A to Z Day 14: Narrative

Narrative was my only real choice for today. It is that important.

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It’s difficult to come up with a medium of communication that resists narrative entirely. “Narrative” just means “story,” and stories are almost as important to humans as food.

We can find narrative in tapestries, and in other visual media that pre-date phonemic writing. It is possible to tell stories in sculpture. And then of course, there are all the usual suspects: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, film, painting, marketing, religious discourse, political communication, and on and on. Basically, if people are speaking to one another, they are telling or talking about stories.

So, what is narrative, then, and why is it so supremely important to human experience? I’ll lay it all out in the order I learned it.

1. A story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s not to say those three parts require an equal amount of words. The beginning can be a paragraph, a page, or a couple of chapters. The middle can be 9/10ths of the story. The end can be a single chapter, or a single line if you think you’re good enough to try that. And of course, the lines between the three are a bit blurry.

2. Characters are a must. They don’t need to be human (check out Flatland sometime), but they do need to be people. Characters can even be mostly-inanimate objects, as long as they have enough agency to influence the drama. (If you don’t believe me, try reading The Lord of the Rings and thinking of the Ring of Power as an independent character. Or read Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All, which features a conch shell, a painted stick, and a spoon as prominent characters.)

3. Conflict is helpful, and compelling. There’s the whole “man v. nature, man v. man, man v. himself” thing. But really, conflict is just one very dramatic form of change. I think it’s possible to write a conflict-free story if you really know what you’re doing. I am not so sure it’s possible to write a story that is entirely free of change. I’m of the opinion that if you’re creating scene-based art, you need something to change in every scene, unless you have a very good artistic reason for painting a static picture.

So, that’s what narrative is. Now. Why is it so important? I say it’s important because humans are a bundle of sensory organs that exist in a universe of phenomena so diverse, it appears to be random (we can argue about the existence of the soul some other time, but for the record, I am an optimist where immortality is concerned).

We use stories to impose order on the chaos that is the natural world. In some cases, stories are a way of telling ourselves what we want to hear. In others, they are a way of getting at truth. We categorize things and trace their origins. We recount chains of events as a way of making sense of them. Without stories, there would be no order, no commerce, no progress. All we would do is respond to direct stimuli when we had to, and spend the rest of our time trying to figure out what things mean.

Narrative gives meaning to existence. It allows us to believe that one day we might find the still point of the turning world. That chaos is not a real thing.

Stories are illusions, but they are illusions we cannot do without.

So I am a storyteller, first and foremost. Without stories to tell, I have nothing to write.

A to Z Badge by Jeremy of Being RetroPins from Part Time Monster.




A to Z Day 13: Motif

Ahh. The half-way point!

I define a motif as a pattern of images or ideas that runs through an entire work of art or type of art. Some of the easiest examples in writing come from fantasy and its most delicious antecedent — fairy tales. Here are a couple examples:

  • The commoner who grows up to discover they’re really nobility.
  • The damsel locked away, for whatever reason, with no way to escape until a most attractive prince sets her free.
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We could also throw in messiah figures, knowledge guarded by supernatural agents with the power of life and death, and self-fulfilling prophecies; but those are all rather older than fairy tales.

And then there are modern motifs. You can find tragic heroes or outright anti-heroes who enforce their own code of justice everywhere, from barely-modern tales of ronin samurai, to the earliest days of comics, to ultra-contemporary tales of the American West.

Motifs can be purely visual as well – hunting scenes, marriages, funerals. All can be depicted on pottery and canvas and cave walls in fine detail or with just a few strokes. And the reason we find these motifs in particular depicted in so many different ways by so many different cultures is that they are powerful. Food and clothing. Bonding with another human being. Mortality. What is more important than those? There are darker, but no-less-important, motifs that run through many cultural records as well. Armed conflict. Massacre. Blood sacrifice.

Here’s how I deal with motifs in my own writing. I use them to generate ideas sometimes. Unbending anti-heroes are useful characters, though not fit for center stage these days, unless you’re a real genius. And who doesn’t love a visceral, high-stakes hunting scene or a really screwed-up wedding? Aside from that, I try not to think about them. I don’t intentionally embed motifs in my writing – they’re not something I use to structure a plot (at least not consciously).

But I do try to be alert to what I’ve done, once I get into the late stages of revision, and sometimes the patterns of images and ideas I find in my own writing are pretty interesting.

A to Z Badge by Jeremy of Being Retro





Writing the Unknown – Choosing a Setting for your Story

I agree.