I use the term “build” in the title because the task before us is both a technique of construction and a technique of composition. Many writers admit that they “build” stories and descriptions, but insist that they “write” narrations; that is, they formulate a story as it comes to them. Perhaps that is why we read many poor stories.
To succeed in writing strong narration, you must build your narrative out of separate parts and arrange them after a definite scheme. The only difference between narration-building and story-building is in the nature of the parts.
This article focuses on writing narrative, non-fiction stories (rather than literary), such as stories that you may find on CNN.com, the front page of USA Today, or a feature article in Time magazine or Good Housekeeping magazine. To help you write true stories of actual happenings, you need to restrict yourself from imagining events or inventing incidents.
Step 1: Gathering Material
The first step of building a narrative is to gather all necessary material. This is closely related to detective work. You will not find stories of real life spread out in their entirety before you. You are fortunate if one incident is opened up to you in full.
Usually, you only have to peek at the story first and then hunt for clues and follow every thread to discover the other incidents. This process of tracing out and piecing together incidents is painstaking, to say the least. But you cannot skip this step. If you overlook a single incident, you could compromise the entire integrity of your story.
This process resembles a trial in court because you piece together a story to determine what really happened and who committed the crime; often the final verdict is instantly changed by the discovery of an unknown incident in the last cross-examination.
Therefore, do not judge the story or its characters immediately until you have unearthed all the facts. If you do, your prejudice and hastily-formed judgment may blind you from noticing the most important incidents. Instead, think over every thread of the story and trace the actions of each character separately from beginning to end.
Since most events in human life are conjoined by cause-and-effect relations, searching for the cause of the action or incident in the story will often lead you to discover another thread of the story. A word of advice to follow is this: “Never begin to write or to outline the story until you are reasonably sure that you have all the facts.”
Step 2: Organizing Material
The next step is to organize the material. This is a difficult task because you may have a lot of material, and it is difficult to know what is essential. For me, I like to work out the story on paper just as if I were solving a puzzle. One may jot down in a row all the incidents in the story, or one may jot down in parallel columns the incidents in which each actor plays a part.
Such a list will ensure that you include all the necessary incidents. Or you can graphically picture the action by a series of lines, each representing an actor, with intersections indicating the points where characters meet in the same incident. After you have created this list, or diagram, you must then decide what parts are essential and if you need these parts to add clarity to the story.
Step 3: Outlining the Story
If one were writing a summary of the story, like the synopsis of an installment of a serial novel, you would simply narrate the events indicated in your outline. But this would make for very dull narrative. Both concrete action and dialogue make a narrative interesting. You must tell some parts of the story full-length—that is, with all the action and dialogue that occurred.
However, unless you are writing a novel, it is impossible to tell the entire story in full-length. In a short narrative you must select parts of it to tell in full. The easiest way to achieve this is to divide the narrative into scenes—the two, or four or five scenes in which most of the significant action took place. If you tell these in full, with action and dialogue, you can minimize narration.
To outline the narrative, select several scenes at the major points on the outline that you want to write out in full-length; you can summarize intermediate action in synopsis form, or by the dialogue in the major scenes.
Step 4: Where and How to Begin
Many writing instructors discourage writers from telling the story in chronological order. Because narrative is only a section of life lifted out of a continuous cycle—just a few hours out of the lifetime of the various characters—it has no definite beginning or end. The characters lived before the story and most of them will probably live afterward.
Let’s suppose the actual narrative begins at 3 o’clock on May 21st—what do you do with the many years preceding that exact moment? The past is not really a part of the story; and yet it is necessary to understand the story. A narrative hinges more on the past than on the incidents in it. To introduce the background, you need to handle the “story of the past” and decide where the narrative takes up the cycle of the characters’ lives.
You should begin your story no earlier than the first scene on your outline. Whatever happened before the first scene, you can work in as explanation. Sometimes it not always best to begin with the first scene, even if it contains significant action. Sometimes you can begin with the last scene and relate earlier scenes later—like a “cut-in” in a movie.
Or you may begin in the middle, then go back to the beginning, and finally reach the end. It all depends on the particular narrative. This much is true, however: you should not write a word of your story until you have made a definite outline of its entire course.
Plunge directly in
Before the Internet Age, writers of narrative often began with a sketch of the past—an exposition of what went before. Some writers do so now, although they run the risk of writing a very dull beginning. Today’s writers usually plunge directly into one of the scenes. They begin with action, jumpstart the story, and flesh out the narration later.
Oftentimes you can use a remark by a character or a splice of action to start your story. Or you can describe the scene as the beginning. This method is somewhat unnatural and therefore you must do it with great skill. However you decide to start your story, you should plunge into one of the full-length scenes first, simply to force action into the beginning.