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Nature and Characteristics of Narrative Writing

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What was the last remarkable event that happened to you today? Maybe you had a delicious and sumptuous breakfast before going to school, which may have contributed much to your good performance in class. For the first period, during recitation, you had given such an insightful answer that both your teacher and classmates were clearly impressed. In another class, a few hours later, you learn that you had scored high in your last long exam and your crush congratulated you for it. Wouldn’t you want to share these stories, if someone would ask you how your day went?

Or maybe there has yet a remarkable event to happen to you today. Maybe today is just like any other typical weekday of mandatory lessons, discussions, and exercises. So between classes and during recess, you catch yourself spacing out and daydreaming of adventures in far-off places. You dream of being a warrior, going on a quest with fellow humans and talking animals, riding magic-induced modes of transportation, fighting monsters at least twice your size, and ultimately saving worlds that, grateful to you for restoring peace and order, shower you with treasures unfathomable to the human mind. Wouldn’t you want to embark on such a quest, or at the very least, weave such a tale, when given the golden opportunity to do so? All the remedy you need in times of boredom is your imagination. Run away with it and see what happens.

Telling a story, whether real or fictional, is what you do in narrative writing.You use your memory and imagination to not just create stories, but also to interpret them. Any narrative has to have vivid description of details, consistent point of view and verb tense, and a well-defined point or significance. The most effective narratives do not just have vividness, consistency, and significance; they are those which continuously pique the reader’s curiosity, tickle one’s imagination, and leave an indelible mark in the reader’s memory.

What is narrative writing?

Narration, in its basest definition, is storytelling. It is a sequence of events, not necessarily arranged in chronological order, told by a narrator, happening in a particular place at a particular time. Narration is creating a world based on the writer’s imagination. It is also revisiting a world based on the author’s memory. In either case, the reader is aimed to be transported from one’s real world to the reality of the story being read. 

An effective narrative is that which makes the reader think and compel him/her to read the narrative again. To achieve this effectiveness, writers should make sure that their narratives have a vivid description of details, a consistent point of view and verb tense, and a well-defined point or significance.

Vivid Description of Details

Narration banks so much on how the details of a story are told. Description is appealing to the five senses of the human body (for a more in-depth discussion on Description, please refer to the previous unit). Take the reader into the narrative by letting him/her feel how it is like in the world of your story.

In the following excerpt lifted from The Day the Dancers Came, Bienvenido N. Santos is successful in bringing to life the performance of the dancers that Fil recorded in his magic sound mirror:

“… A boy and a girl sat on the floor holding two bamboo poles by their ends flat on floor, clapping them together, then apart, and pounding them on the boards, while dancers swayed and balanced their lithe forms, dipping their bare brown legs in and out of the clapping bamboos, the pace gradually increasing into a fury of wood on wood in a counterpoint of panic among the dancers and in a harmonious flurry of toes and ankles escaping certain pain—crushed bones, and bruised flesh, and humiliation….”

A rule of thumb that most writers abide by is to “show rather than Santos does not mention anywhere in the story that what the dancers are doing is actually tinikling. With the help of details such as “…holding two bamboo poles by their ends flat on floor, clapping them together, then apart…”, and also having some stock knowledge of Philippine dances, you would know as knowledgeable readers that it is indeed the tinikling that the dancers are performing.

Consistent Point of View (POV)

The three most commonly used points of view are the first, second, and third points of view. Generally speaking, one would know that the third person point of view is being used in a story when the pronouns he, she, it, him, her, they, him, her, its, their and them consistently appear in the narration. In the sample text of The Day the Dancers Came, the third person point of view is used:

‘Naturally. Who says you won’t?’ Fil argued, thinking how wonderful it would be if he could join the company of dancers from the Philippines, show them around walk with them in the snow, watch their eyes as they stared about them, answer their questions, tell them everything they wanted to know about the changing seasons in this strange land. They would pick up fistfuls of snow, crunch it in their fingers or shove it into their mouths….”

The third person POV is generally used to convey the narrator as an omniscient and dispassionate observer. The narrator is all-knowing; this trait enables the reader to see not only the dialogue that happens between or among the characters, but also the characters’ innermost thoughts and desires. Through internal monologue, the reader is able to penetrate the characters’ mind to be able to understand what the characters are not blatantly saying. Dispassion, on the other hand, presents a relatively objective story to the reader, one without much bias and opinion. The narrator tells the story as it happens, with no commentary and partiality.

Consistent Verb Tense

A consistent verb tense is needed to make clear to the reader whether the story in the narrative had already happened, has been happening for some time now, happens on a regular basis, is currently happening and will do so indefinitely, or will happen sometime in the future. In The Day the Dancers Came, the past tense is largely used to let the readers know that the events of the story are already done. What the narrator of Santos’ short story is doing every time it is read is actually a retelling of a sequence of events that had started and also ended in the past.

Well-Defined Point or Significance

A writer chooses a story that he/she would weave into a narrative. The vivid details are there, and the consistent POV and verb tense, as well. But so what? None of these would matter if there is no point in them. As a writer, how do you want your narrative to be remembered? What is it about human nature and human experience your narrative wishes to tell your readers? The answer to these questions will lead you to the significance of your narrative. 

A well-defined point or significance in any narrative is something akin to the literary element we call theme. The theme is the unifying thought or idea born out of all the other elements of the story. It is a universal human truth that is not usually blatantly said in a story; rather, unravelled as the reader reads. In the case of The Day the Dancers Came, a reader would most likely find it strange how a fifty year old man such as Fil act like a young child eager to watch the dancers from the Philippines. Why does he want to show them around? Why does he want to entertain them in his and Tony’s apartment? Why does he record the dancers’ performance in his magic sound mirror? Why does he dream of Tony teaching him “how to keep afloat?” All these questions will lead you to one of the themes of the story which is longing for the homeland. It is that longing that excites Fil to watch the dancers perform—the same longing that left him in disarray when he accidentally erased all recordings in his magic sound mirror. And if presented with the chance to reunite with anyone or anything that has anything to do with his motherland, Fil would jump right into it.The human emotion of longing can be viewed as a significance of The Day the Dancers Came as it clearly explains the reasons behind Fil, Tony, and the dancers’ actions throughout the story.

Narrative Devices

The use of narrative devices is a technique writers utilize to add flavour and enrich the meaning of their stories. With these devices, an author can shorten, lengthen, and/or focus on a particular event in the story.

Anecdote

Anecdotes are brief narratives that are written from the writer’s memory. It can be used as an introduction to an essay, as an example to illustrate a point, or as a closing statement that caps things off nicely in your essay or as a memento to your reader that will make him/ her remember your narrative.

Flashback

A flashback is an event that happened in the past. As the word itself suggests, you are “flashing back” or quickly looking at something that had already happened. It is not necessarily the focus of a story; rather, more of an addition to explain or to elaborate on a point made by the writer in the narrative.

Time Stretch

A time stretch is a single event in the story that the author focuses writing about. In The Day the Dancers Came, the scene in which Fil is in the Hamilton Hotel to greet the dancers can be considered as an example of a time stretch. Santos dedicated at least a page to describe how Fil felt like an outsider—an outcast, an alien, a lonely old-timer amidst fellow countrymen—in a single scene. There was not only a narration of events, but also dialogue.

Time Summary

As opposed to a time stretch in which a single event is prolonged, a time summary is characterized by jamming together multiple events and/or shortening a relatively long period of time. Time summaries can be determined with expressions such as “In a single day…”, “Overnight…”, “After the winter season …”, “After around a week or so…” “A few years after…;’ etc.

Flashforward

As opposed to a flashback, a flashforward is an event that has yet to happen in the story. It is “flashing forward” or quickly looking at something that will happen in the future. Similar to the primary purpose of a flashback, a flashforward is included in a narrative to add meaning to the story.

Dialogue

A narrative does not only have a narrator who tells a story in accordance to how he/she observes a sequence of events. Writers also include dialogues, a word or a series of words enclosed in a pair of quotation marks, which signal the characters’ spoken language.

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