I am working on a novel with a very traditional narrative structure, which has been an appropriate, necessary, and enjoyable challenge for me at this stage in my writing. It has been my experience that MFA programs and literary fiction education focus highly on narrative voice and character development, and so sometimes a writer just needs to learn how to tell a darn good story with an intriguing plot! Ironically, a friend recently told me about a novel she was working on and sent an article in the New Yorker about French filmmaker Céline Sciamma by Elif Batuman. What inspired her from the article was the idea of building tension in non-traditional ways in the narrative. This got me thinking about movies and books that have non-traditional narratives, and what I have observed in them.
Writer Antonya Nelson has mentioned in workshop that she doesn’t always use a traditional narrative, choosing instead to build tension through contrasts and opposites. This is one way in which a writer might think about creating the necessary conflict in a work of fiction. Fragments are another device used in literature and film, or perhaps this is better described as vignettes. Susan Minot’s “Lust” comes to mind as an example of this, a story in which a young woman narrates her love life through boarding school through episodes of the boys she has dated. Naturally, a fragmented type of narrative would work well for literature that deals with trauma and any kind of memory fragmentation. That is, the form reflects the content. However, this is something that takes a great deal of skill, because too many (new?) writers attempt this and the reader has nothing to follow or latch onto, no thread to connect the fragments. As a tangent, I would also say that this is also a problem with a lot of modern atonal music in particular: the listener has no continuity to grab onto.
Novels-in-stories, in a sense, I could argue are not traditional narratives. We may not get the through line of one character through the whole novel, certain scenes may be omitted, and there may not necessarily be connections between the stories. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is an example of this (see my earlier post about this novel at https://wordpress.com/post/thewomenofletters.com/404). Cather has accomplished this successfully, as has Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge. Both works succeed because there is enough connection through title characters, setting, community, and themes.
With film, there is much more leeway for non-traditional narratives because the visual element can connect many things cognitively for the viewer. A lot of independent films eschew traditional Hollywood formulaic plots for nontraditional narratives. Recently I saw a Swiss film called “My Wonderful Wanda” (“Wanda, Mein Wunder”) of Polish caregiver and the Swiss family she works for, which is tripartite in structure, with each part addressing a different issue, but it is still a fairly traditional narrative based on a key conflict and the setting of the house on the lake. My favorite example is the stunning, visual poetry of Wim Wenders’s “Wings of Desire” (“Der Himmel über Berlin) which features different characters in swirling around in different situations in Berlin, with a loose narrative about an angel who wants to become mortal. There is an occasional voiceover from that angel, which leads me to another point: a narrator can also help tie disparate elements together. We see this in film, theater (think about ancient Greek plays and the choruses) and even occasionally in literature. And a common setting or place also allows for more freedom in the narrative.
One final point that is very important to touch on (though it requires a whole post) is that many BIPOC and non-Western/non-canonical writers embrace non-traditional narrative forms, things that have been often erroneously criticized by Western readers and critics. This often reflects a lack of understanding of literatures from different countries/cultures, and a lack of knowledge about linguistics and different languages. It can, however, be a difficult line to tread when a writer’s work is simply unclear, but the reader needs to be aware of the cultural context. This issue is one of the current topics for debate in modern fiction, and one for which there are multiple responses and perspectives.
This post is by no means comprehensive and only scratches the surface of a topic that is so rich and diverse. However, it is meant to get readers thinking a little bit about the question of the narrative, and if it always has to be predictable.