Making Your Narrative Work — Do’s & Don’ts of the Great Narrative Essay and Literally Everything

When you’re first learning to use a hammer, you don’t use it well — one of two things tends to happen: either you take mincing, pussyfooting little swings that only serve to waste energy and bend nails, or you whack the shit out of your thumb a couple of times before you get the technique down right. The same approaches are evident when a writer is getting a handle on narrative — either they’ve worked hard to remove all storytelling aspects of a work (you see this a lot with poets who don’t think poems are supposed to tell stories), or they are so aware of the narrative as a narrative that you don’t care about what’s happening on the page. Eventually most writers get this figured out and settle into a narrative style that is comfortable for them (don’t worry, there are more ways to craft narrative than there are to swing a hammer), but it’s a hard rhythm to fall into so here are some dos and don’ts for people who are trying to figure out exactly how narrative works.

Do : Tell jokes

Tell lots of jokes. Tell knock-knock jokes and dead baby jokes and silly kid’s jokes and long-winded story-style jokes. Find friends who are patient with you and just start telling them lots and lots of jokes. Humor is really, really hard to do well, and telling a joke well depends on a lot of factors — timing, delivery, phrasing, pacing, animation and audience are all important to getting a good response. Once you understand this on a personal, verbal level you’ll have an easier time with things like pacing, delivery, phrasing and audience in your writing. And you’ll probably feel better about going out and interacting with real people if you’re decent at telling a joke — which is really, really important if you want to write realistically.

Don’t: Tell readers everything all of the time

Have you ever read one of those stories that devotes several pages to the intricate details of a character’s hair, clothing, shoes and mannerisms at a party? Or a story that explains the minute variations in the weapons of a couple characters joined in battle? Or a story with paragraph after paragraph all about how handsomely the main male character pouts? I hate those. Most people hate those. In fact most people have a very specific word for those kinds of stories — boring. There are authors who do this well: Austen could write a lot about party plans, but rarely delved into minutiae; Tolkien spends a whole lot of words describing paths through the woods and swords, but more often focused on his universe’s history (and his descriptions of weapons are totally awesome, so he gets a pass on that); Dickens does spend a lot of time working with tiny details, but he either made them funny or important to make up for their mind-numbing nature. But none of those authors gives us every detail of every outfit that every character wore in every scene. None of them wrote about every emotion that every character was feeling in every dance, battle, or factory revolt (though it seems like Dickens tried to in some books.) The reason you don’t get all the details all of the time is because they’re not important all of the time. Be selective with the details you hand out to your audience, and your audience will learn to value the insight that you give them.

Do: Experiment

One of the reasons that creative writing classes are so useful is because they encourage writers to move beyond their comfort zones. Creative writing professors expect their students to be aware of the possibilities of all kinds of writing — not just the one that a student happens to feel cozy with, and so the students learn — albeit uncomfortably — to write in a broader scope. Give yourself assignments to experiment with — try writing a one act play, try writing in second person (though I strongly recommend that if you’re writing in second person you get VERY good at using it before submitting a second person narrative to anyone — even a creative writing professor), try haiku or sonnets, try any kind of experiment you can think of and see what it does to the structure of your narratives. Moreover, creative writing will definitely help you write an outstanding essay for when you apply to college. Using creative writing and great narrative will definitely be a huge boost to your chances.

Don’t: Force yourself

It is excellent (and vital) to try new things, but if a certain narrative device isn’t working for you don’t force yourself to use that device. You don’t have to be an expert (or even proficient) at everything — if you’re a distant narrator by nature, you’ll have a lot of trouble writing internal monologues but you’ll probably do a great job with creating realistic worlds for your characters to navigate. Play to your strengths and work around your weaknesses. As a personal example, I once had to write a creative nonfiction essay in a stream-of-consciousness style; I was awful at it — I hate reading the style, I hate writing the style, I hate hearing people talk about the style. Stream-of-consciousness and I are not friends. But while I’m bad at writing in that style, I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing ideas, so for the purpose of that particular essay I ended up writing about fifty tiny stream-of-consciousness paragraphs and scrambling them up until they were a coherent (or as least as coherent as stream-of-consciousness gets) essay. It wasn’t pretty, but I was able to get through it — if I had forced myself to sit down and just pound through a long, rambling reflection on the assigned topic in stream-of-consciousness, I never would have gotten past the first hundred words.

Do: Practice

I know, a lot of people say that. But I always tell people to practice because it’s the one thing that will always get results. If you’re just starting to get comfortable with something, practice until it feels like home. If you’re already good at something, practice to maintain your proficiency. If you’re utter crap at something, practice until you’re something less than utter crap.

Don’t : Give up

If you want to be a writer but narrative is giving you fits, don’t worry. Telling a story is hard work — especially if you’re trying to tell that story as a poem or in an essay format or in a voice you’re not familiar with. But you need to understand that writing is very hard work — you’re not going to be brilliant right away, your stories will limp and lurch at first, and you will always have a long road ahead of you to perfection because nothing is ever perfect. But the more you work with your writing, the more you re-write, practice, and have patience with yourself, the happier you will be with each project you complete.


I’ve said a thousand words without covering all that I want to on this topic. Perhaps I will post some new articles on how to improve the narrative of your essay or story. Thanks for reading.

Further read: Making Your Narrative Work — What Makes a Great Narrative Essay

Learn about secrets of synthesis essay writing.

Freelance writer. Tutor. Sci-Fi nerd. Find me at @ErikoMoore

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