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1.1 What is narrative?
In 1944, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel published an article in The American Journal of Psychology titled ‘An experimental study of apparent behaviour’. It was the result of a series of experiments in which the researchers first showed people a short animated film featuring simple black geometric shapes moving and interacting on a white background and then asked the viewers simple questions about what they saw. Responders almost uniformly interpreted the shapes as ‘people’ and their movements as a ‘story’.
Try it yourself: watch the video here.
What do you see in the film?
For most people, it is difficult to interpret the film as anything but a story. Broadly speaking, humans are hard-wired to see patterns in the world around us and to form those patterns into narratives.
Narrative seems like an obvious thing to define. Narrative is storytelling. But what does that mean? What makes some stories compelling and others deathly dull?
For its writer, narrative is a puzzle, choosing exactly the right words and putting them together in order to elicit a response from a reader. Narrative is what forms that connection between writer and reader, the rhythm and the structure that takes a story beyond a list of events or an inventory of characters or an evocation of place. Narrative combines all these things into something more than the sum of its parts.
Narrative affects us; it’s what draws us to keep reading and it’s what inspires us to write.
Narrative structure does not necessarily reflect the chronological order of events. As you explore the components of structure more deeply, you’ll find that narrative structure is merely a tool to help identify and hone your plot. Your protagonist’s story may be vast and complex, but structure helps refine the story to its most compelling and creates a plot that hooks a reader and doesn’t let go.
Here’s a brief rundown of the topics we’ll cover:
- Plot and structure: Where to start the story? How should a story be structured? Learn to develop a compelling hook, plot and story structure that will keep your readers furiously flicking until the end!
- Characterisation and dialogue: In this week we’ll learn to lay the foundation for creating compelling characters and believable and revealing dialogue.
- Setting and themes: In this section we will explore how to paint a picture of the scene with your words (without going overboard on the description!) and how to use motifs and symbols to enhance the themes in your book.
- Point of view and voice: Learn who is the best character to tell your tale and how you find a character voice that is so compelling, your readers won’t want to part with them.
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1.2 Activity: Worst sentence contest
Let’s have a bit of fun and shake loose that annoying fear of not being ‘good enough’. We’re going to do this with a good old fashioned worst-opening-sentence contest. Why the worst sentence? It’s a great exercise in getting you into the headspace. To write badly deliberately means having to pick apart how a sentence works so you can disrupt it. It’s also fun to give yourself permission to write something awful.
This activity is actually a variation of the popular annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
The contest is named for Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a British author hugely popular around the world in the nineteenth century — so popular, in fact, that the Brisbane suburb of Lytton (and Bulwer Island at the Port of Brisbane) is named after him. Lytton published 30 novels along with a number of plays and verse and is responsible for many quotables, including ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.
But Lytton was also responsible for this mélange of an opening sentence:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
—Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
It’s a long, meandering passage, full of florid language, irrelevant asides, and awkward turns of phrase. More importantly, it says nothing, other than the weather was miserable. And of course there’s the dark and stormy night, the passage that Charles M. Shulz would later turn into a superpowered cliché via Snoopy’s typewriter. Somewhere in the 150 years since its publication, this one sentence has become an emblematic of all bad writing everywhere.
In some ways, Lytton has been unfairly tarnished. A lot of writers from that time wrote exactly like this, many of them inspired by Lytton and many of them committing far greater sins against our language. On the other hand, here we are still talking about Lytton when all those other writers have vanished into obscurity.
The rules to the Bulwer-Lytton contest are simple:
- Try to write the worst opening sentence you can. Seriously, go nuts
- It must be a single sentence, no cheating; if you know how to use a semicolon, use it
- Sentences may be of any length, but if you’re going beyond 50 or 60 words you’re stretching credulity
- While clichés are welcome just this once, be sure to bring something original as well
- If you expect somebody else to read it, then keep them in mind; even a bad sentence can be entertaining
And hey, if you’re proud of your awful sentence, you can always enter this year’s contest. Imagine the auspicious start to your career if this is your first published piece. Things can only get better!
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1.3 Basic writing craft
Before we dive into the complexities of narrative, let’s briefly examine the importance of basic writing craft: spelling, grammar and sentence structure, and especially punctuation.
Words are our building blocks. We put building them into sentences, then into paragraphs, then the paragraphs turn into pages, and all of a sudden you’ve got a story—it’s like magic! Easy, right?
Not quite. Sentences have a structure that makes them work properly, and making them work properly helps us get our meaning across. It’s the same with correct spelling and grammar: spell the word incorrectly for its context and you change the meaning. If you know you’re not good at spelling or grammar, then it’s a good idea to get up to speed, even if it’s just with the basics. It’s never too late. Below is a list of tools of the trade.
The very least you need to know is the following before we can move on:
The basic parts of a sentence are: subject, verb, and object.
Subject: A noun (generally), which is a naming word for a person, place, thing, event, quality.
Verb: Generally follows the subject, and is a ‘doing word’, i.e. an action, a state of being, an experience.
Object: Generally another noun that follows the verb and receives its action, e.g. ‘The girl [subject] kicked [verb] the ball [object].’
And let’s not forget:
Adjectives: Words that describe nouns, e.g. ‘large’, ‘intense’, ‘red’, ‘rapid’.
Adverbs: Words that describe verbs, usually ‘ly’ words – e.g. ‘walks slowly’, ‘runs quickly’.
Don’t abuse adjectives or adverbs! Use them sparingly and in a considered fashion because adding too many weighs your sentences down.
Sentence structure is hardwired into every reader’s brain, so that even if we don’t understand the definition of a word or descriptor, we still understand (based on our understanding of sentence structure) whether that word is meant to be the subject, a verb or an object. This structure is the reason why the nonsense poetry of Lewis Carol still makes a certain kind of sense to us:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
—Lewis Carol, Jabberwocky (1872)
You can see we have underlined all the nouns, italicised the adjectives and bolded the verbs. Though you may not understand the meaning of the words, because of correct structure you are still able to get a sense of what is being described and as such still understand the narrative.
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1.4 Spelling and punctuation
Though we risk sounding like your year eight English teacher, paying close attention to your spelling and punctuation is essential if you expect to be understood.
Correct spelling shows care and thought in your craft. Typos are to some extent unavoidable, especially in long form work (you’re probably spotted plenty of typos in published books), but extensive spelling errors are distracting to readers and undermine your authority to tell a story. Get to know the words you misspell frequently and be alert to them in anything your write. Use your dictionary and get to know commonly misspelled or misused words. For starters:
- They’re, Their, There
- We’re, Where, Were
- It’s, Its
We won’t go too deep into punctuation. Suffice to say, it’s important. Meaning can shift (sometimes dramatically) depending on where you put commas, for example. In 2006, Canadian Telecoms company Rogers discovered that one errant comma in a substantial contract cost them upwards of a million dollars in lost revenue.
Not every comma carries quite as much weight, but they can skew the meaning of a sentence in unintended and sometimes embarrassingly comical ways:
- Let’s eat, Grandma! = lunch
- Let’s eat Grandma! = prison sentence
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1.5 Tools of the Trade
Some essential tools that can help take your writing to a place of elegance and clarity:
- A dictionary. A print edition is a good idea. Modern computers do have decent dictionaries built in, but don’t rely solely on a spell checker; they’re notorious for slipping back into American English when you’re not looking. The Macquarie is our favourite for Australian English
- A thesaurus. Computer thesauruses keep getting better and are easier to use than print, but watch out for American spelling again. The golden rule for the thesaurus is: refer to it often, use it sparingly
- Keep your own list of troublesome words (take the time to list the words you use all the time so that you can avoid their excessive use and vary your vocabulary)
Other resources that come in handy, especially when you prepare your work for other people to read:
- Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (this book has everything you need to know about punctuation and formatting)
- The Little Green Grammar Book and The Little Red Writing Book (Mark Tredinnick’s guides are essential reading)
- Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss’s book is more curmudgeonly fun than prescriptive, but engaging and worth a read)
Given that we’re focused on narrative, we’ll stop here. But if we have sparked your interest, QWC offers regular editing courses, so check our current program for your next step once you’ve mastered narrative.
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