Friday, December 06, 2013

Narrative Drive

I was reading a bit of literary fiction just recently. It was well written. The characters were interesting. The scene setting was quite good. It was a leisurely read, meaning that I felt in no urgency to get to the next paragraph or page. When I did reach the end I found, no ending. It just stopped. In fact, it stopped at a point where I thought something dramatic was finally going to happen. I just shook my head, put that one down, and picked up Rick Cantelli, P.I., by Bernard Lee Deleo. Our intrepid P.I. is kicking back on the beach with a couple of lady friends when here come three gangsters, including the brother of one he'd just recently killed. "Uh Oh," I thought, and was instantly eagerly reading forward to see what happened next.
The contrast between the two tales was dramatic to me.

The literary fiction was fine. There was nothing wrong with it. It felt a bit like looking out a window and studying the scene there. Sometimes I like looking out the window. On the other hand, the DeLeo tale has the elements of a good "story."  In a story, something happens, then something else happens, and so on, and the things that happen are connected to each other, and they affect characters that you've come to know and love, or, more rarely, hate.

A story involves "narrative drive." At least, a good one does, a compelling one. Narrative drive is about the giving and witholding of information. You give the reader enough information to understand "what" is happening, but you withhold plenty of the "why" information. The "why" information is only slowly revealed, and only at the last possible second that it must be revealed. And, almost every time you reveal some "why" information, it ends up raising still other "whys." It is the need to figure out the answer to the next "why" that creates narrative drive, and this is what keeps the reader glued to the story.

There's no particular reason why literary style fiction can't have narrative drive, and sometimes it does. Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" has it. So does "The Old Man and the Sea." A lot of literary fiction doesn't though, and when I'm looking for something to read it's almost always narrative drive that I'm looking for. I want to get lost in the story to the point where I no longer know I'm reading a story. Most literary fiction simply doesn't do this for me, and most of it is not supposed to. Doesn't make it bad. But for that reason, it's never going to be as important to me as a rollicking good story.
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25 comments:

Tom Doolan said...

Thank you, Charles. I think you just put a name on the reason why I tend to avoid "literature." I'm probably a bit less forgiving than you, but I completely understand your sentiment here.

Chris said...

Hear, hear!

Paul R. McNamee said...

Give me "rollicking" any day!

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

The Old Man and the Sea is my favorite narrative literature of all time, my friend. Thank you for the great mention of my imaginary buddy, Rick Cantelli. :)

Ron Scheer said...

Good post. I just had this experience with a "literary" novel that had strong elements of the narrative drive you're talking about. They built slowly, until the level of dread and suspense had me thinking, this could end very badly. Then, it peaked, and the tension dropped again almost back to zero. Literary fiction, I thought. My interest was supposed to have been held by other aspects of the story: character, moral, identity crisis, etc. I'm not saying these can't be compelling in themselves, but they weren't strong enough in this case to do the driving.

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom, sometimes I enjoy a more leisurely kind of experience, but not very often.

Chris, indeed!

Paul, amen, brother

Bernard, yes, I really liked that book. I wonder if my experience with literature might have been better if we'd been led to read that one during high school instead of the other doorstops we did read.

Ron, the absolutely best stories for me work on all those levels, of course, but I know that's a pretty hard thing to accomplish.

Cloudia said...

Excellent lesson, Charles. Story is deeper and richer than mannered "writing" any day


Aloha

Riot Kitty said...

No ending? Seriously? WTF!

G. B. Miller said...

Which is why I gave up my some one dozen literary journal subscriptions years ago.

Give me a solid ending, whether it satisfies or not, and I'll be happy.

Brian Miller said...

i agree...when i read i want some kind of momentum...something to pull me in and pull me along...one of the reasons i am not a huge fan of lit mags as they celebrate something i cant really get into...

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, good explanation of "narrative drive." I'm glad you mentioned Hemingway's work. As you know, I reviewed his short story "The Killers" which fits in with your description of narrative drive. Just when I thought there was going to be a dramatic end, a mob shootout, there was nothing; the story ended abruptly. And I was thinking to myself, "That's it!" I liked it nonetheless.

Ty Johnston said...

Nice explanation. I'd never thought of the differences between literary and other fiction in such terms, at least not exactly, and it makes sense.

I go back and forth in my readings. I probably lean toward the more dramatic stories, but I do find interest (though usually not as much enjoyment) from literary works, at least some of them.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, story is very human.

Riot Kitty, absolutely.

G.B., yep, I really need an ending. It can be a bit open ended at times but not just a stop.

Brian Miller, I consider that kind of writing really to be 'experimental,' and I can only take it in small doses.

Prashant, Hemingway had feet in both camps, which is why I find his stuff pretty approachable and some of it extremely good. He did know about narrative drive.

Ty, at times I like the experimental nature of some fiction. It is almost always somewhat more of an intellectual rather than visceral response.

ivan said...

Heh.
My next novel will be titled "The Old Man and the She."
I like to think it will have narrative drive.

In my walker
Tally Ho. The fox! :)

ivan said...

Heh.
My next novel will be titled "The Old Man and the She."
I like to think it will have narrative drive.

In my walker
Tally Ho. The fox! :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, don't think you can go wrong with that title!

sage said...

Great description. I have read "Old Man and the Sea" a number of times but it does contrast with others of his (I'm thinking of some of the Nick Adam stories) that to me don't seem to have a narrative drive. Am I right?

Charles Gramlich said...

Sage, I liked some of the Nick Adams stories but they really seem mostly character studies to me so I don't see a lot of narrative drive.

David Cranmer said...

I concur 100%. Maybe more.

the walking man said...

I absolutely understand what you're saying.I trend towards the literary because of the open ends, the not knowing how the lives of characters changed after the window shade was drawn down, one needs speculate. I like a story too that ties everything up, leaves only enough loose ends for a sequel but I really would rather spend my time meandering in the complexity of character development in true literary fiction than running through a world wholly created by the writer.

War and Peace is a great example of interplay between the characters of 5 families as they cope with being aristocrats and the first invasion of Russia by Napoleon. (he got his ass kicked the same way the Germans did)but at the end there were many characters alive whose life had been changed you're only left to speculate.

I think it was Dickens and twain that changed the narrative to a fully bound box where every story told had and ending. But like you said there is room enough for both styles (and so many more) it all comes to a matter of taste.

Charles Gramlich said...

David, I'll take that as agreement!

Mark, I sometimes enjoy the open ended and the more literary tale. I think part of the thing for me is that I 'live' that life. that's the way real life is and that typically makes it more predictable and less interesting to me.

Randy Johnson said...

Amen brother.

jodi said...

Charles-I simply must take a writing class, so I can hold this convo with you!

pontalba said...

Yeah, but what was the book?? :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, every field indeed has it's language.

Pontalba, I fear I can't reveal that at present. Perhaps one day. :)