Seven Secrets of Narrative Technique

What are the most important elements in a narrative?

Posted Sep 04, 2014

Firstly, plant a question in the mind of your reader, a question you would like answered yourself. This is, of course, at the heart of the mystery story or the whodunit. It is also at the heart of the case history: what is wrong with the patient? What lies behind the symptoms, the anxiety, the suffering? It is at the heart of the human dilemma: why are we aggressive? Why do we kill? Why do we love? Why does evil exist?

Secondly, adopt a persuasive voice, one the reader can follow easily, one that seems familiar yet brings new information to the subject, an original way of seeing the world. Clarity of idea means clarity of argument. Don’t obfuscate and try to cloak your meaning in scientific jargon. Try to be honest on the page with yourself and your reader. Say what you mean. Call un chat un chat, as Freud says. Address the reader directly. One of the most famous of English sentences is surely, “Reader, I married him!” from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Address the reader’s misgivings as Freud does so often in his case histories at exactly the right moment.

Thirdly, grab the reader by the coat tails by creating suspense. Trickle in the information gradually. Foreshadow, hint at what might be up ahead, but don’t tell too much too fast. Proper pacing is essential. Use, if you can, dialogue or a scene to unfold the plot in the moment, or choose an important moment to dramatize your argument.

Suspense can also be created by introducing a vulnerable character or case. We are drawn to the animal, the orphan, the young helpless child, someone shy or awkward, anyone in distress. We follow their fortunes with interest: we think of the ward in the nineteenth century novel, the poor cousin, or simply the suffering soul: Freud’s young Dora for example coming in with her plethora of ailments.

At the same time a victim does not work well on the page, as he/she does not work in life. We need, perhaps, most importantly conflict of some kind. This can be created through a feisty, fighting character, one who is in some way complicit in the crime, or simply through the opposition of ideas.

In an essay it is often the juxtaposition of opposites that drives the work forward and enables us to conclude at the end. Remember the great first lines of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Or Tolstoy’s happy and unhappy families.

Finally all these elements need to make a conclusive whole, held together by reiteration and reversal. Cinderella becomes the princess, the villain gets his come-uppance, or we manage to come up with the synthesis of our thesis and antithesis.

Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.

She will teach a class at the Center for Fiction on The Writer in Fiction. Sign up for the first class on September 17. 

Becoming Jane Eyre: A Novel (Penguin Original) by Sheila Kohler Penguin Books click here

Dreaming for Freud: A Novel by Sheila Kohler Penguin Books click here