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  • Writer's pictureBreanna Call

3 Tips to Create a Narrative

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

You have a story to tell. But how can you keep it interesting?

Woman typing on laptop with books, notebook, pen, and phone nearby.
Photo Credit: Vlada Karpovich | Pexels

The Short Story

  1. Show, Don’t Tell

  2. Keep Verbs Simple

  3. Use the 5 Senses

The Novel

1. Show, Don’t Tell

Don’t just merely tell readers what happened. Take them with you through the experience. Let’s look at an example:

Telling: A shy girl came into the office.

We have just told readers that a girl is shy, but to really convince readers, we should show them that she is shy. And we can do that without even mentioning the word “shy.”

Showing: As she walked through the office doors, her feet made a slow shuffling sound, as if she hadn’t completely convinced herself that she should come in at all. She barely spoke above a whisper and didn’t look up as she checked in with the receptionist.

2. Keep Verbs Simple

In English, we have a lot of ways to use verbs. Let’s look at the verb “dance.” We can say “dance,” “danced,” “has/have danced,” “was/were dancing,” “is/are dancing,” “has/have been dancing,” “will dance,” “will have danced,” and “will have been dancing.” That’s a lot, right? If we use a lot of complex combinations of verbs (“has/have danced”) our writing can get clunky fast. To help the sentence flow, it is better to use the simpler version of the verb (“danced”). Of course there are times when we will need to use complex verbs, but if it's an option, always go with the simple version of the verb.

Let’s break down an example:

Ex: I was being watched by my parents as I was playing baseball at the park. I was about to hit the ball when I started noticing something strange.

Let’s look at some of these verbs: “was being watched,” “was playing,” and “started noticing.” How can we make these simpler? Let’s see if we can simplify those verbs. We can change “was being watched” to just “watched,” “was playing” to “played,” and “started noticing” to “noticed.”

Ex: My parents watched me play baseball at the park. I was about to hit the ball when I noticed something strange.

With simple verbs, this narrative sounds a lot cleaner. It is easier for readers to focus on the overall story instead of working through clunky verbs. The easier it is for readers to get through each sentence, the more immersed they will be in the story.

3. Use the 5 Senses

Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. When you’re writing a narrative, run through these five senses and see if you can use some to brighten up your story. What is your character seeing? A cloudless, blue sky? A battle on a cliff? What is your character smelling? Her grandmother’s homemade banana bread? A putrid container left in the back of the fridge for too long? Adding senses to your description will bring your story to life.

Compare these two examples:

Ex: I swam across the river and retrieved my towel.

Ex: The water laced through my fingers as I swam across the river. It was clearer than I thought it would be. Algae lined the mud at the bottom and small crawdads darted back and forth. The sun warmed my skin as I clambered up the slippery bank and retrieved my towel.

Just adding what the character was feeling and seeing helps readers feel like they are part of the story instead of reading only a list of actions.Of course, you don’t need to use all the senses in every event in your narrative. That would be overkill. And some senses just aren’t important and don’t need to be mentioned in some scenes. Feel it out and see what works for your particular scene.

The Examples

“The headache intensified behind Loreda’s eyes. The blue of the horizon became hard to look at without blinking. She stared instead at the field of dead potatoes; the empty windmill platform made her miss her daddy, an emotion she clamped down quickly.”

(Hannah, Kristin. The Four Winds. United States: St. Martin's Publishing Group, 2021.)

In this paragraph, Hannah describes what Loreda is feeling: a headache and missing her father. She also describes what Loreda is seeing: a blue horizon and a field of dead potatoes. As readers, we can now empathize with Loreda and visualize in our own minds what she is seeing. We wouldn’t be able to do that without Hannah adding in some of those senses.

“I had forgotten about the security devices clipped onto the clothes, however, and we had quite a struggle to remove them. I had to come behind the desk, in the end, and kneel backward beside her so she could detach them using the magnetic machine fixed to the counter. We ended up laughing about it actually. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed in a shop before.”

(Honeyman, Gail. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Canada: Penguin Books Canada, 2021.)

Honeyman gives us a wonderful example of showing. Instead of merely saying, “I forgot about the security devices on my clothes and struggled to get them off,” she takes us through the process of how the saleswoman helped her client get the devices off while still wearing the clothes. As readers, we can’t help but chuckle at this visual. And we would have missed out on that humor if Honeyman had merely told us the main point of the paragraph.

“It would be inaccurate to say that my childhood was normal before they came. It was far from normal, but it felt normal because it was all I’d know. It’s only now, with decades of hindsight, that I can see how odd it was.
“I was nearly eleven when they came, and my sister was nine.
“They lived with us for more than five years and they turned everything very, very, dark. My sister and I had to learn how to survive.
"And when I was sixteen, and my sister was fourteen, the baby came.”

(Jewell, Lisa. The Family Upstairs. United Kingdom: Atria Books, 2019.)

This is a great example of when using more complex verbs is acceptable. We could edit “it would be inaccurate” to “it is inaccurate.” That would make the verb simpler. But this change would actually make the sentence more difficult to read. In this case, the more complex verb helps the sentence flow more smoothly.

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