In the forward to his book, The Fault in Our Stars, John Green wrote “Neither novel nor reader benefit in the attempt to divine what facts hide inside a story”, but the same can’t be said of searching for narrative in non-fiction. To me, a narrative in its simplest form is an implied story. No matter what you write, attached to it will be narratives.
Biographies, scholarly articles, even instruction manuals sometime include an example of someone understanding the facts presented to them. Often this is as simple as a label on a product that advertises, TWENTY YEARS OF CUSTOMER SATISFACTION, selling a narrative of historical benefits. You can find hypothetical narratives inside of newspaper articles, these are stories that beg questions like “Are your kids in danger if they attend a public school, yes!”. This click baity exaggeration of a headline tries to get you to read an article that could be as mundane as diet in public school cafeterias.
And what honors do we give those who present facts without narratives? Well, none.
Sure, there’s awards for Journalism, but the perspective chosen to tell the story is part of the decision to reward journalism, that perspective or angle of the story is also known as the narrative spin.
There are accolades for scientific discoveries, but those discoveries only exist because of the narrative provided to those funding the research. In fact, the scientific method requires scientist to form a hypothesis based on facts, these best guesses can be seen as narratives.
No matter how you look at it, our society is developed through, and rewards, our ability to spin facts into a story more than our power to present facts.
Why wouldn’t it? From one perspective, the facts will still be there no matter when they’re discovered, but a good narrative makes the effort to find them more palatable, it can even make the struggle attractive. Creating a narrative is likely an aspect of natural selection. We’ve evolved to find storytelling attractive.
Seriously, on a level of pure instinct, children create narratives when they lie to their parents, we cling narratives of religion to cope with loss, and we even invent our world through narratives that we call assumptions.
Example 1) “I have to walk to work in the rain, but perhaps I won’t get as wet if I run between the trees.”
Did I get wet, maybe, but there was a story of someone going outside into rain, struggling not to get too wet as they go to work. There’s also something even more intrinsic there too, this person hasn’t gone outside yet, only told them self a story to help decide if it’s a good idea. They’ve created a simulation and will now judge that narrative just as you have while reading it. That’s your instincts too, we’re all human.
Dan Harmon, the writer/creator of several American TV Shows including Rick and Morty and Community, has a theory of Storytelling he calls the “Story Circle”, I’ll get into that I cover Plot but the reason I bring it up is because in his how to write a story blog, his lessons revolve less around teaching you how to write, and more about showing you that you already now on some level. He condenses his lesson on how to write a story in a single word per step so that it can be chanted by cave dwellers around an open bonfire. It is on this level of instinct that our power to create narratives dwells.
Show don’t Tell
One of the most common questions I see asked by other writers is, what does it mean to “show don’t tell”. I’ve answered in dozens of ways with lots of examples, but I think it boils down to creating a world of narratives inside of what would otherwise be a simple description. Another way to phrase this is that narratives are so ingrained in our communication that Language is often optional in telling them, in fact body language is preferred. Think of the term, “show” don’t “tell” a story.
Telling a narrative within a story is like this:
“Shirley stood outside of the gym. She was nervous about going to a group therapy meeting, it’s not like sharing her story with strangers would help her cope with the death of her husband. When she looked inside, she saw they were sitting in silence, she left crying.”
Showing the narrative within a story is like this:
“Shirley stood in the cold, she held her arms across her waist as she stared through the window into the gym. In her clutched arms she pushed the small diamond attached to the wedding band her late husband had given her, it spun around her finger.
The other widows had already gathered the chairs into a circle, some donuts and stale coffee sat on a folding table just inside the door. Half of them had already shown up and were waiting in silence for their host. Some of the women didn’t even wear wedding bands. She would always wear hers.
She walked to her car crying, and panted under her breath, ‘I’m not like them, I’m not like them, I’m not like them’. She wouldn’t tell her sister like last week, no matter what her sister says Shirley never wanted to know why widows would no longer wore their bands.”
To be fair, I really undersold that first example, but basically it tells a story, while the second creates a series of small interconnected narratives that form a story. One creates a space or microcosm in which things can happen, the other only summarizes the facts.
Guess which one is preferred.
This leads me into my next post, Story Elements: Characters.
Oh, and shouldn’t we be writing?