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Narrative Techniques

Narrative Techniques

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches key techniques of narratives.

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Source: Melville, Herman. “Moby Dick, or The Whale.” Gutenberg eBook #2701, Jan. 9, 2013. Wilde, Oscar. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Gutenberg eBook #4078, Jan. 29, 2005. Twain, Mark. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Gutenberg eBook #76, July 14, 2014.

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? We'll focus this lesson on the many narrative technique writers use to tell their stories. We'll cover what they are and what they're good for so you will be a more effective reader of personal narratives and a more effective teller of your own stories. We'll look at the following techniques. Dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, point of view, and plot lines.

The first, and seemingly the most straightforward of the narrative techniques we'll look at today is dialogue, which is what characters in a narrative are shown saying to each other. Dialogue is a deceptively simple technique in that it's easy to use, but difficult to master. Used too liberally, it can distract readers from what the narrator or author has to say getting in the way of the story's progression.

This brings us to pacing, which is the flow of the narrative. As a technique, it's often overlooked, but it's important for writers, especially beginning writers, to pay attention to how quickly their readers can and will move through any particular part of their work. It's almost always a good thing for the pace to vary as the narrative progresses. For example, for it to go from a slow, leisurely introduction to a fast-paced climax and back to a slower denouement.

One of the simultaneously most important and most overused narrative techniques is description, which means the explaining of the characteristics of things, including people, places, experiences, actual things, thoughts, and emotions. While it's important for most narratives to build a fabric of sensory detail with which the reader cannot only see but feel the story's most important features, it's easy to slow a narrative's pace by including too much description or by describing things that aren't critical to the narrative as a whole.

Reflection is another very important narrative technique. It's used to allow for contemplation of the meanings or purposes behind events in the plot or events that happened around the story. It's a way for writers to include material of a more traditionally academic value, information, delivery, and argumentation, for example, within the structure of a narrative. Again though, this technique, if overused, will bog down the narrative and can even cause readers to forget about the narrative structure in which the reflection is meant to function.

Next we'll talk about point of view, which refers to the narrator or persona with which the author is telling the story. Some narratives, especially in fiction, will include multiple points of view. Choosing how and when to use this technique, from what perspective to tell a story, is a challenging task, one that can only be developed through practice.

The last narrative technique we'll focus on is plot lines, which means the structure of the story itself, as in the events that occur to the characters in the narrative. It's important to note that some stories will include multiple plot lines, chains of events that occurred simultaneously and which are often told in non-sequential order. Choosing what events to portray and in what order is another skill that comes to writers primarily through experience both in reading the work of others and noting their use of this and other techniques and through practicing them themselves.

As it goes for many skills related to writing, it's hard to learn about these narrative techniques in the abstract, so let's look at some examples, that way you can see them in action. This will give you a sense of how some of these techniques can be used to further the goals of a piece of narrative writing. First, look at this fairly long passage from a book I'm sure you've all heard of. It comes from a chapter titled The Whiteness of the Whale, and if that's not enough, the title of the book is Moby Dick.

Take a moment to pause the video and read this, just a small part of Melville's exploration into the nature of the color of white. So what do you think? Do you see how Melville was able to use reflection to contemplate the meaning and purpose of an event in the plot line? Ahab's hunt for the whale is the central act of the entire novel, and here, the reflection, we get to see a little bit of what that means and why it's important. This is the strength of reflection.

The second selection I made is from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This comes from somewhere towards the beginning of the book, and as we'll see, it demonstrates a couple very different techniques than did the bit of Moby Dick we just looked at. Give it a try, and don't let the phonetic spelling throw you.

Different, huh? Here, we're definitely not using reflection to explain events, but rather, we're right in the middle of one. Here we see Twain's use of dialogue to show us what these characters sounded like and the kind of things they think of. Notice also that while neither Jim nor Huckleberry speak what we'd call proper English, Huck's is a bit closer, a demonstration, no doubt, of their educational and racial differences between him and Jim.

It's also revealing to look at the first paragraph here. Not only does Huckleberry speak to the other characters with an accent, but he's presented as thinking in the same dialect. A risky strategy for a writer to use, but one that can help portray who a character really is better than even pages and pages of reflection ever could.

And finally, take a look at these passages. They are the first and third paragraph from Oscar Wilde's book The Picture of Dorian Gray. Pause the video and give them a look, and try to see what techniques you see in use.

In this selection, as you no doubt saw, we are given a lot of description. It's fitting, for those of you familiar with the book, that Wilde began the picture of Dorian Gray with so much description. We get a sense of the opulence of the room, the richness of its surroundings, and then we get to see what's going on in there, a painting's being made.

So what did we learn today? We learned about narrative techniques, dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, point of view, and plot lines. And we learned how they can be used to further the purposes of a piece of narrative writing. Then we looked at three very different examples, giving us a demonstration of the breadth of writing available to us through just the mastery of these techniques. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.