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Writing Effective Narratives

Writing Effective Narratives

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson discusses key components of an effective narrative. 

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. So what are we going to learn today? Today we'll be looking at strategies for writing effective narratives.

We'll talk about starting strong with scene and context, and how establishing a clear point of view and memorable narrator will help ground your readers in the narrative, and how to introduce characters effectively. Then we'll talk about building a clear sequence of events and how conflict can pull readers through a text. And finally, we'll take a look at how using effective narrative techniques and language will help you accomplish all of these.

First, let's talk about beginning a narrative. The first lines, heck, the first words, are most important, because if you don't draw your reader's in and convince them to keep reading, it doesn't matter what else you've written, right? In a world where readers are constantly being enticed to look at something else, this TV show, that commercial, this other article with a stimulating but misleading title, you owe it to yourself as a writer to do what you can to keep your readers interested.

Of course, you've got to do more than entice them. You've got to set the scene of your narrative for them, provide a realistic place for them to navigate and for your story to grow out of. This involves explaining, or least presenting, the story's context. Readers don't necessarily need to know everything, but you must provide them whatever relevant details about location, date, and rounding events that they'll need to understand not only what's going to happen in your narrative, but why it matters, why they should keep reading.

This will allow you to begin to introduce the conflict, the problem, or situation with which your character or characters will be dealing or interacting. All this has to happen fairly quickly. How quickly? It depends on your narrative, but a good rule of thumb is that you should balance each of these four goals. If, for example, you take so long setting the scene that readers loose interest before they get to the point where you explain the story's central problem, that's bad. But on the other hand, if you rush the scene setting, you'll leave reader's feeling disoriented, which isn't good either.

Once your narrative has got its base established, it's time to populate it. What do I mean by that? Well, first you need to establish a clear point of view, the position from which you're telling the story. Some call this the lens of the text. It's how or where you can point the reader's attention. Often this involves introducing your narrator, including the narrative voice, the tone and level of familiarity, high or low vocabulary, any dialect or linguistic tendencies, and all of that.

You should also consider your narrator's limitations. Even in a nonfiction text, you'll need to consider how much your narrator knows. For example, does the narrator of your story know everything you do about the situation? Or do you want to bring your readers closer to events, as in, I didn't know then that this would be the last time I spoke to her, et cetera, et cetera. And once you've established who the speaker in your story is, you'll need to introduce any other characters showing them to your readers with enough concrete detail that they will understand, if not necessarily who they are as people, but what they meant to you or to your narrator and why they were in the story at all.

And now that your story has all the pieces it needs, it's time to start putting them together. You've already built a strong foundation of setting and context, and you got all the characters and narrative stance you'll need. So now all there's left to do is build the story, starting with a natural, logical, smoothly rendered sequence of events. This is the part where you, the writer, get to tell what happened, and always with half an eye on why it's important.

By this I mean providing your readers only the most salient details, only what they need in order to understand what's happening. And keep in mind that your readers know much less about your plot than you do, so you'll almost certainly have to sprinkle in details to support the events to make sure your readers understand the context, understand not only what happened and how, but why as well. And while you're doing this, don't forget to think about conflict. In many ways conflict, or drama, is what pulls a reader through the remainder of a narrative.

You start it by enticing them with effective language and a clearly developed scene, and they continue to follow you because of the narrative voice and the realistically portrayed characters. Now you need to maintain that momentum, and conflict is the most effective way to do that. So always ask yourself when writing not just what's happening, but how or why it matters, especially at the end of your narrative. The last thing you want is for your readers to walk away from your text wondering why they were told that story, wondering what they were supposed to get out of it.

And finally, it's important to remember that while you're doing everything we've just discussed, you should be using effective narrative techniques and language. Pay attention to your use of dialogue and the way you balance pacing and description, your use of reflection, and making the most of your chosen point of view, and of course, managing the plot line or multiple plot lines of your narrative. All of these techniques can help you, but as for how, it always varies depending on your particular narrative and your particular goals as a writer.

Similarly, you should also remember to use the most effective narrative language you can. While building your narrative, don't forget about the bricks and mortar, the concrete details and the sensory language, as well as the figurative language that will provide your piece with some flexibility, which is another kind of strength. And above all, don't be intimidated. These narrative elements and techniques seem like a lot to take in, but in reality, they're also intermixed so that it'd be almost impossible to leave one out. The point is to pay attention and use them as consciously as possible, that way you're in control, not your narrative.

So what did we learn today? We learned about the elements that go into writing effective narratives, from scene and context to point of view and narrative stance, to characters, sequence of events, and of course the narrative techniques and language that can make all the rest more effective. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.