Present tensed

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Do you remember those gauche reports you or your fellow pupils may have written about a school trip or what you did during the holidays? You know, the kind that went First we did this and then I did that and then my friend said this and then…? One thing followed by another with no real sense of direction or purpose and an absolute anticlimax when it all comes to an end: And then we went home.

That’s the feeling I have about some novels, accounts that leave me frustrated and tense, like those seemingly never-ending dreams from which you emerge restless, as if from some randomly edited student movie, thinking What was that all about?

Those narratives nearly all have one thing in common, a factor which leads me to put them aside pro tem or maybe in aeternum. That common factor is the historic present tense. And that’s exactly what it makes me: tense.

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The nature of story

“What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible? One is thereby enabled to keep such a quiet mind.” — Charlotte Brontë

A number of unconnected literary threads have come together and have somehow become inextricably tangled in my mind. After a review of Jenny Nimmo‘s The Snow Spider last month I’ve been ploughing through other fiction, including some of Charlotte Brontë‘s unfinished tales, until my current reread of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife.

It’s taken some comments from blogger Sandra to get me thinking about the nature of story for teller and audience, about how much storytellers might care to reveal about their creative processes, and about how precious is that fragile veil in every confessional box. What follows is a none too successful attempt to untangle those threads.

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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.

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Parallel lines

How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?

I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar. What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?

I’ve read a few studies in my time about how stories are structured. There is the Aarne-Thompson tale types classification (named after Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, subsequently refined by Hans-Jörg Uther) which undertook to analyse folk narratives around the world, finding many commonalities; most discussion of folk- and fairytales refers to this system. There is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) based on analysis of classic Russian fairytales, which I found strangely alluring despite its complexity.

I’ve also read Eugène Dorfman’s The Narreme in the Medieval Romance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structure (1971), which examines how many medieval romances appear to follow similar structural patterns. Then there’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) which tried to include all culture hero tales in a schema he called the monomyth. We mustn’t forget Christopher Booker’s often irritating study The Seven Basic Plots (2004) which attributed the success of many narratives to their following a limited number of templates, sometimes singly and at other times in combination.

So many approaches, so few answers in common. Is there another way to come at these conundrums, or at least suggest an alternative approach to why we seek out and enjoy particular patterns?

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Dido Twite and the idée fixe

How Google celebrated The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Joan Aiken really was an extraordinary author, one whose work I’m still exploring but for whom I have the greatest of respect as well as fondness. She had a gift for composing in different genres and for different audiences, displaying now a sense of poignancy, now a touch of mischief, by turns sprinkling magic dust or holding a mirror up to human nature. And she accomplished all this with no hint of the grandeur or hauteur often associated with the archetypal Great Writer.

Though she frequently wrote for adults Joan remains best known as a children’s author, especially for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels. I’ve promised myself a reread of all twelve titles but I’ve been an ardent fan for some years now, making copious notes, some of which I’ve already included on this blog.

Attached are some draft notes on common motifs I’ve noticed in the series; they’re not complete, and I know there must be mistakes, but you can see where I’m heading with this. Joan will have been familiar with international folktale types and motifs, but I’ve not consciously followed these; instead, I’ve just listed some of the more obvious patterns Joan seemed to reiterate in most of the books. Now I know that throwing motifs together is not a substitute for good storytelling, rather a way of structuring the narrative to conform to audience expectations; used clumsily it too often smacks of cliché and lazy authorial habits. Nevertheless, when employed in conjunction with wit and imagination and peopled with characters you can really care about (like the near ubiquitous Dido Twite) a solid framework of motifs can only help a story’s architecture to withstand all the withering attention that the critic will condescend to heap on it.

Whether you’ve read any — or indeed none — of the Wolves Chronicles (also called the James III sequence) you might still enjoy seeing how the idées fixes I’ve identified permeating the series are echoed in other literature, from myths and legends through fairytales and classics to modern novels and films.

WARNING: by nature most of these entries constitute spoilers. If you don’t want your future enjoyment ruined by having denouements revealed and villains unmasked please look away now.
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