The Craft of Writing: Narrative

Narrative is basically anything that’s not dialogue, which means it includes dialogue tags and action tags. Whereas grammar rules can be ignored, if desired, when writing dialogue, those rules should be followed with narrative. If you’re not sure about the rules, there are books (Shrunk & White’s Elements of Style; Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and the back pages of Webster’s Dictionary for a few) as well as on-line sites (Grammarly Handbook, Grammar Book/English Rules, and more) that will give the basic rules of punctuation, capitalization, and sentence structure.

The first decision one makes when writing narrative is which tense to use: past or present. (See my October 7, 2015 blog on this subject. Past Tense or Present Blog) Whichever you decide to use, the important part is be consistent. If you switch from present to past, it must appear planned, not accidental. Check your work carefully when you are doing your final edits to make sure you haven’t switched without realizing it.

Writers of contemporary novels attempt to make readers feel as though they are right there with the point-of-view character. The readers should feel as if they are in the character’s head, seeing and hearing what the character sees and hears, and cognizant of the character’s thoughts. To achieve this, the narrative should be written as that character would think. That means if your character is poorly educated, prone to swearing, and hardened to life, she isn’t going to think: I rationalized the gentleman was proposing a rendezvous. Instead, your character would be more apt to think: Damn, the guy wants a date.

But if your character was born in an earlier century and had been properly educated, the first possibility might be in character.

By using words and examples in the narrative that reflect a character’s beliefs (possibly religious beliefs), education, job, area of residence or where he grew up, and status (or class) the writer helps develop the character as a real person in the reader’s mind. Using words or thoughts that don’t reflect the character’s background can destroy the reality the writer is trying to create.

Style of writing is also important to keep in mind for narrative.

Readers of literary novels want evocative, well crafted sentences. The words and rhythm of the writing can be as compelling as the story itself. Long, descriptive paragraphs of narrative are welcomed and expected.

Writers for children and young adults must remember to keep the words and sentences appropriate for the age; however that doesn’t mean the writer needs to dumb the writing down or write short books. J.K. Rowlings certainly proved that with her Harry Potter series. But the story and the characters in YA books are far more important than long passages of description.

Commercial fiction (genre books) tend to use shorter paragraphs and sentences than literary fiction. Those books have more dialogue and more white space on the page. They start out with a hook, an event that draws the reader in. The aim is to hold the readers’ attention from the first page to the end, what happens to the character(s) is more important than the beauty of the language.

Occasionally a literary novel will also become popular fiction. Generally there’s something about the plot that catches the interest of the masses. And genre novels aren’t all beach reads. There are many that could and should be considered literary novels, in spite of their financial success. No one size fits all.

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15 Responses to The Craft of Writing: Narrative

  1. Diane Burton says:

    Good article, Maris. I love this series. Very informative. I’d rather write dialogue than narrative. But readers don’t want “talking heads” in a white room. LOL

    Good point about YA. Besides J.K. Rowling, look at Veronica Roth (Divergent series) and Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games). No dumbing down with their books.

  2. Great advice!
    Thanks for sharing.
    Pinned to my Writing Process board on Pinterest!

  3. Lucy Kubash says:

    This is something I’ve been working on, staying with the pov character when writing narrative. I think it does help a reader empathize more with the character. Well, at least I hope it does.
    Very good and helpful series!

    • Maris Soule says:

      It’s easy to slip into writing narrative the way I would write something, so I always have to remind myself to “stay in character.” (Especially if in a male pov.)

  4. Melissa Keir says:

    I think you should take these articles into the schools. Students at the Middle School level would benefit from your easy to follow lessons!

  5. I have written several YA novels in first person present tense. I considered it a challenge but I liked the sense of immediacy it creates. I did this with STACY’S SONG and THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER among others. In my mystery novel THE THIRD EYE for Five Star/Cengage, I alternated chapters and style between a teenage boy and his mother. It’s a unique novel in many ways.

  6. Your series on the craft of writing is a helpful one, Maris. You’ve given the newer writer, as well as the experienced writer, a great deal of useful information. Many thanks!

  7. Elorise Holstad says:

    I always enjoy reading your advice, Maris. And there’s always some point that reminds me how to become a better writer.
    Thanks, E.

  8. Good points in comparing literary and genres differences in writing style.