Narrative shapes

In the misty Black Mountains

The author Denise Mina talks about stories in an interview in The Guardian Review (Saturday 27 April 2019); asked about the inspiration for her podcasting plot line (writes Libby Brooks) she segues into Western society’s addiction to certain narrative shapes:

They are so comforting, but it fundamentally impacts the way we receive information. So the anti-vaxxers have a much cleaner story than vaxxers. Everything doesn’t fit into a story, some things are just information.

This issue — about people responding more favourably to a narrative that follows a simple plot than random bits of information that make the picture more messy — is one that you may’ve noticed I come back to again and again.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy well-plotted narratives as much as the next person. Beginning, middle, end — a clear story arc — good pacing — a sense the author is in control… What’s not to like? Sometimes there’s a twist at the end: a ‘never-ending’ tale when the narrator only stops once the audience realises the tale keeps repeating from the beginning; or a cliffhanger, Scheherazade-style, where we’re left wanting more. But most of us like a successful resolution to our stories, with a stock formula, the closing of a book or applause marking a clear fermata.

But apart from birth, followed by the passing of time and then death, most life doesn’t have a neatness about it. We never hear all that’s relevant to big issues in current affairs — a situation exacerbated by the blatant political bias of so much of our news media — so it’s rarely possible to reach a balanced judgement of life-and-death matters, let alone more minor issues.

So this is where narrative comes in. Right wing, left wing, to vaccinate or not, human agency in climate change, flat earth, aliens and a myriad other debates: our desire for certainty requires definite answers and pat conclusions. Nuance or rational argument is abruptly shown the door; villains, real or imagined, are identified, saviours and heroes extolled.

The truth is that the future is shrouded in mist. We can make out shapes in the fog, guess where the path is going, but there is no well-delineated final destination, let alone a ‘happy ever after’, to be discerned. The only certainty seems to be entropy.

Narrative turns out to be all that sustains us.

That’s my spot of cri-de-coeur existentialism for the week! I had hoped to post a review of Rotherweird by now, but I’ve not been rushing through it, preferring to savour it. It’s a tricksy but stimulating narrative, yet though I’ve spotted many of the intellectual clues littered around I’m no nearer to guessing the conclusion, you’ll be relieved to know.

22 thoughts on “Narrative shapes

  1. Perhaps it is to escape the mist that life is that we as readers derive comfort, even a sense of security of a kind from a defined structure in books–when these notions are challenged, we as unnerved as we are by life, where we can’t ever be sure of anything.

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    1. I’m convinced you’re right, Mallika: while there can be satisfaction to be had in some rambling novels which, though not necessarily long, proceed and end inconsequentially, too many of them seem to echo life, with no discernable meaningful patterns.

      It is that itch to find meaning that novels and other narratives — and I include religious texts here — salve. A meaning which life sure as hell (in a manner of speaking) fails to provide.

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  2. Your cri-de-coeur offers much food for thought, Chris. And I agree with Mallika; we crave that security. I’ll be reflecting on this while I’m pottering in the garden later!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In a rapidly changing world — from technology to climate breakdown and onwards — the notions of security and certainty offer us comfort zones and some peace of mind; and the expectation that familiar narratives will provide them is also strong in us. I want them, you want them, and politicians of different hues promise to give us them — but they rarely tell us the heavy price we have to pay to achieve them.

      Ooo, I’ve gone all dark and cynical there, Sandra, sorry!

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  3. The outcome of our Australian election seems to bear this out. Mostly we want comforting old stories, not new ones with uncertain outcomes. I once read a Kingsley Amis novel about a librarian to whom library members often said,’ Oh Mr Lewis, can I have a nice book just like this one I’ve read.’

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    1. We’re largely conditioned (or is it nature?) to prefer the ‘same old’, the stress of constantly dealing with situations beyond our control causing not just anxiety but even mental ilness. As Hamlet said,
      “‘Tis better to bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.” Your elections seem to underline a fear of falling out of the frying pan and into the fire…

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  4. Some morning perspective to nibble on for me! Considering I’m working on some horror-style stories right now, where things need to SEEM random even though they actually help drive the narrative, I’ve got to try and help readers feel a sincere reality in these stories, where things happen without control, and yet maintain a promise of sorts that all the randomness is going somewhere.
    That does seem to be the author’s mantra, doesn’t it? “Bear with me, folks, we’re getting there.”

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    1. Yes, I can’t imagine an author declaring, “Right, here’s where you lose me, and you’ll never ever know where the plot is going, or even if there was a plot in the first place to go somewhere!”

      But there’s sometimes a thrill in feeling one’s there for the ride, that the magical mystery tour (Roll up! Step right this way! ) is about the journey, not the destination.

      I think that perhaps the most canny authors — like you — have their cake and eat it: take the reader for a mystery tour but make sure there isn’t a traffic accident at the very end…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are so awesome, Chris, thank you! 🙂 I concur that we want readers to be thrilled to be on the journey as well as reach that destination; we don’t want either element to be a bore, or the reading experience will never quite satisfy. (Aw, the magical mystery tour…how did the Rutles parody that song? “the mythical history hour” or something…hang on…ha! “The Tragical History Tour.” There we go. 🙂

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        1. I had that Rutles LP for quite a while, some hugely affectionate parodies on there (wasn’t there a track called ‘Ouch!’?) which, with Neil Innes involved, were musical gems in their own right.

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