What Is Narration?
Narration tells a story. Narratives can be fact or fiction.
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," Carl
Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln, and most articles
in Time and Newsweek are narratives. Business
and government reports often have a section labeled "narrative"
which provides background information about a condition or
problem. Narratives can be told in first or third person.
Narratives, like description, can be objective or subjective.
The Writer's Role
In narratives, the writer may be a reporter or recorder of
events using the third person:
The Ableson Company was founded in 1910 by Frank and
George Ableson, both of whom had worked for Union Pacific.
Their firm perfected the steam regulator, which became standard
equipment on all locomotives by 1920. The San Francisco firm
expanded during the Twenties and built facilities in Oakland,
St. Louis, Atlanta, New York, and Boston. During the Depression,
the Ableson brothers, both suffering from heart disease, sold
the firm to National Gear and Brake.
Third person narratives may be objective or subjective. The
writer's tone and attitude is developed through the choice
of words and details. Biographies, for example, may be favorable
In first person narratives, the writer is often the main
participant or actor, usually focusing on personal reactions
Having lived in Manhattan my entire life, I knew nothing
about horses. I had never been to a race track or a circus.
I never liked Westerns. My only contact with horses was a
single carriage ride in Central Park one muggy July afternoon.
When my sister invited me to her horse farm in Washington,
I offered to earn my keep by helping out. Only then did I
realize how delicate those lumbering beasts are. I learned
that horses required more care than my fragile-looking but
hearty little Bichon Frise.
Not all first person narratives are subjective. Often the
writer is an objective reporter of events, an eyewitness recounting
his or her observations:
I met Frank Minton as soon as he was discharged from
the hospital. He felt lucky to be alive. His seatbelt had
kept him from going through the windshield, and he had only
a swollen cheek and some double-vision to indicate he had
survived a nearly fatal crash. But in the weeks that followed,
I began to notice strange after effects. Frank forget to return
phone messages. One afternoon, while writing out payroll checks
for his staff, he repeatedly asked me the date. I watched
as his pen froze over the yellow checkbook. He would then
flip back to check the spelling of a friend's name. At the
piano, he played the same bar over and over again, seemingly
unable to proceed to the next. It would be months before any
of us were willing to accept the painful fact that his jazz
career was over.
The narrator may serve as an objective eyewitness or a subjective
commentator, injecting personal opinion and interpretation.
In writing narration it is important to have a clear thesis
or focus. Too often, students attempt to tell a lengthy story
worthy of a novel. Trying to relate a long, complex story
in a short paper can have the effect of watching a video in
fast forward -- it's a general blur:
On Friday August 6, 1999 I was working my usual night
shift at SuperMart when my brother called. My girlfriend
Andrea had been in a car accident. I called her mother but
only got the answering machine. So I called my brother back
and found out which hospital she had been taken to. I punched
out and raced to the hospital. I expected the waiting room
to be crowded like the ones on TV, but it was deserted. I
hoped that the accident had only been something minor and
that Andrea would soon be coming out the door with a few bruises
and a nervous smile. But when I saw her mother's face as she
got off the elevator, I knew it was real bad.
Unless you are writing an accident report, there is no reason
to relate every incident or detail that happens -- focus only
on major events or themes. There is no reason for this student
to clutter his paper with meaningless details such as the
date or how he arrived at the hospital. It is better to think
of your narrative as a scene from a movie rather than the
Unlike the hospitals depicted on television, the waiting
room at Columbia Emergency was deserted. I sat alone amid
the miniature trees, Erte prints, and worn copies of National
Geographic. I flipped through the magazines, trying to concentrate
on the pictures of tropical birds and arctic explorers. I
kept trying to convince myself that Andrea would all right.
My brother's voice on the phone had been tense, but then he
was prone to overreact. Andrea was always a careful driver.
She always wore her seatbelt and never speeded. It had to
have been minor. She was probably just being examined and
waiting for the precautionary X-rays. No doubt she would soon
appear with a few bruises and a nervous smile. The elevator
door opened. Andrea's mother emerged. My stomach clenched
when I glanced up and saw her face. The look in her eyes told
me the news was going to be very bad.
Selecting Topics For Narrative Essays
If your instructor does not assign a topic, you might consider
one of the following items. Select a topic, then explore its
possibilities using one or more prewriting strategies:
- A childhood event that shaped your attitudes about a person,
school, a sport.
- An incident that exposed you to danger.
- A work situation where your role as employee clashed with
your personal values.
- Your first day at a job.
- The key play of an important game.
- A story repeatedly told by a friend or family member.
- The incident that caused you to quit a job, end a relationship,
or make a decision.
- A band's breakthough performance.
- The turning point in a person's career or organization's
- Your first experience in cyberspace.
Developing a narrative can be challenging. You may be unsure
about which details to include or how to begin or end the
Start By Defining Your Purpose
Before rushing into telling a story -- ask yourself what
the goal of your narrative will be. What do you want to accomplish?
What do you want your readers to understand or appreciate?
Clarifying your purpose will help you determine which details
are relevant and which events should be highlighted.
Limit The Chain Of Events
Keeping the desired length of the narrative in mind, limit
the narrative to a key scene or scenes -- do not feel obligated
to summarize everything that happened.
Sketch Out A Timeline
Before writing an outline, you may find it helpful to sketch
out a timeline of events, placing events in chronological
order. This may help you develop a fuller picture of the narrative
and prompt your memory.
Determine The Starting And Ending Point Of The Narrative
Some narrative may have clear beginnings or dramatic finales.
In other instances, you may have to decide when the narrative
starts or what would make a logical conclusion.
Strategies For Improving Narration
Use Flashbacks and Flashforwards
Narratives do not have to be related in a straight chronological
pattern. Flashbacks can be effective in introducing background
information, so that the opening can be more dramatic:
In 1999 I started working at Roy's Grill two nights a
week. The owner, Roy Taylor, required all restaurant employees,
even the busboys, to attend a Red Cross first aid class. I
thought it was unnecessary but I needed the job and did appreciate
that Roy, a former paramedic, had a good point. One night
I was stacking plates when a flash of fire shot the length
of the kitchen. Sandy, the night cook, lay on the floor, his
arms and face already swelling with burns. I dropped the plates
into the rack, told a waitress to call 911 and immediately
ran to help.
I was stacking plates in Roy's Grill one night when flames
shot across the length of the kitchen. Sandy, the night cook,
lay on the floor, his arms and face already swelling with
burns. I dropped the plates into the rack, told a waitress
to call 911 and immediately ran to help. When I began working
at Roy's Grill, the owner required all restaurant employees,
even the busboys, to attend a Red Cross first aid class. I
thought it was unnecessary, but I needed the job and did appreciate
that Roy, a former paramedic, had a good point.
In writing a narrative you may tempted to retell a story
or relate an event by putting everything in your own words:
As soon as I reached Sandy, he begged me to help him.
I assured him that he would be OK. I asked a waiter to get
clean towels and some ice water. Sandy asked me to call his
mother. He told me she had a bad heart and was afraid she
might die if a policeman or doctor called her. I assured him
I would have Roy call. Sandy nodded, telling me Roy should
call. His mother knew and trusted him.
It is more effective to add dialogue. Using people's actual
words can speed the process of telling the story and allow
people to speak for themselves. Their personality, attitudes,
social background, age, and lifestyle can be reflected by
their tone and choice of words:
"Help me, man. Help me," Sandy repeated as
I knelt beside him.
"It's OK. You'll be OK," I told him as I looked
at his injuries.
I spotted a waiter in the doorway and shouted to him, "Get
me clean towels and some ice water right away."
"Call my Mom, man," Sandy cried out. "Please,
call my Mom. She's got a bad heart. If some cop or doctor
calls her and tells her I'm hurt, she could die, man. Please,
you gotta let her know but don't scare her. Please."
I nodded, "OK, I'll tell Roy to call her."
Sandy nodded, "Good, she knows him. She trusts him. If
he tells her I'm OK, she'll believe it."
BEFORE SUBMITTING YOUR PAPER, REVIEW THESE POINTS.
- Have you established a clear goal for the narrative?
- Does your narrative have a clear focus? Do you delete
unnecessary detail and minor events?
- Do you establish a clear chronology? Can readers follow
any flashbacks and flashforwards? Are there awkward shifts
from past to present?
- Have you avoided including unnecessary details and awkward
- Does sensory detail include more than sight? Can you add
impressions of taste, touch, sound, smell?
- Do you show rather than tell? Can you add dialogue and
action to your narrative?
- Do you keep a consistent point of view? Do you shift from
third to first person?
- READ YOUR PAPER ALOUD. How does it sound? Do any sections
need expansion? Are there irrelevant details to delete or
awkward expressions to be revised?