“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
A friend wrote something beautiful. It was moving and powerful. I only had one critique, which I shared along with my genuine praise for her writing. I began to think about my own writing and I wondered what made good narrative writing. I don’t know that I’m an expert, but I know what I like and as a writer of nearly 600 blogs, I may have some knowledge on the subject.
First, I think good narrative writing tells a story or makes a compelling point, either which can create an emotional response. My friend’s story about the HMO that mishandled her baby’s birth and subsequent death was not only heart breaking, it made clear her anger with her HMO. That wasn’t the only point she was trying to make, but she made that one very clearly.
In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis tells very clear stories of his childhood, his father, his relationship to his brother, to his mentor, and his education at a boarding school. Some of these stories are heartwarming, some are sad, and some made me smile. Both Lewis’s stories and my friend’s story are compelling because they take common occurrences, such as childhood, or rage at malpractice, and they make them personal without making them common.
Another powerful trait in good narrative writing, and perhaps in most good writing is creating a picture. This is tricky. In On Writing, Stephen King warns against using too many adjectives. At the same time, I want to see a picture. Anton Chekov wrote, "Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on the broken glass." Consider this sentence:
My clothes completely rain drenched, my once loose hanging maternity clothes clinging wet to my post pregnancy body.
Stephen King (and I) might suggest taking out the word “completely” because “rain drenched” already makes the point, but otherwise, that is a powerful and heart breaking description. I don’t have to know what the woman looks like or what color her hair is (though in this case I do). What matters is that I can see this woman, angry and sobbing in the rain, though she doesn’t use either of those words. That is powerful.
Finally, and this may be where the narrative might be strengthened, a good narrative encourages the reader to look at the world in a new way and perhaps consider making a personal change or commitment.
The writer wrote
I fought against Hope that would include forgiveness and pushed it away, ran away from it while I mocked and cursed But Jesus never gave up me on me, God never forsook me. God was whispering to me, whispers that turned into shouts that he loved me and longed for my return.
There appears to be a gap between the first and second sentence. Nowhere in the narrative does she mention her faith, and then it shows up suddenly. While those of the same beliefs may appreciate, understand and agree with her, it may leave others in the dark. How did the author go from healing to hope? The author skipped a step, or perhaps several steps. Was there something she could have told others to help them deal with their pain?
I have found this same problem in some of my own writing, especially when I was younger. I skipped a step, or several. I may have been in a hurry to finish. More likely though, I was not comfortable with the darkness and pain that were part of those steps. I believed that, because of my faith, all my writing should be cheerful and optimistic. This is formulaic and often false. Even the scriptures don’t always do this. King David expressed dark sentiments in the book of Psalms.
I have learned that the more honest and the clearer I am about my feelings, the more powerful it is for the reader. This doesn’t need to be a blow-by-blow description. Often I find these things have a quick fix. For example, the author might have added one sentence, “But I began to learn, slowly, through counseling and prayer that Jesus could heal my pain. Jesus never gave up on me….” In fact, that whole process could have been the next story.
Still, it was well written and it had one final element that made it good. It made me want to write more and write better. It made me want to Get Started and Keep Going.