Aspects of narrative

The appeal of narratives

Robinson CrusoeNarratives in prose and poetry are read for pleasure and for insight into the human condition. They provide the shaping of experience into a pattern that is both artistically satisfying and suggests a purpose or meaning in life. 
 
Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe (1719), which can be viewed as the first modern novel, defined narrative writing as ‘lying like the truth'. Here he identified two key features of literary narratives. They are at once: 
  • fictional, invented
  • true to life in psychological and moral terms. 
 
The reading of a narrative engages the reader in asking ‘What happens next?' and implicitly ‘Why?' Engagement with narratives is central to every culture in defining the reader's world view.

The characteristics of narrative 

A narrative is a structured story told by a narrator, which has a plot, setting, characters and themes.

Structure

Labov's 1967 Narrative Structure Theory provides a helpful six-part chronological approach to written [and spoken] narratives: 
  • Abstract
  • Orientation
  • Complication
  • Resolution
  • Coda
  • Evaluation. 
The Abstract is the initial summary of the story, typically in the title of the text and at times in an opening section. It provides the first decision point for the reader about reading on. A fruitful approach to narrative analysis is to explore the appropriateness of the title.
 
The Orientation establishes time and place, the social context of the narrative, inviting the reader to accept and enter that world for the duration of the story. A novel in particular, as opposed to other genres, has time and space in a story of 70,000-plus words to define a setting that can be realised in great detail.
 
Within the first chapter the writer will invariably introduce the narrative proper, in the form of a Complication with which the characters are faced. The reader will inevitably speculate on how that Complication might be resolved in terms of the characters' actions or external events outside their control. The reader shares a pleasurable sense of unease or uncertainty with the characters, while being reassured that this is only fiction and that the author will provide some sort of ending before too long.
 
The Resolution will provide an answer to the Complication to achieve a satisfying form of closure to the narrative.
 
The Coda announces the end of the fictional engagement and allows the reader to return to the real world. Statements such as ‘they all lived happily ever after' mark this process.
 
At every stage in the reading process above is the overarching issue of Evaluation, in which the reader instinctively poses such questions as ‘Do I care what happens next?' and thus ‘Is it worth reading on?' The important process of evaluation is both moral and aesthetic: it is central to the analysis of literature.

Narrators

As creator of the narrative, the writer can adopt any one of a number of narrative standpoints. 

Third person narration

Charles DickensWriting in the third person as the omniscient, all-knowing narrator s/he can describe what each character is thinking and what happens, and exactly what words are spoken. In the nineteenth century, didactic novelists such as Dickens and Hardy would break off from the narrative to address the reader directly with their thoughts on the issues raised by the events, just in case the reader misses the point.
 
Frequently novels are written focusing on a particular character's point of view, while still in the third person. This allows the reader to empathise with the character, while still retaining a certain measure of objectivity. A stylistic device may then be to switch to another character's point of view, which may cause the reader to question the accuracy of the first character's observations.

First person narration

When writing in the first person, an author is restricted to describing only what the character can reasonably be expected to know. The fiction that such a narrator has an exact recall of complex dialogue is accepted by the reader. There is a particular immediacy about present tense first person narration which engages the reader.
 
A first person narrator may be the main protagonist or s/he may be an involved narrator, sometimes referred to as an unreliable narrator, who has some sort of stake in how the events unfold. Here the author is inviting the reader to allow for the partiality of the telling. Sometimes, as in Wuthering Heights, there are one or more framing narrators. Their narratives may include letters from characters in the story, thus providing yet further narrative viewpoints.

Changing perspectives

Whether the first person narrator writes chronologically, retrospectively or in media res (in the midst of the action) affects the reader's response significantly.
 
Some texts, known as epistolary novels, are written entirely in the form of letters. This process may allow the same incident to be viewed retrospectively from the angles of different characters. Other texts appear to replicate the randomness of human thought and are called stream of consciousness novels.

Plot

A plot is a sequence of causally interrelated actions which the protagonist undergoes, testing and shaping their character, before arriving at some sort of resolution. Chaucer wrote that ‘the end is every tale's strength'. This suggests that the author's selection and ordering of significant events will lead to a satisfying conclusion, which may be predictable or surprising, but will adhere to the truth of the telling.
 
In the manipulation of the time sequence of their plots authors determine what they want their readers to know and in what order. A main plot and a variety of sub-plots can be interwoven to intrigue the reader and present one as a commentary on or contrast with another. Narrative conventions allow authors to slow down or speed up actions in order to control the length of time the reader is given to reflect on what is being read.

Setting

Prose narratives place characters in very particular contexts, having room to accommodate evocative descriptions of setting. The setting may often both affect and reflect the thoughts and feelings of the characters. For example, by using pathetic fallacy the description of the weather or the landscape may suggest the mood of the characters. The difference between one environment and another, each with its own set of values, may highlight a conflict between two sets of values for characters in the narrative.
 
Readers look to vividly realised settings as authentication of the truth of narratives, whether it is a fresh examination of a familiar environment or a convincingly detailed evocation of an unfamiliar one. Interspersed with the dialogue or the action in a narrative, the description of setting enables the reader to ‘see' where characters are and thus empathise with them more wholeheartedly.
 
Significant description of setting will do more than just set the scene: it will contribute to the wider meaning of a narrative.

Characters

In Aspects of the Novel E.M.Forster refers to ‘flat' and ‘round' characters, where the former always behave in a stereotypical way in any situation, while the latter are less predictable and their character evolves over the novel time. The reader is often invited to empathise with a protagonist, and one of the interesting features of such reading is to predict or be surprised by the way s/he reacts to events. Invariably a question at the back of the reader's mind is: ‘What would I do when faced with this situation?'
 
Within a narrative there will be analysis of how and why characters behave as they do. The reader seeks a vicarious pleasure in entering the thoughts and feelings of characters. In the telling the author can provide several perspectives on characters, whether providing insight into their thoughts, describing them objectively, hearing them speak or allowing other characters to voice their view of them. By this process writers can present characters with considerable psychological depth.

Themes

In their aesthetic shaping of meaning all the characteristics of narratives outlined above will contribute to the total effect on the reader, which may then be defined in terms of central themes. The narrative may be a Bildungsroman or ‘learning novel' in which the protagonists come into knowledge and understanding of themselves and their world. There may be the abiding themes of love and death, or more particular ones of friendship isolation, revenge or forgiveness.
 
A common experience of reading narratives is to explore the insight of their writers into such themes, as well as the particular words or phrases with which such themes are articulated.
 
Part of the value of reading narratives is that they provide the reader with insight into other world views and the ways in which these can be expressed.
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