When students are learning to write narratives, either personal or fictional, a common mistake they make is to simply list events in the order that they happened. This may sound organized, but it’s not much of a story. The most important part of the story is missing: the emotion, the sensory details that put a reader right there into the tale, flesh out the story and make it an interesting read.
To accomplish a narrative with good details, one of the strategies we teach students is to make a movie in your mind. Close your eyes and imagine you are watching your story on the big screen. Can you see the background details? What do you hear? Is it cold or hot? Who else is there? Most critically, what are the body language and actions of the characters telling you about how they feel?
A personal narrative that I use in class is a story about my son, Tim, and the time he learned about the circle of life–no, it wasn’t at the Lion King movie. Here is the bare bones story:
After dinner in Santa Cruz, we walked along the pier. Tim saw a fish flopping around on the ground. He asked if he could save its life. I, of course, agreed. Scooping it into his hands, he took it to the railing and dropped it back in the water. Unfortunately, a pelican sat on a railing below and caught the fish as it fell from the sky! Tim recoiled in shock. I wanted to laugh.
You may notice that the best part of this story is when the pelican grabs the fish. It has the most, although not a lot, of emotion. This is the very heart of the story! So let’s make a movie in my head about this memory.
On Fridays in the summer, my family and I often drive over the hill from San Jose to Santa Cruz for dinner. We eat on the wharf and have coffee at Marini’s afterwards because they put a chunk of fudge on the lip of the cup. The rich dark chocolate and hot coffee are just perfect after a good meal. When the boys were younger, Tim especially loved walking to the end of the pier and peeking at the sea lions who lay on the support beams below the pier. The sea lions’ barking echoed for quite a distance, seeming to answer the crying of the gulls in the air. The rough weathered wood of the pier and railings is covered with gull poop, and the birds swoop down on any bit of garbage left unattended.
On the evening of the fish incident, it wasn’t dark yet, but the sunlight was softening toward dusk. A cool breeze came off the ocean, but it wasn’t cold. I was full of good seafood, coffee and chocolate, and happy to be with my family, building this tradition with them. Tim spotted a small fish, maybe five inches long, flopping on the pier and ran ahead of us. Fishermen ringed the end of the wharf, their backs turned toward the fish, their lines in the water. Maybe a pelican had dropped the fish in the middle of the pier? Tim looked stricken and begged to save the fish’s life. My heart melted. My son, the sensitive one, wanted to help this suffering creature. I watched with pride as he carefully lifted the fish and raced to the railing. He had to go up on tiptoes to be able to drop it into the water below. I was right there next to him, watchful, making sure he didn’t somehow slip and plunge into the water himself. Therefore, I was in a good place to see the gaping maw of the surprised pelican as it snatched this gift from my son’s hand. The fisherman closest to Tim saw it, too. He hid his face with his hand, but I could see his shoulders shake with laughter. I smiled, but controlled my own laugh as I casually tossed off the comment, “It’s the circle of life, Tim.” I prayed that he would understand, and not be devastated that he had killed the little fish. His brother was quick to tell him it was okay, reinforcing my comment by adding, “yeah, like the Lion King.” Tim was smiling in an instant, but I am still laughing.
Okay, so that has a LOT more internal feelings, sensory details, and even some dialogue. Now we are getting somewhere. This is still not the polished version of the story, however. There’s some unnecessary detail, and it could still use more details. At this point, I encourage students to tell the story to three people. In the retelling, more details are recalled. Listeners ask questions, and that helps a writer know what needs more explanation. So now it’s up to you. What part of the story would you like to learn more about? Ask me some questions!
On my Kindle: Linger by Maggie Stiefvater