Narratives: Why do we tell stories?

I have been working as a teacher and instructional designer for 10 years, and in speaking to a fellow teacher today, I realized that one of the reasons I love teaching so much is because I love creating learning content. I’ve been working on this latest deck for quite a while, I’ll contextualize it with some lessons I use to teach narrative writing and speaking in a classroom. I’ll be revising this and tying it to speech, as storytelling is an integral part of a great presentation.  That segment will feature the lovely work with storytelling done by Nancy Duarte in Resonate, the new textbook for my class, Professional Communication and Presentation. If you are a leader, follower, teacher, student, professional, parent, communicator–which we all are, you must read this book. This time, I’ll focus on narrative writing.

I created this deck to go along with this content. Another behemoth…

What is Narrative Writing?

Think about the conversations you have with your friends, the timelines you see on your Facebook page, the songs your favorite artists write about their lives, the stories your parents and grandparents told you. These are all narratives, personal stories that share a lesson or reflect on an experience with the reader. Some writers create essays that are entirely narratives, but narrative structures are also a great way to organize different kinds of writing and can be an important part of a persuasive message.  So, why do we tell so many stories?

7 Reasons Narratives are Useful and Powerful (Source):

They are real

They are interesting

They are human

They are easy to tell

They are memorable

They move people

They are universal

How to use stories and narrative writing.

  • Make your narrative relevant to the experience and interests of your audience. A narrative should have a point to it that your readers can easily grasp and readily identify with.
  • Every great narrative has both a series of events and a moment of reflection.
  • A good narrative puts information in perspective. It doesn’t replace information.
  • A good story paints a picture. It helps your listeners “see” what you’re saying.  Great stories make abstract ideas concrete.
  • Make something happen in the story. It should happen in a specific time and place. Make the characters in your story sympathetic and real.

Before you create your own narrative essay, we will practice via a few activities to sharpen your narration and storytelling muscles:

It’s all in the Details

Great narratives and stories appeal to our five senses, using concrete language to place the reader within the writer’s experience. Details and specifics engage readers by bringing an experience to life, allowing the reader to become a part of the story. Still not convinced details matter? Does the following sound familiar?

A farm boy with big dreams runs across two robots and an old man. Together they set off on an adventure with a captain and his first mate to save a princess and destroy an evil fortress. After some adventures and challenges, the boy and his companions rescue the princess and save the day.

The preceding is the plot of George Lucas’ Star Wars. Would the story have had as much impact without those details? Without concrete language, the story falls flat and leaves the reader wanting more. These details are often used to create a fuller picture of the narrative’s important themes, places, and people.

So, how do you create a story that’s more than just a series of events? Think about what makes Star Wars exciting, the dynamic between the characters, the beautiful scenery, the plot twists, and challenging situations. All of these create an impacting story. So, use reasons, examples, names, numbers, and senses to help you bring your narrative to life.

Narrative writing also follows certain conventions in terms of structure. There are varied perspectives on what makes a strong narrative structure, from Freytag’s Triangle:

(Source: Paul Gorman)

to Joseph Campbell’s Hero Cycle

(Source: Nancy Duarte, Duarte Design)

To Ira Glass, This American Story writer and personality. Check out his building blocks of a great story here:

My friend and colleague Jaclyn Sullivan shares this gem from Kurt Vonnegut, who discusses here the shape of stories. Watch Vonnegut make sense of the age old boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl story.

In class, we study and practice this by working on a few activities, including a mini-discussion (my sneaky way of making students take an active role in their learning journeys) and a mini-saga flash story assignment. See them here.

What do you think makes a story great? What narratives–true stories about our experiences–have you read that impacted you?

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One thought on “Narratives: Why do we tell stories?

  1. [...] that may help format yours.  For those that prefer a more organized approach, there are various story-building models, Pixar’s “rule book” or this checklist on how to developing a story.  Remember that [...]

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