent or actor, and which are themselves energetic, are usually the best. In contrast to be verbs like is, are, were and others tend to slow a narrative down. Consider, the ball was kicked by him, as opposed to he kicked the ball. Here's an example, something I found an old narrative of mine.

When Kevin pulled the station wagon away from the dump, the single working headlight lit up the one-lane road leading back to Pahala. The man was walking in the grass alongside the road, heading towards the boys. As Kevin approached him, Brad stepped into the middle of the road and raised his other arm over his head at a signaling for help. Here, you should get a sense for how using different, fresh verbs, and keeping them active for the most part, helps to move a narrative along, which is the point of any scene where action is happening.

The last narrative tool we'll look at is figurative language. These are artistic-minded phrases that use comparisons to imply meaning. But mostly, figurative language is a way for writers to let the readers do more of the work. Instead of just telling readers what things in the narrative are, or are like, they use the connections of figurative language to allow the readers to build the relationships in their own minds, which in turn brings the readers a deeper understanding of what's being described, and brings them closer to the text as a whole.

Because now they're invested in the meaning making within the narrative. There are three basic kinds of figurative language. The first we'll look at is metaphor, a literary device that compares one item to another for artistic effect. If you've ever heard someone describe good news is music to the ears, you've heard a metaphor. Or if you were to say, I am lost in a sea of nameless faces-- that would be another example.

A more specific kind of metaphor. Similes are perhaps even more common. A simile is a literary device and a type of metaphor that compares one item to another item, using the conjunction like or as for artistic or literary effect. Here's an example I found in another old story of mine. Every inch of her feet is covered with shallow wrinkles, like the blue lines and streams on a map of Hilo, mostly parallel streaks running from the mountain to sea, sea to mountain, feeding the rain to the ocean, and the ocean back to the rain.

The last kind of figurative language we'll look at is personification, which is a literary device that imbues non-human objects with human characteristics, again for artistic effect. If I were to say that my car didn't want to start this morning, or that it just wasn't happy with me, I would be personifying it by giving my car the human characteristic of impulse or desire. Or if I said that the sun was playing hide and seek with the clouds that would also be personification.

But put most simply, all of these forms of figurative language are used to perform the same function, to imply through artistry a connection between a thing and a quality, and to get the reader invested in making that connection. So what did we learn today? We learned about narrative language, including description and how to show, not tell, and what concrete details can add to a text, as well as the way active verbs can liven it up.

And finally, we looked at three different ways to use figurative language to add a little art to our narratives. I'm Gavin McCall, thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

A literary device that compares one time to another, for artistic effect. ("My love is a rose.")


A literary device that imbues nonhuman objects with human characteristics, for artistic effect. ("The rose is in love.")


A literary device and type of metaphor that compares one item to another item, using the conjunction "like," for artistic or literary effect. ("My love is like a rose.")