By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Read and compose in several genres to understand how genre conventions shape and are shaped by readers’ and writers’ practices and purposes.
- Match the capacities of different environments to varying rhetorical situations.
Over time, people have developed specific ways of writing for particular rhetorical situations. These distinctive ways of writing can be referred to in part as genres. You may have heard the term genre in reference to publishing categories, such as novels or memoirs, but the term can refer to any type of writing that conforms to specific forms and benchmarks. Many genres include stories of different kinds—for example, folktales, short stories, accounts of events, and biographies. As author Jonathan Gottschall says in his 2012 book of the same title, humankind is “the storytelling animal”; people of all cultures have engaged in telling stories, both as storytellers and as audience members. Simply put, narrative stories are essential to many genres of writing.
Exploring Narrative: Elements of Storytelling
Narratives, whether about literacy or anything else, include these key elements:
- Plot. Authors of narratives tell about one or more events. In fiction, the plot is the sequence of those events. In nonfiction, a plot is often referred to simply as the events, but nonfiction texts follow similar plot patterns, including exposition or introduction, a series of events leading to a climax or discovery, and events following the climax or discovery.
- Characters. The events in the story happen to characters, or individuals who are part of the story. In nonfiction, these characters are usually real people. The audience should feel a connection to the main character or characters. Readers may like or dislike characters, blame them or feel sorry for them, identify with them or not. Skilled writers portray characters through the use of dialogue, actions or behavior, and thoughts so that readers can understand what these individuals are like.
- Setting. Stories, fiction and nonfiction, take place in settings, which include locations, time periods, and the cultures in which the characters or real people are immersed.
- Problem and Resolution. In narratives, the characters generally encounter one or more problems. The tension caused by the problem builds to a climax. The resolution of the problem and the built-up tension usually occurs near the end of the story.
- Story Arc. Most narratives have a story arc—a beginning, a middle, and an end—but not necessarily in that order. The story arc, or order of events, may occur chronologically, or the story may begin in the middle of the action and explain earlier events later in the sequence.
Specific Details and Other Conventions
To immerse the audience in the story, authors provide specific details of the scenes and action. Many authors, and teachers, call this strategy “showing, not telling.” These aspects can include the following elements:
- Sensory Details: Full, literal or figurative descriptions of the things that the characters see, smell, hear, touch, and taste in their surroundings.
- Dialogue: Conversation between characters.
- Action: Vivid portrayal of the events in the story. Writers often use short sentences and strong verbs to indicate physical or mental action.
- Engaging Language: Sentence structure and word choices, including tone (vocal attitude of the narrator or characters), diction (language used by the narrator or characters), and varied constructions (different kinds of sentences), that provide specific, clear, and compelling information for the audience.
Establishing the Significance
For example, in the prologue to her memoir about the importance of education for girls, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013), Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997) writes, “The day when everything changed was Tuesday, 9 October 2012.” Yousafzai provides reference to an exact date, the precise moment when a Taliban gunman shot her in the head because she had spoken publicly in favor of girls’ right to education. Identifying the date in this way is a technique that serves a variety of purposes. This technique provides a focal point to draw the audience into the story, identifies details that serve as rising action that the audience can assume will culminate on this date, marks the setting in both time and place for the audience, and ultimately foreshadows a climax of action for the reader. The following elements, therefore, are crucial for writers of narratives to consider when creating content for their writing.
- Audience. Narratives are designed to appeal to specific audiences; authors choose storytelling elements, details, and language strategies to engage the target audience.
- Purpose. Authors may tell stories for different reasons: to entertain, to reinforce cultural norms, to educate, or to strengthen social ties. The same story may, and often does, fulfill more than one purpose.