The Language of Narrative Writing

Robert Cohn was a member, through his father, of one of the richest Jewish families in New York, and through

The Language of Narrative Writing


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k of fiction is exactly the same story for two readers. Each sees something different in it, what he himself is capable of seeing. These variations in reader response may be so great that a story becomes meaningless for one person, and highly significant for another. (Surmelian 1-4)

There are two ways of writing a story: scene and summary. Scene is the dramatic and summary the narrative method. Fiction is dramatic narration, neither wholly scene nor wholly summary, but scene-and-summary. If it were all scene, it would be a play, if all summary, more of a synopsis than a story.


2.7 The Setting


A story must happen somewhere - it must have a setting. Perhaps your idea for a story will start with an interesting place you know. What stories of interesting incidents could occur in such a place? Perhaps, instead, your story idea concerns some exciting action. In that case, you will have to supply a setting completely appropriate to and supportive of that action. In describing your setting, you should do so as quickly and vividly as you can. Long-winded place descriptions tend to clog the flow of a story and bore readers.

How you select the details will depend partly on your purpose. If you are trying to convey the feeling that a city apartment is a wonderful place to live, you might use such details as “a panoramic view of sleek gray skyscrapers,” “the cheerful laughter of children playing below,” “parsley and rosemary growing in small red pots in a sunny kitchen window." If the feeling you are trying to convey is that city apartments are unpleasant, you might use such negative details as “a view of dirty brick building," “children wailing and screaming in the next apartment,” “a small, cramped kitchen with a stained sink and a dripping faucet." Details of setting create a specific atmosphere in which the characters and their actions appear convincing and realistic. (Karls J. / Szmanski R.171-172)

2.8 The Plot


Something must happen in the story - a story must have a plot. But plot is more than a string of events. For example, a new article about a hotel fire deals with a string of events, but it has not plot because there is no conflict. To have a plot there must be conflict, problems that the characters must face and solve or fail to solve. Thus, the sequence of events making up the plot must be planned and arranged to present incidents that

introduce the conflict

build toward a climax - the point where a solution to the conflict is unavoidable

present the solution or resolution, of the conflict

There are many types of conflict you could use as plot starters. One type of conflict is the physical opposition of two characters - for example, the cowboy hero in a shoot-out with the villain. Does the hero win or lose? Why? On a more realistic level, you might have two students as finalists for a scholarship that only one could win. What happens?

Another type of conflict involves making an important decision. For example, a girl sees her best friend shoplifting - she must decide between loyalty and honesty. What does she do? Or a boys has been rejected by a group they both belong to, for a reason he consider unfair. He must decide if he should support his friend at the risk of also being rejected by the group.

Another kind of conflict involves solving a problem or overcoming a handicap. For example, a boy whose parents are very poor needs to buy new clothes for a job interview. Or a young athlete has been crippled in an accident and must learn how to live a meaningful life. Real life is full of conflicts that can form the bases for story plots. It provides writers with a never-ending supply of material. You might also get ideas for conflict from magazine and newspaper stories. But remember to keep the conflict - and the plot - reasonably close to your own experience. (Karls J. / Szmanski R.172-173)

2.9 The Scene


The scene is a specific act, a single event that occurs at a certain time and place and lasts as long as there is no charge of place and no break in the continuity of time. It is an incident acted out by the characters, a single episode or situation, vivid and immediate. The scene is the dramatic or plays element in fiction and a continuous of a present action while it lasts. The scene reproduces the movement of life, and life is action, motion. As a moving picture the scene is a closer imitation of what of what happens in life than a summary of it would be. The pictorial quality of a story and its authority depends partly on scene, and the readers participation is greater in the scene. Seeing is more realistic and convincing. It shows the action. The reader can share an emotional experience more readily. We live “scenically". Life itself is dramatic in method. (Surmelian 1-2)

Ernest Hemingway in “The Sun Also Rises" introduces Robert Cohn with a few paragraphs of summary, followed by a scene.

Robert Cohn was a member, through his father, of one of the richest Jewish families in New York, and through his mother of one of the oldest. At the military school where he prepped for Princeton, and played a very good end on the football team, no one had made him race-conscious. No one had ever made him feel he was a Jew, and hence any different from anybody else, until he went to Princeton. He was a nice boy, a friendly boy, and very shy, and it made him bitter. He took it out in boxing, and he came out of Princeton with painful self-consciousness and the flattened nose, and was married by the first girl who was nice to him. He was married five years, had three children, lost most of the fifty thousand dollars his father left him, the balance of the estate having gone to his mother, hardened into a rather unattractive mould under domestic unhappiness with a rich wife, and just when he had made up his mind to leave his wife she left him and went off with a miniature-painter… We had several fines after the coffee, and I said I must be going. Cohn had been talking about the two of us going off somewhere on a weekend trip. He wanted to get out of town and get in a good walk. I suggested we fly to Strasbourg and walk up to Saint Audile, or somewhere or other in Alsace. “I know a girl in Strasbourg who can show us the town," I said. Somebody kicked me under the table. I thought it was accidental and went on: “Shes been there three years and knows everything there is to know about the town. Shes a swell girl". (Surmelian 25)

I was kicked again under the table and, looking, saw Frances, Roberts lady, her chin lifting and her face hardening…

The scene reproduces realistically the very process of living, and each individual scene gives us a close-up of a particular act. It is a single specific moment in the plot, a single dramatic picture, and these single acts together give us the movement of the whole action. The modern tendency is to write the story as a series of single acts, scene by scene, and to give a dramatic or cinematographic imitation of life. The scene shows us the actors in action, but some narration is usually mixed up in it, and we hear the narrators voice also as he describes the gestures of the speakers and gives other stage directions which in a play would guide and inform the actors and not form part of the dialogue. In its pure form, with no stage directions, no commentary, the scene eliminates the narrators voice and is, as in an acted play, only character voice, and this heightens the illusion of reality. In the scene the burden of narration is shifted to the characters themselves and they do the work, they carry the ball.

In the scene the reader is taken through the process by which the result is obtained. The scene gives the story recentness or immediacy. We cannot narrate events that have not taken place, but the writer can give the impression that it is happening now, as though for the first time, and it is a unique event that means that you can start your story at a specified time, then go back in time and set the previous scene using the Past Perfect. Continue your story using normal past tenses, leading your readers up to the specified time, then go on to the end of your story. Using the flashback technique makes your story more exciting. (Surmelian 5-10)

The scene shouldnt be cluttered with information, comment, biography, psychological analysis, description of the setting - the author introducing in third person. At its best it is somewhat stark, unfurnished. Ideally and by its nature the scene is action pure and simple, and should be freed of those elements in the story that do not quite belong to it, though necessary for the total picture. Much may be smuggled into a scene, especially if it is a long one, in small doses, a little there, and the reader will take it in with the action without pausing to distinguish the narrators voice from the character voices. There are few pure scenes in fiction, but the writer should clear the decks before he gets to the action and make it carry, if possible, the final punch. A good scene requires preparation and is the crest of the waves in the story line.


2.10 The Summary


Not everything can, or need, be shown in fiction. The writer can also tell a story. Summary needs a teller and this is admittedly a weakness, it does not have the seemingly spontaneous movement of the scene, it is not something acted out before the eyes of the reader, who is listening to somebody tell him about it. But summary has its rightful place in the structure of the story and can be extremely useful. Summary brings in the author, or his alter ego, his spokesman, unless it is summary by character, in which case it becomes dramatic

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