What Makes an Effective Narrative?

Writing a personal narrative or a story gives you the chance to practice creative skills, capture your own experiences in words, and develop imaginary characters and circumstances. Regardless of what kind of narrative you're writing, though, there are certain qualities that separate effective stories from ineffective ones. Strong characterization, vivid use of detail, and the creation of an emotional, conflict-driven plot can all ensure the success of a narrative with readers.

Conflict: The Fire of Fiction

A good narrative is about people dealing with problems. Whether they're going on a quest to defeat evil or are stuck in a bad relationship, the characters must face a conflict that needs a solution. In "The Lord of the Rings," Frodo must embark on a dangerous journey to destroy the ring, while in the Harry Potter series, Harry heads toward the ultimate showdown with Voldemort. Personal narratives need to show the author wrestling with a conflict. For example, in Ted Kooser's essay "Small Rooms in Time," Kooser tries to make sense of a murder that's taken place in the first home he and his ex-wife shared after their marriage.

It's All in the Details

Description is what gives life to a story's characters and settings. Through strong imagery and details, imaginary worlds become real and readers get a taste of events and environments they've never experienced. This is why the principle of showing versus telling is so important; good narratives show their settings and characters to readers rather than simply giving information. Jeannette Walls' memoir "The Glass Castle" provides a prime example of a narrative with successful description. Readers can clearly visualize the deserts and small mountain towns where her nomadic, artistic family make their home throughout the story.

Compelling Characters

Villains, heroes, sidekicks and love interests are all characters that draw readers into stories and give them people to root for. Good narratives use different methods of characterization to reveal a story's central figures, including actions, speech, appearance and thoughts. The greater the development of a character's personality, the more real he'll seem to readers. Part of the success of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," a true account of a murder in the 1950s, comes from his creation of both the Clutter family and their killers as characters. In order to appreciate the crime's tragedy, audiences must know what kind of people the victims were, and what led the killers to commit murder.

Getting Emotional

Good narratives ultimately have an emotional impact on readers, using language that facilitates readers' emotional responses. In the novel "On the Beach," Nevil Shute uses descriptions of the bleak atmosphere of Australia after an apocalyptic nuclear war as a backdrop for the characters' struggle to cope with their eventual death from radiation. In his essay "Looking for Emmett Till," John Edgar Wideman imagines himself as each of the players in Till's racially motivated murder to give readers an emotional window into the tragedy.

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