A narrative is a meaningful sequence of events told in words. It is sequential in that the events are ordered, not merely random. Sequence always involves an arrangement in time (and usually other arrangements as well). A straightforward movement from the event to the last constitutes the simplest chronology. However, chronology is sometimes complicated by presenting the events in another order: for example, a story may open with the episode and then flash back to all that preceded it.
A narrative has meaning in that it conveys an evaluation of some kind. The writer reacts to the story he or she tells, and states or implies that reaction. This is the "meaning," sometimes called the "theme," of a story. Meaning must always be rendered. The writer has to do more than tell us the truth he sees in the story; he must manifest that truth in the characters and the action.
Characters and action are the essential elements of any story. Also important, but not as essential, is the setting, the place where the action occurs. Characters are usually sometimes actual people, as in history books or newspaper stories, sometimes imaginary ones, as in novels. Occasionally characters are animals (as in an Aesop fable), and sometimes a dominant feature of the environment functions almost like a character (the sea, an old house).
The action is what the characters say and do and anything that happens to them, even if it arises from a nonhuman source—a storm, for instance, or a fire. Action is often presented in the form of a plot. Action is, so to speak, the raw material; plot, the finished product, the fitting together of the bits and pieces of action into a coherent pattern. Usually, though not invariably, plot takes the form of a cause-and-effect chain: event A produces event B; B leads to C; C to D; and so on until the final episode, X. In a well-constructed plot of this kind we can work back from X to A and see the connections that made the end of the story likely and perhaps inevitable.
Stories can be very long and complicated, with many characters, elaborate plots, and subtle interpenetration of character, action, and setting. In writing that is primarily expository, however, narratives are shorter and simpler. Most often they are factual rather than imaginary, as when an historian describes an event. And often in exposition an illustration may involve a simple narrative. Being able to tell a story, then, while not the primary concern of the expository writer, is a skill which he or she will now and again be called upon to use.
As with so much in composition, the first step in narration is to analyze the story in your own mind. In the actual telling, the analysis provides the organization. The simplest kind of narrative is the episode, a single event unified by time and place. But even an episode must be organized. The writer must break it down into parts and present these in a meaningful order.
In the following case the episode is the brief landing of a passenger ship at the Mediterranean island of Malta. After describing the setting in the first paragraph, the writer divides his story into two parts: the problems of getting ashore (paragraphs 2 and 3), and the difficulties of returning to the ship
We called at Malta, a curious town where there is nothing but churches, and the only sound of life is the ringing of church bells. The whole place reminded me of the strange towns one often sees in the nightmares of delirium.
As soon as the ship anchored, a regular battle began between the boatmen for possession of the passengers. These unhappy creatures were hustled hither and thither, and finally one, waving his arms like a marionette unhinged, lost his balance and fell back into a boat. It immediately bore him off with a cry of triumph, and the defeated boatman revenged himself by carrying off his luggage in a different direction. All this took place amid a hail of oaths in Maltese, with many suggestive Arab words intermingled.
The young priests in the second class, freshly hatched out of the seminary, turned vividly pink, and the good nuns covered their faces with their veils and fled under the mocking gaze of an old bearded missionary, who wasn't to be upset by such trifles.
did not go ashore, for getting back to the ship was too much of a problem. Some passengers had to pay a veritable ransom before they could return. Two French sailors, who had got mixed up with churches when looking for a building of quite another character, solved the matter very simply by throwing their grasping boatman into the sea. A few strokes with the oars, and they were alongside, and as a tug was just leaving they tied the little boat to it, to the accompaniment of the indignant shrieks from the owner as he floundered in the water. Henry de Monfreid
In each of the two main parts of the story de Monfreid begins with a generalization and then supports it with a specific instance. The effectiveness of his narrative lies both in the skill with which he analyzes the episode and the precision with which he renders characters and action. The glimpses he gives us are brief, but vivid and filled with meaning: the tumbled passenger "like a marionette unhinged," "the mocking... missionary," the shrieking indignation of the greedy boatman thrown into the sea.
Their nightmare quality, which is the dominant note of the setting, unifies these details. But their causal connections are relatively unimportant. For example, the sailors do not toss their boatman into the water because of what other boatmen did earlier to the unfortunate passenger. The two events relate not as cause and effect but more generally in showing the greediness of the Maltese.
In more complicated stories, however, events may well be linked in a plot of cause and effect. A brief example of such a plot appears in this account of a murder in New York occasioned by the Great Depression of the 1930s:
Peter Romano comes from a little town in Sicily. For years he kept a large and prosperous fruit store under the Second Avenue elevated at the corner of Twenty-ninth Street. A few years ago, however, he got something the matter with his chest and wasn't able to work anymore. He sold his business and put the money into Street.
When the Wall Street crash came, Peter Romano almost everything. And by the time that Mrs. Romano had had a baby five months ago and had afterwards come down with pneumonia, he found he had only a few dollars left.
By June, he owed his landlord two months' rent, $52. The landlord, Antonio Copace, lived only a few blocks away on Lexington Avenue, in a house with a brownstone front and coarse white-lace curtains in the windows. The Romanos lived above the fruit store, on the same floor with a cheap dentist's office, in a little flat to which they had access up a dirty oilcloth-covered staircase and through a door with dirty-margined panes. The Romanos regarded Mr. Copace as a very rich man, but he, too, no doubt, had been having his losses.
At any rate, he was insistent about the rent. Peter Romano had a married daughter, and her husband offered to help him out. He went to Mr. Copace with $26—one month's rent. But the old man refused it with fury and said that unless he got the whole sum right away, he would have the Romanos evicted. On June 11, he came himself to the Romanos and demanded the money again. He threatened to have the marshal in and put them out that very afternoon. Peter Romano tried to argue with him, and Mrs. Romano went out in a final desperate effort to get together $52.
When she came back empty-handed, she found a lot of people outside the house and, upstairs, the police in her flat. Peter had shot Mr. Copace and killed him, and was just being taken off to jail. Edmund Wilson
Chronology is the bony structure of Wilson's little story: "For years he kept... A few years ago ... When the Wall Street crash came ... By June ... On June 11 ... When Mrs. Romano came back " This temporal skeleton supports a cause-and-effect plot. The basic elements of such a plot are the exposition, the conflict, the climax, and the denouement.
The term exposition has a special meaning with reference to narration. The exposition is that part of the plot which gives us the background information about the characters, telling us what we need to know in order to understand why they act as they do in what is about to unfold. Exposition is usually, but not always, concentrated at or very near the beginning of a story. Wilson's exposition occupies the three paragraphs, which locate Peter Romano in time and place and tell us necessary facts about his history.
Conflict involves two or more forces working at cross purposes. (Sometimes this takes place between a character and a physical obstacle such as a mountain or the sea; or it may be internalized, involving diverse psychological aspects of the same person.) In this story the conflict, obviously, occurs between tenant and landlord. The third part of a plot, the resolves the conflict: here, the shooting. Finally the plot ends with the denouement, the closing events of the narrative: Peter Romano's being carried off to jail.
In the simple and often partial stories you are likely to tell in expository writing, it is not always necessary (or even desirable) that you develop all these elements of a plot in detail. You may need to spend your time on exposition and con-Wilson treat the climax and denouement very briefly. Or you may wish to slight the exposition and concentrate on the climax. But in any case you must be clear in your own mind about the structure of your plot and know how much of each element your readers need in order to understand your narrative.
In organizing a story, then, you should ask these questions. (1) What is the plot? Specifically this comes down to: What is the climax? What events leading to the climax constitute the conflict? What should be included in the exposition? What events following the climax (the denouement) should be told? (2) What are the salient qualities of the characters and how can these best be revealed in speech and action? (3) What details of setting will help readers understand the characters?
How you answer those questions depends on what you want the story to mean. Meaning in narrative is a complex matter. Broadly there are three kinds: allegorical, realistic, and symbolic. In allegories the meaning is an abstract political, characters, plot, and setting are contrived to express. Often what happens in an allegory is not realistic or credible in terms of everyday experience. What it all means must be looked for on the abstract level of ideas. A Queen named Superba drawn in a magnificent carriage by six strangely assorted beasts begins to make sense only when we realize that Superba stands for the mortal sin of Pride and that the animals represent the other six deadly sins. We have to think theologically in terms of sin and damnation to understand what the poet Edmund Spenser was saying.
In realism, on the other hand, meaning exists in the surface events. We don't interpret characters or plot as emblems of thought or feeling. De Monfreid's account of the landing at Malta is an example. It has a meaning, or meanings: Maltese boatmen are greedy; their greed is punished; young priests are naive. But these are generalizations drawn from what literally happens.
In symbolic stories meaning is neither purely allegorical nor purely realistic. It is both at once. Such stories are realistic in that characters and events correspond to life as we know it, and we can generalize from them to real people. At the same time the stories—like allegories—point to another level of significance, more abstract and more inclusive. Edmund Wilson's tale, for instance, conveys both a particular (realistic) and a more abstract (allegorical) meaning. Read literally, the narrative is the tragedy of two men made desperate by economic frustration, and we may fairly apply it to similar men in similar circumstances. At the same time the story can be seen in Marxist terms as revealing the impersonal forces of the exploiting bourgeoisie and the dispossessed urban proletariat, each the victim of a capitalist economy, each the vic-timizer of the other.
In practice, many stories operate, so to speak, at intermediate points of meaning. The meaning of one narrative is realistic tending toward the symbolic; of another, symbolic tending toward the allegorical.
Whatever its mode, the meaning of a story, if it is to be truly communicated, has to be rendered in the characters and plot and setting. It may, in addition, be announced. That is, the writer may explicitly tell us what meaning he or she sees in the story. Sometimes such a statement of theme occurs at the end of a story (the "moral" at the end of a fable, for instance), sometimes at the beginning, sometimes in between. Thus the following account of the execution in 1618 of Sir Walter Raleigh begins with an announcement of its significance. But the writer does not rest content with telling us the theme. He is careful to select appropriate details of speech and action and to ground his theme in them:
Immortal in the memory of our race, the scene of Raleigh's death has come to us with its vividness undimmed by the centuries. Everything that had been mean, false, or petty in his life had somehow been sloughed off. The man who went to the block was the heroic Raleigh who all along had existed as Sir Walter's ideal and now was to become a national legend.
He had been lodged in the gatehouse at Westminster. At midnight his wife left him for the last time, and miraculously he lay down and slept for a few hours. Early in the morning the Dean of Westminster gave him his last communion. Afterwards he had his breakfast and enjoyed his last pipe of tobacco. At eight o'clock he started on his short journey to the scaffold erected in Old Palace Yard.
Raleigh, so completely a man of the Renaissance, was inevitably concerned at the time with thoughts of fame beyond death. In his speech from the scaffold he did what he could to protect that fame, assuring his hearers that he was a true Englishman who had never passed under allegiance to the King of France. He was concerned also that men should not believe the old slander that he had puffed tobacco smoke at Essex when the earl had come to die. At the end he concluded:
And now I entreat that you all will join me in prayer to that Great God of Heaven whom ! have so grievously offended, being a man full of all vanity, who has lived a sinful life in such callings as have been most inducing to it; for I have been a soldier, a sailor, and a courtier, which are courses of wickedness and vice; that His Almighty goodness will forgive me; that He will cast away my sins from me, and that He will receive me into everlasting life; so take my leave of you all, making my peace with God.
There followed the famous moment in which Raleigh asked to see the axe. The headsman was reluctant to show it. "I prithee, let me see it," said Raleigh, and he asked, "Dost thou think that I am afraid of it?" Running his finger along the edge he mused, "This is sharp medicine, but it is a sound cure for all diseases." There was some fussing about the way he should have his head on the block. Somebody insisted that it should be towards the east. Changing his position, Raleigh uttered a last superb phrase—"What matter how the head lie, so the heart be right?" He prayed briefly, gave the signal to the headsman, and died.
The headsman needed two strokes to sever the head. After holding it up for the crowd to see, he put it in a red leather bag, covered it with Raleigh's wrought velvet gown, and despatched it in a mourning coach sent by Lady Raleigh. Finally both head and body were buried by her in St. Margaret's Church, Westminster.
Akrigg states his point in the opening paragraph: Raleigh died heroically. In the story itself Raleigh's own words and actions carry that theme. The writer wisely lets them speak for themselves. In effective narrative you must render scenes as you want readers to see them and not labor overlong on telling them why your story is significant. If you create real characters and action, readers will gather the meaning.
It is not even necessary to state the point at the beginning or end of the story (though sometimes, as in the example by Akrigg, it is desirable). Edmund Wilson, for instance, does not tell us what the story of Peter Romano and Mr. Copace means: it is clear enough. Similarly the following brief narrative by Ernest Hemingway, which we saw earlier as an example of understatement, leaves its meaning for readers to infer:
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him down stairs and out into the rain. They tried to him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.
Hemingway's story exemplifies realistic meaning. For while one can read philosophical significance into the horrifying episode, there is no evidence that Hemingway intends us to jump to any philosophy. This, he implies, is simply the way things are; the story is its own meaning.
The narrative also exemplifies "objective" presentation. It concentrates on the surface of events, on what can be seen and heard. Such objectivity is not a refusal to see and convey meaning, as inexperienced readers sometimes suppose. It is rather a special way of communicating meaning.
It can be a very powerful way. Hemingway does not tell us that war makes men cruel. He shows us; he forces us to endure the cruelty. The meaning of his brief story is more than an idea we comprehend intellectually. It becomes a part of our as deep and abiding a part, probably, as if we had actually been there, but nonetheless a reality experienced.
This is what the writer of narrative does at his or her best: re-create events in an intense and significant manner and thus deepen and extend the reader's experience of the world. Of course, in narrative of this rich and powerful kind we are entering the realm of creative literature and leaving behind the simpler world of exposition. Still, all narrative, whether literary or serving the needs of exposition, must have meaning, and that meaning must be rendered in character, action, and setting.
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