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Crafting Compelling Sentences: 21 Narrative Sentence Examples from Stories, Poems, and Novels

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As writers and teachers of writing, we’re well acquainted with the four types of sentences: declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory. But what about narrative sentences? Where do they fit into this catalog of options? In this post, we’ll look at the definition of narrative sentences and discuss the many places you’ll find them. We’ll also dig into some epic narrative poems, short stories and novels to highlight 21 narrative sentence examples. 

21 narrative sentence examples from literature

Please note: This article contains spoilers for the following books and stories:

  • Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis 
  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
  • A Rose for Emily, William Faulkner
  • Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Story of an Hour, Kate Chopin
  • The Destructors, Graham Greene
  • The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
  • The Last Thing He Told Me, Laura Dave

Definition of Narrative Sentences

The word narrative comes from the French narratif/narrative, which in turn is derived from the late Latin word narrativus: telling a story. Fittingly, a narrative is an account of a connected series of events, that is, what we typically think of as a story. Whether the account is documented in prose or poetry or passed down through oral storytelling, it is still a narrative. 

Narrative writing is any writing that tells a story, whether it’s fictional or true. Unlike expository and argumentative writing, which aim to explain and persuade, narrative writing seeks to entertain, engage, and inspire readers (among other objectives). While descriptive writing stands on its own as a rhetorical mode, it is also usually included in narrative writing as a way of helping readers visualize the people, places, and events of the narrative. 

A narrative sentence, then, is broadly defined as any sentence that makes up part of a story. 

In particular, we will focus in this post on narrative sentences that contribute to the development of the basic narrative elements such as plot, characters, conflict, theme, and setting through description, action, and dialogue. 

Importance of Narrative Sentences in Storytelling

How authors form their narrative sentences has a substantial impact on the overall effect of the story. Engagement, tension, organization, and interest all depend on the narrative choices writers make. Here are a few ways in which narrative sentences improve storytelling. 

Plot: The flow and quality of a story’s sentences are instrumental in capturing the readers’ interest in the story’s plot and maintaining a high engagement level. Across all the different genres, tenses, and perspectives, writers depend on the efficacy of their sentences to develop emotional connections and attract the audience’s investment in the story. The structure of the plot also helps readers buy into the story and keep track of what’s happening. Well-crafted sentences propel tension, suspense, and excitement.

Characters: Authors reveal characters through their words, thoughts, and actions as well as through the eyes of other characters. In a first-person narrative, readers primarily rely on the narrator to make themselves known, but we can also learn about the first-person narrator through the reactions and dialogue of the people they encounter. Thoughtful writers use creative strategies to paint detailed pictures of well-rounded characters rather than simply laying out a list of character traits. 

Conflict: Obstacles and challenges standing between a main character and their goal make for great storytelling. If it were easy for people to get what they wanted, books would be quite boring indeed. Authors include internal and external obstacles that elevate conflict and tension, driving readers to root for their favorite characters and see the story through to the end. 

Theme: Powerful storytelling succeeds not only in entertaining readers but also in imparting universal themes or moral lessons that make us think more deeply, help us make sense of the world, or increase our capacity for empathy.

Setting: Descriptive narrative sentences transport readers to different worlds, periods, and settings. Whether we’re exploring Middle Earth or delving into the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a story’s setting comes alive through sparkling descriptive sentences. 

Understanding Narrative Types and Structures

Narrative sentences exist in all types of narratives. They are not limited to novels and short stories, even though that’s often what we think of when we hear the word narrative. Not only are they prevalent in fiction, but they’re also used widely in non-fiction writing such as essays and biographies. Stories are memorable and meaningful and are therefore incorporated into most types of creative writing. 

Types of Narratives

A narrative story can take many forms. Some types of narratives include:

  • Memoirs: True stories narrated by the people who experienced them. Memoirists describe a personal experience in their lives, holding as much to the truth as possible, but they also have creative license to fill in minor details as needed for the sake of the story. Some level of reflection and/or universal truth is usually included. (Example: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden).
  • Novels: Fictional, book-length, prose narratives. As Britannica defines them, novels possess “a certain complexity that deals imaginatively with human experience.” (Example: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women)
  • Short fiction: A fictional narrative work that is of shorter length and lesser complexity than the novel. Fairy tales would fall into this category. (Example: Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour)
  • Poems: Narrative poems relate stories. They usually have a narrator and may contain other characters. Narrative poetry can be of any length and does not necessarily need to rhyme. (Example: Beowulf). 
  • Songs: Songs are simply poems set to music. Like all narratives, a narrative song tells a story. (Example: Harry Chapin’s Cat in the Cradle). 
  • Plays: A dramatic work created for the stage, in which the narrative is usually conveyed through dialogue, actions, props, and sets. There may also be a narrator who helps fill in the important details of the narrative. In a musical, songs are instrumental in moving the plot forward. (Examples: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton). 
  • Folklore: The traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, perpetuated through oral narration. (Example: King Arthur). 
  • History: The stories of the past, written in either entirely factual formats (such as biographies) or with fictionalized elements that render it historical fiction. Historical narratives can also include diaries, letters, and journals. (Example: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief).
  • Biography/autobiography: Biographies and autobiographies tell the stories of people’s lives as factually as possible. Details are ideally verified. Unlike memoirs, which recount specific events or circumstances, biographies focus on the whole life. (Example: Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). 
  • Allegories: Symbolic fictional narratives that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically moral, political, ethical, or philosophical in nature. (Example: Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree).

The examples of narrative sentences offered in this post primarily come from novels and short stories, though we’ve included some from other sources as well. 

Narrative Structure

Narrative structure refers to how the story is organized and how the narrative elements mentioned earlier are conveyed. It determines, among other things, the order in which the events of the story unfold. While chronological order (following a chronological sequence of events) is typical for many narratives, some writers prefer to change the sequence by jumping back and forth in time, especially through flashbacks or multiple timelines. When done well, this nonlinear narrative style makes for a compelling read. 

Although there are many ways to organize a narrative structure, certain narrative milestones are essentially universal. In a linear narrative, we generally expect to see sections dedicated to exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The percentage of space dedicated to each of these will differ greatly from story to story, but ultimately we should be able to identify these narrative shifts regardless of the narrative technique used.

(This structure, known as Freytag’s pyramid, was inspired by classic Greek tragedies and is often what we teach in school to beginning writers. Other popular narrative structures include more, fewer, or different structural elements. For example, the Save the Cat beat sheet method uses 15 plot points or sections a narrative must hit while the Hero’s Journey structure contains 12 stages.)

At a minimum, a complete story structure should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

Authors carefully select each narrative sentence—and, by extension, each narrative paragraph—to best develop the elements of their particular narrative within the structure they’ve chosen. In a series of often grueling decisions, writers shape and reshape sentences within a piece of writing until each one sits perfectly in its place, contributing to an ultimately enjoyable—or thought-provoking, inspiring, or otherwise meaningful—experience for the reader. 

Narrative Sentence Examples

Choosing narrative sentence examples is a bit of an overwhelming task. Any novel or memoir one opens is likely to contain thousands of narrative sentences to choose from. The problem is not that there aren’t enough examples or that few worthy examples exist. Rather, the challenge lies in figuring out what makes a good example. How does one present a useful and varied selection of sentences that won’t take years to read?

For this post, I selected a cross-section of examples that attempt to represent a variety of sentence types, genres, time periods, and story elements. Specifically, I looked for examples that include:

  • Both classical and contemporary literature
  • A selection of sentence types including descriptive, action-oriented, and dialogue
  • Development of story elements including plot, character, conflict, theme, and setting
  • Diverse points in the overall story structure (e.g. expository sentences, inciting incidents, rising action, etc.)
  • Diverse types of narratives (novels, short stories, essays, poems, fairy tales)

A final note: though the title of this post promises 21 sentence examples, you will notice that almost all of the excerpts contain more than one sentence. This is because many great sentences don’t stand on their own but benefit from the structure of the surrounding sentences.

This is particularly true in modern writing, in which the trend toward shorter sentences is prevailing. The marvelously long, winding sentences of Austen and Tolkien have been replaced with short, quick phrases and sentence fragments. While these can also be effective and are better suited to today’s shorter attention spans, they do require more sentences in order to convey the same amount of information. 

Descriptive Narrative Sentence Examples

1. The Fellowship of the Ring

J.R.R. Tolkien does not dedicate much space to describing settings in his second Middle-Earth Book, The Fellowship of the Ring. He is much more inclined toward action and dialogue, pausing only briefly to describe the physical surroundings. He leaves much of the visual filling-in to readers’ imaginations but ensures we know the essential information about each new setting. Here he shows us Frodo’s introduction to Rivendell.

Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness…

Sam led him along several passages and down many steps and out into a high garden above the steep bank of the river. He found his friends sitting in a porch on the side of the house looking east. Shadows had fallen in the valey below, but there was still a light on the faces of the mountains far above. The air was warm. The sound of running and falling water was loud, and the evening was filled with a faint scent of trees and flowers, as if summer still lingered in Elrond’s gardens.”

2. The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison, too, wastes no time in her exposition in The Bluest Eye. The first two descriptive sentences manage to allude to the plot, setting, characters, and conflict of the novel while also immediately hooking the reader with their jarring statement. 

Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.

3. Moby Dick

Herman Melville paints a clear and vivid picture of his narrator’s state of mind and motivation to join an impending sea expedition in the opening sentences of Moby Dick

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

4. Fish Cheeks

In her first published essay, Amy Tan wrote of being a fourteen-year-old desperate for two things: the love of Robert, her non-Chinese minister’s son, and a slim, American nose. This vignette from her teenage life as the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants depicts her horror at the visually unappealing meal her mother serves after inviting the minister’s family for Christmas Eve dinner. It’s not until years later that Tan realizes the symbolism of the meal: her mother’s desire for her to remain true to herself and her heritage. 

On Christmas Eve I saw that my mother had outdone herself in creating a strange menu. She was pulling black veins out of the backs of fleshy prawns. The kitchen was littered with appalling mounds of raw food: A slimy rock cod with bulging eyes that pleaded not to be thrown into a pan of hot oil. Tofu, which looked like stacked wedges of rubbery white sponges. A bowl soaking dried fungus back to life. A plate of squid, their backs crisscrossed with knife markings so they resembled bicycle tires.

5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Not all literary characters need go to such extreme lengths as Eustace Scrubb in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to experience their requisite growth. However, the impurity of Eustace’s heart prompted the author to give him special treatment, which, while uncomfortable for Eustace, is extremely entertaining for readers. 

He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself…In spite of the pain, his first feeling was one of relief. There was nothing to be afraid of any more. He was a terror himself now and nothing in the world but a knight (and not all of those) would dare to attack him. He could get even with Caspian and Edmund now.

But the moment he thought this he realized that he didn’t want to. He wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been friends at all. He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed. He longed for their voices. 

When Eustace reunites with his friends, they are quick to note the change in his personality:

It was, however, clear to everyone that Eustace’s character had been rather improved by becoming a dragon.

6. The Lottery

Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is rife with irony. From the misleading title to the villagers’ festive attitudes, very little of the story’s exposition prepares the reader for the gruesome outcome of the titular event. One such example is the description of the man who runs the affair, whose very name—Mr. Summers—is in contrast to the dark and barbaric tradition he intends to uphold. 

The lottery was conducted—as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program—by Mr. Summers. who had time and energy to devote to civic activities. He was a round-faced, jovial man and he ran the coal business, and people were sorry for him. because he had no children and his wife was a scold.

7. The Last Thing He Told Me

In Laura Dave’s novel, The Last Thing He Told Me, Hannah Hall and her stepdaughter Bailey Michaels are on a manhunt for Hannah’s husband Owen after he disappears amidst the news of a financial scandal within his company. Their search takes them to Texas where they try to track down information based on fragments of memories Bailey has from a childhood visit to Austin. Dave shows us the setting through Hannah’s eyes as she glances around a church administrator’s office, searching for clues that will help her convince the woman to help them with their unusual request. 

I look around the office, for clues about her—clues that may help me win her over. Christmas cards and bumper stickers cover her desk; photographs of Elenor’s family are lined up on the fireplace mantel; a large bulletin board is brimming over with photographs and notes from parishioners. The office reveals forty years of building relationships right in this room, in this church. She knows everything about this place. We just need to know one small piece of it. 

8. A Rose for Emily

When Emily Grierson, the protagonist in William Faulkner’s 1930 short story, A Rose for Emily, passes away, the townspeople can’t wait to get inside the house she has refused to let anyone enter in over a decade. Upon entering an upper room that has been blocked off for more than forty years, they discover a startling scene: the perfectly preserved preparations for a wedding day, covered in dust and pungent with an acrid smell; it’s a sight reminiscent of Mrs. Havisham’s house in Great Expectations. The poignant description of the setting likens it to a tomb, which turns out to be a little too on the nose. 

A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon the valance curtains of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man’s toilet things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram was obscured. Among them lay a collar and tie, as if they had just been removed, which, lifted, left upon the surface a pale crescent in the dust. Upon a chair hung the suit, carefully folded; beneath it the two mute shoes and the discarded socks.

9. The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, written in the aftermath of World War I, contains themes of brokenness, loss, death, decay, and post-war disillusionment, among others. Eliot was also struggling, at the time of the poem’s writing, with a failing marriage and mental health issues. He jumps directly into these themes from the opening stanza with a depiction of spring, not as the restorative, live-giving season it is normally thought to be but as a cruel month making vain attempts to resuscitate a desolate landscape.  

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Examples of Action-Oriented Narrative Sentences

10. Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is infamous for taking action. Not satisfied to sit around reading books from his extensive library, he’s anxious to experience the adventurous lives of the knights of which he’s read. His foolhardy choices constantly get him in trouble and invoke people to attempt stoning him. Such is the outcome when he impulsively decides to free a hang of galley slaves he encounters

“’Tis you that are the cat, rat, and rascal,” replied Don Quixote, and acting on the word he fell upon him so suddenly that without giving him time to defend himself he brought him to the ground sorely wounded with a lance-thrust; and lucky it was for him that it was the one that had the musket. The other guards stood thunderstruck and amazed at this unexpected event, but recovering presence of mind, those on horseback seized their swords, and those on foot their javelins, and attacked Don Quixote, who was waiting for them with great calmness; and no doubt it would have gone badly with him if the galley slaves, seeing the chance before them of liberating themselves, had not effected it by contriving to break the chain on which they were strung.

Such was the confusion, that the guards, now rushing at the galley slaves who were breaking loose, now to attack Don Quixote who was waiting for them, did nothing at all that was of any use. Sancho, on his part, gave a helping hand to release Gines de Pasamonte, who was the first to leap forth upon the plain free and unfettered, and who, attacking the prostrate commissary, took from him his sword and the musket, with which, aiming at one and levelling at another, he, without ever discharging it, drove every one of the guards off the field, for they took to flight, as well to escape Pasamonte’s musket, as the showers of stones the now released galley slaves were raining upon them. 

11. The Story of an Hour

Kate Chopin’s brief short story, The Story of an Hour, published in 1894, tells the story of a woman who—upon hearing the news of her husband’s sudden death—locks herself in her room while her mind runs wild with the thoughts of freedom this news has provoked. Although the ‘actions’ in this story are hardly active (they mostly consist of mental sprinting and leaping), there is a frenzied, energetic quality to the scene. The action here—a simple prayer followed by an ironic realization—speaks deeply to the state of her character as well as to the central theme of marital captivity.

Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.

12. The Emperor’s New Clothes

In the beloved fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Hans Christen Andersen explores themes of vanity and pride. The emperor, who is obsessed with having a fashionable wardrobe, falls prey to two swindlers well aware of his vulnerability. They come up with a ruse certain to ensnare him by making it inconceivable for anyone to tell him the truth. Their deceptive action sets up both the plot and the conflict of the story. 

One day, two rogues, calling themselves weavers, made their appearance. They gave out that they knew how to weave stuffs of the most beautiful colors and elaborate patterns, the clothes manufactured from which should have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who was unfit for the office he held, or who was extraordinarily simple in character.

13. The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini is a masterful developer of all aspects of story: plot, characters, setting, theme, conflict. His emotion-wrenching novels capture the deep complexities of relationships set against historical events, political upheaval, and the realities of class hierarchies. In The Kite Runner, he foreshadows the principal conflict through an action-oriented paragraph that also touches on some of the themes of the book such as Hassan and Amir’s friendship, Hassan’s bravery, and the shifting power dynamics in Afghanistan in the wake of the 1973 Afghan coup led by Daoud Khan. 

Hassan was trying to tuck the slingshot in his waist with a pair of trembling hands. His mouth curled up into something that was supposed to be a reassuring smile. It took him five tries to tie the string of his trousers. Neither one of us said much of anything as we walked home in trepidation, certain that Assef and his friends would ambush us every time we turned a corner. They didn’t and that should have comforted us a little. But it didn’t. Not at all. 

14. The Forest of Vanishing Stars

Literary works with third-person narratives revealing more than one character’s perspective allow us, as readers, to know things that the protagonist does not (yet) know. The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel tells the story of a Rapunzel-esque young lady named Yona, raised in the wilderness of Eastern Europe by an elderly recluse named Jerusza who believes Yona has a higher purpose. Just before she passes, Jerusza shares Yona’s origin story with her, though the significance of it is not known until much later. 

However, because the story is written in the third person and the initial narrative voice is that of Jerusza, we have already gotten a glimpse into this seemingly tragic event. Harmel writes,

The old woman knew, too, that the baby conceived on that autumn-scented Bavarian night, a girl the Jüttners had named Inge, had a birthmark in the shape of a dove on the inside of her left wrist. She also knew that the girl’s second birthday was the following day, the sixth of July, 1922. And she knew, as surely as she knew that the bell-shaped buds of lily of the valley and the twilight petals of aconite could kill a man, that the girl must not be allowed to remain with the Jüttners…That was why she had come…The old woman, who was called Jerusza, had always known things other people didn’t…

Ikh bin gekimen dir tzu nemen,” Jerusza whispered in Yiddish, a language the girl would not yet know. I have come for you. 

She said something soft, something that a lesser person would have dismissed as the meaningless babble of a little girl, but to Jerusza, it was unmistakeable. “Dus zent ir, said the girl in Yiddish. It is you.

Whether or not Jerusza is a deranged and unreliable narrator or an altruistic clairvoyant, we do not yet know. But this early insight shows us that Yona’s life in the forest is more than just happenstance. It was planned, deliberate, and perhaps even prophetic.

Examples of Dialogue-Based Narrative Sentences

15. Pride and Prejudice

In opening scenes, we often find one or more narrative sentences that touch on the overall theme or takeaway of the story. This is what the Save The Cat method refers to as the Theme Stated. It’s typically written as dialogue spoken by someone the protagonist is unlikely to give much heed to. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy’s younger sister Mary responds to the discussion of Mr. Darcy’s pride by pointing out the difference between pride and vanity to suggest that pride is human nature and not necessarily a bad thing. 

“Pride,” observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, “is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

16. Lessons in Chemistry

In Bonnie Garmus’ Lessons in Chemistry, it’s 1955 and protagonist Elizabeth Zott is mourning the sudden, tragic loss of her common-law partner Calvin Evans, who, like her, was a brilliant chemist employed by Hastings Research Institute. The key difference between the two is that he, as a man, was revered for his contributions to science while she, as a woman, was denigrated. While alive, Evans was able—against Zott’s wishes—to use his influence to protect her research’s funding. 

After his death, her employers and colleagues are chomping at the bit to not only defund her work but to get rid of her as quickly as possible, especially once they find out that she’s carrying Evans’ child. In her debilitating grief, she struggles to make sense of the inequity between the rules for women and those for men. Her boss, Donatti—who has unsuccessfully tried for months to demoralize Zott so he could seduce her—becomes characteristically irate when he presents her with the termination letter that catalyzes her toward the career change that forms the premise of the story. Garmus uses an omniscient narrator to flesh out the private thoughts of each character and succinctly develop her characters, conflict, and plot.

“This pregnancy is a failure of contraception, not morality. It’s also none of your business.”

“You’ve made it our business!” Donatti suddenly shouted. “And in case you weren’t aware, there is a surefire way not to get pregnant and it starts with an ‘A’! We have rules, Miss Zott! Rules!”

“Not on this you don’t,” Elizabeth said calmly. “I’ve read the employee manual front to back.”

“It’s an unwritten rule!”

“And thus not legally binding.”

Donatti glowered at her. “Evans would be very, very ashamed of you.”

“No,” Elizabeth said simply, her voice empty but calm. “He would not.”

The room fell silent. It was the way she kept disagreeing—without embarrassment, without melodrama—as if she would have the last say, as if she knew she’d win in the end. This is exactly the kind of attitude her coworkers had complained of. And the way she implied that hers and Calvin’s relationship was at some higher level—as if it had been crafted from nondissolvable material that survived everything, even his death. Annoying. 

17. The Bluest Eye

Through snippets of dialogue, Toni Morrison masterfully paints a heartbreaking and ominous picture of the children in The Bluest Eye who, through no fault of their own, do not yet know what it means to be loved. 

“After a long while she spoke very softly. “Is it true that I can have a baby now?”

“Sure,” said Frieda drowsily. “Sure you can.”

“But…how?” Her voice was hollow with wonder.

“Oh,” said Frieda, “somebody has to love you.”


There was a long pause in which Pecola and I thought this over. It would involve, I supposed, “my man,” who, before leaving me, would love me. But there weren’t any babies in the songs my mother sang. Maybe that’s why the women were sad: the men left before they could make a baby. 

Then Pecola asked a question that had never entered my mind. “How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you?” But Frieda was asleep. And I didn’t know.

18. Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre’s passionate, confident personality is on full display when she reacts to Mr. Rochester’s news that he intends to marry Blanche Ingram. To convey Jane’s fiery state, Charlotte Brontë uses shorter sentences and sentence fragments to give the sense that Jane’s rapid-fire speech is spewing forth in a vain attempt to keep pace with her racing thoughts. 

“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”

19. The Spider and the Fly

In the 1829 narrative poem, The Spider and the Fly, poet Mary Howitt uses a dialogue between the titular characters to relate a high-tension scene in which the spider tries to lure the fly into its web while the fly does its best to resist. Each of the first four stanzas is comprised almost exclusively of dialogue and follows this back-and-forth pattern between the spider’s entreaties and the fly’s retorts. As the poem progresses, the tension rises as the spider’s tactics become increasingly cunning.  

“I’m sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high;

Will you rest upon my little bed?” said the Spider to the Fly.

“There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin,

And if you like to rest awhile, I’ll snugly tuck you in!”

“Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “for I’ve often heard it said,

They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed!”

20. The Destructors

Though not common, setting can sometimes be articulated through dialogue. One benefit of an author relying on characters to describe a setting is that the reader sees it through their ideas and perspective; only the details that matter most to the speaker are conveyed. In Graham Greene’s The Destructors, T., the new unofficial leader of the Wormsley Common gang, relays pertinent details of the history and architecture of a home belonging to Mr. Thomas (Old Misery) to the rest of the gang. 

The specific details he shares not only help us picture the setting for the story’s main action, but they are also pivotal to the central plot: the children’s decision to destroy Old Misery’s house. 

The gang had gathered round: It was as though an impromptu court were about to form and to try some case of deviation. T. said, “It’s a beautiful house,” and still watching the ground, meeting no one’s eyes, he licked his lips first one way, then the other.

“What do you mean, a beautiful house?” Blackie asked with scorn.

“It’s got a staircase two hundred years old like a corkscrew. Nothing holds it up.”

“What do you mean, nothing holds it up. Does it float?”

“It’s to do with opposite forces, Old Misery said.”

“What else?”

“There’s paneling.”

“Like in the Blue Boar?”

“Two hundred years old.”

“Is Old Misery two hundred years old?”

Mike laughed suddenly and then was quiet again.

21. The Maltese Falcon

Dashiell Hammett’s detective novels are full of snappy dialogue rich with slang words informed by his time working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. His fast-paced mysteries, such as The Maltese Falcon, move at a break-neck speed, partially because so much of the plot is progressed through dialogue. In the following exchange, having just learned that everything Ms. Wonderbly has told him is a lie, Detective Sam Spade presses her for more information while hinting at his suspicion of her involvement in two murders and decides to continue working with her anyway. 

“Out there a flock of policemen and assistant district attorneys and reporters are running around with their noses to the ground. What do you want to do?”

“I want you to save me from—from it all,” she replied in a thin tremulous voice. She put a timid hand on his sleeve. “Mr. Spade, do they know about me?”

“Not yet. I wanted to see you first.”

“What—what would they think if they knew about the way I came to you—with those lies?”

“It would make them suspicious. That’s why I’ve been stalling them till I could see you. I thought maybe we wouldn’t have to let them know all of it. We ought to be able to fake a story that will rock them to sleep, if necessary.”

“You don’t think I had anything to do with the—the murders—do you?”

Spade grinned at her and said: “I forgot to ask you that. Did you?”


“That’s good. Now what are we going to tell the police?”

She squirmed on her end of the settee and her eyes wavered between heavy lashes, as if trying and failing to free their gaze from his. She seemed smaller, and very young and oppressed.

“Must they know about me at all?” she asked. “I think I’d rather die than that, Mr. Spade. I can’t explain now, but can’t you somehow manage so that you can shield me from them, so I won’t have to answer their questions? I don’t think I could stand being questioned now. I think I would rather die. Can’t you, Mr. Spade?”

“Maybe,” he said, “but I’ll have to know what it’s all about.”

Whether through dialogue, action, or description, narrative sentences have the power to propel a story to more satisfying plots, develop more interesting characters and settings, and spur readers to deeper levels of thinking, enjoyment, and inspiration. Which of these narrative sentence examples did you enjoy the most? Do you have other favorites that you would add? Let us know in the comments.

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