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Narrative Structures

About ten, maybe more years ago, I read Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, a novel I don't have much respect for at all.

One of the things I didn't like about it was the narrative technique that Rice picked, which was for the narrator to essentially stand and tell his story through dialogue for the entire novel. Because there was nothing natural about the dialogue, I found the whole premise of the novel difficult to get into, and that, coupled with my general disinterest in vampires, did not mean that the novel did well for me. Now, you might think I'm going to launch into a slam of the book, but I'm not really--I barely remember it now, and the truth is that I don't much care either way what the general opinion is of it. I'm sure some folk liked it. I'm sure some didn't. What interested me, however, was the narrative technique that Rice used for the novel, that idea that you could place your narrator into a room and have him or her or it actually tell the story for eighty to ninety thousand words.

In a way, it's really not that different to first person narratives, and it is entirely possible to put speech marks around any first person narrated novel and have what Rice did (though if I remember right, she used it for a twist at the end--though was that just the movie? Blonde Tom Cruise appears from behind a car seat to make out with a be-speckled Christian Slater. Also, I know Rice wasn't the first to do it, but it was my first experience of it, and the failure of it always sat most interestingly for me). What the marks do, however, is draw attention to the fact that you are narrating, and make the jump from whatever base scene you're in to the one your character is describing difficult. The reader--or at least, myself as a reader--has the feeling that he can see the strings, the moving parts, the details that form the story, the author behind the curtain. It's a trick, of course, because what you are seeing is the author's creation behind the screen of the creation's creation, but in a way, the damage is done, and the eye is drawn to the breaks and faults, and you, as the reader, are aware that you are reading something, that you're being lied too.

I've tried to write stories using this technique a few times. Mostly because I just like the challenge, and short stories are a good for narrative challenges, though I'm not sure I've ever been particularly successful. Certainly, the one time I thought I had it down reasonably, was a short story that I managed to sell three times, and which managed to never get published. The thing has long passed its used by date, so it sits in some file on my flash drive, a tiny relic that I'll likely forget some time after I've finished this post. If I remember right, it concerned a man on fire telling the story of how he had become ignited. It dealt with Nazis, because everyone has to write a story about Nazis once, and if that's not enough of a reason to consign it to the back of the flash drive, I don't know what is. However, now that I've gotten into the writing of 'Octavia E. Butler (A Remix)', I've decided, in these early stages, to give the narrative structure a try again, and see if I can't make it work, and make it work well.

I'm a terrible rewriter, at least that's how I view myself. A week from now I might hate the structure and how it's working, and change it to a mix of first and second person, because that's also an option. I can do the same tricks with both the structures, and make the leaps that I have to do so for the story, which aims to use Butler's body of work to give the form of the story. The leaps that I'm talking about have to do with the difficulty of marrying such books like Kindred, which is a time travel novel, to Dawn, a novel in which the human race has been long dead and an alien species is reviving them (in very simple ways, mind you; those descriptions skip everything interesting about the books). Anyhow, to bring those, and indeed, more, together, I've decided that what I need is a structure that allows me a bit of shifting and changing, though of course, the real concern is that in trying to pick a structure that does that I don't want to end up with a piece in which the narrator is standing in a room. If I get the vibe that that is what is happening, though, I'll just toss the structure and begin again, but until then...

(crossposted)

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cassiphone
Mar. 5th, 2009 12:51 am (UTC)
Christian Slater was in that movie??

The storytelling technique is a hard one to pull off. I think my favourite use of it is Wuthering Heights, in which the narrator and POV characters change throughout the story, but almost all of it is told. It does require willing suspension of disbelief though (in an attending theatre kind of way) and that only comes with really awesome writing.

One that always used to annoy me is the 'novel as diary entry' device, where characters apparently have 3-4 hours a night to write down everything that happened to them that day... having said that I did kind of like the Princess Diaries books, which at least called attention to the problems with the device, and showed that the character scribbling in a notebook all the time actually caused problems for her in everyday life.
benpeek
Mar. 5th, 2009 12:56 am (UTC)
heh. you know, i've never read wuthering heights?

anyhow, christian slater is the reporter that brad pitt tells his story too, only to be taken for a bit of loving by tom cruise at the end (don't ruin how i see the film, thank you).
cassiphone
Mar. 5th, 2009 01:21 am (UTC)
I'd completely forgotten that part! Usually Christian Slater is the thing I'm most likely to remember about a film...

I do recall Kirsten Dunst as the creepy little girl, and the sheer awfulness of Brad and Tom's respective hair-dos.
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