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  Home > InfoWrite > Modes of Exposition > Narration

InfoTrac College Edition


What Is Narration?

Narration tells a story. Narratives can be fact or fiction. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," Carl Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln, and most articles in Time and Newsweek are narratives. Business and government reports often have a section labeled "narrative" which provides background information about a condition or problem. Narratives can be told in first or third person. Narratives, like description, can be objective or subjective.

The Writer's Role

Third Person

In narratives, the writer may be a reporter or recorder of events using the third person:

The Ableson Company was founded in 1910 by Frank and George Ableson, both of whom had worked for Union Pacific. Their firm perfected the steam regulator, which became standard equipment on all locomotives by 1920. The San Francisco firm expanded during the Twenties and built facilities in Oakland, St. Louis, Atlanta, New York, and Boston. During the Depression, the Ableson brothers, both suffering from heart disease, sold the firm to National Gear and Brake.

Third person narratives may be objective or subjective. The writer's tone and attitude is developed through the choice of words and details. Biographies, for example, may be favorable or negative.

First Person

In first person narratives, the writer is often the main participant or actor, usually focusing on personal reactions to events:

Having lived in Manhattan my entire life, I knew nothing about horses. I had never been to a race track or a circus. I never liked Westerns. My only contact with horses was a single carriage ride in Central Park one muggy July afternoon. When my sister invited me to her horse farm in Washington, I offered to earn my keep by helping out. Only then did I realize how delicate those lumbering beasts are. I learned that horses required more care than my fragile-looking but hearty little Bichon Frise.

Not all first person narratives are subjective. Often the writer is an objective reporter of events, an eyewitness recounting his or her observations:

I met Frank Minton as soon as he was discharged from the hospital. He felt lucky to be alive. His seatbelt had kept him from going through the windshield, and he had only a swollen cheek and some double-vision to indicate he had survived a nearly fatal crash. But in the weeks that followed, I began to notice strange after effects. Frank forget to return phone messages. One afternoon, while writing out payroll checks for his staff, he repeatedly asked me the date. I watched as his pen froze over the yellow checkbook. He would then flip back to check the spelling of a friend's name. At the piano, he played the same bar over and over again, seemingly unable to proceed to the next. It would be months before any of us were willing to accept the painful fact that his jazz career was over.

The narrator may serve as an objective eyewitness or a subjective commentator, injecting personal opinion and interpretation.

Developing Focus

In writing narration it is important to have a clear thesis or focus. Too often, students attempt to tell a lengthy story worthy of a novel. Trying to relate a long, complex story in a short paper can have the effect of watching a video in fast forward -- it's a general blur:

On Friday August 6, 1999 I was working my usual night shift at SuperMart when my brother called. My girlfriend Andrea had been in a car accident. I called her mother but only got the answering machine. So I called my brother back and found out which hospital she had been taken to. I punched out and raced to the hospital. I expected the waiting room to be crowded like the ones on TV, but it was deserted. I hoped that the accident had only been something minor and that Andrea would soon be coming out the door with a few bruises and a nervous smile. But when I saw her mother's face as she got off the elevator, I knew it was real bad.

Unless you are writing an accident report, there is no reason to relate every incident or detail that happens -- focus only on major events or themes. There is no reason for this student to clutter his paper with meaningless details such as the date or how he arrived at the hospital. It is better to think of your narrative as a scene from a movie rather than the whole story:

Unlike the hospitals depicted on television, the waiting room at Columbia Emergency was deserted. I sat alone amid the miniature trees, Erte prints, and worn copies of National Geographic. I flipped through the magazines, trying to concentrate on the pictures of tropical birds and arctic explorers. I kept trying to convince myself that Andrea would all right. My brother's voice on the phone had been tense, but then he was prone to overreact. Andrea was always a careful driver. She always wore her seatbelt and never speeded. It had to have been minor. She was probably just being examined and waiting for the precautionary X-rays. No doubt she would soon appear with a few bruises and a nervous smile. The elevator door opened. Andrea's mother emerged. My stomach clenched when I glanced up and saw her face. The look in her eyes told me the news was going to be very bad.

Selecting Topics For Narrative Essays

If your instructor does not assign a topic, you might consider one of the following items. Select a topic, then explore its possibilities using one or more prewriting strategies:

  • A childhood event that shaped your attitudes about a person, school, a sport.
  • An incident that exposed you to danger.
  • A work situation where your role as employee clashed with your personal values.
  • Your first day at a job.
  • The key play of an important game.
  • A story repeatedly told by a friend or family member.
  • The incident that caused you to quit a job, end a relationship, or make a decision.
  • A band's breakthough performance.
  • The turning point in a person's career or organization's history.
  • Your first experience in cyberspace.

Getting Started

Developing a narrative can be challenging. You may be unsure about which details to include or how to begin or end the essay.

Start By Defining Your Purpose

Before rushing into telling a story -- ask yourself what the goal of your narrative will be. What do you want to accomplish? What do you want your readers to understand or appreciate? Clarifying your purpose will help you determine which details are relevant and which events should be highlighted.

Limit The Chain Of Events

Keeping the desired length of the narrative in mind, limit the narrative to a key scene or scenes -- do not feel obligated to summarize everything that happened.

Sketch Out A Timeline

Before writing an outline, you may find it helpful to sketch out a timeline of events, placing events in chronological order. This may help you develop a fuller picture of the narrative and prompt your memory.

Determine The Starting And Ending Point Of The Narrative

Some narrative may have clear beginnings or dramatic finales. In other instances, you may have to decide when the narrative starts or what would make a logical conclusion.

Strategies For Improving Narration

Use Flashbacks and Flashforwards

Narratives do not have to be related in a straight chronological pattern. Flashbacks can be effective in introducing background information, so that the opening can be more dramatic:

In 1999 I started working at Roy's Grill two nights a week. The owner, Roy Taylor, required all restaurant employees, even the busboys, to attend a Red Cross first aid class. I thought it was unnecessary but I needed the job and did appreciate that Roy, a former paramedic, had a good point. One night I was stacking plates when a flash of fire shot the length of the kitchen. Sandy, the night cook, lay on the floor, his arms and face already swelling with burns. I dropped the plates into the rack, told a waitress to call 911 and immediately ran to help.

I was stacking plates in Roy's Grill one night when flames shot across the length of the kitchen. Sandy, the night cook, lay on the floor, his arms and face already swelling with burns. I dropped the plates into the rack, told a waitress to call 911 and immediately ran to help. When I began working at Roy's Grill, the owner required all restaurant employees, even the busboys, to attend a Red Cross first aid class. I thought it was unnecessary, but I needed the job and did appreciate that Roy, a former paramedic, had a good point.

Add Dialogue

In writing a narrative you may tempted to retell a story or relate an event by putting everything in your own words:

As soon as I reached Sandy, he begged me to help him. I assured him that he would be OK. I asked a waiter to get clean towels and some ice water. Sandy asked me to call his mother. He told me she had a bad heart and was afraid she might die if a policeman or doctor called her. I assured him I would have Roy call. Sandy nodded, telling me Roy should call. His mother knew and trusted him.

It is more effective to add dialogue. Using people's actual words can speed the process of telling the story and allow people to speak for themselves. Their personality, attitudes, social background, age, and lifestyle can be reflected by their tone and choice of words:

"Help me, man. Help me," Sandy repeated as I knelt beside him.
"It's OK. You'll be OK," I told him as I looked at his injuries.
I spotted a waiter in the doorway and shouted to him, "Get me clean towels and some ice water right away."
"Call my Mom, man," Sandy cried out. "Please, call my Mom. She's got a bad heart. If some cop or doctor calls her and tells her I'm hurt, she could die, man. Please, you gotta let her know but don't scare her. Please."
I nodded, "OK, I'll tell Roy to call her."
Sandy nodded, "Good, she knows him. She trusts him. If he tells her I'm OK, she'll believe it."

Narration Checklist


  1. Have you established a clear goal for the narrative?
  2. Does your narrative have a clear focus? Do you delete unnecessary detail and minor events?
  3. Do you establish a clear chronology? Can readers follow any flashbacks and flashforwards? Are there awkward shifts from past to present?
  4. Have you avoided including unnecessary details and awkward constructions?
  5. Does sensory detail include more than sight? Can you add impressions of taste, touch, sound, smell?
  6. Do you show rather than tell? Can you add dialogue and action to your narrative?
  7. Do you keep a consistent point of view? Do you shift from third to first person?
  8. READ YOUR PAPER ALOUD. How does it sound? Do any sections need expansion? Are there irrelevant details to delete or awkward expressions to be revised?

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From The Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark Connelly.