Over, Under, Through, Around: Narrative in Creative Nonfiction
June 24, 2021
“Narrative is one of the best intoxicants or tranquilizers.” ― A.S. Byatt
Sitting on a hard plastic chair in a windowless classroom below the Osborne Center on my college campus, I watched as my creative writing professor went around the room and addressed each student. We were in the science building, underneath a pendulum that swung on its own due to the gravitational pull of Earth itself, and beneath cadavers donated to scientific study that medical students examined to learn human anatomy three floors above. We were surrounded by hard science, yet this room was where we dissected a subject taught in the Letters and Arts department — the English language — and placed flash fiction, literary journalism, and memoir under a microscope.
On this day, an ordinary Thursday near the end of the semester, our professor was going around the room and identifying the strengths each of us possessed and had demonstrated in our writing throughout the semester. Each student’s strength was something they had unknowingly taught the class, and our professor, throughout the semester. Our instructor was turning the tables on us all — as creative writing students we were not only learning, but teaching.
I was told that I have a knack for narrative. At first this came as somewhat of a surprise for me, as narrative is something I never think consciously about when writing. Over the bumps and U-turns of my creative nonfiction class, however, it became clear to me that narrative is something crucial to writing creative nonfiction, and something that more often than not comes naturally to me. Since being told this was a strength of mine several years ago now, I have continued cultivating this inherent knack. I also have started paying closer attention to what makes good narrative and piecing together how writers miss the mark when it comes to narrative and, consequently, how they can improve their narrative skills.
To start off, narrative, as defined by Oxford English Dictionary, is “An account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account.” If narrative is defined this narrowly, it has a lot to do with order, connections between events, and giving an overall account of events. Narrative is something that everyone comes across countless times in their everyday lives. Most books we read are told in narrative form, television shows we watch are in narrative form, most movies are narratives, and even the story a dear friend tells over lunch is a form of narrative. Narrative is a way to organize thoughts, ideas, and events into story form — it’s the way humans process their own lives one day, or event, at a time. Because of this innate human way of processing the world through narrative, it makes written works more memorable and easy to follow and is the ultimate crux of many (dare I say all?) forms of writing.
What, then, makes a good narrative? I believe that narrative is something not often thought about in great detail. The elements of narrative are not always clear and concise — these elements are not always even identifiable on the page, though there are certain things almost all narratives seem to have in common. I have taken the time to really figure out what makes up a good narrative since that fateful college class almost five years ago, and I have come to realize that there are certain identifiable tenets of most narratives that make for a cohesive story.
Ordering of events is one of those things, one of the most important, that makes a narrative cohesive and successful. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the events in a narrative are “given in order,” but my definition of narrative says that what exactly that order is, ends up entirely in the hands of the author. I like to think of this ordering of events as it relates to prepositions. Sing that silly song you learned in elementary school if you need to — below, above, over, between, through, around, beneath. Events can be circular, a narrative can move in a straight line, it can have moments pop in and out between scenes that don’t necessarily follow strict chronological order. There can be multiple narratives at once crisscrossing through one another like an intricate braid. Sometimes the unconventional ordering of a story can be what makes it magnificent!
So while ordering doesn’t necessarily have to be chronological throughout an entire piece, it should be chronological within any given scene. I often write in a segmented manner, which, for me, means that I tell stories in a sequence of scenes that don’t always fit in a precise order, but work together to create a bigger narrative picture. While the ordering of these individual scenes can sometimes be anything but chronological, what happens within each scene happens in chronological order.
Ordering, then, is in some regards crucial to narrative and, in others, up to interpretation. To have any sort of fluent story/narrative arc, scenes must have some semblance of chronological ordering, but the rest of a piece doesn’t necessarily have to. The order needs to make sense to the reader — the success of a narrative, after all, is largely dependent on how well is it is perceived by those giving it a read — but there’s some creative liberty available to the writer at the same time.
When examining narrative, sometimes it seems that traditional narrative storyline is the exact opposite of interesting — that the traditional storyline might need a good dose of creative liberty. Almost all writers on earth are familiar with the traditional story arc of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. With the considerable lament of many writers — of fiction and nonfiction alike — that the traditional story arc is boring and dull, there is something that I find myself wondering, and that concerns narrative itself: is traditional narrative, no matter how good at it a writer may be, boring? When I write in narrative style, my work tends to belong. I’ve often faced apprehension from my readers when they see that a four-to-five page long assignment has turned into an eleven-page one (the curse of having a lot to say, I suppose), and I know that the concern is that longer pieces tend to meander in and out of tangents, lack focus, and be downright boring. When I was told I had a strength for narrative, it came with the caveat (on a couple different occasions and concerning entirely different creative nonfiction pieces) that although my work relies heavily on narrative and is long, it still keeps the attention of my readers. This, of course, gave me a big sigh of relief, but left me wondering why. If this is of such concern, then how is my work different?
As I’ve pondered this, I’ve come to realize that the reason why is another important aspect of narrative. To keep a reader interested in any sort of writing, effort must be made to construct sentences and words that leave the reader wanting more. One way that good narrative tends to do this is by incorporating enticing bits of language at the ends of paragraphs. This isn’t something that is always true and consistent — bits of intrigue need not come only at the endings of paragraphs, and can come at the ends of pages or sections in a longer work — but regardless of how these are incorporated, they are what keep a reader wanting to read a work. They are what make a long piece seem like it went by too fast, and what makes a short piece seem unhurried and melodic.
These bits can be different for different sections or paragraphs. They can suck a reader in by leaving a miniature cliff hanger, or lull them to a calm resting place before a jubilant continuation of the story. The one thing they should do, regardless of their style or character, is to link one part of a narrative to the next. Even if the ordering of a story is unconventional and plays with what a narrative can be, it still must continue in a way that makes sense to the reader and makes sense for the story. A good narrative is conscious of both the writer’s intention and the reader’s ultimate experience while reading.
These are just some of the ways that narrative can play out. When writing, pay attention to your ordering of events. Zhuzh-up the sequence of events, play with flashbacks and different perspectives. And while you’re doing that, be sure to throw in an enticing bit of language here and there at the end of your paragraphs and sections to keep the reader wanting more. Narrative might seem like an easy to master staple of a good story, but it’s not always that simple. By trying a few new things, your reader could thank you. Go create a narrative that won’t let the reader put it down!