Narrative is storytelling — simple, direct, transparent writing that takes the reader right to the thing that happened.
Strong narrative prose is distinct for its muscular verbs, its precise language, its passion, its evidence that the writer is paying more attention to the story than the thesaurus.
The editors of Geist turn down dozens or more submissions of prose writing every week, most often because the piece is more descriptive than narrative: it consists of facts and/or descriptions and/or backstory in preparation for a story, but it is not a story. Lots of this kind of writing is published these days, but the prose that lasts is the good story, well told.
Six principles of good narrative:
- Most verbs are active and transitive, rather than forms of to be or the “copulative verbs”: wonder, think, realize, see, hear, smell.
- The story contains few adverbs, adjectives and qualifiers (“a bit,” “quite,” “in a manner of speaking”).
- Backstory, exposition and description of setting are worked into the narrative flow.
- The pivotal events in the story take place “onstage” as they occur, rather than being referred to later by the characters or the narrator.
- Something is at stake for a character or characters in the story. (As one writing mentor put it: “You only cheer for a racing horse, not a grazing one.”)
- In telling the story, the narrator herself goes on a voyage of discovery and takes the reader along.
And now, some good narrative from Geist 64 (Spring 2007 issue):
from “Inner City” by Jill Boettger:
For a week in late February, snow fell every day, and then, a Chinook. The temperature rose sixteen degrees over the course of six hours, and the next day the city was melting: the impressive, hulking snowbanks sagged into the streets. I wonder if the weather is taking its cues from the city’s frenzied pace, or if the city is mimicking the havoc of our new climate. Either way, everything is changing at the same freakish rate.
This paragraph about weather relies on active verbs—snow fell, temperature rose, snowbanks sagged, city mimicked. As well, the writer chose the most precise nouns and adjectives— hulking snowbanks, frenzied pace, freakish rate —that would contribute to the motion, sensual detail and uneasy mood of the piece.
From “The Great Game” by Christopher Grabowski and Stephen Osborne:
In May 1842, four months after the disastrous withdrawal from Kabul, Blackwood’s carried a review of The Narrative of the Campaign of the Army of the Indus in Sind and Kaubool, in which R. H. Kennedy tried to come to terms with the tragedy. “Indian character, in its native state,“ he wrote, is “altogether perfidious.” The Persians he described as “naked wretches,” “horse-eaters,” “ragged robbers” accompanied by a “wretched crowd of frost-nipped and footsore Russians.” The Afghans who destroyed a British army are consistently referred to as “robbers and beggars.” In a significant pastoral aside, Kennedy describes a “noble orchard” (without naming the orchardists) in which the British army rested during the invasion and march to Kabul.
Even in this passage, which reports on the content of an article in a magazine, the narrative is propelled by verbs much more eventful than forms of to be: carried a review, tried to come to terms, wrote, described, referred to.
From “Nobody’s Girl” by Henny-B:
I went out for a walk and on that same corner Kat comes riding by in a taxicab and jumps out of the car and she explains the story with this other guy that she was staying with, that she wanted to get away from him. She really wanted to be with me, she said, right away and she went home, picked up a few things and basically moved in.
Then the guy she was staying with found out where she was and he came knocking on the door the next day and said “I want my girl back” and Kat went “I’m nobody’s girl, I’m my own. Go away.”
Kat and me clicked right away. She was a very significant person in my life. She died last Christmas. Not even twenty-three, four weeks shy of her twenty-third birthday.
Strong narrative can be seen in this passage from a transcribed interview, as it often can be heard in informal conversation. When you tell a story to a friend, you just say what happened, as Henny-B does here: Kat jumps out, she explains, she goes home, she moves in, the guy comes knocking, and so on. Of course, transcribed spoken text is always edited for “um,” “you know,” repetition and so on, but at the foundation lies the unadorned prose of everyday communication.
So—if your narrative prose feels flat or contrived or laboured, or something bugs you about it, try this:
- Get the quiet verbs up and moving.
- Look at each word and ask yourself if it is the perfect, precise word.
- Trim describers and qualifiers down to the essentials.
- Put the story aside and write it down as you would tell it to a friend.