story writing

Blah blah blah narrative blah

But it’s not all about kayaks and famous cats around here. Every now and then I remember to work on my writing, and then to write blog posts about writing. It’s like the circle of life.

Looking back over the posts I made about story and character, it struck me that I used the term ‘narrative’ a lot.

In fact, let’s not take my word for it – let’s evaluate the blog-to-date with everyone’s favourite tool for text analysis, Wordle!

I honestly thought FUCK would be much more prominent

Huh. The largest word is ‘like’. Either I’m a Valley Girl or I’m addicted to similes.

Anyway, among the various insights that can be gleaned from that image – including the fact that I mention Batman about as often as I mention the titles of my own ebooks – we can see that ‘narrative’ is one of the most frequent terms, certainly one of the top five. I talk about it a lot.

So what is it? Why use that word instead of something that’s basically synonymous, like ‘plot’ or ‘story’? Well, fairly obviously, because I don’t think those terms are synonymous; I think they’re very different things, or perhaps different levels of a complex and multi-layered thing, and I’d like to take a bit of time tonight to make it clearer about where I’m coming from.

The novelist/academic EM Forster broke down the difference between story and plot like this:

We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’

(Link and further analysis here.)

So a story is a linear set of events, and a plot is the means through which one event leads to the next. It’s not the only definition out there, and it’s not one everyone will agree with (I think it’s a bit simplistic myself), but let’s use it as the starting point for a discussion then.

So what’s narrative? Well, my personal definition – which is idiosyncratic and quite probably technically incorrect, but hey, it’s my blog – is that narrative is the communication of plot; it’s how you tell the story. Or, maybe more precisely, how the audience experiences the story – the interface they use to bring what was in the writer’s head into their heads.

If ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story, and ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot, then this is narrative:

  • Listen, and I will tell you a tale: Once upon a time there was a queen who loved her husband very much, so much that when he died her heart cracked wide in half, like a stone under a mason’s hammer

And so is this:

  • The autopsy revealed a congenital fault in Her Majesty’s lower left ventricle. This was apparently not detected during the routine check-ups she undertook before the King’s assassination. Suggestions that ‘her heart broke’ are obviously ridiculous.

And this:

  • Tomorrow I will die, and next winter I will return as a ghost, and my dear wife will bring all the castle crashing down with the broadsword of her grief, but today I know this not, and she is happy, and Hamlet who has yet to pour poison in my ear is happy, and my good brother is happy, and so am I, for one more day.

A list of events, whether linked by causality or not, isn’t something people read for fun or for knowledge. Narratives take that raw information and bind it up with voice, word choice, pacing, character, humour, pathos, swearwords and whatever else is required to make it something that captivates a reader and makes them care.

(This definition of narrative isn’t synonymous with ‘medium’, although there’s some overlap – the way in which you tell a story can incorporate the medium you use to tell it. But at the same time there’s huge narrative variation within a medium, so we may as well confine discussion to that bit of the diagram for the moment.)

It’s Polaroids all the way down

I can’t think of a better example of narrative versus plot versus story right now than the movie Memento. There’s a linear sequence of events there, as Leonard wanders around doing things almost at random as amnesiac whim takes him. That doesn’t make sense until you look at the plot layer, which explains the events and Leonard’s motivation and reasoning; you can see causality connect the dots back and forth through the sequence. But the narrative layer is where the brilliance of the film exists, the split between two time frames and time directions that throws the linear sequence out the window and makes the viewer do the work of puzzling it out despite the deliberate obfuscation being used. Take that layer out and Memento makes just as much sense – it’s just not anywhere near as interesting. Which is why I’ve always been staggered that the Memento DVD apparently offers viewers the option of reordering the scenes to watch the film in a linear sequence – if you want to watch a less-interesting Guy Pearce movie, eject the disc and watch The Time Machine. Although I guess that’s harder to market as a special feature.

That interface level of writing is what interests me most, both as a writer and a reader. Plot, story, character, place – yes, these are all important. But narrative is the tool (or the interlocking suite of tools) a writer uses to pick up those things and push them partway into the reader’s head – and, if used properly, the reader willingly pulls them in the rest of the way.

…yeah, okay, that’s a pretty weird image. Probably best if I don’t look for an image for that.

So that’s where I’m coming from, and that’s the angle I take pretty much every time I think/talk/write about writing. I hope it makes sense to you.

If it doesn’t, then maybe you have amnesia.

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