Common Core Standards: ELA
3. Text Types and Purposes: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
When you get right down to it, a narrative is just a fancy word for a story. Narratives are everywhere—from the novels you read in class to the movies you watch on Saturday nights to the way your students respond to their parents’ nightly question of “What did you do in school today?” (That is, if they answer by saying anything other than “Nothing.”) Being able to tell a story that makes sense from beginning to end is an important skill, as anyone who has ever gotten stuck next to crazy Uncle Irwin at Thanksgiving dinner can tell you.
To be college and career ready in their story telling, your students will need to be able to explain a series of events that either actually happened or that they made up. (This is the one time in school they can get away with “lying” because they call it fiction!)
Narrative techniques are ways to make a story more interesting, and they are also the things that make a narrative different from other types of writing (like an essay or a poem or a status update). There are five types of techniques you might use in a narrative:
1. Dialogue. This is when people are talking, and it’s often the most interesting part of the story. The author might use dialogue to have two characters declare their undying love for each other despite the fact that he’s married to a madwoman he has locked in the attic and she can’t believe that anyone could ever love her because of the terrible abuse she suffered as a child.
2. Pacing. This means that the author doesn’t reveal everything all at once. It’s important to keep back the information about the madwoman in the attic until Jane and Mr. Rochester are standing at the altar, because that’s way more exciting than Jane learning about the first Mrs. Rochester because she found an unpaid bill for mental services rendered.
3. Description. This is the part of the book where the author gives information about the setting, characters, time period, etc. Descriptions help you visualize Mr. Rochester’s house and the terror of encountering crazy Mrs. Rochester in the middle of the night.
4. Reflection. This is when the narrator looks back over what has happened so far and thinks about what it all means. Once Jane knew that Mr. Rochester had not told her that he was married, she might think about everything else he had told her, and wonder if he was always full of it.
5. Multiple plot lines. No story is about just one thing (otherwise the poor characters would never get a break!). Just like your favorite soap opera jumps from one part of a story to another, good narratives provide different little stories within the big story. We don’t just read about Jane and Mr. Rochester’s love for each other, but also about Jane’s life as an abused child and about her finding long-lost family once her uncle dies.
1. Let’s read “The Princess and the Pea” by Hans Christian Anderson, and see how its narrative components can be broken down:
Once upon a time there was a prince who wanted to marry a princess; but she would have to be a real princess. He traveled all over the world to find one, but nowhere could he get what he wanted. There were princesses enough, but it was difficult to find out whether they were real ones. There was always something about them that was not as it should be. So he came home again and was sad, for he would have liked very much to have a real princess.
One evening a terrible storm came on; there was thunder and lightning, and the rain poured down in torrents. Suddenly a knocking was heard at the city gate, and the old king went to open it.
It was a princess standing out there in front of the gate. But, good gracious! what a sight the rain and the wind had made her look. The water ran down from her hair and clothes; it ran down into the toes of her shoes and out again at the heels. And yet she said that she was a real princess.
“Well, we’ll soon find that out,” thought the old queen. But she said nothing, went into the bed-room, took all the bedding off the bedstead, and laid a pea on the bottom; then she took twenty mattresses and laid them on the pea, and then twenty eider-down beds on top of the mattresses.
On this the princess had to lie all night. In the morning she was asked how she had slept.
“Oh, very badly!” said she. “I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!”
Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds.
Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that.
So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess; and the pea was put in the museum, where it may still be seen, if no one has stolen it.
There, that is a true story.
Here’s the breakdown:
1. This is description. Notice how vividly Andersen describes the princess’s rain-soaked clothes and shoes.
2. This is reflection. The queen has trouble believing that the princess is really what she says she is because she looks so bedraggled. So she thinks she will put her to a test.
3. This is pacing. We know that the queen is kind of a crazy hostess, since most people just change the sheets in the guest room, but we don’t yet know why she’s gathering all the mattresses in the castle, as well as a leftover piece of dinner.
4. This is dialogue. Someone is speaking! (You’d think a well-brought up princess would not complain about her accommodations, but clearly this is a royal family that cares less about manners and more about how easily bruised a princess is—which suggests she might be hemophiliac and not a great addition to the bloodline, anyway.)
Mr. Andersen does not include multiple plotlines, but we would certainly like to know what a respectable princess is doing out alone at night in the middle of a terrible storm. There is definitely something more to her story!
2. Now, read “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” by the Brothers Grimm, and see if you can figure out how its narrative components work:
Once upon a time in a great castle, a Prince’s daughter grew up happy and contented, in spite of a jealous stepmother. She was very pretty, with blue eyes and long black hair. Her skin was delicate and fair, and so she was called Snow White. Everyone was quite sure she would become very beautiful. Though her stepmother was a wicked woman, she too was very beautiful, and the magic mirror told her this every day, whenever she asked it.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the loveliest lady in the land?” The reply was always: “You are, your Majesty,” until the dreadful day when she heard it say, “Snow White is the loveliest in the land.” The stepmother was furious and, wild with jealousy, began plotting to get rid of her rival. Calling one of her trusty servants, she bribed him with a rich reward to take Snow White into the forest, far away from the Castle. Then, unseen, he was to put her to death. The greedy servant, attracted to the reward, agreed to do this deed, and he led the innocent little girl away. However, when they came to the fatal spot, the man’s courage failed him and, leaving Snow White sitting beside a tree, he mumbled an excuse and ran off. Snow White was all alone in the forest.
Night came, but the servant did not return. Snow White, alone in the dark forest, began to cry bitterly. She thought she could feel terrible eyes spying on her, and she heard strange sounds and rustlings that made her heart thump. At last, overcome by tiredness, she fell asleep curled under a tree.
Snow White slept fitfully, wakening from time to time with a start and staring into the darkness round her. Several times, she thought she felt something, or somebody touch her as she slept.
At last, dawn woke the forest to the song of the birds, and Snow White too, awoke. A whole world was stirring to life and the little girl was glad to see how silly her fears had been. However, the thick trees were like a wall round her, and as she tried to find out where she was, she came upon a path. She walked along it, hopefully. On she walked till she came to a clearing. There stood a strange cottage, with a tiny door, tiny windows and a tiny chimney pot. Everything about the cottage was much tinier than it ought to be. Snow White pushed the door open.
“I wonder who lives here?” she said to herself, peeping round the kitchen. “What tiny plates! And spoons! There must be seven of them, the table’s laid for seven people.” Upstairs was a bedroom with seven neat little beds. Going back to the kitchen, Snow White had an idea.
“I’ll make them something to eat. When they come home, they’ll be glad to find a meal ready.” Towards dusk, seven tiny men marched homewards singing. But when they opened the door, to their surprise they found a bowl of hot steaming soup on the table, and the whole house spick and span. Upstairs was Snow White, fast asleep on one of the beds. The chief dwarf prodded her gently.
“Who are you?” he asked. Snow White told them her sad story, and tears sprang to the dwarfs’ eyes. Then one of them said, as he noisily blew his nose:
“Stay here with us!”
“Hooray! Hooray!” they cheered, dancing joyfully round the little girl. The dwarfs said to Snow White:
“You can live here and tend to the house while we’re down the mine. Don’t worry about your stepmother leaving you in the forest. We love you and we’ll take care of you!”
Snow White gratefully accepted their hospitality, and next morning the dwarfs set off for work. But they warned Snow White not to open the door to strangers.
Meanwhile, the servant had returned to the castle, with the heart of a roe deer. He gave it to the cruel stepmother, telling her it belonged to Snow White, so that he could claim the reward. Highly pleased, the stepmother turned again to the magic mirror. But her hopes were dashed, for the mirror replied: “The loveliest in the land is still Snow White, who lives in the seven dwarfs’ cottage, down in the forest.” The stepmother was beside herself with rage.
“She must die! She must die!” she screamed. Disguising herself as an old peasant woman, she put a poisoned apple with the others in her basket. Then, taking the quickest way into the forest, she crossed the swamp at the edge of the trees. She reached the bank unseen, just as Snow White stood waving goodbye to the seven dwarfs on their way to the mine.
Snow White was in the kitchen when she heard the sound at the door. KNOCK! KNOCK!
“Who’s there?” she called suspiciously, remembering the dwarfs’ advice.
“I’m an old peasant woman selling apples,” came the reply.
“I don’t need any apples, thank you,” she replied.
“But they are beautiful apples and ever so juicy!” said the velvety voice from outside the door.
“I’m not supposed to open the door to anyone,” said the little girl, who was reluctant to disobey her friends.
“And quite right, too! Good girl! If you promised not to open up to strangers, then of course you can’t buy. You are a good girl indeed!” Then the old woman went on. “And as a reward for being good, I’m going to make you a gift of one of my apples!” Without a further thought, Snow White opened the door just a tiny crack, to take the apple.
“There! Now isn’t that a nice apple?”
Snow White bit into the fruit, and as she did, fell to the ground in a faint: the effect of the terrible poison left her lifeless instantaneously.
Now chuckling evilly, the wicked stepmother hurried off. But as she ran back across the swamp, she tripped and fell into the quicksand. No one heard her cries for help, and she disappeared without a trace.
Meanwhile, the dwarfs came out of the mine to find the sky had grown dark and stormy. Loud thunder echoed through the valleys and streaks of lightning ripped the sky. Worried about Snow White, they ran as quickly as they could down the mountain to the cottage.
There they found Snow White, lying still and lifeless, the poisoned apple by her side. They did their best to bring her around, but it was no use.
They wept and wept for a long time. Then they laid her on a bed of rose petals, carried her into the forest and put her in a crystal coffin.
Each day they laid a flower there.
Then one evening, they discovered a strange young man admiring Snow White’s lovely face through the glass. After listening to the story, the Prince (for he was a prince!) made a suggestion.
“If you allow me to take her to the Castle, I’ll call in famous doctors to waken her from this peculiar sleep. She’s so lovely I’d love to kiss her!” He did, and as though by magic, the Prince’s kiss broke the spell. To everyone’s astonishment, Snow White opened her eyes. She had amazingly come back to life! Now in love, the Prince asked Snow White to marry him, and the dwarfs reluctantly had to say goodbye to Snow White.
From that day on, Snow White lived happily in a great castle. But from time to time, she was drawn back to visit the little cottage down in the forest.
1. Identify some examples of description.
2. Identify an example of pacing.
3. Identify a secondary plot line.
4. Identify an example of reflection.
5. Identify an example of dialogue.
1. Possible answers include the description of Snow White’s beauty at the beginning, the description of the dwarfs’ cottage, or the description of the storm raging.
2. The author uses pacing by not telling the reader right away what the servant did after leaving Snow White.
3. The evil stepmother’s death in the swamp is a secondary plot line.
4. Snow White realizing that the forest was not dangerous is an example of reflection.
5. Possible answers include the stepmother’s conversations with the mirror, Snow White’s conversation with the dwarfs or the stepmother’s conversation with Snow White about the apple.