3 Literary Techniques, Part three: Narration

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy hump day and welcome to the third part in my series on the three literary techniques known as exposition, description, and narration.

Today I’m going to focus on what I’ve learned about narration.

Narrative writing is basically writing that tells a story. More strictly speaking, narration is used when you are communicating directly to your reader. It’s everything that is said outside of dialogue. Everything that is said by the author, as opposed to the characters. This includes the “he said” and “she said” between the dialogue lines.

Your Narrative Detail

When you are telling a story, you say when it happened, where it happened, how it happened, and why it happened. This is narration. It’s easy to get carried away though and include too many details. You have to decide which ones are vital to your story and make sure to put emphasis on those.

The most logical way to present details is chronologically, from beginning to end, but don’t be afraid to use other literary devices such as flashbacks and dialogue.

Pacing Is Important

Narrative pace is the rate at which the story moves. You break up your narrative and slow down the pace with specific examples, detailed descriptions, and dialogue. You can speed up the pace by skipping over details that aren’t as important. You want to write fast (pacey) enough to keep the readers interested, but slow enough that you don’t leave them unsatisfied. The important thing is that your narrative is cohesive and your details are organized.

Narrative vs. Plot

We’re often told that there are no new stories, that everything is just a regurgitation of everything else. But if there are so few narratives, how do we keep writing without getting accused of plagiarism?

It’s because of the difference between narrative and plot. Plot is the sum of what happens while narrative is the trajectory that accompanies that plot.

Plot tells you what actually happens and to whom. The plot of the Harry Potter books is a young boy who discovers he’s a famous wizard goes off to boarding school to learn magic and ultimately defeat the evil that is is plaguing that universe. That plot has already been done. But if you want to write about a boy who discovers he’s far from ordinary and has to learn to fight in a battle against a formidable evil, then write away! This is simply a narrative pattern, which is built of symbols and archetypes. You can’t copyright that.

That’s it for this series. Hopefully it was helpful to you and if you have any questions let me know.



3 Literary Techniques, Part Two: Description

Monday, November 19, 2012

Welcome to part two in my series on the three literary techniques known as exposition, description, and narration.

Last time I talked about exposition. This time, I’d like to talk about using description in storytelling.

Description is an important part of storytelling because it helps you to paint a mental image of the particulars in your story.

A lot of people have a problem with this though. It’s easy to think of dialogue because you can imagine a conversation. But we don’t often make a habit of describing our surroundings or the people we meet, and if we do, it’s very simply, which doesn’t work too well in a novel.

You can’t write a story the same way you would tell a story. When writing description, it helps to remember that the reader isn’t you and has no idea what you are seeing, hearing, or feeling.

Describing Characters

Gifted author Ayn Rand, best known for her epic novel Atlas Shrugged, always described her characters at their first appearance because she wanted the readers to perceive the scene as if he were really there.

In her book, The Art Of FIction, Ms. Rand tells us that she decides how long a description should be by the nature of the buildup beforehand. If there is appropriate buildup, the reader will be willing to read the description without impatience.”

“Never pause on descriptions, whether of characters or locales or anything else, unless you have given the reader a reason to be interested.”

She goes on the say, “When I introduce minor characters, I usually give them a single line naming something that is characteristic of the type, like a “woman who had large diamond earrings” or “a portly man who wore a green muffler.” By implying that one brief characteristic is all that is noteworthy of a person, I establish his unimportance.”

Quality Not Quantity

When it comes to description, more is not necessarily better. The number of details necessary to describe a place or event depends on several things, such as how familiar your readers already are with the place or situation. The more unfamiliar, the more description you’ll need to give.

For example, if you’re writing about an alien race living on a far away planet, you need to describe that planet in great detail. A story about modern life on earth would require less detail because we already know what everything looks like.

Specific Details

Challenge yourself to see how specific you can get. Don’t just say a man is wearing a coat. Tell us he’s wearing a charcoal gray peacoat with black buttons.

Documenting only the most obvious facts is not enough. We want to see the broken zipper on the woman’s dress, the tear in her stockings, and the shocking blue eyeliner that matches her shoes. Tell us what makes this woman different from every other woman around. Don’t try to describe everything though. Instead try and focus on two or three significant things that can define a person, place, or thing.

Use All Your Senses

Using the five senses is another great way to make your story come alive.

People interact with the world through their senses. We notice the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking. We grimace at the smell of a dirty diaper. We feel heat and cold. We feel pressure. We hear echos and the humming of a refrigerator. All these little details can help describe a person’s surroundings, letting your reader immerse themselves in the world of your novel.

Do you have anything to add? Hit me up in the comments.

Until Wednesday...



3 Literary Techniques, Part One: Exposition

Monday, November 5, 2012

Welcome to part one of my series on the three literary techniques known as exposition, description, and narration.

All three are important ingredients in good storytelling. But you need to be able to tell them apart.

About a year ago, I submitted a rough draft of a story to my friend and beta reader and nervously awaited her thoughts and opinion on it. I knew I could trust her to tell me the truth and she knew that I was open to hearing any constructive criticism.

One of the first things she pointed out to me was that I was using too much exposition. At the time, I had no idea what exposition even was.

I do now.

What is exposition?

It’s called exposition when the author provides background information about the plot or characters, the setting or scene. It can be used at the start of a story to explain what happened before the start. and it can also be used during a story, like after a time lapse, where the reader needs to know what happened over the previous year.

The trick is to know when, and how much, exposition to include.

When you use too much exposition, it’s usually referred to as an “information dump” or “info dump.”

In his book Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell gave these tips to avoid overusing exposition.

1. Act first, explain later. Begin with a character in motion. Readers won’t demand to know everything up front. You can drop in information as necessary.

2. When you explain, do the iceberg. Don’t tell us everything about the characters past history or current situation. Give us the 10% above the surface that is necessary to understand what is going on. Keep the other 90% a mystery.

3. Set information inside confrontation. Using the character’s thoughts or words, you can drip, drip, drip, crucial information for the reader

Another danger in using exposition is making broad, sweeping generalizations about things. Instead of telling the reader that a child’s parent is abusive, go back to a single moment in time and let your reader be a fly on the wall, so they can see for themselves how abusive the parent is.

The simplest way to place exposition is to just place the information between scenes through an all-seeing, all-knowing, narrator. But there are other ways to do it, such as through dialogue or a character’s thoughts. You could even relay information through newspaper articles, letters, or diary entries. You just have to get creative.

Do you have a handle on your exposition? Let me know in the comments. And come back on Wednesday for part two, where I’ll be talking about the difference between exposition and description.


Part 2: Description

Part 3: Narration

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