So, since there’s a light trickle of literary people to my blog, I’m going to type up what are the beginnings of some thinking I’ve been doing about narrative theory (using this term a bit loosely). And I’d like to know what you think.
In the thousands and thousands of pieces of writing I’ve read over the last couple years, a pattern has started to emerge, and while I haven’t approached these in anything resembling a scientific manner, I do think, based on the improperly gathered evidence, that there is a hierarchy of needs related to narratives, and that the more of these needs are met, the more successful a narrative will be.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ve tentatively called it the CASE Hierarchy. You’ll see why after the jump.
Okay, you jumped! That’s so nice of you!
Before I begin, let me remind you that I’m looking for feedback. If this seems too off base, too ivory tower white male, or too much like the inspired lunacy in Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, shoot me a reply:
For a story to function to the best of its ability, there are four primary areas of consideration to which its author must pay attention, beginning from the most fundamental and building from there. These stages are: Creativity, Articulation, Storytelling, and Engagement.
At the most basic level, in order for a narrative work to be truly successful, its author has to have creative ideas. A short story, novella, or novel that doesn’t demonstrate creativity on the part of the author cannot hold the interest of the reader and cannot be an artistic success on its own merits (though the connectedness of the author, nepotism, or severely lowered reader expectations through a programmatic approach to reading might make it a commercial success anyway, provided that there is in fact something resembling a linear story).
If the author of a narrative demonstrates creativity, this does not necessarily mean that this narrative will succeed — only that the author is capable of generating ideas that could be used effectively. The author must also be able to articulate those ideas through the skillful use of language. This requires developing an understanding of prose style, grammar, and a broad enough vocabulary to be able to choose words that accurately communicate what the author intends to say.
While the results of this level of understanding can potentially be interesting, they do not necessarily guarantee a successful narrative. A series of vignettes, for instance, can merit attention and inspire a reader to think, but if they remain unconnected, they don’t communicate the ideas as well as a work does that is capable of building these into a story.
The next step is the most important, structurally. In order for a narrative to be successful, it must function as a story. To do this, a narrative is required to have some central conflict, that is resolved. This does not mean that the conflict or its resolution are necessarily straightforward, merely that they exist. It is possible that in some narratives, the central question might appear to be whether or not the reader can identify the narrative itself.
While the prior example could theoretically work in the hands of a particularly skillful author, most narratives are more compelling when they have a central conflict with a greater degree of tangibility than a story in line with the above example would likely provide.
For many readers, it seems enough to have an engaging narrative that differentiates itself creatively from other narratives and communicates both the story and the ideas within it well. While narratives of this type are functional, there is a further level of development that is required to make a narrative function to its greatest potential: engagement with the philosophical concepts that underlie human civilization.
While sometimes ideas that occur at the basic creative level of development can flirt with these larger themes, or readers might, in their pondering on philosophical topics, attribute things to a narrative that weren’t deliberately put there, they do not necessarily do so.
At this highest level, there is a balancing act that the writer has to perform. If he or she presents too much of an agenda with philosophical or ideological ideas, the ideas run the risk of overwhelming a narrative, as in most of Ayn Rand’s fiction. But there also has to be enough there for the reader to be able to work with to feel he or she is engaged, and it has to be intrinsic enough to the work for readers from other cultures and time periods to get it (unlike Finnegan’s Wake, which virtually requires a knowledge of cryptography to make sense of its nonsense).
And if a writer manages to pull everything in the hierarchy off, the result is a masterpiece.
(Most of this was written on my phone, so apologies if the language is especially choppy.)