Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

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

with 4 comments

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

4 Responses

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  1. This was originally in my blog post today, but I decided it makes more sense outside of it:


    Because I’ve done a goodly amount of editing, I often have to tell my “editor voice,” sternly, to just be quiet while I try to thrash things out. This often causes more distress, as I get a sort of narrative “backchat” that has to be filtered out.


    Note that I don’t know anyone aside from Michael who has had this particular distress, though I can’t believe it’s that uncommon. I also believe that because I’ve had to start, then re-start, then re-start again due to life’s changing (and often chaotic) situations, that has added to the power of “editor voice” due to how much weight the rest of the story has with me.

    Barb Caffrey

    September 2, 2010 at 10:39 pm

  2. A friend of mine pointed to this article at the Huffington Post called “The Art of Obsessing Compulsively” by Eric Maisel, Ph.D. —

    Here’s a relevant quote by Maisel that sums up how I feel about continuing on with writing:

    “The brain can also productively obsess — and it really wants to. Consciously creating and actively nurturing productive obsessions amount to the very best solution for the problems that so many people are experiencing today, problems like getting easily distracted, starting things and then losing interest and feeling like life is passing them by. When you decide to raise the stakes, so to speak, and elevate an interest into an obsession, these problems resolve themselves. Turning mere interests into obsessions, a process that by its nature ignites your passion, is among the most important keys to self-motivation. People are happier and more efficient when they productively obsess.

    “Instead of giving up on their home business, their creative project or the personal problem that they’re trying to solve, they find new motivation, new energy, and sustained interest in their own ideas and their own work.”

    *** end quote.

    May I get an “Amen, brother!” on that?

    Barb Caffrey

    September 4, 2010 at 2:53 am

  3. Dear Barb Caffrey,

    Just wanted to drop a note and say thanks for the mention of my book, and for reading it, and for your thoughtful Amazon review! I very much appreciate it all.


    Charlie Yu

    September 10, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    • You’re most welcome, Charlie. I enjoyed your book. I hope you’ll find a good audience for it — I think the market is more welcoming than many publishers think, if they just will give new authors the time of day.

      Barb Caffrey

      September 11, 2010 at 12:37 am

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