Friday, October 10, 2008

The N Word

Narrative is as slippery a word as a politician's promise at a fund raiser. Often used as a synonym for story, it is more associated with fiction than nonfiction, is sometimes used as a sly dig to suggest that a reporter or scholar is indulging more in story telling than in research or reportage. Speaking of a writer's narrative voice implies fiction--how that writer tells a story--or fiction morphed into myth or legend rather than straightforward accounting of event.

Sometimes when leading up to a revelation that the material under discussion is not yet a fully developed story, I'll use the word narrative, by which I mean a progression of events, before springing the trap door of what elements could morph this narrative into a full-fledged story. Treating the student like an author in such cases produces positive results in the sense of allowing the student to believe he'd known that all along. Treating an author like a student usually brings forth some form of stubbornness, which does no good at all for the story.

Narrative is some selected personality, apprehended in the act of relating dramatic events; it has a perspective, a point of view, an attitude, all of which should be manifest as the reader reads. Narrative may be you as author provided you have taken some steps to articulate what your perspective and agenda may be. In other words, there is no way of avoiding the responsibility of taking some side or stand. Neutrality is at best a Platonic ideal, but in drama it is an albatross the weight of which quickly makes itself felt as the need for explanation and fair presentation standards emerge. And they surely will.

Look at it this way, narrative is the macrocosm, the universe of the story, however brief or expansive, expressed in some pattern selected to produce the senses of tension, risk, and consequence. Suspense is very much the glue holding dramatic events together. When the time comes for greater specificity, switch to dialogue.

Some historical eras produced politically charged concepts of narrative that did for narrative what corsets and bustles did for women at various times or skin-tight pants did for men at other times--they caused constraint, certainly made sitting and standing more a discomfort than before. In one dramatic example, narrative was thought to need more realistic detail, a thought that resulted in entire laundry lists of clothing, medicines, nostrums, and utensil invading the orderly progression of story across the pages. Other times required of characters that their inner consciousness be brought to account, bringing forth paragraph after paragraph of internal monologue. English majors, who should by no know better, have their heads filled with these details and some in their midst are even able to recite the names of the various theories--modern, post-modern, Marxist, neo-Marxist, Feminist, et alia--some even to the point of being accorded merit raises in pay.

Applying the razor of William of Occam to the matter, narrative is a vehicle by which story is advanced to effect a dramatic result. The result is variously called closure, ending, resolution, and prismatic spread. But don't be fooled by definitions that state or imply such conditions as should or ought. Out on the street, narrative is the stuff that carries story without dropping the reader.

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