jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,
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Natural Narratives vs. Literature

My more educated friends have probably heard of this before, but it was new to me.  I went to a high school creative writing conference last Friday and listened to a presentation on "Natural Narratives."  The premise was that there are stories people tell each other on a regular basis, and that these stories are all structured the same way.  They include these parts, not always exactly in this order:

-   Abstract or quick summary.  This is sort of a set up for the story, like "I was nearly scared to death this morning."
-   Orientation.  Here the story teller answers the basic journalistic questions: who, when, what, where and/or why, like "My mom and I were pulling out of our driveway to go to the store."
-   Complicating action.  This is the bulk of the story.  "We were about half way onto the street when this pickup truck with frost still covering its windows missed our bumper by an inch.  Mom saw it coming but I didn't.  Her scream nearly startled the hell out of me."
-   Result or resolution.  This is where the listeners find out what happened at the end.  "She apologized about fifty times before we got to the store."
-   Coda.  This is where the story teller brings the audience back to the present.  It's the story teller saying that the story is over.  "It took an hour for my heart to get back to normal."
-   Evaluation.  The evaluation answers the "so what?" question.  That might be something like, "So, I'm going to be a lot more careful backing out of the driveway from now on."
I thought back to the stories I hear kids tell each other, and I've intentionally listened for these elements since Friday, and they pretty much nail what a person does when he/she tells a story.  What the speaker did then was to show how "natural narratives" can become "literary" narratives.

He said that although the difference between the "natural" and the "literary" can be tough to discern at the boundary, there do seem to be three distinct differences.

1)   A literary narrative will mess with the six narrative elements.
-   Delete the abstract, coda and/or evaluation so that the reader has to provide those parts
-   Put the elements in a different order.  Maybe starting with the coda and then to the other parts.
-   Add dialog
-   Add characters, change the location, change the point of view (first to third, for example).

2)   Use a more literary language
-   Show instead of tell
-   Make allusions
-   Figurative language (like simile, metonymy, metaphors, etc.)
-   Make use of the sound of language (rhythm, diction, syntax)

3)   (this is the big one) Make a connection to a larger meaning
-   Like poetry, a literary story is seldom just about what it appears to be about.  Don't tell in the story what the larger meaning is, but that meaning should come out.

4)   Unify and Focus
-   An image or symbol or metaphor should unify the story.  More than a single unifying element may exist
-   Like poetry, the language should be concise
What the workshop facilitator had us do during our hour with him was to tell a "natural narrative," and then rewrite it into a "literary narrative."  The main difference between the two for me was the attention to making a connection to a larger meaning.  I thought it was a very interesting exercise. 

As I said, the boundary between a "natural narrative" and "literary narrative" isn't finely delineated, and it's not necessarily the difference between stories with a lot of action and stories without, or stories told colloquially vs. stories told formally. 

I'll continue to give the presentation thought.
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