Modes of Development: Narrative

A narrative is simply a story. In writing classes, it’s usually a true story (unless you’re enrolled in a creative writing course).

Narratives are solid gold. The more stories you can tell, the better your writing will be.

The love for stories is universal, and stories have the additional advantage that they’re one of the best ways to make a point. The next time you need to talk to a child about a misdeed, skip the lecture and tell an appropriate story instead. You’ll make your point much more effectively, and the lesson will stick.

Narratives are tremendously useful to writers. For example, you can kick off an essay or research paper with a quick story about your subject. Another effective strategy is to tell an illustrative story in every paragraph.

What about narrative assignments? Beware! (Remember, I’ve spent 30+ years as a writing teacher.) Here’s what often happens: Students have a great story that they’re just bursting to tell, but it doesn’t make a point.

When you’re assigned to write a narrative paper, think of the point you want to make and choose a story to match. (Most students do exactly the opposite: They think of a terrific story first and try to make it fit the assignment. Usually that doesn’t work.)

Here’s an incident that’s fresh in my mind because it happened last semester. I asked students to choose a person they knew, identify a quality that person had, and tell a story to illustrate that quality.

To help them understand, I told them my own story about a time when I was dating my husband. He left me alone for a moment to help an inebriated man cross the street safely, and I was touched by his compassion.

At the next class, in came the papers. One was about a camping trip a student had taken with her family. The person she chose to write about was her father, but he came across very fuzzily. I couldn’t identify the special quality she had chosen, so I asked her to rewrite it.

Back it came with more details. The sunsets! The campfires! The lake! But Dad continued to be a fuzzy figure.

I suggested a conference to talk about the paper. As we talked, I realized what was wrong. She barely knew her father, who had abandoned the family when she was a small child. The camping trip was almost her sole memory of him. It would make a great memoir for her children and grandchildren to read someday, but it didn’t fit the assignment.

Bottom line: If you’re assigned to write a narrative, pay close attention to the directions you’re given, and choose a story that fits what your teacher is looking for. Don’t just pull out a great story that you’re eager to tell.

Did you notice that I told a story to make my point? In fact I include narratives (little stories) in many of my posts. Start developing the habit of thinking about stories. It’s a great way to enhance your writing.

(For an introduction to modes of development, click here. To read more about narratives, click here. For suggested topics, click here. You can also click links for other modes: classification, cause/effect, and process.)



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