Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for September 2nd, 2010

What is the Story? Examples of Narrative Flow from “Maury” and Others

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The main question, whether it’s on the “Maury” show or whether it’s life itself, is: what is the story?  And how does it match up against the narrative we tell ourselves?

I watch “Maury,” as I’ve said on my “About” page and elsewhere, partly because it’s cathartic — but mostly because it’s a real, live case study of people who believe something which may or may not be true; this belief is what’s driving their own, personal narrative.  On “Maury,” it’s often fidelity — or the lack of it — that’s the belief, or perhaps paternity (or the lack of it) — whereas in real life, many people tend to believe whatever is on the surface of things, and don’t dig for deeper meaning.  (Or as Rosemary Edghill once told me, “Life just is.  Art has to convince.”)

On “Maury” recently, one of the stories that struck me was of a woman in her mid-40s, a professional, sober woman who happened to have a sex addiction.  She was married to a minister, who was also a professional, sober and intelligent man — and rather than becoming indignant, or upset, or unhappy, or enraged (all typical and completely understandable reactions to hearing a secret of this nature in a public forum like the “Maury” show), he said that when he married her, he knew she had problems.  And that he’d be unChristian to abandon her to something she hadn’t chosen or wished for — truly an astonishing event for “Maury,” as it was mature, reasoned and accepting (without being judgmental).

Yet if I had tried to come up with a narrative flow, being a regular watcher of “Maury,” I’d have expected these other reactions — because at least 90% of the time, that’s how people behave.

In our writing, we’re trying to tell a story that’s driven by conflict — sometimes external, sometimes internal, often both — and we must make things consistent, understandable, and give strong reasons why we do things (yet not make them so strong that it appears we’re leading the readers by the hand).  This can be a challenge.

Right now, in my novel-in-progress KEISHA’S VOW, I’m wrestling with character reactions.  How much is too much?  And how accepting can someone be, even when truly in love, when a big part of their significant other’s identity has been hidden away?

At any rate, conflict is what tends to drive novels, except in the case of novels that are all about the hero’s journey and are more about the hero’s mood rather than what he or she is doing at any given time.  These novels are all internally-driven conflict, and thus are much more difficult to write because keeping the reader engaged and focused in an internal struggle is far more challenging than keeping him amused while fighting various space battles for dinner, washing up with saving a planet or two for a light aperitif, then seeing said commander called back to be knighted and recognized for his/her conspicuous heroism for dessert.

At any rate, there are expected tropes in narrative storytelling, whether it’s on “Maury” or in a book.  In science fiction, there are conventions we need to follow, or obviously break, in order to tell stories that resonate with readers — and if we do break with conventions, usually it’s best to do so in a showy manner that leaves little doubt as to why you’re doing things this way.  (I’m reading a book now by Charles Yu called HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE, and there’s no doubt Yu knows exactly what he’s doing as he breaks with convention, discusses philosophy, and engages the reader in what on the surface might appear to be a fluffy journey of how the protagonist finds himself and his father, but is actually the most profound journey there is — how to find meaning when the universe makes no sense whatsoever.)

Granted, the stories that are remembered often do break with convention — remember my “Maury” anecdote, above? — precisely because of how they broke with convention.

In our own lives, the “narrative flow” breaks here and there due to marriage, divorce, death, raising children, etc.  And what seems a seamless narrative from the outside, to someone who doesn’t know you well, is proven to have fits, starts and jumps — something Sharon Lee and Steve Miller exploited to the fullest in their recent, and excellent, novel, SALTATION.  (Not to mention their recent, and excellent, novel MOUSE AND DRAGON, a sequel to their scintillating SCOUT’S PROGRESS.  Or really any of their other books or stories — Lee and Miller have narrative flow down to an art form, and I highly recommend all their work.)  Here, the conventions of science fiction are adhered to, yet this frees the authors to explore the dynamic tension of inner conflict amidst outer conflict, along with dealing with various problems due to societal expectations and cultural clashes.   (If someone is looking to write romance, much less believable romance, but doesn’t know the first thing about how to do it in a science-fictional setting, reading Lee and Miller’s work would be an excellent place to start.)

So, what is your story?  And what examples of narrative flow do you look for, when you pick something to read, write, or emulate in your own writing?

Written by Barb Caffrey

September 2, 2010 at 1:09 pm