Rhetoric and Composition/Narration
What is Narration?
Narration may serve a variety of purposes in writing. It may serve as the primary mode in a narrative. Narration may also be used just like reasons and examples to support a thesis, based on either fact or invention. Often, it is used to increase reader interest or dramatize a point the writer wants to make. For example, Aesop wrote fables for his clients to use in their legal defense. They were short, easy to remember, and illustrated the client’s argument. Traditionally, narration was used to recount the facts of a legal case, in order to put them into context and structure them in the best possible light for the speaker’s purpose. Plutarch used narration as the basis for his comparison of Greek and Roman notables. In his 1989 history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, James MacPherson uses narration to support the theme of the contingency of history. In short, narration has been used as proof for a long time.
What is Narrative?
A narrative is a constructive format (as a work of speech, writing, song, film, television, video games, photography or theatre) that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to tell", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled". [Oxford English Dictionary Online, "narrate, v.". Oxford University Press, 2007]
- First Person Narrative: A mode of narration where a story is told by one character at a time, speaking from their own perspective only. "I" "My"
- Second Person Narrative: A mode of narration where a story is told with the use of "You" "Your" EXAMPLE: You went to the store before you bought yourself a flower.
- Third Person Narrative: A mode of narration where a story is told with the use of "She" "He" "They" "They'll"
- Multiple Narratives: A mode of narration where a story is told with the use of several narrators which tell the story from different points of view. The task, for readers, is to decide which narrator seems the most reliable for each part of the story.
- Unreliable Narratives: An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility is in question or has been compromised. This narrative mode is one which is developed by an author for various reasons, but is usually done so as to deceive the reader or audience. In most circumstances, unreliable narrators are first-person narrators, but third-person narrators can also be unreliable.
Let's look at this in another way. Narration IS a telling but more than that it is a showing through actions proper, that is, what the characters do, say, and think when necessary. A story, then, is always told by a narrator--either an objective, God-like narrator or a subjective human character. The omniscient, God-like narrator tells the truth because he can't do otherwise. He tells the story strictly through dialogue (Effaced Omniscient Narrator), by focusing on only one character whose mind he reveals to us (Central Intelligence Omniscient Narrator), by letting us into the mind of more than one character (a Roving Omniscient Narrator), or by getting us into the mind of all of the characters (a Hovering Bard Omniscient narrator). The subjective narrator, on the other hand, can get us into only that narrator's mind, and because he's human his story is subject to his limited perspective and understanding and thus not as reliable as the omniscient narrator and by force is unreliable. These are not "rules" but simply the nature of story-telling as shown by the vast work of stories of craft and vision of the highest order of writers. These observations do not pertain to genre fiction such as first-person detective and "popular" fiction, that is, non-literary fiction.
The minimum requirements of narration include:
- A beginning, middle, and end
- A main character, perhaps others as well
- A setting in time and place
- Motivated (or caused) action
- Supports the thesis ("It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.")
"The Ant and the Grasshopper". One example of narration requirements - Aesop's Fables
The classical arrangement indicates how narration may be used:
- Proposition (thesis)
- Confirmation (more examples, reasons, or narration)
- Refutation (of competing explanations)
Today, writers commonly begin their essay with a short narrative which leads to the thesis:
- Short Narrative
- Supporting examples and reasons
- Opposing viewpoints
Or, they may use narration to support their argument:
- Supporting examples and reasons
Many organizational methods exist for incorporating narration into writing. In the end, it will depend on your purpose and audience as to how and where (and even "if") you use it.
Narrative as Argument
In some instances, narrative itself becomes argument. In rhetorical narrative, the thesis being forwarded is often not explicitly expressed, or is placed in the mouth of a character or voice within the narrative.
Such narratives often rely on audience familiarity with type or convention for their effect. For example, in the Biblical parable, a Samaritan is portrayed as kind and generous to an injured man in the street. This relies on audience understanding of a Samaritan as a social group disliked by the Jewish community at large, here portrayed as carrying out Jesus' directives despite his social standing. Another example may be a Russian agitprop play, where the Western capitalist factory-owner is portrayed as the insolent, greedy antagonist opposed to the noble, generous Communist proletariat who eventually defeats him through use of superior philosophy and will. In these instances, the audience is encouraged to connect their previous experience of these characters and situations with the narrative's presentation of their interaction.
Examples of argumentative narrative forms:
- Didactic story
- Extended metaphor
- Agitprop story/drama/film
In addition to these genres, there are theories which posit a rhetorical function to all narrative, insofar as they require a particular set of commitments to be made by their audiences in order to become effective. Such theories would see the above-mentioned deep structure of narrative (equilibrium-disequilibrium-equilibrium) as providing an exemplary instance of problem solving, whether negative or positive.
Below is a description of the process one might go through to write an essay supporting the thesis with narration.
Answer the following questions:
- What is the purpose of your essay? What point do you want to make?
- What specific statement (thesis) do you want your story to support?
- What audience do you wish to address? Your professor? Your classmates? Some fictional audience? This will determine how formal or informal you can be, what assumptions you have of what your audience knows and likes.
- What is your setting, in time and place? Or, where and when does the story take place?
- Which events best illustrate your purpose in telling the story? Which events are clear in your mind, and will be most easily related? What is the best order to relate the events? Treat this question like a brainstorming process, and list as many events as you can remember. Then narrow your list to the most pertinent to your thesis statement and inherent purpose.
In our example essay, the writer may start with the events of his freshman year, going all the way through to his senior year.
Once you have stated the purpose of your essay, formulated a thesis, selected an audience, identified a setting, and brainstormed the events of your story, it is time to begin writing. Keep in mind that the more detail and description you can fit into your essay, the more the story will come alive for the reader. Also, your conclusion should relate how the events in the story changed you as a person with regard to your purpose.
As with any form of essay, it is always important to go back and revise the first draft. Proofread the essay carefully, and look for ways to improve its overall appearance. In the case of narration, make sure the story flows for the audience. Do the events of the story make sense? Also, look to make sure that each event relates directly back to the purpose and thesis. Does this particular event reinforce my thesis? When writing a narration, it is also important to look for ways to make the story more vivid for the audience. Go back and include as many descriptive words and details as possible. Once you are satisfied with your product, make a clean and neat final copy.
1D’Angelo, Frank J. Composition in the Classical Tradition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon; 2000; p. 22.