How to Read a Novel

Digital Textbook: Reading Tools and Tips

Reading Narrative Prose

Teach Students How to Read a Narrative Text

What they [the amateurs] are really saying is “I have a story and I want it told.” This compulsion is what enables the journalist to get his information. It’s a writer’s job to flesh out the stories he hears.
—Tom Wolfe

Rationale

We need to know how narrative texts work and how to read them because stories are used for many important purposes in our world. Advertisers and politicians use stories to persuade and win us over. Writers of novels and memoirs weave often complicated stories through which they examine ideas and events. Narrative texts, which include both non-fiction (e.g., memoirs) and fiction (e.g., novels), also help us to understand how other texts work by contrasting the different types through the study of different texts and how they work and are made. Finally, narrative fiction often provides the only encounter with the imagination during the course of the school day; in this one respect, teaching such texts is vital.

What to Do

Purpose is central to the study of narrative texts—the writer’s, the reader’s, the teacher’s, and the characters’—because it directs how the text should be read and taught. Arthur Applebee (1996) suggests we use texts to create a conversation between ourselves and others, including the authors of the texts we read; thus his study of narrative texts might include how Harper Lee and Rudolfo Anaya used stories to discuss family since that is what the class is focusing on now.

Madison Smart Bell (1998) suggests teachers and readers focus on design since he believes that “form or structure [or what he comes to call “narrative design”] is of first and final importance to any work of fiction.” Bell goes on to detail the roll of plot, character, tone, point of view, dialogue, “time management,” “imagery and description,” and “design” in each of the stories he deconstructs in his study of narrative structure.

Don Graves (1999) suggests a somewhat different focus than Bell: character. Graves argues that character drives stories because stories are about what people want most and are willing to do to get it. This idea challenges the more traditional approach described above by Bell. Graves’s method is compelling and has been very useful in my own classroom. It creates openings for discussions and allows students to make connections between themselves and the characters that don’t always seem “real” to some readers who resist fiction. When you begin by looking at what a character wants most you find a powerful shared experience that can be very real for students. (See Reminder 90)

Other approaches are useful, even important. Narrative texts, for example, demand a sequence and can be described as a pattern, though not always an obvious one. Using graphic organizers or other strategies described here to help students see these sequences, patterns, or relationships will help them read more effectively. For example, students reading The Odyssey benefit from breaking down the sequence because Homer begins in the present and then suddenly shifts into the past, to a different place, to a different subject (from Telemachus, the son, to Odysseus, the father) a four chapters into the epic. Sketching out the sequence makes this structure more visible to them and even helps them understand why an author would want to use such a device.

Sample Activity:  Plot the Plot

Overview  The plot is what happens in a story. Writers make decisions about not only what to include (or leave out) but how to arrange what they do include. Some plots, such as Homer’s famous epic The Iliad, begin in the middle of the story (i.e., half way through the war which is the setting for the story) while others begin at the beginning. Still other plots are more difficult to grasp as they may be made up of many different episodes which, like pieces of a quilt, you must stitch together as you read the story. The purpose of this assignment is to study the story you have finished reading so as to better understand how it was made and why the author made it that way by looking at its plot. In short, this assignment asks you to identify the crucial moments throughout the story, and, after identifying them, explain why they were important and how they lead to the final outcome. The following questions might help you as you discuss this text with the members of your group:

  1. Did this event affect the characters and/or the direction of the story in significant ways?
  2. What effect did it have on the characters or the story?
  3. Did the character make a crucial decision at this juncture?
  4. Why did they make the decision they did?
  5. What are some other decisions they could have made?
  6. How would those have changed the outcome of the play or the characters themselves?
  7. Did they make the decision knowing what effect it would have on the others in the story—or the story itself?
  8. What does their decision tell us about their character?

Plot: Noun: the plan or main story of a literary work; a graphic represe ntation (as a chart). Verb: to make a plot, map, or plan of; to mark or note on or as if on a map or chart; to invent or devise the plot of (a literary work).

Directions  Follow these steps as you work in your assigned group:

  1. Appoint a note-maker and have them write down everyone’s name, and begin to take notes.
  2. Get out your timelines from the play
  3. After comparing the events on your timelines, identify the most important 8-10 moments in the story, indicating them on your timeline with a star.
  4. Identify what you feel is the single most important event on your timeline.
  5. Discuss why it is the most important and write down a summary of your group’s ideas about it.
  6. After plotting out the 8-10 events (using the attached sheet), discuss it, looking for a pattern or logic to the action within the story. For example, if you see a sequences of moments within the story, each one of which required the character make a decision, you might conclude that each time they made the wrong decision. You should then discuss why you feel they made the wrong decision and find evidence from the text to support your assertion.

Students’ Explanation

We put Macbeth becoming the Thane of Cawdor as a +4 because he is becoming more important and getting a higher rank. We put Macbeth’s decision to kill the king at -1 because it was forced upon him by his wife. We put Macbeth killing the king and becoming king at +1 because it is kind of good for him but he didn’t really want to betray the king but he is happy he has power now.

The information on this page comes from Reading Reminders: Tools, Tips, and Techniques, by Jim Burke.

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