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The Elements of Narrative

I’ve looked elsewhere at what makes up a story, and what actually happens when a writer communicates something to a reader.

Put in basic, mechanical terms, we can imagine a writer forming a ball out of some kind of clay and hurling it across a space to a reader. For the ball to arrive at the reader successfully, we need a number of elements to work together: the ball needs to be aimed accurately; it needs sufficient impetus; and it has to hold together in flight. But it also needs to be attractive enough in the first place for a reader to want to catch it, and it has to fall within the range of what a reader considers ‘right’ to catch. And there are other factors too.

Let’s break this down a little so that you can see what each of these elements is composed of and how they work together.

Imagine the reader is strolling along through a park with a desire to play a ball game with someone - this is a reader in a bookshop, or browsing online, looking for something to read. Wandering some distance away in the park are several writers carrying balls of clay. How does a reader know which ball to ask to be thrown towards him or her?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of ‘clay balls’: those which produce a generally uplifting effect, and those which result in an introverting but nevertheless interesting experience. Comedies and Epics produce the first; Tragedies and Ironies produce the second. If we continue our little allegory, let’s say that Comedies and Epics are brightly-coloured clay balls, while Tragedies and Ironies are dark in hue. So the reader in the park can tell in a general way which clay balls to prefer - they are usually grouped together in the park, which is our allegorical bookstore. Within these four fundamental categories are ranges of sub-genres: detective fiction, horror stories, romantic comedies, science fiction or fantasy adventures, and so on. A reader can choose, it seems, which broad genre and which sub-genre to read from. So a clay ball is selected; the reader signals the writer to throw it over, already having some kind of idea of the ‘rightness’ of the tale and what general kind of effect it should produce. The approximate appropriateness of the story is thus apparently under the control of the reader.

Now the writer takes over. To get the clay ball across to the reader, he or she must throw with enough force and in precisely the right direction. Let’s discard the image that pops up of a writer throwing a physical book across a field to a waiting reader - we’re now into the intangibles of the story itself. What within a story determines its aim and its impetus?

At the heart of our clay ball is a protagonist. The protagonist (to stretch the analogy) is like the nucleus of the atom, the central gravitational point around which everything else is built. But the ball’s range-finder and target-setter is another figure altogether: the direction of the plot and the precise task facing the protagonist are usually delineated in some way by a mentor figure, uncannily similar across a wide span of fiction. This figure is normally old, wise, and in possession of some kind of power object. I won’t go too much into the parallels here, but you will see for yourself the same character popping up in all kinds of stories through the ages. It is the task of this figure to set the sights and launch the protagonist on his way towards the conclusion of the story and towards the reader.

To keep our clay ball together while it is in flight, our protagonist usually has a set of archetypal companions: the comic ally helps with cohesion, keeping things on target; the female associate and the shadow protagonist (a figure resembling the protagonist except that he has gone ‘off course’) help indirectly to maintain the correct trajectory. Assisting the ball in its forward motion is the warrior archetype, who can be viewed as a protagonist in his own right, someone who has made a similar journey before and who helps to pilot things now. Encouraging the whole matter to reach its termination with accuracy is the antagonist, the counter-protagonist if you like, the ‘hole’ into which the clay ball will fit in due course.

There also need to be forces built into the tale to ensure four things: momentum (to move things forward), mystery (to glue things together), morality (to provide engagement) and meaning (to reward the reader).

And so the clay ball hurtles through the metaphorical air and arrives safely in the hands of the reader at precisely the climactic moment. The reader basks in the glow of the denouement shortly afterwards.

Why, then, do some stories not make it?

If we examine the allegory above, piece by piece, we can analyse for ourselves why any story which we haven’t quite liked has failed us.

Firstly, and perhaps primarily, it failed because it wasn’t what it seemed to be. It may have looked like a romantic comedy but turned out to be a horror story; it may have possessed all the outward signs of being a tense thriller but turned out to be a comedy (intentionally or not). Readers calling for clay balls to be thrown to them across parks have only certain outward signs upon which to judge what to expect. Successful stories have to display at least some of these, and have to not disappoint, if they are to triumph.

But if we assume that a story has set out to be what it has described itself as, what happens ‘mid-flight’ to doom it to failure?

Initially, it could be because it was poorly made, aimed or directed. The protagonist may not be attractive enough to hold the ball together. The old, wise mentor figure may be weak or lacking completely. Along the way, each character archetype may have failed in its duty or have been absent in action. Any one of these mishaps, or all of them together, will add up to one thing in the end: a missed target. Instead of enjoying the warm fulfilment associated with a successful story, the reader will drop the ball and move rapidly on.

The four pillars of storytelling - momentum, mystery, morality and meaning - must also have faltered along the way.

Other factors include writing style: a reader needs to have confirmed on every page that his or her initial choice of clay ball was correct, and this is conveyed in the use of language as the tale moves along.

These are the elements of narrative. It is unusual, perhaps unique, to look at stories in this way - but any story is in essence a communication of some kind, and to communicate, something must move across something from one point to another.

For much more about all of this, read the book How Stories Really Work, which explains, amongst many other things, how to create momentum, mystery, morality and meaning.

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