Narrative Writing: seven things students need to know

I’ve been teaching a lot of narrative writing recently, and it’s got me thinking about how stories work.

Narrative Writing: seven things students need to know
Photo by Perchek Industrie / Unsplash

I’ve been teaching a lot of narrative writing recently, and it’s got me thinking about how stories work. This post is simple: below, I’ve outlined seven things I think students need to know if they’re to become better storytellers. These aren’t in any order, and they aren’t rules; rather, I’d call them ‘important considerations’. A lot of these ideas aren’t original - not that any idea can be truly original, because everything comes from somewhere. Of particular inspiration has been the following:

  • Stephen King’s On Writing
  • DBC Pierre’s Release the Bats
  • Kurt Vonnegut, in general
  • Jennifer Webb’s (@funkypedagogy) Think Like a Writer CPD

1. The verb does the heavy lifting

Students love adverbs. Their work is riddled with them. They like to front sentences with them. They shove them at the back end, boring the reader who just wants the full stop to click into place. They shove them in the middle of sentences beside poor, pallid, unsuspecting verbs. The verbs the adjectives support tend to be weak: verbs like walk, go, and see. There is nothing wrong with simplicity of verb - see Hemingway - but there is an issue when the colour and life in the sentence becomes the job of the adverb. This is because verbs of action are ‘showing’ words - they give the reader something kinetic to see in motion in their mind’s eye. Adverbs tell - they require no imagination. ‘He smiled happily’ requires no effort from the reader.

Consider the following:

  • leapt
  • blasted
  • cut
  • tore
  • splintered

None of the above are difficult words, and are well within the capabilities of most students. They’re all good examples of effective verbs, because they denote a meaning and connote emotion. Compare them to bland, functional verbs, like ‘go’. There is nothing for the reader to ‘see’ - the verb does not allow it. The verb simply tells - and vaguely at that. Sometimes this is desirable - one might want to suck the emotion out a piece with good reason - but students tend to choose weak verbs by default, not due to conscious construction. The five verbs above are useful because they create a specific image, but they also contain useful auditory properties that promote reader immersion. Consider the monosyllabic immediacy and energy inherent in ‘leapt’, or the onomatopoeia of ‘cut’ and ‘tore’ - both ’t’ sounds make the verb more resonant. Verbs like this don’t need adverbial suffocation - they need space to breathe. Students need to limit themselves to a handful of adverbs per piece, letting the verbs do the heavy lifting. And they don’t need to learn new words, either: as Stephen King says, we should not wish for a better vocabulary, but use the one we have as well as we can. Any sentence constructed around a deliberate verb choice is on its way to being excellent.

2. All beginnings and endings are artificial

When we tell a story, we are dipping into an imagined life. A character has a life story far beyond the scope of what’s told, but we don’t tell it. Why? Because this story is either irrelevant to the story we’re telling, quotidian (and therefore of no interest to any self-respecting reader), or we don’t want to tell it right now. This means that the beginnings of our stories - and their endings - are constructions. They are choices made for effect. The characters carrying on living without us, beyond the pages of the text. But when we choose to begin and end is a story in itself. Consider A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche is not introduced to the reader as her younger self — a beautiful, insouciant and aristocratic Southern Belle — but as a faded, fragile moth, ready to break. Williams ends the play with Blanche, broken following her rape at Stanley’s hands, being escorted blearily and submissively offstage by a doctor as the men play cards as though nothing is happening. This is where we leave Blanche; Williams does not allow us access to the sanatorium. The lines we draw around the story affect everything, not least our perception of the character. One doubts that the young Blanche would be as tragically sympathetic to the audience as the Blanche of the play is. Therefore, students should know their whole character’s life, but only tell the parts of it that fit with their message. Vonnegut advises us to start the story as close to the end as possible. If your story is about a fisherman in a storm at sea, don’t start the story that morning at the bay in the warm sun. Start with the fisherman being slapped off the deck by a wave, and make him fight for his life.

3. How to introduce and develop a character

We can only parse a text one word at a time. This means that the order in which we receive information has as much of a bearing on our perspective as the information itself. How we introduce a character, and the order in which we do it, affects how that character will be received by a reader.
How should we introduce a character? We have a few options that immediately spring to mind:

  • Describe what they look like
  • Get them to interact with something or someone
  • Get them to do something Physical description is a good way to go if you’re good at it — I’m talking Magwitch at the start of Great Expectations good:
A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
Magwitch being 'direct'

This seems great on the surface because Dickens is specific about aspects of Magwitch that illustrate his character. Yes, Dickens tells us that Magwitch is ‘fearful’, but even this adjective does double duty — does he strike fear, or feel it? As is revealed, it’s both. As the description develops, Magwitch’s vulnerabilities are implied, one on top of another. We see a history of torment at the hands of the elements written upon his body, and it’s all about the verbs. They’re superb. Each one animates the character and is a big reason why Dickens translates so well to the screen — he does most of the work for us. So, even though this seems like a description of what Magwitch looks like, it’s actually about what he does. This is true of people: we can say what we like about what we think we are, but our actions define us. It follows, then, that we need to see our characters in action, because this will shape how we respond to them.

4. Opposites attract

Recently, I’ve been listening again to John Finnemore’s Double Acts, 12 largely-unconnected two handers. They’re masterclasses in how character relationships and conflicts drive narrative. I noticed the following about some of Finnemore’s characters — they were set up in dimetric opposition to each other:

  • Young vs old
  • Innocent vs experienced
  • Leader vs follower
  • Academic vs practical
  • Criminal vs victim
  • Upper class vs lower class

Why does Finnemore do this? Simple: because opposites engender conflict and learning. You will fight with someone who is the opposite of you because you won’t understand them because they aren’t you. But you can also develop empathy by experiencing someone else’s world. By forcing opposing character together, writers can bake conflict and growth in at a character level. As I’ll discuss later, this is vital.

5. Build cycles of action and reflection into your narrative

This one I’ve stolen wholesale from DBC Pierre, though I don’t think he invented it. It’s pretty formulaic, but as a structure I’ve found it almost foolproof:

1 — ACTION

  • HOOK
  • GOAL
  • CONFLICT
  • FAILURE

2 — REFLECTION

  • DILEMMA
  • DECISION
  • ACTION
  • HOOK

Then, repeat.

The idea here is that stories fall into two distinct cycles: action and reflection. The action section grabs the reader (see 2 and 3) by putting a character into a situation. That character has a goal - a burning desire - but this hits a snag. As a result, your character fails. If you’ve set them up right (see point 3) your reader will not want this. That’s okay — delayed gratification is at the heart of good storytelling. The more your reader wants something, the more you should give it to them, but later, much later than they want it.
Based on this failure, your character is cowed. They now face a dilemma, which is broadly:

  1. Do I carry on?
  2. Do I give up?

They always pick 1, but they need to struggle with it, because struggle is human and we, narcissists that we are, love to see ourselves in art. The character then makes a decision that will realign them with their goal, and takes action to make it happen. The cycle then repeats as many times as it needs to, until failure mutates into success. Is this formulaic? Perhaps. But it’s formulaic in the sense that if you laid my bare skeleton next to that of another man my height, you wouldn’t be able to tell us apart. Skeletons - the structures that hold us up - are generic. It’s the flesh and skin draped over them that makes us unique. It’s the character that makes your narrative unique, not the structure. But this structure is what a reader wants. Of course a writer can experiment with and subvert it, but I think it’s a good idea to get used to using this structure before one gets too wild, lest one ends up creating and eight-headed abomination with no arms that just wants to be put out of its misery.

6. Put characters into the pressure cooker

The writer's best friend

A pressure cooker is the perfect metaphor for good stories. It cooks by trapping steam which, having nowhere to go, raises the internal pressure of the pot, cooking the food inside rapidly. This is a useful analogue, because if we want drama and tension in our stories (and we do, regardless of genre), we need to put our character in a pressure cooker. To do this, we need to:

  1. Restrict the amount of space a character has
  2. Restrict the amount of time available

Here’s a simple, hackneyed example. Say you’re writing a murder whodunnit. You could do a serviceable job by having a body discovered and setting a dogged detective on the case. But what if we added the following into the equation:

  1. Set the story on a cruise ship
  2. Set the story 24 hours from the nearest port

In both cases, the drama is heightened. 1 means the murderer must be on the ship; you don’t need me to tell you why that’s more tense. 2 means that there’s limited time to crack the case. Pressure cooker. This is a very simple concept for students to grasp, but almost always, in my experience, results in tighter plotting. It restricts students’ options, which means they spend less time fantasising and more time being laser-focussed on plot.

7. Sow now, reap later

Think of the beginning of a story as an opportunity to plant seeds. Like poetry, narrative thrives when built around motif or conceit. Stand-up comedy gets its biggest laughs late in the set, when the comic calls back to an earlier gag, subverting or re-contextualising it. What you introduce in the early stages of a story must come back in a meaningful way in the later stages. Perhaps this is a character one thought lost or didn’t expect to return. Perhaps it is an object whose true significance is not revealed until late. Perhaps it’s Chekhov’s Gun. Whatever it is, a flowering seed is satisfying to the reader and real evidence of a writer’s care, attention and conscious craft.

When I set out to write this post, I thought it would be briefer than it now is. Originally, there were ten items above - imagine! I hope that these ideas might prove useful in your own classrooms. Let me know on Twitter: @curtaindsleep

Thank you for reading,

Alex