A narrative is a story – something which tells of a sequence of events. The art of telling a good story has been passed down with the stories themselves from generation to generation, since long before tales were written down. We tell stories all the time ourselves, in conversation, we read them in newspapers, hear them in songs. Much literary writing, too, is of the narrative type – novels, short stories and many poems tell stories in a great variety of ways. Perhaps they are popular because they are so easy to listen to or read, and because we enjoy the involvement of wanting to know what happens next.
A story may consist merely of the ‘bare bones’, or actual events which take place: many folk tales have this spare quality about them. Often, however, a story incorporates many other kinds of writing – descriptions of places, people, feelings, conversations, humour, reflective writing and many more – all of which contribute to the author’s purpose. The importance given to the different sorts of writing will vary, depending on what the author has set out to do.
One example of a narrative which has been expanded to include far more than the simple events of the story is John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, which is several thousand lines long and took him many years to write. This narrative is based largely on the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, from their creation to their expulsion from Paradise. The story as told in the bible takes up only a few verses and a few hundred words. Another example of a hugely expanded narrative is the book Ulysses by James Joyce, which is a novel of approximately 800 pages describing the events of a single day. On the other hand, much can be told in a very short space.
A story may describe real events, or invented ones (the latter type being denoted fiction), but there is often surprisingly little difference in the ways these two types of narrative are told. Whether true or not, a story needs to be structured well and told in an interesting manner, as well as being interesting enough for its own sake. All good storytelling – journalistic, conversational, biographical, fictional, etc. – involves the shaping and selecting process of the writer and/or speaker.
One question we might ask ourselves when reading any piece of narrative is – ‘who is telling the story?’, for the narrator of a story is not usually the same as the author, but rather a character of a special kind. Although in autobiographical and other non-fictional writing, the reader can assume that the stories are told from the author’s point of view – unless it is made clear that this is otherwise.
In fiction, one author may choose the point of view from which he will tell the story he has in mind. He may, then, decide to narrate events as though he is a character involved in, or on the fringe of, the action.
Our view of the narrator is likely to be a strong influence on the way we interpret a story. We may believe a narrator ‘impartial’ or we may find ourselves instinctively sympathizing with his plight, if his story is convincing. In the other hand, we may prefer to re-interpret events if we don’t trust the narrator to give an unbiased account. The narrator’s character is revealed through the words that he ‘uses’ (or is given by the author) and other aspects of narrative style.
Thus, the narrator of a story may not be the author, and a story can even be told from one or more (or any number) of different viewpoints. The point of view from which we read or hear a narrative influences our response to it. All of us, whether unconsciously (as often in conversation) or consciously (as in much literature) manipulate the language we use to give the impression we seek. The impression we would like to give depends on our implicit attitude toward the subject.
In some types of writing, the attitude implied by the words chosen might be fairly neutral; for instance, if we stick to the bare facts of a description: ‘she has blonde hair, green eyes and is about five feet five inches tall, wearing a blue dress and stiletto-heeled shoes’.
Perhaps it is difficult to trace an attitude towards the subject in these words – and yet, the decision to make a description neutral like this, which treats the subject in terms of categories (hair colour, eye colour, height) and general observations (think how many shades of blonde there are, or how many kinds of blue dress), in turn implies a formal and potentially official attitude, or at least an impersonal one.
Furthermore, if we look at even these selected facts in context, they might carry very different impressions. For instance, consider the way in which our response to the subject would change if the words ‘she has that magical 36-24-36 figure and her hobby is painting watercolours’ are added, or if we found the original words on a poster entitled WANTED! In practise, even writing which purports to be merely informative often expresses attitudes. You need to practise looking carefully at whatever you read, to make sure you understand the attitudes implicit within them.
For instance, read the following passages from Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby, in which he has tried to convey a distinctively negative impression of a London scene. Dickens’ attitude towards this city – as a squalid, overcrowded, dirty, inhuman environment – comes across very bitterly and strongly here. The italicized words in particular add to the grubby and bleak impression of these urban gardens:
Mr. Nickleby closed an account-book, which lay on his desk, and, throwing himself back on his chair, gazed with an air of abstraction through the dirty window. Some London housed have a melancholy little plot of ground behind them, usually fenced in by four high whitewashed walls, and frowned upon by stacks of chimneys: in which there withers on, from year to year, a crippled tree, that makes a show of putting forth a few leaves late in autumn when other trees shed theirs, and, drooping in the effort, lingers on, all crackles and smoke-dried, till the following season, when it repeats the same process, and perhaps if the weather be particularly genial, even tempts some romantic sparrow to chirrup in its branches. People sometimes call these dark yards ‘gardens’…
This description has been made effective partly by choice of details and partly by the use of particular images and words. Imagine the different impression Dickens could have given by changing the words in italics so that they gave a favourable impression. For instance, if he had altered and replaced the words thus:
Some London houses have a cheerful little plot of ground behind them, usually bounded by four brightly whitewashed walls, and smiled on by stacks of chimneys: in which, from year to year, an ancient tree continues to grow, displaying its leaves well into the autumn…
Nevertheless, it would be difficult to imagine the scene described by Dickens in pleasant terms altogether: someone who wishes to give a good impression of London would probably choose a different location to describe. Many details would have to be altered before we could imagine Mr. Nickleby overlooking a picturesque scene. However, it is often possible to describe the same thing in a variety of ways, so that the actual facts remain, but the attitudes implied are different.
For instance, we could describe the same person as a distinguished elderly gentleman, or as a pompous old man, depending on our attitude, and yet we would be referring to the same traits. If we approve of someone taking a stand against something, we could call them ‘firm’ – if we disapprove, we might call them ‘stubborn’. This negative and positive ‘shading’ often occurs when two people or groups have opposing views or a conflict of interests. Consider, for instance, these two descriptions of the same house – one formulated by the estate agent, one by a potential customer:
Situated in a secluded area of the country, a period cottage of considerable character, with great potential for development. The property has two fair-sized reception rooms, cosy traditional kitchen, and three bedrooms with skylight illumination. Extensive natural grounds, including spacious carport. On offer at a very reasonable £75,000.
Customer, describing the property to her husband:
In the first place, it was miles from anywhere, right out into the countryside. When we finally got there, it was much older than I thought – Victorian and rather oddly built. If we bought it there would be a tremendous amount of work to do on it. There were two fairly small rooms downstairs, but the kitchen! You couldn’t swing a cat in there, and there’s no bench space at all. Three bedrooms were fine, but all rather dark – They only had windows in the roof. The garden was big, I must say, but so overgrown, it’d take a month of Sundays to clear. And another thing, there was nowhere to put the cat, except a huge slab of tarmac in front of the house. I should think we could offer them £50,000, at a pinch…
In literature too, words carry implications which affect the way we look at things. In the following extract, which also describes a house, the narrator’s view of her subject is quite clear: many words and phrases contribute to the unfavourable impression we receive. However, the character Mr. Hooper, its owner, has come to rather like the house, and this tells us something about him. He uses very different words for Warings, and these correspond to similar aspects of the house, but reflect his more positive attitude:
Warings was ugly. It was entirely graceless, rather tall and badly angled, built of dark red brick. At the front, and on both sides, there was the lawn, sloping downwards to a gravelled drive, and then into the lane, and without any tree or flower-bed to relieve the bald greenness. Up the drive, and at the back of house, bunched between the yew trees, were the great bushes of rhododendron…
Inside the house, everything was predictable, the high-ceilinged rooms with heavy, sashed windows, the oak wall panelling and the oak doors, and the oak staircase, the massive furniture. Little had been changed since the beginning.
Joseph Hooper had spent that part of his childhood before school, and between terms, in this house, and he did not like it, he had unhappy memories of Warings. Yet now, at the age of fifty-one, he admitted that he was a Hooper, his father’s son, and so he had come to admire the solidity and the gloom. He thought, it is a prepossessing house.
The dullness and heaviness of the house become, to the older Mr. Hooper, better qualities, because they make the house seem substantial and impressive (‘solid’ and ‘prepossessing’) as property.
As well as conveying points of view, an author may wish actively to persuade the reader to adopt a certain opinion. Much writing in literature is not directly persuasive, but fails to make its point forcefully through language, and by appealing indirectly to the feelings, by example rather than precept. For instance, the following extract, which describes a very young boy’s first experience of racial discrimination, forms part of the story of Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, a novel about children growing up in the American South in the 1930s. In an indirect way, this passage helps to persuade the reader of the injustices suffered by blacks in that community:
Little Man turned around and watched saucer-eyed as a bus bore down on him spewing clouds of red dust like a huge yellow dragon breathing fire. Little Man headed towards the bank, but it was too steep. He ran frantically along the road looking for a foothold and, finding one, hopped onto the bank, but not before the bus had sped past enveloping him in a scarlet haze while laughing white faces pressed against the bus windows.
Little Man shook a threatening fist into the thick air, then looked dismally down at himself.
“Well, ole Little Man done got his Sunday clothes dirty.” T.J. laughed as we jumped down from the bank. Angry tears welled in Little Man’s eyes but he quickly brushed them away before T.J. could see them.
“Oh, shut up, T.J.,” Stacey snapped.
“Yeah, shut up, T.J. ,” I echoed.
“Come on, Man,” Stacey said, “and next time do like I tell ya.”
Little Man hopped down from the bank. “How’s come they did that, Stacey, huh?” he asked, dusting himself off. “How’s come they didn’t even stop for us?”
“Cause they like to see us run and it ain’t our bus,” Stacey said, balling his fists and jamming them tightly into his pockets.
“Well, where’s our bus?” demanded Little Man.
“We ain’t got one.”
“Well, why not?”
Notice the way in which the author makes the bus seem very threatening to Little Man, and his fierce pride about his neat clothes.