Writing Well: Narrative Building Blocks

Narrative Building Blocks

Author! Author!

When a person is surrounded by disciples, Oscar Wilde remarked toward the end of his life, there is always “a Judas who writes the biography.”

Autobiographies and oral histories are both narratives, but they have distinct differences. The same is true of fairy tales, fables, and feature stories. You can tell a novel from a short story, too, even when you're bleary-eyed from staying up until 3:00 to find out whodunit. So what makes these diverse types of narration similar? All narratives contain the following elements:

  • Plot
  • Speaker
  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Theme
  • Point of view

Let's start with the first element on the list, plot.

Word Watch

Plot is the arrangement of events in a story. Plots include the exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement (resolution).

The Plot Thickens: Plot

All narratives center around a plot, the arrangement of events. Plots have a beginning, middle, and end. The writer (that's you!) arranges the events of the plot to keep the reader's interest and convey your message about life. In most stories and novels, the events of the plot can be divided as follows:

  • Exposition. Introduces the characters, setting, and conflict.
  • Rising action. Builds the conflict and develops the characters.
  • Climax. Shows the highest point of the action.
  • Denouement or resolution. Resolves the story and ties up all the loose ends.

Here's the classic diagram of plot structure. Why not use this plot map as you brainstorm ideas for your stories?

Author! Author!

Many famous writers adopt pseudonyms that mask their identity, even to the extent of changing their gender on paper. Some of the most famous examples include the female writers Acton Bell (Anne Bront), Currer Bell (Charlotte Bront), Ellis Bell (Emily Bront), George Eliot (Mary Anne or Marian Evans), and P.D. James (Phyllis Dorothy James). Going in the other direction, we have Edith Van Dyne (L. Frank Baum).

What about the person telling the story? Find out about the speaker now.

Who Was That Masked Man? The Speaker

The speaker (also called the personae) is the personality the writer assumes when telling a story. For example, you can tell the story as a young girl, an old man, or a figure from history. You can be anyone you want to be when you tell a story. You can change size, shape, age, gender, and even species.

When you become the speaker, you're donning a mask that allows you to reveal— and conceal—as you will. Don't confuse the speaker with the writer. Even when you're telling the story as yourself, you're wearing a mask.

And then we have the figures who animate your stories, the characters. Learn how to create them now.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Characters

  • He had changed little since his New Haven years. Now he was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.
  • —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Chapter 1

A character is a person or an animal in a story. Main characters have important roles in the narrative; minor characters have smaller parts. They usually serve as a contrast to the main character or to advance the plot.

Author! Author!

The first woman to earn her living as an author seems to have been Aphra Behn (1640-1689), who wrote a number of popular poems, plays, and novels, including the romantic novels The Fair Jilt, The Rover, and The Amours of Philander and Sylvia. When not busy writing, Behn served as a spy for Charles II.

Characterization is the different ways a writer tells readers about characters. Sometimes you may wish to describe the characters directly by naming their traits. Here's an example of direct characterization:

  • John Reed was a schoolboy of fourteen years old; four years older than I, for I was but ten; large and stout for his age, with a dingy and unwholesome skin; thick lineaments in a spacious visage, heavy limbs and large extremities. He gorged himself habitually at table, which made him bilious, and gave him dim and bleared eyes and flabby cheeks.
  • —Charlotte Bront, Jane Eyre, Chapter 1

Other times, writers let readers reach their own decisions about the characters by showing the comments, thoughts, and actions of the other characters. For example:

  • I unwound his long scarf and helped him out of his coat. As I got him settled in his desk, Mother arrived with my other brown shoe. I jammed my foot into it with all the children watching.
  • —Jean Little, Stars Come out Within

From this excerpt, you can infer that the speaker, Jean Little, is kind and helpful. You might also have figured out that there's something different about her, since all the children are staring at her. In fact, she is blind.

Write Angles

If you're writing a novel, you've got the room for a shipload of characters, but in a short story, space is at a premium, so keep the guest list short.

The Curtain Rises: Setting

  • I lay there in the grass and cool shade thinking about things and feeling rested and ruther comfortable and satisfied. I could see the sun out at one or two holes, but mostly it was big trees all about, and gloomy in there amongst them. There was freckled places on the ground where the light sifted down through the leaves, and the freckled places swapped about a little, showing there was a little breeze up there. A couple of squirrels set on a limb and jabbered at me very friendly.
  • —Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter VIII

The setting of a story is the time and place where the events unfold. You can establish the setting directly or suggest it from details in the story. In this excerpt from Huck Finn, you can infer that Huck is outside from these details: “grass and cool shade,” “big trees,” and “little breeze.” You can also provide clues to the setting in the characters' speech, clothing, or means of transportation. Huck's speech—words such as “ruther” (for “rather”) and “there was freckled places” (for “there were …”)—suggests that Huck is a country lad in the mid-nineteenth century.

The setting is more than a mere backdrop to the action. Rather, it serves to underscore the action and theme.

In some narratives, the setting can even function as a character, as in Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Mississippi River may not say anything, but it's as important as any of the characters with speaking roles! Consider your settings carefully when you plot a short story or other narrative.

The Meaning of Life: Theme

Writer's Block

Don't confuse the theme with the topic; the former is a broad statement about reality; the latter, the subject of the narrative. A theme might be “War is hell”; the subject, World War II.

Effective narratives do more than entertain; they often suggest a truth about life, a theme. This observation touches a cord within your readers and makes your story memorable. It can even help lift your writing to the level of Art.

Here are some sample themes:

  • People are capable of great heroism when put to the test.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
  • The world is a lonely and bitter place.
  • You can't recapture the past.
  • It's a dog-eat-dog world.
Write Angles

Truman Capote invented a hybrid between fiction and non-fiction, which he called the “nonfiction novel.” This genre starts with a true story (the non-fiction aspect) and adds elements of fiction (such as invented dialogue and details). Capote's finest example is In Cold Blood, the gripping tale of a pair of murderers on a Midwestern killing spree.

You can state the story's theme directly in the story, or have readers infer it from details about plot, characters, and setting. The choice is yours.

I Spy: Point of View

Write Angles

If your writing stalls, try switching the point of view. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, originally wrote the first novel in her famous Little House series in the first-person. It didn't allow her the distance she needed, however, so on the advice of her editor, Wilder retold the story from the third person. This change in point of view transformed memories into story.

In narration, the point of view is controlled by the grammatical person in which an author chooses to write. You have three choices: first-person point of view, third-person omniscient point of view, and third-person limited point of view. Here's the run-down:

  • First-person point of view. The narrator is one of the characters in the story and explains the events through his or her own eyes, using the pronouns I and me. Unless the narrator is Carnack the Magnificent, he or she doesn't know the other characters' thoughts.
  • Third-person omniscient point of view. The narrator is not a character in the story. Instead, the narrator looks through the eyes of all the characters. As a result, the narrator is omniscient or “all-knowing.” The narrator uses the pronouns he, she, and they.
  • Third-person limited point of view. The narrator tells the story through the eyes of only one character, using the pronouns he, she, and they.

Each point of view has its advantages. Your choice depends on the Big Three: audience, purpose, and topic. For example, if you use the first-person point of view for your narrative, readers see the experience through your eyes and your eyes only. As a result, the first-person point of view allows an immediacy and intimacy absent from the third-person point of view. Ben Franklin chose the first-person point of view for his Autobiography (1771), as the following excerpt shows. Notice his slightly mocking tone, as he pokes fun at the earnest adolescent he had been.

  • It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.

The third-person points of view, in contrast, allow the writer to achieve distance and some measure of objectivity. Henry Adams decided on the third-person point of view for his classic autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1918). Notice how much more formal and distant the tone is from Franklin's writing:

  • As the boy grew up to 10 or 12 years old, his father gave him a writing-table in one of the alcoves of his Boston library, and there, winter after winter, Henry worked over his Latin Grammar and listened to these four gentlemen discussing the course of politics.

Which point of view should you select? Your choice depends on your subject, aim, and readers. For example, if you want to achieve some distance from your topic, the third-person point of view is a good choice. If you want to give the readers the feeling of “you are there,” try first person. Here's the basic rule: Be consistent. You can't switch from first person to third person in midstream. Your readers will be confused and your narrative shattered.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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