The World in the Satin Bag has moved to my new website.  If you want to see what I'm up to, head on over there!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Fiction Narratives: The Forgotten Strand?

There are, I would argue, two kinds of bad narratives: 1) Thin or predictable, and 2) illogical. Both are bad for very obvious reasons.

Thin or predictable narratives fail primarily because there's nothing within the plot itself to keep an attentive reader or viewer going. The only reason such narratives succeed is because they are coupled with something externally appealing (think Avatar's superior visuals) or because the kinds of people who engage with such stories aren't looking for anything else. There's nothing necessarily wrong with the latter of these two reasons; anyone who has worked an insanely busy schedule can understand the need to read something without having to make an effort to think deeply about whatever is going on (the same applies to movies). This is where popcorn bestsellers come from and why they exist: to serve a market niche that, more or less, has no interest in the production of literary (or film-erary) merit. They want a quick, simple read that engages, gets the job done, and can be set down without so much as a forethought. One need not look any further than the Harlequin Romance novels, which have predictable plots and, thus, predictable characters.

But, the greatest offender within fiction of any form (written or visual) is the illogical narrative. These are stories in which things happen for unclear or unknown reasons, without a logical purpose for that uncertainty; it would be fair to assume that some stories might have events which, from the beginning, seem to have no logic to them, but which might eventually appear to have an underlying logic--thus, appearances may be deceiving. Setting this notion aside, however, we can see that illogical narratives have a tendency to flirt with convenience. Things happen not because that is the logical way they should, but because there is a hole that needs filling or a shocker that needs exposing, neither of which contribute anything to the development of the character and create nothing but a bigger void in the narrative itself. I've made similar arguments about J. J. Abrams' vision of Star Trek here and here, in which one need not look any further for this discussion than everything following the introduction of future Spock: here we have two characters (present Spock and present Kirk) who have come to despise one another for entirely acceptable reasons, resulting in one character (Kirk) being left on a barren ice planet where, by some magic stroke of luck, he meets future Spock, who proceeds to tell him everything that has thus far transpired and why, and that present Spock and present Kirk should become best buddies, followed by a convenient journey to a nearby Federation outpost where the missing Scotty is found wallowing in a pit. Is it any wonder why I call this convenient?

The problem I see with all of this is that these sorts of convenient or illogical narratives exist in droves. Narratives have grown weak; so much attention seems to have been paid to those narratives that, more or less, don't make sense, or are too convenient, or have no reason to be the way they are. The same is true of predictable plots, of which Hollywood is the biggest offender, with its dozens of remakes and attempts at original stories that end up falling flat--adaptations deserve to be ignored for this discussion.

But why is this? What has happened to narrative that so many creators, whether in film or books, have resorted to playing with the same fire over and over? Some arguments could be made about executive control, at least in movies, but this can't be true of everything being produced. Certainly a factor in this is buyer feedback--if a book sells, more like it will be produced. But, again, this isn't the only factor. This problem is undoubtedly multi-factorial.

Beyond that, though, I have to wonder if illogical plots are simply the byproduct of flashy everything: ideas, visuals, and so on. We've created an industry (book/movie, what have you) that needs to produce the thrill of a new idea, world, visual, or whatever in order to move paper and fill seats. Audiences are clambering for Transformers 2, Avatar, and Twilight, because they provide something that maybe can't be found elsewhere--or at least can't be found is such an obvious and easily consumable form. Perhaps what is killing narrative as the dominant mode of expression is not so much a weakness in writers, but a weakness in the market itself, which has pushed for the production of desire in everything else but the narrative.

Books, we'd have to assume, are much safer than movies at this point, because at least experimentation is still being done within the literary community (including genre fiction, because I make no distinction between SF/F/H/M/R/C/etc. and "literary" fiction; the distinction is meaningless anyway). We are still seeing novels that push boundaries and try new things. They exist and sometimes sell well (China Mieville, for example, is remarkably experimental, even if it doesn't seem like he is marketed as such). But, maybe this explains why book sales, while higher than they have been since post-2000, are still not as high as they should be. The book is lagging behind, just slightly, on the illogical narrative and predictable plot front, while movies, with their infinite ability to do new things visually, continue to move away from narrative and towards something else. Now it's 3D; in a decade it might be some sort of weird VR experiment.

I worry about narrative. It's too important to forget, and the idea that we might one day leave it behind for something flashy, immediate, and short-lived in somewhat frightening.

But what would you do if narrative died? Or do you think it's pretty much safe and sound in its little literary house?

Related Posts by Categories

Widget by Hoctro | Jack Book


  1. Anonymous3:56 PM

    You haven't demonstrated that illogical narratives are a failure. They may be bad for obvious reasons to you, and I can accept that. I just don't see why that would make it bad to others. Let me be specific: You're ranting about blockbusters/bestsellers/the kinds of films that have one pivotal function: commodity. So, yeah, they would be driven by market forces and thus skimp on narrative/experimentation. But they only fail if they don't sell.
    You're absolutely right in your assesment of th conditions that lead to illogical narratives and lack of experimentation, but the conclusion "this is bad for obvious reasons" doesn't really fit they films you've cited. It's only bad to people like you and me who want something more substantial, and that's probably why we have to turn to 'indie'/experimental/no funding available films for a real treat.

    Just saying.


  2. Anonymous4:02 PM

    PS I wouldn't say books are lagging behind. See also: Twilight, the market for teenagers in general.

    Also, I'm not sure your definition of illogical narratives is actually bad for obvious reasons. "These are stories in which things happen for unclear or unknown reasons, without a logical purpose for that uncertainty;"

    Right, so, why is that bad? Because it tends to be convenient? What if it isn't convenient, but simply illogical for aesthetic purposes/to play with realistic/logical representations? I dunno...I'm rambling. Anyway, I just think you might want to tidy that up a bit before I can accept what you're saying.


  3. "It's only bad to people like you and me who want something more substantial..."

    Which is what I said in the post. I pointed out that predictable narratives are not necessarily bad unless you want something more out of a story. Plenty of people view these sorts of things without regard of the narrative, because popcorn fiction serves a different purpose.

    "Right, so, why is that bad? Because it tends to be convenient? What if it isn't convenient, but simply illogical for aesthetic purposes/to play with realistic/logical representations?"

    Narratives which have no purpose for their illogicality are either poorly crafted, meaningless, and/or idiotic. They're stories where the writer didn't even try; they got themselves into a hole and had to get themselves out of it, not by doing something genius or interesting, but by taking the easiest, most meaningless and pointless way out.

    Exception would have to be given to stories that attempt the illogical for literary purposes; such experimentation would imply that there is a purpose to it (maybe the illogicality of the plot is used to reflect a real condition in a certain location, for example). That said, most of the things I'm talking about are not doing that. They're convenient. That's bad precisely because it does nothing for the characters, for the viewer/reader, and so on. The characters don't have to persevere; there's no reason for their urgency to complete a task either. They can simply sit back and let the convenience do the job for them. And that, to me, sucks every last drop of importance right out of the piece. If your narrative is that convenient, then what is the point in caring about what happens next?

    But that's me rambling...

  4. Anonymous11:44 PM

    If predictable and illogical plots are killing literature, literature was either born dying or even stillborn. Because only a minority of a time's literature lasts into the next generation, the literature of bygone eras strikes us as being the height of artistic achievement that the modern pulp constantly falls short of.

    No one reads Varney the Vampire or the spasmodic poets anymore in addition to countless other authors. Chaucer, oddly enough, was not the only 14th century writer in vernacular English, but he is one of the few who are remembered. Modern readers only read a small selection of Victorian writing, most of which had laughably impossible plots. Oscar Wilde satirizes these plots in the events of his play The Importance of Being Earnest and Edgar Allen Poe satirizes these plots with one of his stories... the title escapes me but it involves hot air balloons. Even Edgar Rice Burroughs with Tarzan and his Martian series had plots that had the same strain of impossibility and weirdness that Star Trek has. You know, people on the other side of the planet happening to run into each other.

    Edgar Rice Burroughs oddly enough is still read today.

    The core of writing is to entertain. The stories that stay are typically entertaining ones with a resonating statement about the time it was written or the human experience in general. Rarely, but sometimes, books that are merely entertain last, but that's pretty rare. Nothing is declining. Human art has stayed consistent in its mediocrity.

    C. Rockadyle.

  5. Croc: I think it was born unsure of itself, and then grew into something more.

    I hope my argument doesn't come off as one about the present verse the distant past (i.e. the not-yet-class verse the entirely-classic). I wasn't trying to get at that (or I don't think I was). I'm more concerned with the way narratives have shifted in culture today to this kind of illogical nonsense that might have been acceptable in a time when literature was still becoming, but we're not there now. We're in a time when literature (and narrative in general) is already become.

    As to the Star Trek comment: Not the same things at all. Based on what you're saying about Burroughs, we're talking convenience on entirely different scales. Finding someone on the same planet is infinitely more probable than Kirk being dumped on the right ice planet in a galaxy full of ice planets, at just the right time and in the right area to meet Future Spock, who was also left there at the right time and so on. Ridiculous.

    Burroughs is sort of read today. His Tarzan stuff is mostly still read, but his Martian stuff isn't. He's read more in academic circles than he is among science fiction fans. He hasn't had the same impact on readership as Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and so on, despite having had a massive impact on the genre as a whole.

  6. I don't think the question is "is narrative dying?", but rather, "is big budget cinema about story or spectacle?"

    The Star Trek movie was a mess. If you stop and think about the plot for just a few minutes, NOTHING in it makes sense. The idea that a planet could be suddenly destroyed by "red matter"? Ridiculous. The idea that Romulans would go into the past and wait for Spock for decades to achieve revenge instead of trying to avert the disaster? Preposterous. The notion that Kirk could go from being an academy stowaway to captain of the flagship vessel of Starfleet in something like 24 hours? Utter insanity.

    But again... this movie was about spectacle. People wanted to see familiar characters and familiar story elements redone with big special effects and action sequences. Nostalgia carried the film. Had it been just another sci-fi film without the Star Trek trappings, it probably would have been ignored and forgotten.

    The challenge we have as writers is to write something worth challenging this dynamic -- something that has story AND which can be a spectacle. It can be done.

  7. Sean: I agree. That's probably the bigger question to ask, and it would seem like, for the most part, big budget cinema is interested in the spectacle rather than the story or acting. It's sad.

    I know it can be done. Look at District 9. It has everything going for it, if you ask me. It's not a perfect film, sure, but it succeeds where Avatar and Star Trek could not.