How to write a Narrative essay

This section is designed to be of practical assistance to the elementary student in short story writing. The rules and principles embody what the great masters of the short story have thought to be right and what they have proved to be at least successful. These rules are obligatory. However, short story writing is not easy, it requires much labor, the severest and most persistent. It cannot be done half-heartedly for one can with certainty predict certain failure. Above all, you should be earnest, serious, and a conscientious worker.


TOPICS to be covered:

  1. The Art of the short Story
  2. Short Story Classified
  3. Narrative writing
  4. The Plot
  5. Point of view
  6. Sample Plot
  7. Conflict
  8. Organize Your Narrative
  9. Techniques Used in Writing a Narrative
  10. The Climax and the Conclusion

Recommended: Short Story Writing: A Practical Treatise on the Art of The Short Story, by Charles Raymond Barrett (February 6, 2007)

THE ART OF THE SHORT STORY

INTRODUCTION

Short story writing have been practiced for many years. Think of Homer and the tales of the first books of the Bible. Short story owes its position in literature, and celebrated in the work of Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe. Now, the short story should not be confused with a novel, they are radical different, though they look similar in material, treatment and aim for the same general training is necessary for both.

What is a SHORT STORY

The term short story is applied to every piece of prose writing of 30,000 words or less. So, what is, and what is not, a short story? Many things a short story may be, but one thing it can never be—it can never be a novel in a nutshell‘.  

A short story must lead up to something. It should have for its structure a plot, a bit of life, an incident such as you would find in a brief newspaper paragraph…. and, with that for the meat of the story, weaves around it details, descriptions and dialogue, until a complete story is the result. Now, a story is something more than incidents and descriptions. You find within a constant progress of events that must arrive somewhere. It must enforce some idea. It must be such a reality that the reader would carry away a definite impression.

A short story presents artistically a bit of real life with the primary goal to amuse, though it may also depict a character, plead a cause, or point a moral. Above all, a short story is a product of what the writer wants to tell —that is, a plot. The writer therefore presents the plot in pretty scenes and word pictures. The writer makes the characters and people seem real; so these characters must move and act and live. The story teller shows life through his eyes without letting the reader know this.

Also, the short story has a “touch of fantasy” – not necessarily the supernatural. It vaguely presents the weird that cannot be explain in normal life.

The short story usually shows the lighter and brighter side of life. It is seldom in deadly earnest and it prefers cleverness to depth. Naturally, then, comedy rather than tragedy is its usual sphere. If a tale may end in gloom, it usually suggests a possible tragedy towards a happy denouement (ending).

The short story is artificial, and to a considerable degree unnatural. It takes a single person or single incident out of a complex life and treats that as if it were complete in itself.  It is this isolation that makes it distinct from a novel. With the short story there is: one scene and incidentone or two real characters, with one predominant emotion.

Here is a list of the best twelve American short stories:

  1. “The Man Without a Country,” Edward Everett Hale.
  2. “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” Bret Harte.
  3. “The Great Stone Face,” Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  4. “The Snow Image,” Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  5. “The Gold Bug,” Edgar Allan Poe.
  6. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Edgar Allan Poe.
  7. “The Lady, or the Tiger?” Frank R. Stockton.
  8. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving.
  9. “Rip Van Winkle,” Washington Irving.
  10. “Marse Chan,” Thomas Nelson Page.
  11. “Marjorie Daw,” Thomas Bailey Aldrich.
  12. “The Revolt of Mother,” Mary E. Wilkins.

SHORT STORIES CLASSIFIED

Each story is placed in a class.

  1. The Tale is a literary form of some simple incident or stirring fact. It usually contains action, but chiefly accidents or odd happenings. A Tale can be a true story or an Imaginative Tale.
  2.  The Moral Story, is a literary form with a purpose to preach. They are:
    • The Fable. In Fables the characters are often animals, endowed with all the attributes of men.
    • The Story with a Moral. Such stories a  sermon with a little narrative that shows the consequences of drinking, stealing, or some other sin.  
    • The Allegory is the only really literary form of the Moral Story, and the only one which survives today. It has a strong moral purpose, but disguises it under the pretense of a well-told story; so that it is read for its story alone, and the reader is conscious of its lesson only when he has finished the narrative. It usually personifies or gives concrete form to the various virtues and vices of men.
  3. The Weird Story owes its interest to the innate love of the supernatural or unexplainable which is a part of our complex human nature—the same feeling which prompts a group of children to beg for “just one more” ghost story, while they are still shaken with the terror of the last one. They are:
    • The Ghost Story usually has a definite plot, in which the ghost is an actor. The ghost may be a “really truly” apparition, manifesting itself by the conventional methods, and remaining unexplained to the end.
    • The Fantastic Tale is a similar tale of the supernatural. Its style might be well described as whimsical, its purpose is to amuse by means of playful fancies, and it usually exhibits a delicate humor. The plot is slight and subordinate.
    • The Study in Horror was first made popular by Poe, and he has had almost no successful imitators. It is unhealthy and morbid, full of a terrible charm if well done, but tawdry and disgusting if bungled. It requires a daring imagination, a full and facile vocabulary, and a keen sense of the ludicrous to hold these two in check.
  4. The Character Study is a short story in which the chief interest rests in the development and exposition of human character. The author may seek to depict the character as inactive or active in the story. When the character described is active we have a Character Study proper, built upon a plot which gives the character opportunity to work out his own personality before us by means of speech and action.
  5. The Dialect Story might be considered as a subdivision of the preceding class, since it is in effect a Character Study; but its recent popularity seems to warrant its being treated separately. Its chief distinction is that it is written in the broken English used by the uneducated classes of our own country, and by foreigners.
  6. The Parable of the Times is a short story which aims to present a vivid picture of our own times, either to criticize some existing evil, or to entertain by telling us something of how “the other half” of the world lives. It is in a sense a further development of The Tale (Class 1). These stories are:
    • Instructive with or without an attempt to correct problem. In either case, it aims to reform by education; it deals with actual problems of humanity rather than with abstract moral truths; and it seeks to amuse always, and to reform if possible.
    • The Story of To-day, uses present day conditions as a background, and which endeavors only to amuse and interest the reader.
  7. The Story of Ingenuity is one of the most modern forms of the short story. It might be called the “fairy tale of the grown-up,” for its interest depends entirely upon its appeal to the love for the marvelous which no human being ever outgrows. They are the Story of Wonder and the Detective Story
  8. The Humorous Story almost belongs in the category of Stories of Ingenuity, because it depend upon the element of the unusual. Indeed, these stories are the freest of all in their disregard for conventions; with them it is “anything to raise a laugh,” and the end is supposed to justify the means.
  9. The Dramatic Story is the highest type of the short story. It requires a definite but simple plot, which enables the characters to act out their parts. It is told as nearly as possible in the words and actions of the characters themselves; and it possesses a strong climax. Therefore it demands the most careful and skillful workmanship, from its conception to its final polishing. It is the most modern type of the short story.

You have to keep in mind the various elements in a narrative writingsetting, character, mood, theme, point of view, and plot. Use this narrative graphic organizer to help you plan your narrative writing.

THE PLOT

The plot is the nucleus of the story, the bare thought or incident upon which the narrative is to be built. When a child says, “Grandma, tell me the story of how the whale swallowed Jonah,” he gives the plot of the story that he desires; and the grandmother proceeds to elaborate that primal idea to suit the taste of her auditor.

In like manner, before you put pen to paper, you must have in mind some interesting idea which you wish to express in narrative form; the absence of such an idea means that you have no plot, no story to tell, and therefore have no business to be writing. If you are to tell a short story, go about it in a workmanlike manner: don’t begin scribbling pretty phrases, and trust to Providence to introduce the proper story, but yourself provide the basic facts. If you do not begin correctly, it is useless for you to begin at all.


Some things to note about the plot when you are writing a story:

  1. A plot implies action and something must happen to the characters so they are differently situated at the end of the story.
  2. The event need not be tragic, or even serious. In general the plot of a short story involves an incident or a minor crisis in a human life, rather than the supreme crisis which makes or mars a man for good.
  3. The short story plot must be simple and complete. It must not be the synopsis of a novel. As nearly as possible it must deal with a single person, in a single action, at a single place, in a single time.
  4. The plot is only relatively important. It is there to give a glimpse of real life and act as a means to the end. However, in Detective Stories the plot is all-important, for the interest depends entirely upon the unraveling of some tangle; but even here it must contain but a single idea, though that may be rather involved. Such stories are really much simpler than they appear, for their seeming complexity consists in telling the story backwards, and so reasoning from effect to cause, rather than vice versa as in the ordinary tale.

How to make a plot?

Take two or three characters. individualized morally and mentally, place them in a strong situation and let them develop (this is called the plot-germ). This involves slight changes of country, atmosphere, people, or situation.

The surest test of a usable plot:

  • “Is it natural?”  Every plot is founded upon fact, which may be utilized in its original form, or so skilfully disguised or ingeniously distorted that it will seem like a product of the imagination.  
  • Is it a simple and known fact? The simpler and better known the fact is, the better will it serve the purpose, for it must be accepted without question: then it must be built up and developed by imaginative touches, always with a view to plausibility, till it attains the dignity of a distinct and interesting plot.
  • A plot can repeat itself. But if we can neither find nor invent a new story we can at least ring the changes on the old ones, and in this lies our hope to-day. Each one of these old plots is capable of an infinite variety of phases, and what we are constantly hailing as an original story is merely one of our old friends looked at from a different point of view. Try, then, to get a new light on the plot that you purpose to use and to view it from an unexpected side. Try to be original!

The plot of a short story should allow of expression in a single short, fairly simple sentence, the “theme” of the story. Thus in “The Ambitious Guest,” the theme is “The futility of abstracted ambition;” or, in its most general terms, “The irony of fate.” The true plot is: “An unknown but ambitious youth stops at a mountain tavern and perishes with its inmates“. A sample skeleton of the development of the plot of this short story can be seen here.

Point of View

Once you have the setting, plot and characters, you must now decide on the point of view to tell the story. A point of view can be commonly from a first-person point of view (you would use the pronoun “I” in the narrative) or a third-person point of view. In a third-person point of view the narrator is an observer. However, as an observer, the narrator perspective may be either limited (through the eyes of one of the characters, thus knowing that character thoughts and actions only) or omniscient (as a narrator who knows and relay all the thought and actions of all the characters in the story).

Observe the two point of view in this story.

ample Working Plot

Observe the development of a “working plot” for “The Ambitious Guest“. It is often of advantage to make what may be called a “skeleton” or “working plot.” This skeleton is produced by thinking through the story as it has been conceived, and setting down on paper in logical order a line for every important idea. These lines will roughly correspond to the paragraphs of the finished story, but in a descriptive paragraph one line will not suffice.

Working Plot of “The Ambitious Guest.”

The scene is a tavern located at the Notch in the White Hills.

The time, a September night.

  1. The place is in danger from landslides and falling stones.
  2. The family—father, mother, grandmother, daughter and children—are gathered happily about the hearth.
  3. The tavern is on a well-frequented road.
  4. A young stranger enters, looking rather travel-worn, but quickly brightens up at his warm reception.
  5. A stone rolls down the mountain side.
  6. The guest, though naturally reticent, soon becomes familiar with the family.
  7. The secret of the young man’s character is high and abstracted ambition.
  8. He is as yet unknown.
  9. He is sensible of the ludicrous side of his ambition.
  10. The daughter is not ambitious.
  11. The father’s ambition is to own a good farm, to be sent to General Court, and to die peacefully.
  12. The children wish for the most ridiculous things.
  13. A wagon stops before the inn, but drives on when the landlord does not immediately appear.
  14. The daughter is not really content.
  15. The family picture.
  16. The grandmother tells of having prepared her grave-clothes.
  17. Fears if they are not put on smoothly she will not rest easily.
  18. She wishes to see herself in her coffin.
  19. They hear the landslide coming.
  20. All rush from the house and are instantly destroyed.
  21. The house is unharmed.
  22. The bodies are never found.
  23. Even the death of the ambitious guest is in doubt.

You will notice that this working plot omits many little details which are too trivial to set down, or which probably would not occur to one until the actual writing; and all the artistic touches that make the story literature are ruthlessly shorn away, for they are part of the treatment, not of the plot.

This method of permitting you to study your crude material in the concrete will prove of value to you. It enables you to crystalize into ideas what were mere phantasms of the brain, to arrange your thoughts in their proper order, and to condense or expand details with a ready comprehension of the effect of such alterations upon the general proportions of the story. It makes your purposed work objective enough so that you can consider it with a coolness and impartiality which were impossible while it was still in embryo in your brain; and it often reveals the absurdity or impossibility of a plan which had seemed to you most happy. I believe that the novice can do no better than to put his every story to this practical test.

The use of this skeleton in the further development of the story depends upon the methods of the writer, or the matter in hand. Many short story writers waste no time in preparations, but at once set down the story complete; and to my mind that is the ideal method, for it is more apt to make the tale spontaneous and technically correct. But if the story is not well defined in your mind, or if it requires some complexity of plot, like the Detective Story, this plan can be followed to advantage in the completion of the work. It may be used as a regular skeleton, upon which the narrative is built by a process of elaboration and expansion of the lines into paragraphs; or it may be used merely as a reference to keep in mind the logical order of events. Usually you will forget the scheme in the absorption of composition; but the fact of having properly arranged your ideas will assist you materially, if unconsciously, in the elaboration.

The Title

The title is really a fair test of what it introduces. A poor title usually means a poor story.


Fragments of proverbs and poems are always attractive, as well as Biblical phrases and colloquial expressions, but the magic title is the one that excites and baffles curiosity. The title might almost be called the “text” of the story; it should be logically deduced from the plot; so a poor title usually indicates a poor plot and a poor story.

Choosing a Title:

First examine your plot, and make sure that the cause does not lie there. In case you are unable to decide among a number of possible titles, any one of which might do, you may find that your plot lacks the definiteness of impression required by the short story; but a fertile intellect may suggest a number of good titles, from which your only difficulty is to select the best.

A good title is apt, specific, attractive, new, and short. An apt title excites and piques the curiosity almost as much as does the story itself. Examples: Hawthorne’s “The Wedding Knell;” Poe’s “‘Thou Art the Man!'” Wilkins’ “The Revolt of Mother.”

In 1850 Dr. O. M. Mitchell, Director of the Astronomical Observatory in Cincinnati, gave to the press a volume entitled ‘The Planetary and Stellar Worlds.’ The book fell dead from the press. The publisher complained bitterly of this to a friend, saying, ‘I have not sold a single copy.’ ‘Well,’ was the reply, ‘you have killed the book by its title. Why not call it “The Orbs of Heaven”?’ The hint was accepted and acted upon, and 6,000 copies were sold in a month.”

Consider these unspecific titles, they are vague reference to the general style of the story:

  • “A Wedding in a Texas Jail.”
  • “A Frightful Night Ride.”
  • “A Unique Rescue.”
  • “A Lynching Incident.”
  • “Nature’s Freaks.”
  • “A Valuable Discovery.”
  • “The Widow.”
  • “A Valued Relic.”
  • “A Strange Case.”
  • “The Old Clock.”
  • “The Office Boy.”

None of these titles represents any definite idea, and in nearly every case it served to introduce a story which was equally vague, ordinary, and uninteresting. Several of them, too—notably the first four—were not stories at all, but were simply bits of description by narrative, as their titles would suggest.

The Use of Facts

All fiction is founded upon fact, it is where the short story writer finds its story. There are many stories to be told in the world, and even the most ordinary have stories to tell. However, the facts are just crude, a recount of what actually happens, and so the story should be told with some individuality and artistic flare.

Another thing, if you must write something that is foreign to you, it your duty to inform yourself to the best of your ability concerning that thing. You have to gain personal knowledge of the scenes, persons and times that is to be described. And so the story would be readable and not read as a transcript or even a report. Thus, when including facts, note that not all facts are suited for short story writing.

Listen to the story below and note how the author used facts to tell a story and fulfil the purpose of the story.

Conflict

Every story must have a conflict. The main character must struggle with something. It can be with another character or an element in nature (external struggle) or it can be a struggle with making a decision or do something (internal struggle). The most basic is a character against another: protagonist vs antagonist.

All narrative must have some kind of conflict or the story would not be interesting to read.

Creating Characters for Your Narratives

Your short story should have a character or characters. The character helps to humanze the story. A short story may have one or two real characters , and a strong emotion.

The character is not always human. Sometimes a character might be an animal with attributes of humans. Your character could be odd, such as a monster, witty, or even emotional. Above all, the character must reflect real life. The character is used to help develop the plot.

Observe below, the way the narrator develop the characters in the following stories. Also, observe how the characters are given human attributes when it is not a human. The characters are exaggerated to appear natural.

While you are writing your narrative, avoid telling everything about a character. Leave some things to the reader’s imagination. You would then avoid too much details. Listen to the character description in the stories as well.

SOME TECHNIQUES USED IN WRITING A NARRATIVE

A good narrative keeps the reader interested. You can do this by doing the following:

  1. Create suspense by describing an eerie setting.
  2. Use delay tactics by describing things, flashbacks , or changing the scene.
  3. Use foreshadowing – give hints about what will come.
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PRACTICE WRITING

There is an adverse weather warning on the radio. Not long after, the rains pounded against your house. The sheets on the roofs starts to rattle. Write a story about the event that follows.

Write a story that includes the lines : “I think I’m lost. How am I going to get home?” In your story include what happened before, how you got lost, and how you felt.

You are home alone. You witness some strange men enter your yard. Write a story about the event that follows. Include in your story, details on what happened when they enter, descriptions of the strangers, and your feelings.

You are about to do your homework when you realized that you have the wrong bag. Write a story using these ideas. Include details as to how this happened, your reaction, and what you did next.

Pretend you are a dog in an animal shelter. Write a story about your adventures. Include details about what you hear and see in the shelter, how you felt, and who the adventure ended.

THE CLIMAX AND THE CONCLUSION

The Story proper is really the preparation for the climax. There comes a point when the suspense cannot be continued any longer and the reader is seeking a final relief which the climax offers.

The end of a short story comprises the climax and the conclusion (denouement). The climax is the chief surprise. It is the point of the story; it is really the story. The conclusion is the solving of all problems, the termination of the narrative itself, and the artistic severing of all relations between narrator and reader.

The climax is but a small part of the story. It is usually confined to a single paragraph of ordinary length. It is expressed so directly and so forcefully that it will make the reader jump mentally, if not physically.

Where is the climax in this story?

At the conclusion of a story, the characters are differently situated, differently related to one another, from what they were at the beginning. One paragraph is about the average length for a conclusion, and contain a catch word referring to the beginning. Can you determine the catch word in the story above.

METHODS OF NARRATION

You will be expected to write stories and tell the stories well. How you handle your story will make it interesting. Here are some handy methods to handling a narrative.

  1. The story should be told simply and naturally so the reader thinks himself to be a spectator of an actual scene in real life.
  2. Avoid putting your opinions in the story. Do not address the reader as “dear reader,” “gentle reader”. Avoid including personal comments or confessions. People read short stories to be amused, not instructed.
  3. Avoid writing in the first person narrative. First person narratives are better adapted, no doubt, to adventure and expression of humour than to the realization of tragedy. Stories written in the diary form suffer all the disadvantages of first person narrative. These forms are favorites with the inexperienced because they seem to dodge some of the difficulties that beset the way of the literary aspirant. Their form is necessarily loose and disjointed, and their style rambling and conversational, and these qualities are characteristic of the work of novices.
  4. Be careful with the amount of characters in your story and open with your main character and present the events through the minds of a few very different persons. This is the third person narrative point of view
  5. Avoid writing a narration within narration. It is of little importance who tells the story, or how it came to be told; the less the narrator appears the better. The reader cares only for the narrative, and nothing for the narrator.

IN SUMMARY:

The best method of narration, the simplest and most natural, is to tell the story in the third person, as if you were a passive observer; to make the characters active and conversational; and to permit nothing, not even your own personality, to get between the reader and the story.

Continue writing!

Link to worksheets

Short Stories Ideas

  1. You meet your favourite superhero during a robbery. Write a story of how you and the superhero capture the robbers.
  2. You and a sibling are constantly fighting. You parents decides to put you two out in a tent during the night in hope that you will both learn to get along. Tell the story.
  3. You meet your doppleganger right before you are about to take a difficult test. What happens next?
  4. My first hike
  5. Goodbye Sandra
  6. A sad day
  7. The day you meet your mother’s side of the family.
  8. A Day at Chacachacare
  9. You are lonely and decides to call a random person who just so happens to live in your street.
  10. You find a lost suitcase of money in the park where you play. When you try to return the money, the owner claims you as his long lost son or daughter.
  11. You were able to build a robot which turns out to be nebbish and timid and riddled with insecurities.
  12. The teacher you will never forget
  13. Your first lesson learning to play a musical instrument/swimming, etc.
  14. A day at the beach.
  15. An experience that put you in danger
  16. Lost in the mountains
  17. The visit to the zoo
  18. The moment you overcame your biggest fear.
  19.  You had an unusual encounter on the way home. Write your story.
  20. The road trip
  21. About an experience that put you or the main character in danger.
  22. A funny story.
  23. The first Trip
  24. A friendship lost.
  25. Someone helping another in need.
  26. Write a story about a secret that was discovered.
  27. The day I bonded with a grandparent
  28. The lost pet
  29. The time you saved someone
  30. The first time you cooked a meal for yourself
  31. The best day of your life
  32. A time someone you did not expect helped you
  33. The best birthday party you’ve ever had
  34. The most memorable Christmas
  35. A family vacation
  36. A hiking/car/swimming accident
  37. A time someone got caught cheating
  38. A time you had to deal with bullying
  39. The scariest moment of your life
  40. A time when your home was flooded
  41. The most memorable day at the beach