The first lines — even the first words — of a narrative are important because unless the writer engages readers and convinces them to keep reading from the start, the rest of the narrative doesn't matter. Today, potential readers are constantly enticed to look elsewhere — at TV shows or movies, or articles with stimulating (but misleading) titles. Writers must do all that they can to capture and maintain readers' interest despite all of these other demands for their attention.
However, there's more to effective narrative than initial enticement. Writers need to "set the scene" for readers by creating interesting, detailed environments in which the action takes place. This involves explaining, or least presenting, the story's context. Readers must be provided with relevant details about location, date, and surrounding events that enable them to understand the story and why it is significant — and why they should keep reading.
Once the scene has been established, writers can introduce the conflict, problem, or situation in which the character(s)s will be involved. This must be accomplished quickly, early in the narrative.
Once the base of a narrative has been established, it's time to populate it. The first thing writers must do at this point in the process is to establish a clear point of view — the position from which they'll tell their story. This is sometimes referred to as the lens of the narrative. The term refers to the ways in which writers can focus readers' attention on a character, event or other detail of a story.
The establishment of point of view often involves introduction of the narrator, and the narrative voice — the tone and level of familiarity, syntax (i.e., the words used), dialect and linguistic tendencies (if any), etc. Writers must also consider the narrator's limitations: Even in a nonfiction account, it's important to determine how much the narrator knows at different points of time.
EXAMPLEDoes the narrator of your story know everything you do about the situation, or do you want to bring your readers closer to events (e.g., "I didn't know then that this would be the last time I spoke to her...?"
Once the narrator has been identified, the writer must present any other characters that are involved in the story. These characters must be described in enough detail that readers will understand how they are related to the narrator, and to other characters, and why they are part of the story.
At this point in the process of writing an effective narrative, writers begin to assemble the components identified in the previous sections. Setting and context have been established, as well as the narrative point of view. All of the characters, as well as their relationships to each other, the scene, and the events, have been created. Now it's time to construct the story, starting with a logical and smoothly-rendered sequence of events. This is the time when the writer tells readers what happened, and why it's important.
To accomplish this, it's necessary to provide readers with details, but only relevant details; only those which enable them to understand what's happening. Readers know less about the plot than the writer, so he or she must include details to ensure that readers understand the context; not only what happened and how, but also why it happened.
Narrative writers must consider conflict at this point in the process. Conflict, or drama, is what keeps readers reading. Remember that effective narratives begin by enticing readers with effective language and a clearly-developed scene. Readers are persuaded to continue reading by the narrative voice and the realistic characters. Conflict is the most effective way to maintain the story's momentum.
In addition to the tasks outlined in the preceding sections, writers must use effective narrative techniques and language, including the following:
The degree to which these techniques are used will vary, based on the particular narrative and the writer's goals.
Additionally, writers should use the most effective narrative language: concrete details and sensory language, and figurative language that can provide flexibility.
Source: Adapted from Sophia Instructor Gavin McCall