Thursday, July 10, 2008

Forms of Narrative

I have been thinking, off and on today, about the various forms of writing in narrative fiction, and have some preliminary thoughts.

The latest book I have been reading, The Belgariad by David Eddings, seems to be written in a form that I would call straight narrative. For it is basically a straightforward description of events placed in chronological order. The depiction of the internal thoughts of characters is kept to a minimum, usually only used to explain why a particular character acted in a certain way.

Most fiction is probably written in this manner. It's the standard approach of paperback airport novels. The Harry Potter books certainly are, and I think you can throw Dickens in there too. Probably Jane Austen too. You can certainly produce great works of literature in this style, but it's also exceedingly hard. There isn't really any room for flights of fancy or lyricism. You are fairly constrained to the description of events as they occur. As a result most straight narrative, and by extension most novels, tend to read kind of dryly, at least compared to poetry and most other forms of novel writing.

Stream of consciousness is not so much a form independant as a form that gets grafted onto other forms, but it's important enough in itself. The depiction of the pathway of the thoughts of of one or more characters. Joyce mixes straight narrative with stream of consciousness in many of the earlier sections of Ulysses. The last section, the Molly Bloom one, is probably the purest example of the form imaginable. Updike used it a lot, I think. It is probably easiest to contruct an entire narrative in this fashion when using 1st person narration. Probably easier to write a more "literary" work in this fashion.

Then there is what I would call distorted narrative, more a number of approaches than a single technique. This is when the story is told within a certain frame, or narrative technique, or the authors freely uses poetical devices that distort or control the narrative that results. Many of the later chapters of Ulysses use this. The hospital section, which events are passed through the prism of diction presenting the evolution of English; the penultimate section, set up as a catechism. Finnegans Wake is all distorted—so distorted it might actaully cease to be narrative—through a haze of dream language and reasoning. I think this form pops up most in Modernism. Brecht's Epic Theatre is probably related to such experiments. Pale Fire definately qualifies.

Then there is what I would call fractured narrative. Stuff like Gravity's Rainbow. It's when the narrative is deliberately obscurred and strambled. Events are depicted out of order, or are left out. It often overlaps heavily with distorted narrative. Often poetic or lyrical techniques are used, details accumulate and shove aside the passage of events. Important items are related offhandedly, far froom thier necessary context. It's basically the house writing style of post-modernism. Try to obfuscate the point that you are telling a story. Often, reading such stuff feels more like an exercise in technique than storytelling, and can often be used to hide the writers inabilty to tell an actual story.