The Way Narratives Go

Recently one of my students confessed to the class that in a long-ago creative writing workshop she had once been humiliated when her instructor had chalked on the board the structure of her short story, which was found inadequate beside a comparative chalked version of the Freytag Triangle. For those unfamiliar with The Triangle, here is its basic pattern:

The chart above was originally conceived of by Gustav Freytag, appearing in a critical analysis of Greek drama he published in 1863. Since that time, The Triangle has become something of a standard in introductory creative writing texts and courses. It’s certainly easy to grasp: a narrative begins with a little expositional soft shoe, moves quickly to a rising action of tension until a dramatic climax erupts, followed by a falling action of that dramatic moment’s consequences, and finally ends with the story equivalent of sweeping out the theater after a show—the denouement.

Elegant? Yes. Instructive? Up to a point. Constricting? Absolutely.

Perhaps the best antidote to Mr. Freytag’s training wheels triangle is a novel (one of the first in English) written in 1759, by Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy. The novel revels in digressions and side trips, seemingly distracted by every bright shiny thing along its circuitous narrative march. Tristram’s birth, for example, doesn’t occur until the novel’s third volume.

Eventually, even Tristram notes the odd course his tale has been taking, as he offers illustrations of the narrative paths of the first five volumes, each example an inelegant and hilarious stringy thing, and each one looking as different from the others as could be (click to enlarge):

Well, isn’t this as it should be, narrative structures like snowflakes? And best of all, I love how, with true Shandian irony, Laurence Sterne inadvertently manages to demolish a narrative theory one hundred years before it had even been thought up.

Forget Freytag, you beginning writers out there, and instead listen to the novelist and short story writer Robert Boswell who, in an excellent interview that has recently been posted on the Fiction Writers Review website, says,

“The main thing is this: I don’t want to repeat myself. I’m trying to be a literary artist. And, really, who knows what that means? But I’m pretty sure that it means at least this: you don’t settle for anything but the very best you’re capable of doing. For me, that means pushing my narratives to be different, insisting that I try something new, working to explore familiar territories in new ways and to invent new forms each time I sit down to write.”

Boswell’s remarks remind me of a marvelous video devised by two Swiss conceptual artists, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, called The Way Things Go. I once played this video for one of my graduate-level writing workshops, offering the opinion that it contains a wealth of narrative strategies that anyone might care to study. Fischli and Weiss manage, in a huge warehouse space, to construct an odd, elaborate structure made of everyday objects that, once set in motion, takes nearly a half hour to unwind, as principles of physics and chemistry create relentless forward motion. It could be a novel. As you can see from these four images from the film, things get busy.

The film (and its “narrative”) begins with an ominous black plastic bag bulging with who knows what sorts of secrets, building tension as it turns and turns in the air, slowly lowering, until finally it nudges a tire forward. The tire encounters an obstacle, halts, sets in motion a fulcrum that seems at first to be a reverse motion, but then that reversal pushes the tire forward again (such hesitancy on the part of that tire! Worthy, perhaps, of Hamlet’s hemming and hawing), rolling until it releases a stepladder down a soft incline.

This awkward ladder contraption in turn causes first a table and then an air mattress to fall, which drops a weighted ball from the top of a metal pole, and the attached ball slowly circles in the air, widening its path until it hits a wooden stick, which releases another black plastic bag, bulging with who knows what sorts of additional secrets, building tension as it turns and turns in the air, slowly lowering to another waiting tire, a tire that I guarantee will set in motion a whole new set of narrative strategies.

What an elegant mirroring structure can be found in the film’s first 80 seconds! The opening tension of the first twisting black bag echoed by its twin at the end of the sequence, and in between, how the pacing varies–from slow and anticipatory to sudden and violent, punctuated by hesitations and temporary reversals.

And don’t forget the thematic repetitions, how various are those tires—car tires, an inner tube, a truck tire—and how they not only serve as agents of forward motion, but also at times as a pedestal, barrier, or weight.

As the narrative strategies progress, some things will catch on fire, some explode, others will slowly wind their way to their fates. There will be another version of that weighted ball, though this one will be on fire, like some flaming comet of your nightmares. You will also encounter ghostly shoes,

a knife-wielding, acid dispensing potato, ominous chemical clouds and a glue trap, among other ingenious surprises, as well as a brief, post-apocalyptic landscape.

And through it all, a lesson repeats itself that perhaps informs characterization as much as narrative shape: that anyone’s carefully balanced equilibrium can be set awry, and what is set awry can create its own surprising pattern.

A triangle can be a wonderful thing, but geometry offers a multitude of different shapes and angles. And stories do too. Even more so, because each story, novel or essay awaits the birth of its form, as the writer slowly hammers out its construction through the process of composition and revision. Fiction writer Diane Lefer gets the last word here and gets it right when she compares writers liberated from the strictures of traditional literary form to jazz musicians, in her classic craft essay, “Breaking the Rules of Story Structure”:

“A jazz musician may seem to go all over the place in a musical improvisation, but there’s always an underlying structure to refer to and return to. The sense of liberating spontaneity is exhilarating when paired with technical proficiency and control.”

 Go to post page

May 16th, 2011 by admin

“Cluentius Took It Badly”

A recent post on the website Brevity quotes the grandmaster essayist Philip Lopate on the creation of character in nonfiction, developing one’s “I” into a recognizable personality with enough complexity to be capable of variation, change. As Lopate says, “the writer needs to build herself into a character. And I use the word character much the same way the fiction writer does.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I especially appreciate the equality that’s implied between the fiction and nonfiction writer (being both myself). But that phrase about the fiction writer reminds me of different occasions, when I’ve heard or read an assertion that creative nonfiction “borrows” fictional techniques. I’d say, if you look a little closer, it may be quite the opposite.

The historian Herodotus, for example, is one of the earliest Greek prose writers whose work has survived largely intact; his work has been widely influential for millennia, and was certainly read, often in the original, by those 18th century giants who went on to create the modern novel: Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe and Laurence Sterne. These writers were probably also influenced by Anabasis, the major work of the Greek memoirist Xenophon, which was long used as a text for students of classical Greek. And it’s a good bet they were familiar with the work of Cicero, the Roman who was a major influence not only in his own time but throughout the Middle Ages, and his letters are said to have been an initiating force behind the development of the Renaissance; his Murder Trials, a collection of his legal summations, is a rollicking good read.

But let’s start with Herodotus, and his incisive psychological portrait, in The Histories, of Amasis, who was considered to be the last great Egyptian pharaoh:

“It is said that Amasis in his private life, before he came to the throne, was just as fond of his joke and his glass, and was never inclined to serious pursuits; indeed, if ever he found himself short of means to continue his round of drinking and enjoyment, he would go out on the prowl and steal, and people who claimed that property of theirs was in his possession would, if he denied it, take him off to the nearest oracle. Sometimes the oracle would convict him, sometimes not. In consequence of this, when he came to the throne, he had a low opinion of the gods who had acquitted him of theft; he neglected their temples, contributing nothing to their adornment, and never frequented them for sacrifice, on the ground that their oracles were false and they were worth nothing; those on the other hand who had convicted him, he held in the highest honor—for their oracles were true, and they were gods indeed.”

I love the elegance of this characterization, which makes me want to read on about the further doings of Amasis, the ruler who seems to respect most those who know him at his worst. He comes alive as a curiously flawed person, whose honesty stems from his dishonesty.

The attraction for me of Cicero’s Murder Trials is the author’s voice, as alive on the page as could be. Here is an eloquent lawyer (whose clients usually went free) making his case, doing his best to characterize his client in the best light, while casting other personalities in the trial into dark shadow, as can be seen in this excerpt from “In Defense of Aulus Cluentius Habitus,” where a mother seduces her daughter’s husband, forcing a divorce, and then promptly marries the man herself:

“She actually gave orders that the identical marriage-bed which she herself had prepared, two years previously, for the wedding of her own daughter should now be got ready and adorned for herself, in the very home from which her daughter had been expelled and hounded out. And so mother-in-law married son-in-law, with no one to declare the omens or give the bride away, amid the gloomiest forebodings from everyone.

“What unbelievably atrocious behavior that woman displayed! Indeed, her conduct must surely be quite unparalleled and unique. Her sexual desires must truly have been insatiable. Even if the might of the gods, the judgment of mankind, did not frighten her, it is strange indeed that she did not feel overawed by the torches, by the threshold of the bridal chamber which contained her own daughter’s bridal bed, by the very walls themselves which had gazed upon that other union. In her sensual frenzy there was no obstacle which she forbore to break through and trample down out of her way. Modesty was overcome by passionate lust, caution by unbridled recklessness, reason by mania uncontrollable.

“Her son Cluentius took it badly.”

Reading this, I imagine I can hear Cicero’s voice, the measured indignation rising before the jurists as he sets the scene of the marriage night, then quieting as he lowballs Cluentius’s reaction to his mother’s appalling behavior. Here, Cicero not only works hard to transform living, breathing people into something like fictional characters who can be efficiently understood and judged, but he spins it all with such an engaging narrative voice that he himself is added to the dramatis personae.

Finally, if there’s a fiction writer out there who can quietly and effectively build narrative tension and anticipation as well as Xenophon, please notify me immediately. Here is his portrait of a seemingly doomed military situation: ten thousand Greek soldiers abandoned hundreds of miles within Persian territory:

“With their generals arrested and the captains and soldiers who had gone with them put to death, the Greeks were in an extremely awkward position. It occurred to them that they were near the King’s capital and that around them on all sides were numbers of people and cities who were their enemies; no one was likely in the future to provide them with a chance of buying food. They were at least a thousand miles away from Greece; they had no guide to show them the way; they were shut in by impassable rivers which traversed their homeward journey; even the natives who had marched on the capital with Cyrus had turned against them, and they were left by themselves without a single cavalryman in their army . . . With all this to reflect upon they were in a state of deep despondency. Only a few tasted food that evening, and few lit fires. Many of them did not parade by the arms that night, but took their rest just where each man happened to be, and could not sleep because of their misery and their longing for their home lands and parents and wives and children, which they thought that they would never see again. In this state of mind they all took their rest.”

Xenophon slowly sets up the narrative tension by clearly laying out the hopeless particulars, and then follows by imagining the thoughts and feelings of his fellow soldiers, their worries and resignation. And the reader thinks, Well, how will they be able to survive? And reads on. Another notable feature of this book is that, though many believe that Xenophon based his memoir on diaries he wrote at the time, he takes the curious tactic of writing about himself in the third person: “Xenophon thought,” “Then Xenophon stood up and spoke as follows.” By turning himself into, in effect, a character at some remove, he manages to balance intimacy with emotional distance.

Whether in translation or the original language, these three ancient writers were certainly familiar to Sterne, Fielding, Defoe and Swift, all members of the educated class of their time. I’ll bet a nickel that they absorbed enough of the techniques of these nonfiction authors to begin spinning out their own narrative tricks of the trade into the novels we still know so well centuries later.

 Go to post page

January 1st, 2011 by admin