Writing Lessons from “Sour Sixteenth Birthday”

narrative techniques to bring readers into storyThe ticktock of the clock echoed in my ears with each passing second. I’d been silently reciting driving rules like a broken record. It was my sixteenth birthday. At 12:45, my dad picked me up from school and took me to the DMV to take my drivers test. Anxiety surged through my body like an electrical current when I handed the administrator my paperwork. As we waited for my appointment to start, I took deep breaths to calm my nerves while my dad quizzed me. I was prepared!

After twenty restless minutes, a scowling woman with a tragic hairdo approached my car. I silently begged for her to walk past, but she knocked on my window to signal that she would be conducting my test. I felt her disapproval itch my skin. When she lowered herself into the passenger seat, the trace of her cheap perfume stung my nostrils. Her eyes pierced through me with a dismissive cynicism when I introduced myself in my most cheery and respectful manner. She mumbled hello as she shuffled through her papers.

Thoughts flashed through my brain faster than I could register them. It was all I could do to focus on her commands: “Next left … Right ahead …” A few minutes into the test, we approached a T-intersection, and she instructed me to turn left. “So far, so good,” I thought as I eased toward the intersection. There was no stop sign, so I checked both ways for traffic. But I could not see to the right, so I slowly released my foot from the brake and inched forward for a better view. Just when I could see the intersection, she jutted her arm in front of my chest and shrieked, “There’s a bus!”

I slammed on the brakes. My heart raced. I couldn’t speak. It felt like days passed before she said, “That was bad. That was really bad.” In that moment, my confidence evaporated. A wave of tears nearly overflowed my eyes, and a painful ache crawled down my throat. I’d barely started the test and already ruined my chances of passing!

When we were done, she sighed, “Well, you’ll have to come back next week.” My disappointment poisoned the air as I breathed heavily and attempted to suppress my tears. She’d just crushed my only birthday wish. Even though I’d expected this outcome the minute she slid into the car, my dreams of teenage independence were shattered. At least temporarily.

—by Eleanor Harkness

Narrative Techniques to Draw Readers into a Story

This story, written by my daughter in a high school writing class, appears in Once Upon an Innovation as an example of vivid language. Eleanor applied a variety of narrative techniques to describe this anguishing experience. As business storytellers, what lessons can we extract from Eleanor’s “Sour Sixteenth Birthday” essay?

First Person Perspective

We experience the driving test through Eleanor’s (narrator’s) point of view. Her use of the first-person perspective makes it an active experience for the reader. We share her excitement and anticipation, then her sinking feeling the minute she laid eyes on the tester. Readers travel with her as the situation gets more tense and—ultimately—comes to a head when the tester shrieks, “There’s a bus!”  This narrative style works well for personal and business storytelling.

All Five Senses

Through smell, Eleanor reveals her visceral dislike for the tester: “The trace of her cheap perfume stung my nostrils.”  She conveys the pivotal moment through sight, sound, and touch. Busy looking both ways, Eleanor describes what she sees as she approaches the intersection. When the tester jutted her arm out (touched Eleanor) and shrieked (loud noise), Eleanor was jolted into a new reality and her confidence splintered. Sensory details draw readers deeper into a story. In Once Upon an Innovation, we describe this as the third step in crafting a story. Our free resource booklet, “1-2-3 Steps to Business Storytelling,” offers more tips and techniques on all three steps.

What Characters Say and Do … and What Others Say about Them

Eleanor uses action and dialogue to tell what happened, but these devices also reveal the characters. Her internal dialogue shows how she perceives and interacts with others. The tester’s verbal and nonverbal behaviors convey a person who is bored and cynical, perhaps burnt out with her job. Because this story is narrated through the first-person voice, we don’t know what the tester might say about Eleanor. But we clearly know what Eleanor perceives: “I felt her disapproval itch my skin.” Consider how you might reveal your characters through what they saywhat they do, and what others say about them.

A Descriptive Language Exercise

To help you use these narrative techniques as you develop your stories, try describing a character without using adjectives or adverbs. When deprived of these go-to word choices at a descriptive language workshop, I stared at scratched-out phrases that littered my notepad. Then I stopped writing and just imagined my character. Her personality quirks jumped onto the page when I used her distinctive hand gestures, figures of speech, posture, and walking pace to bring her to life. Later, I shared the paragraph with others who know her: they knew who it was—immediately.

Leave a Comment