Writing Narrative

The Eckleburg Workshops

A story, whether fictional or true and in prose or verse, related by a narrator or narrators (rather than acted out onstage, as in drama). A frame narrative is a narrative that recounts the telling of another narrative or story that thus ‘frames’ the inner or framed narrative. An example is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which an anonymous third-person narrator recounts how an old sailor comes to tell a young wedding guest the story of his adventures at sea. (Norton)

Narrative Lengths

Novel — Over 70,000 words

Novella — 17,500 to 70,000 words

Novelette — 7,500 to 17,500 words

Short Story — 1,000 to 7,500 words

Short Short Story — Under 1,000 words

Microfiction — Generally, 500 words or less (Some editors will consider everything 1,000 words or less to be a short short story or flash fiction. Some editors will consider a microfiction to be 100 words or less. There is a great deal of variance between editors. If in doubt, simply ask the particular editor.)

Narrative Forms

Novel: a long work of fiction, typically published (or at least publishable) as a standalone book; though most novels are written in prose, those written as poetry are called verse novels. A novel (as opposed to a short story) conventionally has a complex plot and, often, at least one subplot, as well as a fully realized setting and a relatively large number of characters. One important novelistic subgenre is the epistolary novel—a novel composed entirely of letters written by its characters. Another is the bildungsroman.novellaa work of prose fiction that falls somewhere in between a short story and a novel in terms of length, scope, and complexity.

Novella: it can be, and has been, published either as a book in its own right or as part of a book that includes other works. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is an example.

[Novelette: Shorter than a novella, longer than a short story.]

Short Story: a relatively short work of prose fiction that, according to Edgar Allan Poe, can be read in a single sitting of two hours or less and works to create “a single effect.” Two types of short story are the initiation story and the short short story. (Also sometimes called microfiction, a short short story is, as its name suggests, a short story that is especially brief; examples include Linda Brewer’s “20/20” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.”)

[Short Short Story: a short story that is approximately 1,000 words or less. Often, expositional attributes are cut or shortened.]

[Microfiction: a short story that is approximately less than 500 words. Often expositional attributes are cut or shortened. Time lapses will be briefer and the reader will be asked to invest far more imaginative response. Micro fictions are often close to poetry and can sometimes be interchangeable with prose poetry.] 

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The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the PresentEric Kandel.

The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth-Century Responses to MeaninglessnessKaren L. Carr.

A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.

“Cogito et Histoire de la Folie.” Jacques Derrida.

Cognitive Neuropsychology Section, Laboratory of Brain and Cognition.

Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Lynne Truss.

The Elements of Style. William Strunk. 

Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Peter Barry.

Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Stephen Eric Bronner.

Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. Lois Tyson

The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. David H. Richter.

A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.

Literary Theories and Schools of Criticism. Purdue Online Writing Lab. 

New Oxford American DictionaryEdited by Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg.

The Norton Anthology of World LiteratureMartin Puchner, et al.

The Norton Introduction to PhilosophyGideon Rosen and Alex Byrne.

Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Patricia T. O’Conner

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French & Ned Stuckey-French.

Writing the Other. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.

Body Narrative: Voice

 Voice is the person behind the words that speaks out to the audience…

Voice is your personality and resonance flowing in print.


We learn to speak very young; even before basic language is learned, an infant will vocalize sounds that range from coos of pleasure to cries of hunger. According to scholar Ellen Dissanayake, infants are born with a predisposition toward poetic features in their mother’s voices, including “repetition, exaggeration, elaboration, dynamic variation, and manipulation of expectation.” [i] We adopt variations in our speaking voices naturally, even before we learn to read, yet when it comes to our writing, acquiring a unique voice can be a lifelong process.

Aural voice—the kind produced by breath and vocal organs—is so unique to each individual that people can be identified simply by the manner in which they speak. Peter Elbow, retired professor Emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, calls this distinguishing feature “voiceprints.” [ii] Much like fingerprints or the particular way someone walks or stands, voiceprints are distinct and distinguishable between individuals.

Text on a page has no physical apparatus that allows us to “hear” a voice, yet we can think about written voice in much the same way as aural voice. The author’s syntax, diction, tone, use of punctuation or pause, idioms, rhythm, and other such elements create a “voice” that is often distinguishable between writers who have their own particular style. Elbow, in the introduction to his book, Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing, describes written voice as dramatic voice, the implied character of the speaker, which might be excitable, pretentious, funny, or stuffy, for example.

Elbow explains, “Most people […] automatically project aurally some speech sounds onto the text.” [iii] He continues, “In fact, people are virtually incapable of reading without nerve activity in the throat as though to speak—usually even muscular activity.” [iv] This explains why so many of us have the urge to move our lips as we read—we’re hearing voice as we read.

Attending to our voice as we write yields great benefits. When the voice is resonant, there is some new truth shared between reader and writer. A 2012 study by Emory University found that reading descriptive metaphors like “velvet voice” roused the sensory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for touch, whereas reading clichés like “strong hands” caused the sensory cortex to remain dark. [v] Voice gives flesh to writing and creates a unique connection between writer and audience. This is what all writers strive for and what only the greatest achieve.

As you begin to cultivate your own style, consider your voice’s history. You might begin by drawing lines on a sheet of paper for each decade of your life, zero to 10, 10 to 20, etc. Thinking about the age you were when you experienced voice chiding you: your naïve voice, a weary voice, a loving voice, a silenced voice, the illusion of having voice or attempting to have a voice, an agonized or troubled voice, a critical voice, an authentic voice. Also indicate in a different colored pen what was going on in your life at the time, including any desires or conflicts you may have experienced.

You might begin to notice that there isn’t just one voice for each person, but many. If you’re familiar with the story you want to tell, you can sometimes intuitively select a voice that most clearly communicates the narrative and emotion. You may have voices that you’ve not yet discovered. Think about whether your voice has changed over time, especially during moments of healing or conflict.

Writing Prompts for Cultivating Voice

  • Write an “I” poem. Dialogue with your different voices—your loud voices, the voice that insists on being heard and your reserved voice, the voice that questions itself. Can you tell the difference?
  • How does your cultural background influence your voice? 
  • Think of someone you speak with often. Try to describe his or her voice. Is it raspy? Nasal? Smooth? What makes someone’s voice forceful, distinctive, or memorable? Describe someone’s voice that is distant or less audible. 
  • Observe a person’s facial movements before and after they speak—what do you notice about the pitch, volume, tone, strength, and clarity of voice? What do the eyes, mouth, and jaw say? 
  • Study an author’s voice that you like a lot and an author’s voice that you don’t like at all; an author who you’ve recently read who has an engaging new voice; two stories or poems by different authors on the same theme; or a piece written in first person, third person, or in a mosaic of voices such as in the poetry of Mark Halliday. Try to find what makes one voice appealing and the other not appealing. What qualities make an author’s voice distinct and accessible? 
  • Experiment with switching voices, writing with multiple voices or with the voice of a game show announcer or talk-show host.   
  • Where is your writing filled with silences? Where are silences made visible? Have you purposefully put blanks between words? Does the silence of what you are not saying speak as loudly as what you are saying? 
  • Imitate an author’s voice you like. Pay attention to punctuation, syntax, verb choice, paragraph length, and imagery. How would you classify the writer’s style? Floral? Bare? Conversational? Fast or slow? 
  • How can you break free from emulation to discover your own unique voice? 

Over the course of a career, an author can experiment with varying voices, tones, and personas. Try not to worry too much about creating a definitive voice; yours will change and evolve as you discover new topics, techniques, and authors. Rather, focus on how to get in touch with what you really have to say—just as children develop voiceprints before they know what language means—the story’s voice will emerge intuitively from the story, as if by magic.



Image from: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/high-frequency-electric-currents-in-medicine-and-dentistry-1910/

[i] Dissanayake, E. (2012). Artification: A human behavior for health (Master’s thesis). p. 47. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/3893938/Ellen_Dissanayakes_Artification_A_Human_Behavior_for_Health

[ii] Elbow, P. (n.d.). What do we mean when we talk about voice in texts? Retrieved from https://secure.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Books/Sample/56347chap01.pdf

[iii] Elbow, P. (1995). Introduction. In Landmark essays on Voice and Writing. Mahwah, NJ: Routledge.

[iv] ibid

[v] Paul, A.M. (March 17, 2012). Your brain on fiction. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.


Body Narrative: Gender


I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.  

                                    —Michael Cunningham (A Home at the End of the World)

Traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality permeate every aspect of our society and culture, affecting not only how we see the world around us, but also how we use language to communicate ideas and information. As a result, contemporary writers are often the subject of gender stereotyping, with male and female writers being associated with radically different styles. This sense that one must “perform” a gender role in order to be taken seriously causes many writers to conceal their authentic selves and passions because they fear the judgment of readers and other writers.  

Yet, as Edward Abbey once famously wrote, “It is the difference between men and women, not the sameness, that creates the tension and the delight.” With this in mind, many writers today are increasingly shedding the outdated dogmas of gender and investigating their own definitions of masculinity, femininity, and the areas in between and beyond. These writers are using their poetry and prose to address cultural and social biases directly, and to help others navigate the uncharted areas of modern gender and sexuality.   

A Brief Guide to Crossing the Gender Divide 

Crossing the so-called gender divide is no easy feat. Womanhood, sexual orientation, and “accepted” behavior, are steeped in literature and social discourse. It can be difficult for writers to see through the haze. The advice below for writing against gender norms will help author avoid common pitfalls and create innovative works that deconstruct the dichotomies of gender and sexuality. 

  1. Avoid gendered language. 

For many of us, traditional gender roles have been reinforced since childhood. As early as elementary school, we were taught to use masculine nouns and pronouns (he, him, his) when a subject’s gender was unclear or when referring to members of both sexes. This is often referred to as using the “universal he.” At the same time, female nouns and pronouns (her, she, hers) were often used to describe objects, animals, and forces of nature. This gendered language reflects and reinforces outmoded associations for both sexes, placing men in dominant roles and women in subservient ones. 

By using non-gendered or gender-neutral terms, writers can create content that is accessible to both male and female readers. Examples included changing stewardess to flight attendant, freshman to first-year student, fireman to firefighter, mankind to human beings, and so on. In addition, special attention should be given when writing about sexual orientation. American transgender activist and author of the award-winning novel Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg, writes about the difficulties of lesbian and transgender life, and cautions writers about confusing sex with gender when referring to a character or the self. 

By moving the emphasis away from normalized undertones of gender, sexuality, or sexual attraction, writers invite new readers and further self-reflection and imagination. 

  1. Try out new styles and aesthetics. 

It’s been proven that linguistic styles differ between males and females. Women’s speech tends to be more emotionally expressive and employs more compliments and apologies. As Australian researcher Janet Holmes suggests, “Females are more attentive to the affective function of conversation and more prone to use linguistic devices that solidify relationships” (Holmes, 1993). Likewise, Leigh Ann Jasheway (2010)—humor author and columnist, writing and life coach, and part-time instructor at the University of Oregon—says women are more likely to start a sentence with a question, state preferences in their writing rather than make demands, and use apologetic language even when being decisive. 

This means that while men prefer to write about an accomplishment—a battle won, a dog trained, a disease conquered—women often favor a focus on the relationships and emotional relevance of a story, such as what happens to the family left at home while the spouse is off fighting the war; what it’s like for the dog to learn to sit and stay; or how to handle the strain of caring for an ailing family member. 

According to the researcher Evelyn Fox Keller (1978), objectivity and rationality are highly masculine qualities, making male writing in many cases more similar to a scientific investigation than the interior journey of women’s writing. Men also tend to use more commanding and aggressive language. Jasheway (2010) says this may explain why women are more likely to read literary fiction and self-help books, while men tend to favor history, science fiction, and political tomes. 

These writing qualities, while not universal, represent how modern readers typically approach and make assumptions about a text. Rather than judge a book by its cover, readers will judge it by its author’s gender—among a host of other qualities—and respond to the text accordingly. Take for example, J.K. Rowling. She used her initials “J.K.,” because she was afraid that boys wouldn’t read her if they knew the book was authored by a woman. Other examples include: Armandine Lucile Aurore Dupin wrote novels in the 1800’s under the pseudonym George Sand and Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote science fiction using the pen name James Tiptree. By incorporating styles and aesthetics linked to both genders, writers can create more original and imaginative texts, which will better engage and inspire readers to overcome stereotype definitions and gender norms. 

  1. Use characters to examine gender identity. 

Speaking about women’s writing, Helene Cixous, the author of “The Laugh of the Medusa,” says the following: 

[W]omen must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Women must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement . . . I wished that that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. (p. 875-876) 

Cixous suggests that it is vital now, more than ever, for writers to create characters and literary voices that defy gender-based or sexual classification. Instead of painting males as dashing heroes and bloodthirsty warlords, or women as damsels in distress and emotional wrecks, writers should strive to build rounded characters that tangle with and overcome gender stereotypes. The gender of Jeanette Winterson’s narrator in Written on the Body, a romance story that examines the relationship between sex, gender, sexuality and narrative, is ambiguous. In doing so, the author challenges the notion of gender and sexuality as the foundation of identity. 

A great contemporary example is New York Times bestseller and author of the Plum Series, Janet Evanovich, who does an exceptional job of finding the balance between masculine and feminine in her own writing. Her series’ protagonist, Stephanie Plum, is a bail bondswoman who performs her job with a characteristically feminine style in a male-dominated industry. Similarly, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was successful not only because of its suspenseful plots and high-quality writing, but also because the characters transcend stereotypes of gender and age. This is why girls, boys, men, and women alike continue to devour her books by the millions every year. 

In a recent interview, Evanovich suggested her method for developing rounded, multidimensional male and female characters was to incorporate traditional masculine elements into female characters, and vice versa. This is a simple and useful method for all writers, leading to more exciting, unique characters that provoke further thought on issues of gender and sexuality. 


By employing everything from pronouns to syntax to gender-bending protagonists, writers have the power to take a meaningful stance on what gender and sexuality mean today and in the future. Rather than suppressing our everyday struggles with masculinity, femininity, sexuality, and gender roles, we should use them to strengthen our resolve, and to show readers with similar struggles that they are not alone. 

Writing Prompts:

Describe a time you were conflicted about the use of “girl” versus “woman” or “boy” versus “man” in your writing.

Write about your experience with masculine or feminine dominant language.

In what ways do the language, chapter titles, and references used show gender bias?

What are some of your favorite examples of intriguing male and female characters?

Explain how integrating style differences can make your work more inclusive of different genders and gender expressions.

Write a paragraph from the perspective of another gender.  When finished, write another paragraph from the perspective of someone from the opposite gender. Are there any differences?


Cixous, H. (1976). The laugh of the medusa. (K. Cohen & P. Cohen, trans.). Signs 1:4, 875-893. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Halmstad, H. (n.d.). Gender, Sexuality and Textuality in Jeanette Winterson’s

Written on the Body. Retrieved from http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:526130/FULLTEXT01.pdf

Holmes, J. (1993). Women’s talk: The question of sociolinguistic universals.    Australian Journal of Communication, 20:3. 125-148.

Jasheway, L. A. (September 3, 2010). How to write intriguing male and female

            characters. Writer’s Digest. Retrieved December 11, 2014 from          http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-     writing/he-said-she-said

Keller, E. F. (September 1978). Gender and science. Psychoanalysis and   Contemporary Thought, 409-433.


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.