Ruminations on Writing: Narrative Writing

One of the things I see all the time in style guides and writing courses is a focus on formal writing. This does make some sense since most people will be writing formal documents at one time or another. Unfortunately, this focus does not produce a well rounded writer. A style that makes sense for an academic assessment of historical events is uncomfortably stuffy and restrictive for recounting the hijinx from a recent fishing expedition.

Even when writing courses do discuss appropriate styles for the target audience, they tend to simply gloss over what that really means. Often they will have a quick discussion about appropriate word choice. There are cases where writing “It behooves us greatly on this most auspicious occasion…” is appropriate. But there are also cases where writing “Good job we did that, eh?” is more appropriate. (If you’re wondering when one would ever use the first one, think comedy.)

For most formal settings and many informal settings, the rules taught in writing courses do, in fact, make sense. The introduction, body, and conclusion structure of an essay also works well for a speech. Arranging paragraphs with a topic sentence, body sentences, and a possible concluding sentence makes sense in most cases, too. These structures are a good way to keep the text organized and understandable. Rather, where those structures break down is when it comes to narrative writing.

If writing courses focus on anything other than formal prose, they usually focus on poetry. Poetry has its own rules and generally attempts to violate as many rules as it can. Well, that’s not strictly true, but the styles used for poetry have little to do with prose and, as such, it is not helpful for anyone attempting to write narrative prose.

Narrative writing is a completely different thing to writing formal papers or speeches. There are different overall structures though the general introduction, body, and conclusion structure can be used successfully. Usually taught in English classes is the “introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion” structure for a story. That, too, is a useful structure. Where the courses fall down is that they fail to provide any real guidance on how to structure the prose itself. Instead the focus on the structure of the overall work and they only do that so that they can set the students exercises in analyzing what someone else wrote. That is hardly conducing to learning how to actually write a narrative unless the student accidentally learns something from reading.

Most notably, in narrative writing, the formal paragraph structure is useless. It can serve as a guideline, but it generally cannot be strictly adhered to. With a narrative, there are many factors which confuse the situation, not least of which is that fact that a narrative combines many different types of text at the same time. It is quite common to encounter a brief opinion essay, possibly as internal monologue, followed by an extensive set of quotes from various sources, followed by a detailed blow by blow accounting of a fight somewhere. Within the narrative, various sections may adhere to various formal guidlines. Speeches by characters may follow a typical speech format while an infodump discussion the nature of farming in the back of beyond may read like a formal essay.

Fortunately, there are reasonable guidelines that can be followed for narrative writing in English. These are, however, just that. For every recommendation, it is fairly trivial to construct an example in which the recommendation is less than ideal.

Foremost, understand formal writing. There will be many cases in the course of writing narratives where the formal structure recommendations will make perfect sense. In those cases, it is perfectly acceptable to follow them. In fact, the rules of punctuation and sentence structure do not change between formal and narrative writing even though a narrative has more freedom to bend those rules as needed. Even the rules for quoting sources in academic literature generally translate to the purpose of representing dialogue in a narrative. After all, dialogue is simply quoting a primary source, in academic parlance. Stick to the rules as much as you can without compromising the flow of the narrative and you will tend to be on the right track. Also, if you do not understand the rules, you cannot understand the impact of breaking them if you choose to do so.

There is one thing that formal writing guidelines like to present as an absolute. That is a proscription of the passive voice. This may be a result of backlash against political doublespeak and various other face saving and ass covering behaviours. Passive voice can often be used to obfuscate just who is doing what and it often weakens a statement’s impact. However, passive voice is often appropriate. It depends just what aspect of the statement is important. For instance, consider the following. I could write “the car was flattened by a falling rock” or I could write “A falling rock flattened the car.”  The former emphasises the flattening of the car while the latter emphasises the fact that a falling rock did it. Neither is incorrect. Use whichever is appropriate in the context.

The most difficult thing writers encounter is deciding how to construct paragraphs. When reading, the choice often feels random, though when the authore gets it wrong, it can be quite jarring. A general rule of thumb is to group related sentences in a single paragraph. For instance, sentences describing the room that the character just entered would make sense as a single paragraph, at least if there is a lot of description. On the other hand, if each item examined by the character is described in excruciating detail, one might reserve a paragraph for each item. Or, if the character only makes a cursory examination of the entire building, that entire examination may be one paragraph. The general goal is to prevent paragraphs from becoming too bulky without having every sentence become its own paragraph. For this reason alone, paragraph breaks are something of an art form in narrative writing.

There are, however, a few guidelines for paragraph structure that should be followed unless there is a very good reason to break them. First among them is that each time the speaker changes in a dialogue, begin a new paragraph. It is rare that quotes from multiple speakers make sense appearing in a single paragraph, though it does happen on occasion. The practice of ending a paragraph each time the speaker changes has become such a common practice that readers tend to expect it and will be thrown if the expectation is not met.

Another well established tradition is to break the paragraph whenever the point of view character changes, or whenever the narrator’s attention switches to a new character. Mixing point of view characters in the same paragraph tends to be confusing. It is worth spending a few extra words or a few extra lines to avoid this confusion.

Finally, paragraphs should not span multiple pages, and, if avoidable, should not take up the majority of a single page. The longer a paragraph, the longer a reader has to wait to find a convenient breaking point to stop reading. Even if the reader is not intending to take a break, reaching the end of a longish paragraph affords a convenient place to pause and regroup mentally. Even if the paragraph reads comfortably and does not seem to drag on, paragraph breaks also serve as a means to keep one’s eyes in synch with the text. The longer a paragraph goes on, the harder it is to reset to the correct line at the left margin. Paragraph breaks give visual cues along the left margin that make aligining on the next line easier. Remember, the system that controls our eyes is imprecise and only locks in on particular locations through a feedback system. The more information that feedback system has to work with, the less effort it takes to synchronize. Of course, how this works out depends a great deal on the typesetting and format of the end product. Also, if a paragraph really does need to be massive, as sometimes happens, there is no reason to artificially break it.

There are other things that should be considered when writing a narrative, but most of those are the same as any writing. Make sure you use words correctly. Spell words correctly. Use punctuation correctly. Keep your writing as clear as it can be. And most of all, proof read your work (something you will likely discover I failed to do on most things on this blog).

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