Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Good Assignment--Imitating a Narrative

This Progymnasmata Narrative assignment includes several exercises you can . . . well, imitate . . . to work with a narrative. This version is from my Great Books Writing Workshop: Modernity.

From Greenmantle, by John Buchan, 1916

Hertfordshire, United Kingdom: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994

The introduction to this edition notes that “John Buchan wrote this swashbuckling tale of high adventure between February and June 1916 when serving as a Major in the Intelligence Corps in France during the First World War.” The hero of the tale, Richard Hannay, is sent as a spy on behalf of Great Britain to uncover and foil a plot by the Germans“to invoke a Jihad or Holy War amongst Muslims in the Near East against the British.” In this selection, a little over halfway through the novel, Richard Hannay and his companion Peter are on horseback, finding their way through pitch darkness in a land unfamiliar to Richard. Though it is a narrative, the piece shows how a narrative can create an overall atmosphere or description. Each step through the darkness emphasizes how dark it really is.

We had to trust to Peter’s instinct. I asked him where our line lay, and he sat very still for a minute sniffing the air. Then he pointed the direction. It wasn’t what I would have taken myself, but on a point like that he was pretty near infallible.

Presently we came to a long slope which cheered me. But at the top there was no light visible anywhere—only a black void like the inside of a shell. As I stared into the gloom it seemed to me that there were patches of deeper darkness that might be woods.

“There is a house half-left in front of us,” said Peter.

I peered till my eyes ached and saw nothing.

“Well, for Heaven’s sake, guide me to it,” I said, and with Peter in front we set off down the hill.

It was a wild journey, for darkness clung as close to us as a vest. Twice we stepped into patches of bog, and once my horse saved himself by a hair from going forward into a gravel pit. We got tangled up in strands of wire, and often found ourselves rubbing our noses against tree trunks. Several times I had to get down and make a gap in barricades of loose stones. But after a ridiculous amount of slipping and stumbling we finally struck what seemed the level of a road, and a piece of special darkness in front which turned out to be a high wall.

I argued that all mortal walls had doors, so we set to groping along it, and presently found a gap. There was an old iron gate on broken hinges, which we easily pushed open, and found ourselves on a back path to some house. It was clearly disused, for masses of rotting leaves covered it, and by the feel of it underfoot it was grassgrown.

We were dismounted now, leading our horses, and after about fifty yards the path ceased and came out on a well-made carriage drive. So, at least, we guessed, for the place was as black as pitch. Evidently the house couldn’t be far off, but in which direction I hadn’t a notion.

(pp. 132-133; 364 words )


Answer the journalist’s or even military intelligence reporter’s questions about this narrative.

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Condense the 364 words of the main narrative to about 100-150 words. Think about getting “just the facts” for an intelligence report.

Submit your version as “Part 1—Condensed”


Expand the narrative again to a solid 250 words from your condensed version, without looking at Buchan’s original, and create your own details to convey that sense of darkness Richard Hannay reports.

Submit your version as “Part 2—Expanded”

Anaerobic (Optional)

Create a similar narrative to Buchan’s to convey in a series of events a pervading impression. Below are some suggestions to get you started, but try to create something original if you can. Use about 250-300 words.

  • Enter a familiar room occupied by people of longstanding habits and find something that’s just out of place, something wrong in the atmosphere. Use details in the room, discovered over time as you look around or walk around, to convey that feeling. This is a great opportunity to use the comparative mode: instead of…although…
  • Tell how a young person discovers bit by bit in a particular interaction that another person is in love with him or her.
  • Trace the excitement or dread of a journey (like the one above), as the traveler gets closer and closer to the destination.

I hope you can make good use of this assignment, and perhaps I have interested you in Buchan's fine work!

No comments: