Writer Wednesday: The Power of Narrative

Many modern novels have a beginning, a muddle and an end.
~ Philip Larkin

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I demand a story!

In the beginning was the story and the story was good and good was the story and that simplicity escaped no one. From the earliest marks of our kind, we have told stories. We are story-telling creatures. See this bison? We went after this bison and it was a tough fight but we got it in the end and everyone ate and we didn’t die.

We make sense of our messy and incoherent lives by telling stories. Sometimes simple ones: “I went to the store to get some milk but they were out. I just have no luck!” A simple and inconvenient event becomes a story because it has meaning. The stories we tell ourselves make our lives. Think how different the story would be if instead it became, “I went to the store to get some milk but they were out, so I went to the shop further along and ran into Maryann who just got a new job, hurrah! What a lucky day.”

Lawyers will tell you the importance of narrative in what they do (and why so many are English majors): it isn’t enough to show a jury facts. You have to make them understand a narrative about what happened but also why. Pile on the facts and their attention wanders. Give each fact a dramatic importance in the story and it’s no longer a dry recitation but a detail that captivates the imagination.

This is why eye witnesses — so trusted! — are so often unreliable. Yes, they see what happened, but as soon as they begin to describe it, they also begin to turn it into a narrative. As soon as they’ve drawn conclusions about the why it changes the what that they saw. “He was crazy!” leads to “You could see it in his eyes.”

Health care professionals have realised the power of narrative, too, and encourage patients to construct their narratives with care.

I have had a post brewing on this topic for some time as the plethora of slipshod narratives has irked me for a while now: how often narrative is neglected in big budget films especially. Then Alan Moore gave an interview and said pretty much what I was going to say:

“To me, narrative is the most important thing in the world. I deplore the dwindling narrative values of a lot of contemporary culture, where it doesn’t seem to matter if the plot actually makes sense, or if it resolves itself, or if all of the elements introduced resolve themselves.”

I’ve been surprised by the praise for films that I thought were terrible messes of unresolved narrative like Prometheus and just recently, A Field in England, which seemed to garner wild praise despite its almost complete lack of narrative. Now, as I said on Facebook, I am a fan of Argento and Jodorowsky, so I am fairly elastic on the concept of what makes a satisfying narrative — i.e. it doesn’t necessarily have to be entirely coherent, just compelling.

Talking with people about why they liked these films I find that it’s always the case that they have constructed a narrative for the incoherent film. I think that’s the secret of this kind of lazy filmmaking — throw a bunch of images together and hope your audience does the work of constructing the narrative. Often they will, because it is in our genes.

Give me a story, a rich story that rewards re-reading or re-viewing with new discoveries. Feed my head.