English 1A
Narrative Technique

Telling a Story

Whether it’s a short anecdote to prove a succinct point, or a longer more involved narrative to let broader themes evolve, the narrative has the unique job of showing the reader the main idea, rather than telling him.  Because stories usually involve symbolic and imaginative language, the thesis is often implied rather than stated.  For example, in a short story, you might be able to point to one or two sentences that sort of encompass what the author is trying to say, but the purpose of the story isn’t easily captured in one quick sentence. We are expected to recognize and find some way to connect with the characters of a short story, whether or not we've experienced the same things.  In fact, a short story can be even more effective if we didn’t share those experiences, because it provides us with a window to another person’s perspective.  This is the point of a short story – to allow the reader to see life through the eyes of someone else.  For this reason, reducing the story to a single, simply stated thesis is to miss out on part of the richness of the experience of reading it.  So, while the author may have had a very specific purpose in mind when writing the story, it is probably mixed in among many other significant ideas. 

At the heart
So, when reading a short story, instead of asking what the thesis is, it might be more useful to ask what’s at the heart of the story.  Identifying some of the themes at work is a good place to start.  You might also try to decipher how the author feels about his or her subject.  To do that, it’s important to look at the tone of the piece.  You can identify who the narrator is, and why the author may have chosen him or her to tell the story.  Is the narrator a participant in the story, as in the first person “I” or “we”?  Or is the narrator telling the story from a distance, as an observer, as in the third person “he” “she” and “they”?  Is the story told in past or present tense?  Asking the questions listed in the narrative introduction is also helpful in getting to the heart of the story.  What details the author presents, and in what depth, are important. 

The Plot
The control of information is also an important element.  Which details are presented in scene, and which in summary?  Does the story progress according to the traditional narrative arc (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) or is that narrative arc somehow distorted or fractured, as with a flashback?  Either way, how does the author make use of transitions in order to ground the reader in the story, and make the events clear? 

The Details
When you're writing a short story, the details will depend on the purpose of your story - what you want the reader to understand or think about at the story's end.  Your purpose may be to teach a moral, or perhaps to show the development of a particular character, or maybe to make your audience laugh.  To determine which details to include, you can ask yourself the classic reporters' questions:  Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? You may start out with more details than are necessary to get your point across.  If that happens, carefully consider which details you can cut out.  If a certain action or scene doesn't directly relate to your purpose, it confuses your audience and focuses their attention in the wrong place.  For example, if you're telling a funny story about a practical joke you played on a friend, you probably wouldn't include details about how you and that friend had met, or what he had for lunch that day - unless, of course, the point of the story depends on those details.  You will need to carefully choose which details to include to maximize the story's effect. 

Keep in mind that the writer is constantly making choices about what to include or discard, and that the ultimate point of the story will dictate how it is set up and carried out.  A good writer will carefully weigh the available options, and choose the one that best suits the task at hand.