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3. Narrative: The art of storytelling

Narrative may seem like an obvious thing to define. Narrative is storytelling. But what does that mean? What makes some stories compelling and others deathly dull?

Narratives are not just novels or short stories. They are everywhere and can be told through any medium, whether in a complex door stopper of a novel or in a single panel comic.

For a 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.

 

3.1 Exploring narrative

We could spend this entire course talking about the intricacies of narrative, but instead we created an entirely separate course about it. Much of what you will find in this section of the course could be considered preparation for QWC’s Exploring Narrative course.

Exploring Narrative in many ways follows on from this Fundamentals course and takes you deeper into the terminology and techniques of storytelling that cross genre and form.

But that’s later. For now, let’s get oriented to the basic components of narrative without getting too bogged down in the details.

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3.2 The elements of narrative

Narratives are complex beasts made of multiple interweaving parts. Each fundamental element of narrative is presented here with the understanding that they each function by influencing and informing the function of the others.

 

3.2.1 Plot: What and why 

Plot is essentially the causal sequence of events that move the story from beginning to end. It’s the what of your story (as in ‘what happens’), but it also covers the why that moves your characters from point A to point B.

If an author writes, ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ that’s not a plot – it’s just unfortunate. But ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ — now that’s a plot. You’ve got causation: a sequence of events, characters that are affected by those events, emotional stakes, empathy and that certain something that makes you want to know more.

So, plot powers the story and keeps a reader moving in the story.

 

3.2.2 Character: Who 

If you need a reminder of how crucial character is to good storytelling, then imagine someone asks you to summarise a short story, a novel, a movie, or a play. What’s the first thing you might say?

‘So, there’s this guy…’

Sound familiar?

Characters are an essential component of narrative, the actors who drive the plot forward and move within the setting. It’s your characters that make a lasting connection with your audience. Without that connection, your audience won’t care what happens and your story will fail to land any emotional punch.

 

3.2.3 Setting: When and where 

Setting is the where and the when of your story, the place and time of the action. It can be very specific (Innisfail, 1942) or it can be vaguely drawn (some kind of galaxy far, far away), but all successful settings contain common elements that we can explore.

One thing setting is not is ‘window dressing’ for your story. An evocative setting is remarkably good as setting a tone and a mood for your story and, at its best, may become something like a silent character in your story.

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3.3 Story structure

Learning how to structure stories involves first breaking those structures apart and seeing how they work. The most obvious breakdown of a story structure is to regard the beginning, the middle and the end.

But within that structure, stories have shape. If you were to plot a diagram of the structure of most stories you would see a very definite shape. You may find it helpful to think of your plots in terms of a visual diagram. It makes it easier to separate out the segments of your story and understand how the elements fit together.

 

3.4 Activity: The shape of story

Stories can be represented as graphs: on the horizontal axis is time and on the vertical is the relative tension of the story.

Three-act_Structure

 

This exercise will help teach you how to plan the basic framework of a story, which can be returned to whenever you feel you have lost your way.

What to do:

First, watch this video.

In addition to being one of the most celebrated American authors of the last fifty years, Kurt Vonnegut was also awarded a PhD in anthropology for his work observing universal patterns of storytelling across languages and cultures. In the video in the link below, Vonnegut takes some of that knowledge of shaping stories and applies it to a few narratives you might recognise. He uses a slightly different vertical axis to us, but you get the idea.

Now, taking the basic principle presented in this video, make a plan for a story (write no more than 100 words to correspond to each of the four elements of plot detailed above):

  • In the exposition: the Lead (main character) & Objective (desire)
  • In the rising action: a Confrontation/Complication (what is in their way?)

Then, see if you can create your own plot graph like Vonnegut’s. How might your character overcome obstacles and how will it make them feel?

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3.5 Begin in the middle

In the ancient Roman text The Art of Poetry, Horace describes his ideal for beginning an epic poem:

Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the double egg,
but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things …

Horace was describing a narrative technique known as in media res, which in Latin means ‘in the middle of things’. Horace knew what all good storytellers instinctively know: that the closer to the action or conflict we enter a story, the more engaged our readers will be.

In media res opposes the idea of starting a story ab ovo (Latin: ‘from the egg’), or from the beginning. In other words, where to start your story is not the beginning of the character’s journey, but at the most accessible, immediate, and exciting point in the sequence of events, as close to the climax as possible.

Why is it good to start in the middle of things? Because:

  • it grabs and holds the reader’s attention
  • it keeps the pace moving
  • it focuses the reader’s attention on the most important part of the story

 

3.6 Activity: Ten sentences

This exercise is a great way to write your way into a story and help identify the best way to begin. It also demonstrates how much information you can convey without explaining too much. This is a concept we’ll explore in more detail next week when we learn about the notion of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’.

What to do:

In this exercise, you will imagine and write about a specific scenario. This exercise has important rules that you must stick to:

  • Write only one sentence for each of the questions
  • Don’t edit as you go
  • Keep your writing short and tight, use simple, short sentences

This scene has two characters. One of the characters is being reunited with a parent after a long period of absence or estrangement. When you respond to the questions, each sentence you write will add to your creation of this scene. Do this exercise in one sitting, and remember to follow the rules.

Ready? Go:

  1. Describe something about the weather
  2. Describe a sound that can be heard
  3. Describe an object nearby
  4. Weather update. What’s the weather doing now?
  5. Describe an article of clothing or small accessory
  6. Sound update. What is happening with the sound now?
  7. Describe a gesture or movement involving the clothing or accessory you described in #5
  8. Using the object introduced above in #3, describe the mood in the scene.
  9. Describe a physical trait (appearance, gait, distinguishing mark) of a character
  10. Write a single line of dialogue

Go back and read what you have written as a complete paragraph.

How much of the story can you still get across within these restrictions?

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3.7 Character: Stories are about people

You might have a bunch of pretty words, some very fine prose, but until that prose explores the desires and experiences of a character, there is no story. People read a story to discover what happens to its characters and how the people in the story deal with the circumstances under which they are thrust.

In other words, stories are about people.

Of course, we mean ‘people’ in the broadest sense. A great many stories centre around non-human characters, but those characters always reflect human behaviours and traits and ultimately serve to tell us something about ourselves.

 

3.8 Who does your story belong to?

Your main character is your protagonist, the person your reader expects to most closely identify with in the story. The protagonist is usually the character with the most at stake or with whom your readers have the greatest opportunity to empathise. While minor characters will wander through your plots, your main character is really the one undertaking a significant journey or challenge.

Opposite the protagonist is the antagonist, the person who gets in the way.

Protagonists aren’t always pure heroes and antagonists aren’t pure villains. Goodies and baddies are never clear in life and neither are they in good storytelling. A hero who can never fail is not nearly as likeable as a villain who can never succeed, but keeps trying. Think of it as the ‘Road Runner Principle’.

Flaws and failings make all our characters human and believable. They mirror our human flaws and as such make characters sympathetic and relatable for readers. If you engage a reader’s empathy and interest, then they will follow your character anywhere.

 

3.9 Character and plot are inextricably linked

Many writers get caught up in plot, trying to work out what the sequence of events will be in the story. However, it’s really your job to work out how your characters are tied to your story:

  • What do they want?
  • What obstacles are in their way?
  • What decisions will they make in order to achieve what they want, or overcome the obstacles?

Your answers to these questions will form the framework of your plot. In this way, characters move the plot and are moved by the plot.

 

3.10 Activity: The characters you love

A useful way to apply these ideas about character and plot is to apply them to an existing story. This exercise can give you some insight into how the elements of narrative work together and how you can use them to tell your own stories.

What do to:

Choose a character you know well from a story you love. It could be a novel, short story, film, play, poem, or whatever.

Now, see if you can answer the questions from above:

  • What do they want?
  • What obstacles are in their way?
  • What decisions will they make in order to achieve what they want, or overcome the obstacles?

Are these answers simple or complicated? Are they subject to interpretation? How far into the story does the character’s desire become clear? How much does the character’s desire influence the plot?

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3.11 Setting and world building

An evocative setting sets the mood of your story and a good setting is so essential to storytelling that it becomes almost like another character. The way you build the world of your story will set a tone and mood for your reader. It helps to orient your reader within a believable context that partly explains how and why your characters behave the way they do.

The best way to achieve this as a writer is to engage all of the senses in your descriptions of setting. We often rely on visual images and ignore other sensory detail, but in fact, it is these other sensory experiences that evoke the strongest memories.

Consider not just what your characters can see, but also what they smell, what they hear, what they can touch and feel, and even what they can taste.

It’s all about being specific.

Creating detailed and elaborate settings, especially the kind that can sustain a series of stories, is called world building. And the key to great world-building, like any setting, is specificity. Don’t be general or lazy in your descriptions. Conduct research and use highly specific details to make your setting unique. Don’t say ‘trees lined the street’, say ‘jacaranda trees lined the street.’ That instantly differentiates the setting of your story from, for example, a story where ‘elm trees lined the street.’

 

3.12 Less is more

Don’t let descriptions of setting or character overpower your story. All too many writers like to show off when it comes to setting. It’s tempting to spend paragraph after paragraph decorating your story with beautiful descriptions of the setting or landscape. That can be interesting, even necessary if the setting is unusual, but consider the relative weight/power of description.

Too much description of setting can really slow down the pace of your story and increase the distance between your reader and your character’s viewpoint.

Sprinkle setting details lightly here and there, instead of in large chunks of description.

 

3.13 Activity: Setting a scene

Building up an evocative scene can start with a little brainstorming, like this activity, where you think of as many sensory inputs as you can. The idea behind this activity is not to come up with a single description of the setting, but a range of sensory information that you can refer to when the story demands it.

What to do:

Choose two of the below potential settings and write a short description which includes each of the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, sound.

  • A railway station
  • An art gallery
  • A post office
  • A department store
  • A public pool
  • A restaurant kitchen
  • A second-hand bookshop
  • A long-haul flight

Remember the golden rule of settings and be specific. It’s not just any post office, it’s a particular post office in a particular place and at a particular time.

Post your descriptions in the Setting a Scene Forum.

Have a look at the other descriptions your classmates have posted. What did they note down that you didn’t think of? Did their words create a similar or different atmosphere/mood for the same scene?

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