Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Narrative - Technical Definition Offered by Paul McKean

Paul McKean

I turn today to Paul McKean's technical piece on "Narrative" (Concepts in Communication Study, August 2012), which is interesting for me if not for others:
Definition and Etymology

The word narrative is likely derived from the Latin words narrāre, meaning to relate or recount, and narrātiō, which refers to a story, a tale, or a section of a speech establishing the facts of a case (Oxford English Dictionary, 2012, n.p.). According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2012), one of the oldest uses of narrative was in a legal context, meaning "A part of a legal document which contains a statement of alleged or relevant facts closely connected with the matter or purpose of the document" (n.p.).

In some contexts such as the study of literature and literary criticism, narrative has been defined narrowly as a series of events or facts within a story. For example, Jahn (2005) defines narrative as "a form of communication which presents a sequence of events caused and experienced by characters" (n.p.). This usage can be traced back in English to the late sixteenth century (Oxford English Dictionary, 2012, n.p.).

Narrative has been studied in such fields as: rhetoric, literary theory, philosophy, history (see for example: White, 1980), psychology, political communication, journalism, studies of folklore, persuasion theory, and media studies.


Jahn, M. (2005). Narratology: a guide to the theory of narrative. English Department, University of Cologne. Retrieved from

Narration. (n.d.) In Oxford English Dictionary online. Retrieved from

Narrative. (n.d.) In Oxford English Dictionary online. Retrieved from

White, H. (1980). The value of narrativity in the representation of reality. Critical Inquiry. 7(1), 5-27.
There's more at the site if any reader should happen to have an interest. The article is not especially long. My interest lies in these words:
"In some contexts such as the study of literature and literary criticism, narrative has been defined narrowly as a series of events or facts within a story."
One can't get a much more concise definition than that, other than by pruning that long introductory expression:
"narrative has been defined narrowly as a series of events or facts within a story."
Actually, I believe I can prune some more:
"narrative has been defined as a series of events or facts within a story."
Even shorter:
"narrative, a series of events or facts within a story."
Another cut:
"narrative, a series of events within a story."
One more time:
"narrative, a series of events in a story."
Or even:
"narrative, a story's series of events."
I believe I've pruned this far enough . . .


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sean D'Souza on Storytelling: Three Core Elements

In "The 3 Core Elements of Good Storytelling," Sean D'Souza offers good advice to novice writers. He begins with the basics of storytelling:
If we examine the Cinderella story closely we see three basic elements:
- The sequence

- The suspense

-The roller coaster
I argue that these same elements exist in every great story
Whether or not that's the case, I think that D'Souza is generally right, as we see:
Let's take a look at each of these three elements in the Cinderella story, and see how you can use them to your advantage:
1. The sequence:
We have the daughter who's mistreated and made to do menial work in the kitchen.

Then there're the other daughters romping about, having a great old time, doing what spoiled daughters do. These ladies fancy their romantic and social climbing chances with the prince.

But things don't go their way, and in turn, Cindy manages to get a fairy godmother. And blah, blah, blah.
There's a sequence of events building into each other here. But a good story must have some drama, some suspense.
2. The suspense:
Cinderella's mother dies and she's doomed to sleeping near the fireplace (which is how she gets the name, Cinderella).

But the fairy godmother appears from the blue - and suspense builds, because now Cinderella has a chance like everyone else. Will she make it? Won't she?

She does. And then, just as Cindy's hitting it off with the Prince, the clock goes nuts and her life is miserable once more.
What on earth is happening? What's with this girl? Is she just going to be a loser? Yup, that's all suspense.
3. The roller coaster
Good times, then bad. Then good, then bad.

Your story doesn't have to swing wildly, but it helps to have contrast, because contrast changes the pace of the story.

So, just as things are really yucky, along comes the knight in shining armour.

Or, just as things are looking great, an avian flu threatens to kill the entire population.
Cinderella's fortunes seem to bounce up and down, which keeps the interest in the story.
D'Souza now asks you to check your story (apparently, you've written one):
Every piece of story content you write must have a clear sequence, because without sequence a story has no meaning.

But what about suspense? You have to insert a certain amount of suspense. It's always there in your story, but when you insert a 'what the heck is happening' factor, you instantly build suspense.

And finally there's the roller coaster. If your story has been coasting with the fairies for a while, then it's time to bring out the ogres - and vice versa.
I think D'Souza's offered some good advice on basic storytelling. Recounting a tale takes more than a mere sequence of events. The reader needs to be held in suspense. And as I think about this, I see that the roller coaster element itself builds suspense, even bringing the suspense to a climax.

Labels: ,

Monday, October 20, 2014

Angela Carter on 'Narrative'?

Angela Carter

The writer Angela Carter (1940-1992) thought fairy tales important in her identity and development as a writer of fiction, as Michael Schmidt informs us, basing his information on a remembrance by A. S. Byatt:
Carter talked about the centrality of fairy tales to her writing. Indeed, "she had realized that she was a writer because of fairy tales, because she was hooked on narrative as a child, not by realist novels about social behavior or how to be a good girl, but by these very primitive stories that go I think a lot deeper." (Michael Schmidt, The Novel: A Biography, 905)

The writer intervenes in the reader's memory as well, recasting stories, the fairy stories that shape our sense of narrative and of the potential roles of the heroes and villains that conventionally inhabit them. (Michael Schmidt, The Novel: A Biography, 905-906)
Note the importance of narrative. But what is narrative? What did Carter mean by the term? Does Byatt's full remembrance offer more? Let's look at Schmidt's source, Philip Hensher's interview of Byatt for The Paris Review, "A. S. Byatt, The Art of Fiction No. 168" (Fall 2001):
I remember my first meeting with Angela Carter, with whom I became great friends later. We all went to hear Stevie Smith reading her poetry - lots of writers around her, rather like a bullring - and she stood in the middle and read. On the way out this very disagreeable woman stomped up to me, and she said, My name's Angela Carter. I recognized you and I wanted to stop and tell you that the sort of thing you're doing is no good at all, no good at all. There's nothing in it - that's not where literature is going. That sort of thing. And off she stomped. Then about five years ago she said that she had realized that she was a writer because of fairy tales, because she was hooked on narrative as a child, not by realist novels about social behavior or how to be a good girl, but by these very primitive stories that go I think a lot deeper. It wasn't until she said it that I felt empowered, which is why I have to acknowledge that she said it. As a little girl, I didn't like stories about little girls. I liked stories about dragons and beasts and princes and princesses and fear and terror and the four musketeers and almost anything other than nice little girls making moral decisions about whether to tell the teacher about what the other little girl did or did not do. My poor grandchildren live in a world where children's books are about how awful it is to live in horrible blocks of flats in deprived areas of cities, which they ought to know, but you can understand entirely why everybody fell upon Harry Potter, which is more grown-up also.
Is "narrative" what we're talking about here, or fantasy? But enough inquiry for today . . .

Labels: ,

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Telling a Story: How Art Made The World . . .

How Art Made The World
You Tube

According to this documentary, apparently, some 'god' named Arthur made the world!

Just kidding, i.e., telling a story. I share this predilection toward honest dishonesty with Boccaccio and Sidney. According to Michael Gillum on the Milton List:
Regarding Jeffery's blog topic, "telling a story" = "lying" in some dialects, Boccaccio found it necessary to argue that the writer of fiction cannot lie because he doesn't pretend to tell historical truth.
Hugh Wilson on the same listserve chimes in on Sir Philip Sidney:
Sidney repeats Boccaccio: "Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth." From An Apology for Poetry, ed. Forrest Robinson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970) 57.
I lie in good company, and there must be other great storytellers who concur, which leads me to this morning's blog topic, a documentary on ancient storytelling:
THE HISTORY OF ANCIENT STORYTELLING (documentary) history/entertainment/art

The storytelling history is quite ancient, lost in the mist of time. Nobody knows when the first story was actually told. Did it happen in the gloomy recess of a cave around a flickering fire told by a primitive hunter? Well, we may never know. But it is believed that [the] origin of storytelling may have come across as an excuse for failure. Perhaps stories were used long time ago to calm the fears or doubts of a family. As families grouped with other families and formed clans, the storyteller, who was good at telling heroic events or other important events of the tribe began to reach position of respect and power. People found them interesting and began to listen to them. The priest, the judge and the ruler were perhaps the earliest to use this art effectively in the history of storytelling. Storytelling days were considered important.

The history of storytelling reveals that the stories came in all variety. Myths, legends of all kinds, fairy tales, trickster stories, fables, ghost tales, hero stories, and epic adventures, these stories were told, retold. Passing down from generations, these stories reflect the wisdom and knowledge of early people. There are stories often used to explain important but often confusing events and disasters in nature at those early times. For example - fire, storms, thunder, floods, tidal waves, lightening etc; It was common for people to believe in the stories of gods, which bound them to a common heritage and beliefs.

In fact, it is believed by most historians and psychologists that storytelling is one of the many things that define and bind our humanity. Humans are perhaps the only animals that create and tell stories. ("The History of Ancient Storytelling," You Tube)
Note the line that reads, "But it is believed that [the] origin of storytelling may have come across as an excuse for failure." This line is in some ways not so far from the accusation adults aimed at me as a child when they thought I was lying, namely that I was telling a story, a type of excuse.

I've not watched the actual documentary, due to lack of time, but if any reader has watched, let us know if the time spent watching was truly time well spent . . .


Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?"

Herman Melville (1870)
Oil Painting by Joseph Oriel Eaton

Perhaps all of my readers have read Herman Melville's most poignant story, Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street. If not, the story can be read online here - ironically, at "bartleby-dot-com - but what interests me is the story's penultimate paragraph, reproduced below, a sort of afterword, written in the aftermath of Bartleby's peculiar demise:
There would seem little need for proceeding further in this history. Imagination will readily supply the meagre recital of poor Bartleby's interment. But ere parting with the reader, let me say, that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him, to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was, and what manner of life he led prior to the present narrator's making his acquaintance, I can only reply, that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly unable to gratify it. Yet here I hardly know whether I should divulge one little item of rumor, which came to my ear a few months after the scrivener's decease. Upon what basis it rested, I could never ascertain; and hence, how true it is I cannot now tell. But inasmuch as this vague report has not been without a certain strange suggestive interest to me, however sad, it may prove the same with some others; and so I will briefly mention it. The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring: - the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity: - he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.
I wish to speculate on a puzzling sentence that Melville has his narrator offer:
"Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?"
I call this one sentence since Melville uses a small "d" in the word "does." At any rate, consider how one might answer Melville's question. I suspect that even with the utmost good will in all the world - indeed, in all the universe - no reader would imagine that "letters" sounds like "men"! For myself, I can scarcely conceive two words less alike! One's answer would thus have to be, "No, Mr. Melville, they sound nothing alike." What, then, is Melville up to? Possibly this:
"Dead 'mail'! does it not sound like dead 'male'?"
But perhaps "mail" was not used in the sense of "letters" in Melville's time? Oh, but it was! According to the OED, this sense goes back to at least 1654, and Melville's good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne used the word in this crucial sense in 1852, one year prior to Bartleby's publication in 1853, so Melville surely knew this usage. And just in case any ultra-skeptics would express doubt about the word "male" - its use with reference to "men" traces back to at least 1631.

I therefore humbly suggest that Melville had this unspoken pun "mail-male" in mind when he wrote, "Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?" But why leave unspoken the pun in "Dead 'mail'! does it not sound like dead 'male'?" The query answers itself, for expressed, the pun is intolerable; unexpressed, it's brilliant!

Labels: , ,

Friday, October 17, 2014

"To Tell a Story"

When I was a child in the Ozarks, the expression "to tell a story" meant "to lie." Of course, one could be a storyteller and tell a story without being accused of lying so long as there were no aspect of deception involved. Anyway, I don't hear that expression much anymore, but I see that its use in the larger English-speaking community still lingers, for the sociologist Francesca Polletta notes it in her book It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics (University of Chicago Press, 2006): "to 'tell a story' means to lie" (page 175). A certain Larry Winebrenner also notes - in an Amazon Customer Review - that "To 'tell a story' meant 'to lie.'" Also, a blogger writing in a blog titled ChiTown Girl notes that "telling a story means lying" (February 11, 2009). This sense of "story" as "lie" seems even stronger in the Appalachians (and Ozarks), as explained by A.L. Burge in his blog Appalachian English for the date July 29, 2005, "Illiteracy in Appalachia" (in which he cites the scholar Shirley Brice Heath):
Another cultural difference between the Appalachian dialect and the standard dialect of the educational system lies in the concept of lexical elements. For instance, Appalachians have one concept of the word story, while the school environment entertains another concept of the same word. Heath found that when teaching reading, teachers in Appalachia would occasionally ask students to “make up a story,” but students were sometimes reluctant to complete the task, which could have been interpreted by teachers as inability to complete to do so. However, the reason for the reluctance was a result of the lexical understanding of the word story in Appalachian English; in AE telling a story means lying, which is punishable in the Appalachian culture.
Burge cites pages 294 and 296 of Heath's Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms (New York: Cambridge, 1996). I recall this strong meaning of "to tell a story" and always grew worried as a child when an adult accused me of "telling a story" because I felt guilty just by hearing the accusation and feared that I would sound guilty even if I denied the accusation!

I felt the same way as a child when being accused of 'sputin' some adult's word - i.e., "disputing" in the sense of challenging the adult's veracity.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"God is allowing ISIS to expose Islam"?

Christian Refugees from Mosul
Finding a home in Merga Souva, Iraq
Gail Orenstein / AP Images

Most Muslims insist on Islam being a religion of peace, but according to Cairo-based, Egyptian Pastor Atef Samy (and I've reversed the order of these quotes):
Islam's peaceful nature . . . would not be recognized by many Christians in southern Egypt . . . . The ISIS mentality exists in rural village settings even where the group itself has no representation.

"God is allowing ISIS to expose Islam . . . . They are its true face, showing what Islam is like whenever it comes to power." (Jayson Casper, "Facing ISIS, Middle Eastern Evangelicals Exchange Strategies," Christianity Today, October 14, 2014)
Other Christians of the Middle East express more ecumenical views, so go read the article for their opinions.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"Writers aspire to be more than storytellers" - Michael Schmidt

Research Professor Su-kyung Hwang of Chung-Ang University has asked me to present a paper at an upcoming conference:
[We will] have the international conference on the 12th and 13th of December. The big theme of the conference is going to be "STORYTELLING" and I'll let you know further details when I have them. We welcome various research topics related to storytelling and most of the time schedule thirty minutes for each presentation (twenty minutes to deliver the paper, and ten minutes for open discussion) although it has not been fixed yet. We hope that you can come and present a paper for us.
I'm certainly happy to try to get something worked up, and I came upon an interesting remark just yesterday Michael Schmidt's literary critical magnum opus, The Novel: A Biography:
Writers aspire to be more than storytellers: they play with and against the rules. The "reality" of fiction is unlike the reality of linear narrative and unlike the complex intersecting realities of daily life . . . . Art entails artifice, and in form a novel must be true to itself, an instance of itself, its first artistic purpose. Its consistency, its coherence within the conventions it proposes and within which it operates, are paramount. (Schmidt, The Novel, page 814)
Perhaps I can work up something on that . . .

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Big Hominid Reviews The Bottomless Bottle of Beer

Kevin Kim (aka Big Hominid) reviews The Bottomless Bottle of Beer on Amazon, awarding my little book five golden stars:
Well and carefully written in a calm, deliberate, professorial-but-humorous tone, this charming short story is a pastiche of cultural and literary references that chronicles the arc of a thirsty soul in jeopardy. Imagine making a deal with the Devil and signing a contract--in blood--for that one perfect bottle of ever-flowing beer! If you realized your error and desired to escape the contract, whom would you engage as your lawyer if not the courtly-but-formidable Daniel Webster himself?

The universe of this adventure is peopled with characters from other stories, which is enough to make one wonder about the characters' ontological status: how real are these fictions? And speaking of ontological status: the trial at the end of the story features the Devil in at least three roles that all function simultaneously in the courtroom: defendant (Em), justice (Belial), and counsel (Beelzebub). What are we to make of the Devil's attempt at splitting himself in three? Is this supposed to be an unholy trinity? If so, it seems to operate in a fascinatingly disharmonious manner, as Justice Belial strives for objectivity while the infernal defendant and his counsel are at pains to make their case. There's nothing perichoretic about our diabolical Three-in-One.

This and other fascinating ideas float freely through the plot, which is also liberally sprinkled with wordplay both subtle and not-so-subtle. Alas, some of the literary references flew right over my head (I've never read Bulgakov, for instance), but this detracted nothing from my enjoyment of Dr. Hodges's tale. Engaging and not for mental slackers, "The Bottomless Bottle of Beer" is an appealingly weird, borderline psychedelic tour of the moral landscape--a story that will resonate with astute readers of all persuasions. Joseph Campbell would have been delighted by the cast of characters, and he would have reveled at the way in which famed artist Terrance Lindall brings Dr. Hodges's story to full mythological flower with his powerful, evocative illustrations.
Thanks, Kevin, for taking the time to re-read and re-view this wayward story of mine. I appreciate your very positive review, and your use of "perichoretic" has increased my vocabulary, so I will intercede for you on Judgment Day.

One thing, though, I'd reword a phrase you used - from "this charming short story" to "this charming short novella" - since it's actually rather long for a 'short' story, and clocking in at more than 20,000 words, it's above the minimum for a novella.

Labels: ,

Monday, October 13, 2014

Trafika Europe Now Online

Some weeks back, I posted a bit on Trafika Europe, mainly on etymological musings, even going so far as to contact Andrew Singer, the editor of the journal, and inquire about the origin of "trafika," and I received a reply:
Greetings Jeffery and thanks for the post on Trafika Europe on your blog. Regarding your question:

The previous project, the print quarterly Trafika, began in Prague. A "trafika" in Czech language is a little kiosk or the like where you can get a little of everything -- daily paper, cigarettes, chewing gum -- part newspaper stand, part corner shop. This is where the name of the project comes from.
That was good to know, and thereby increased my vocabulary! And as reward for my curiosity, I was allowed a preview and given permission to blog on it as a teaser if I wished:
I've just now looked through it page by page . . . , and it all looks great. I'll not do a teaser, though, since I doubt I could do the volume justice. I'll wait for its debut. Keep me posted!
To get to the point, the journal is now online, and I urge readers to visit the website and read the stories and all other literary forms found therein. The journal really is great!

Labels: , ,