Narrative development

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.)

So, thoughts?

7 thoughts on “Narrative development

  1. You need to update this more often. That’s my thought. Also, I wish I had a phone on which I could write things on. No fair! I’m jealous!

  2. This is a really interesting post (I realize it’s old, but I only just found it). My one problem with it is that it seems to me that you could have all of the above-mentioned qualities, and still no masterpiece. At the risk of joining you in the ivory tower, perhaps you need to not only have all four CASE qualities, but also have at least one of these qualities be truly superlative. To use an example from your favorite-author list, Kurt Vonnegut’s BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS certainly has a plot and central conflict (Storytelling), but its main strength is what you would call Articulation. I prefer it to CAT’S CRADLE, which again has all four elements, but is stronger on both Creativity and Engagement. (BOC *feels* plenty creative, but when you think about it, how creative is a science-fiction author writing about another science-fiction author?) So I’m just not convinced that the CASE Hierarchy is in fact a hierarchy.

    All that having been said, I like your theory of narrative, and it does reflect my experience in terms of writing. When I first started writing my novel (the first three chapters of which may already be sitting on your desk!) I did not expect it to have any significant amount of Engagement. I started writing it in college, and my professors kept telling me that they wanted to see something that dealt with Big Issues–a novel that was more Jewish, or more philosophical, or, it seemed to me, less commercial. I was very resistant to the idea, because I thought they were asking for a polemic and I just wanted to write fantasy. But the more I wrote, the more my novel started to engage with the real world, from religion to love–accidentally! That was a major part of my growth as a writer: becoming engaged (with or without a capital E).

    Okay, enough late-night/early-morning commentary on two-year-old blog posts. Good morning, and don’t forget to read my MS!

  3. I agree on updating this. As a writer with a background in philosophy it’s welcome to see an agent looking for ideas as a secondary substrate to the horizontal narrative propulsion. I’ll look forward to querying you soon.

  4. Do I look creepy responding to this some five years after you wrote it? Oh well. Can’t be much worse than someone posting four years after, right? I’m doing agent research. That’s my excuse.

    While I agree that all of those elements are important in any good story, I would argue that in order for a book to be engaging and convey its chosen theme, engaging characters and strong character development are central. If you have a creative concept, a decent plot, beautiful prose, and a well-expressed theme, but your characters fall flat, are only two-dimensional and/or otherwise don’t pull the reader in, none of the rest of that matters. You might count awesome characters under one of the other stages, such as storytelling, but I think it deserves a special mention. After all, if a reader doesn’t care about the protagonist, for instance, they are unlikely to read on, or at least to be affected by what happens to said character (and thus the themes). I think often we get so focused on the external plot and being creative that we forget that the core to any good story is not so much the outer wrappings of the book in setting, external plot and prose, but rather in the internal struggle of the multifaceted and engaging characters that the reader comes to know and love. In my opinion, characters and character development over the course of the novel are most important of all.

    That being said, I completely agree that there is a big difference between writing an entertaining story and writing a story that, while also being entertaining, does so much more. A story that makes the reader stop and think, or stand up triumphantly at the end and feel like they should be doing something to change the world for the better, because they so connected with the struggle and can see how it relates to the real world. Those are the rare books that stay with you for years to come.

  5. I, too, thought that when you introduced the word “engaging” for the “E” in CASE, you would be talking about characters, not themes. Personally, I think both are essential for really good literature. I found your hierarchy interesting and only wish I’d come across it earlier. I am very late to the discussion.

  6. I think there’s something to be said for an author understanding their audience. Creativity, Articulation, Storytelling, and Engagement are all in some degree subjective to the kind of story being told and who it’s being told to.

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