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A Practical Guide to Writing Good English


Writing a narrative text

A narrative tells a story. Narratives are often set as essays by teachers and examiners because they are a challenging form of writing. A narrative has to manage the flow of events, different times (and often different tenses), and combine this with short, effective descriptions and a strong plot. Almost all novels are narratives, and the novel is perhaps the most challenging kind of writing there is. Whether your narrative is an essay, a short story or a novel, there are certain fundamental points that you need to have clear in your mind before you start.

What is your story about?

Be clear about this. If you are writing a short story about a shopping trip, do not get sidetracked into a discussion of high prices, or an argument with your aunt in the car on the way there. Events in your story should help to move the narrative along. Descriptions should help the reader imagine how the story unfolds.

So the questions for every narrator to ask of each part of the text are, 'Why is this here? How does it move the story forward? Is my story about this?

Pick your protagonist

The protagonist is the person who is at the centre of the story. Most, if not all of the story, will be told from this person's point of view. Very often this person is 'I' – the first person. Because you want your reader to see the world through the protagonist's eyes (to 'identify' with him or her), be careful about introducing details which your protagonist does not know or need to know.

You will usually also need an antagonist – the opponent of the protagonist. This can be a person - for instance a mugger in 'My most terrifying moment', or something else; the weather in 'How I climbed Mt. Rocky', or depression in 'My struggle with mental illness'.

A narrative is usually the struggle between a protagonist and an antagonist, even if that antagonist is something as abstract as time when your protagonist is battling to make it to the airport before his flight departs.

Know the plot

There is a reason why someone who is confused or badly mistaken is said to have 'lost the plot'. When writing a narrative it is a good idea to know not just where the story is going but how it is going to get there. You should have a plot summary written out with points showing each step through the narrative, and how much of the narrative you will spend on each step.

If, for example, you are describing a terrible holiday, in your plan you should break the holiday into parts. Was it one incident that ruined the holiday or several? If the holiday started well, don't spend too long describing that part – move right to the action.

Keep to the plot

There are times when a novelist might deliberately put in a digression in order to show more details about a character's background, or to give the reader a break after a hectic action scene. However even here, a writer must know what every detail is doing for the story.

If someone is incidental to the story, don't tell us more than we need to know about that person. If the protagonist gets into a taxi, we might describe the driver as, for example, 'A cheerful, slightly overweight young man.' We don't need to know the driver's name, why he is driving a taxi or anything about his family.

If it does not move the story forward, it does not belong. Eliminate it at the planning stage.

Set the scene – and the mood

Here the narrator must find the right balance between description and action. The famous clichι opening is 'It was a dark and stormy night'. This sort of description immediately sets the mood for what is to come. A description must describe both the physical elements and the protagonist's emotional response to it. The same 'old, run-down hotel' can be charming and full of character or off-putting and slightly creepy. It depends who is looking at it and why.

Use summaries and scenes

A description is a scene, so is a dialogue. This is when you stop to describe something in detail. A summary is when you describe an event with a minimum of information. The art of the narrative lies in choosing when to give a summary, and when to set a scene. For example, you might choose to make a complicated event a summary, and have the 'scene' a dialogue afterwards which explains what happened.

The dinner was a disaster. After the police had gone, they turned to face each other.

'It was your fault.' Judy was anxious to place the blame.

'Mine?' responded Hank indignantly. 'It wasn't me who invited aunt Sally.'

'No, but it was you who let her at the sherry. You know she can't stand uncle Bill, yet you let them sit together.'


Use connectors

Make sure your reader knows where he is in your story. This can be done with connector words and phrases like 'Afterwards', 'Then', 'At the same time', or with sentences that set the time and the place. 'After a short taxi ride to the airport, we reached the departures terminal.'

Using 'flashbacks' – events that occur before the current point in the narrative – is always dangerous. Not only is there a risk of confusing the reader, but it also breaks him out of the narrative and the feeling that he is there with the protagonist.

Be careful with 'plot twists'

A narrative does not need to have an unexpected ending, but it needs to have a satisfying ending. An ending that leaves the reader feeling frustrated and cheated will destroy the rest of the story. The classic here is, 'And then I woke up and found it was all a dream'.

If you are going to put in a plot twist, you need to carefully put hints into the story beforehand so that when the 'twist' comes, it feels as though it was logical all along, even if the reader did not see it coming.

Also avoid the deus ex machina ending, where someone or something suddenly arrives and sorts things out without any help from the protagonist. It is the protagonist's struggle. It should be the protagonist's victory.

Finally – don't be afraid to revise

Most great writers wrote and rewrote their stories over and over again. So unless you have a deadline and need to finish within a specific time, you should not be afraid to keep tinkering with the story, adding a scene here, removing a character there.

Make a sentence active and dynamic where a passive was originally used. Strip out unnecessary text, and flesh out other parts of the story. Also – and importantly – look for errors. These might be flaws in your story or simple failures of spelling or grammar. In both cases they distract and annoy your reader, and take his attention away from your story.

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