Read “Narrative Techniques” in this week’s readings to learn techniques and strategies writers use to create a vibrant scene. Then read and annotate the student sample narrative below for all of the narrative techniques. 

Annotating a text is a vital literate practice for critical reading as it helps you achieve a deeper, more multifaceted, and purposeful understanding of a text. For example, this assignment asks you to annotate a text for the purpose of learning from the choices and techniques a writer made creating the text. Make all of the following annotations, including comments or thoughts you have about how the techniques are or are not effective and why and why you think the writer choose to use the techniques in these ways:

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  • Find and label where you believe the scene starts and ends. Remember that a scene takes place in real time.
  • Label sensory details according to the sense in question: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. Label at least five sensory details (the same sense may be labeled multiple times if used in different areas).
  • Label dialogue, either individual lines or blocks of conversation. Label dialogue that takes place in at least three different conversations.  
  • Label anything you think is the thoughts of the point of view character at the time. Think of dialogue within the mind of the character. Label at least three different areas where you see the thoughts of the point of view character.
  • Label where you get a clear sense of how the character is feeling by naming the emotion. Label at least five places where you can label a clear and strong emotion that is conveyed.

Feel free to add any other annotations or comments you wish. 

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Narrative Techniques

Writing a narrative scene is different from almost all other writing you’ll do in school. Most academic writing—and most of our daily communication—is what is called “exposition.” Exposition simply means using language to communicate ideas or concepts. “It is a beautiful day” is exposition. You understand that concept. However, can you tell if the writer is thinking of a summer or winter day? Are they in Utah or China? Near a forest or a beach? You don’t know.

That’s where narrative comes in. Narrative is the means humans have developed of communicating, and creating, experience so as to be able to communicate emotion. If someone tells you “I’m happy” you understand intellectually, but it doesn’t make you feel happy. If a person writes an effective story about what it is like to experience happiness, however, you may share that emotion.

That’s your objective with the narrative assignment: to recall or create a specific, significant experience in your or someone else’s life and communicate it so your reader feels, at least to a degree, what the subject of the story felt.

Narrative writing is used in many genres, some of which you will explore later in this and other classes. But all employ similar basic narrative techniques. These techniques as you’ll use them in your assignment to write a flash narrative including at least one scene are as follows:

1) Focus on a Specific, Brief Time: Think like a movie director. A scene is where you turn the camera on and record people (characters) in a certain place (setting) doing and saying things (plot). The scene ends when the camera turns off. In a movie, you would then move to the next scene, another place and time where the same or new people are doing different things. In a short narrative, your entire story may well focus on one scene, meaning one very brief period of time. Think of something that happened in five or ten minutes, not a month or even a week. Pick the time of most significant emotional meaning and build your narrative around that.

2) Sensory Details: To re-create an experience, you can’t simply tell readers your interpretation. “It is a beautiful day” is an interpretation. I don’t know if you find snow or sunshine or rain beautiful, if you like a sandy beach or an arctic mountaintop. Instead, use language to describe the experience using sensory details: what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. Describe the heat coming off your old computer; the tangled rat-nest of hair atop your teacher’s head; the woody smell of a brand new book’s first page, almost like a lit candle. The more sensory details you use in a story, and from the more different senses, the more vivid the experience will be for the reader.

3) Dialogue: Stories include what people say word for word, much like quotation, rather than what people mean. For example, the sentiment 
I Don’t Like You could be spoken “I’m sorry but, you know, sometimes I don’t like you very much” or “If I ever see you again, I’ll stab you in the eye with an ice pick.” Both have the same basic meaning, but by letting a character speak the words readers understand the meaning with greater nuance and see much more of the speaker’s personality. In your narrative, be sure to include dialogue, literal conversations between characters, rather than just summarizing or paraphrasing what is said.

4) Thoughts and Feelings in the Moment: Every medium of story has its strengths. Film is good at scope and setting: a novelist cannot do the epic grandeur of a movie like 
The Avengers, for example. Theater’s strength is small group drama because its actors are real, live, breathing people and because the audience gets a voyeuristic thrill watching. The strength of written story (or prose) is accessing the mind. Not all human thought is in language (we think in images, impressions, feelings, sometimes even sounds and other senses), but much thought is language. That means writers can smoothly dive into the thoughts of a point of view character. For example, a character could do the following:

“I love you.” I hate you.

This character says they love someone but immediately afterward thinks the truth. Our thoughts are truer than what we say and often what we do. Frequently, the things we “say” to ourselves in our own minds communicate emotion better than anything we say or do publicly.

Whatever narrative genre you chose to write, you’ll need to include a fully realized scene with plentiful sensory details, interesting dialogue, and thoughts in the moment.

The Lunch Room

I remember the moment I walked into that maroon and gold lunch room at Lakeridge Junior High like it was yesterday. It was the first day of 7th grade, and I had just moved to Orem, Utah from Milan, Italy. I didn’t know any English, and I felt lost, confused, and terrified. Your first day of Junior High in general is hard, being a teenage girl is even harder, but moving to a different country and having to learn a new language and culture was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to go through in my life.
Just a couple weeks back I was telling all my friends that I was about to move to the U.S, and nobody believed me. Just a couple weeks back I was living on the 30th floor of the 36 floor apartment next to the center of Milan – Duomo and just a couple weeks back my parents had just finalized their divorce and my mom decided it was time to go back and live with her side of the family now.

The bell rang at 11:25 AM, and everyone stormed out of their seats like a race had just started. “Come on, Vanessa,” the ESL teacher shouted from across the classroom. It was finally time for lunch, and students were everywhere. As I slowly walked down the crowded halls and made my way to the cafeteria, I knew it was finally time to face my fears and walk in front of over six hundred students as the new girl from Italy.

The lunchroom room was big, cold and smelt like cardboard pizza and chocolate milk. As I walked up to get my tray, I felt like an alien that just landed from outer space. Everyone was starring and analyzing me from head to toe.

“Pepperoni or cheese?” asked the lunch lady. She was wearing a pink apron and a white hair net that held all her black hair in place. I looked at her and shook my head in confusion. All I heard coming out of her mouth was blah-blah-blah? She threw both pieces on my tray and smiled at me.

Clueless, I kept following the lunch line and imitating every move the girl in front of me made like a programmed robot. She kept sliding her tray down the metal bars and went to grab a side salad and fries, so I followed accordingly. Then she grabbed a small brown carton of milk, and even though I had never seen or tasted any of these entrees, I did exactly as she did. I just wanted to fit in, and avert all attention from me.

As I finally made it to the table and sat down in the middle of most of the peers in my classes, I was filled with anxiety, and my mind wouldn’t stop racing. All I kept thinking was why do Americans drink milk for lunch? Why does their pizza taste like paper? Why are we eating out of these weird trays? And wait, no second course and desert? I felt like a screw in a box full of nails.

“Hi Vanessa, so you’re new?” asked a classmate from my math class.

“Where are you from?” asked an other.

“Is this your first day in America?” asked an other classmate from my geography class. Bombarded with all these questions coming from everyone, and the rambunctiousness going on around me, I felt like screaming from the top of my lungs, BASTA! Which means stop, in Italian. But instead I just sat there quietly, holding all my tears back, and faked a smile.
The only English words I knew were yes and no. In Italy, you don’t start learning English until you get to Junior High, so I couldn’t understand anything being asked. It all sounded like gibberish to me.
“Yes”, “no”, “no”, “yes”, “no” I kept answering nervously. Everyone started laughing at me frantically. Burning fire lit up through my stomach, I had never felt more humiliated in my life. All I wanted to do was disappear, and I wished my mom had never moved me to Utah. Tears slowly ran down my red cheeks. While trying to hide my face desperately, a blonde girl named Amber from my math class abruptly pulls me into the bathroom. “Are you okay? Are you okay?” she kept asking me. By this time, I was balling all over her shoulder. “No” I cried hysterically.
It almost felt like Amber was meant to come into my life. She told me everything was going to be okay, she helped me heal. She helped me become who I am today; and because of that small simple gesture, we became lifelong best friends and I ended up learning English in three short months.

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