I Don’t Want To Tell You A Story…

Sometimes I go too far. If I’m told things are done such and such a way, and have always been thus, then my natural inclination and my politics are to kick against it. But these are my own little scuffles I am not looking to proselytise or convert. So I throw the following freely into the mix, purely to stimulate debate and provoke consideration of one’s own craft, if only for a fleeting moment.

We’ve talked about the campfire storytelling instinct. When people could enter a collective imaginative space conjured for them by the bards. Tales of monsters, heroes, kings and other recognisable things within their societies; things that aided people to order and arrange the strange and scary exterior world and know their place in the man-made hierarchy within it. But public readings and book clubs aside, storytelling (outside of plays/films) is no longer a communal activity. It is performed solo.

I would also posit that as much as an oral audience enter the story, they were inducted through the characters. Humans, demi-humans and immortals sporting human traits just like themselves. We no longer live in a world of myth and legend, (well we do, but no one seems that bothered to deconstruct these and strip the scales from our eyes). Now, we- that is mankind- seem reasonably attuned to the notion that the only significant agency within our lives, is human, not supernatural. Either we take responsibility for our own decisions, or we ascribe the consequences may be down to other humans within our orbit.

There are supposedly only 7 basic plotlines. Yet these have been spun round innumerable times. Presumably this is because each writer brings their own unique vision to the tale and the varying emotional responses of the characters they create when faced with the same range of scenarios.

So no more communal storytelling (though interestingly we collectively recognise character archetypes even outside of art). No more heroes, kings etc, required to apprise us of our place in the world and no more monsters to conquer other than those definitively acknowledged as emanating from within ourselves (not talking vampires here). All the plotlines have been done countless times. All that redeems them is the diverse input of their characters.  If I can go out on a limb here, we no longer need story narratives to organise the world for us. We are snared between the glut of readily accessible information explaining away everything, with the fact that both we, the world and knowledge itself is atomised and fragmented. That the world is quantum. That it is no longer possible to be a Renaissance man, even if you are called Stephen Fry.

So I would place the character element at a higher premium than the story. Of course I also have problems with the concept of ‘character’ as well. Sat round the camp fire, or sat in the cockpit at The Globe Theatre back in its heyday, the punters were probably booing and hissing, cheering and clapping the goodies and the baddies. Today the distinction between a goody and a baddy is less clear. These divisions stem from a religious/moral view of existence, which has fallen into disuse among great tranches of populations in the Developed world. Morality is ambiguous, when you have a character such as Dexter the serial killer, portrayed as an empathic character whom the audience is supposed to identify with. Hannibal Lecter gets all the best lines that raise a belly laugh.

If through our art, we try and penetrate our adriftness in the modern world, our doubts and ambiguities about our existence, the lack of comprehension of certain technological truths and cultural trends, then we will inevitably tend towards a fragmentary narrative. Partial insights, half-grasped truths. So character to my mind becomes more akin to Voice. Not fully rounded. Not possessed of an omniscient perspective. In such a scenario, the voice may become of more value to the reader than the story, which probably mimics the fragmentary narrative it derives from. If the reader shares our confusion of comprehension, then the comfort to be derived is from a voice that offers to guide us through the morass. A believable voice, one that mirrors our own inadequacy, but offers some hope of enlightenment. A voice rooted in emotional intelligence as it too tries to cut through the crap with a sensory machete. To make some hidden connections at least. But one limited in power and destined to fail in all likelihood.

Now I’m about to argue against myself. Of course such writing may still involve story telling. In my book, you pretty much know all about my (anti-?) heroine’s life by the end of the novel, which must mean she has been relating it in parts throughout its course. But the novel to my mind is not about her story. She is sat at bars, sponging drinks off strangers by spinning these tales, possibly outlandish, possibly true. She is an unreliable narrator. A possible fabulist. But is she an unreliable voice, guiding the reader through a certain perspective on the world? No, her voice yields insights to the world, even if she is incapable of inhabiting them herself. Returning to the notion of a reader being alone when reading, yes a page turning, gripping story may make them keep reading – but I don’t detect too many Year Zeroers are about that. No, in my case I want that central voice in the book to seduce the reader to keep reading. To keep up the conversation, the catechism even. An intimate confab. She is someone the reader hopefully wants to devote 3-6 hours of their time in the company of. You can have  a character without story in a novel, but you can’t have it the other way round (unless possibly your novel is a huge canvas painting a war or a scifi universe). Now replace character with voice and you’ll be coming round to my way of thinking. Not that I’m trying to convert you of course.

Okay I’ll go sit on the heretic step now and take my licks. At least I never mentioned language even once.

~ by yearzerowriters on December 12, 2009.

25 Responses to “I Don’t Want To Tell You A Story…”

  1. I agree, we’ve definitely transcended the need for one of the 7 seven plots. I think what’s happening now is reinvention of what a novel is, and what literature is; combining it with the other arts and reinventing the idea of plots, characters and points of view.

    Using the word character automatically puts your, ahem, ‘person’ in a box — a character is often perceived as the one with some quirk, they have some outstanding value or talent or reason for being. So I think our job is to also redefine the character, the main character, the person that our stories/ideas are centred around.

    I get the voice instead of character idea too. The fact that our narrative is fragmented and half-gasped, an unfinished thing. Creating a character, which is fully filled and identified, is a stale, unliving thing. The voice is broken and unfinished and can therefore evolve and live as we do.

    I strive to make a reader unalone in reading alone — it’s the universality of being human that I strive for (especially in Beautiful Things). The character/voice of Paulie is so undescribed and so wiggly, half finished and mysterious, that it can instantly become you, the reader. In (classic) novels, though, the aloneness happens because the narrative is concerned with one thing: itself. It’s not trying to really connect to the reader in any way but I-must-turn-the-page, maybe in prodding out emotions for characters so you will, go figure, turn the page. It’s so worried about form and pacing and she-did-this, he-did-that that there’s no room for the reader to truly engage as it might with voice.

    • Sarah, were we separated twins at birth or something? Agree 101.37% with all the above.

      Except, none too sure about ‘fragmented’ narrative, cos that’s ind of been done to death a bit as well. I’m looking for non-linearity rather than fragmentation. Visual representation has a role to play in exploring this.


      • yes, that’s what I meant by fragmentary. Not so much fragmentary sentences grammar wise, but the non-linear/wonky sort of fragmentation. Shattered mirror nonsense.
        I will be your fake twin, okay?

    • Sarah, you are very good at teasing out the idea of character. Oli too, with his complex layers of reality and metareality.

      Daisy, I’m going to stick my neck out and describe what it’s like to read your work (regardless of what you do) – I know that’s a very 90s approach the whole reader-response thing. What it’s like reading you is like seeing reality peeled back and watching the fibrous flesh underneath flail in vain for air and foer a skin with which to connect. My reaction to your very first post here, Faith, was honestly my first response – I couldn’t distinguish you from your artifice – it is impossible to discern the fact and the fiction in yor writing, and because that is based on honesty, subconsciously blended with your beautiful, paper-thin voice, it is also equally hard to discern (on teh screen, anyway) the art from the reality in you. You are one of those confessional artists for whom you are part of the art- which at the same time (from a reader’s standpoint) makes the art part of you. That’s one of the paradoxes of honesty in art – that it can actually make teh real less real. What it DOES do is make the art deeper and – my personal opinion, but I know people agree with me about Tracey Emin (to which I argue, fine, you think she’s all artifice but, having met Sabina, I can assure you that sometimes brutal, almost putrid, festering honesty is just that – honesty – and the response taht it is wholly surface is a reflection of the reader/viewer’s inability to see the dishonesty in themselves) – better.

  2. I’m not all that comfortable with the idea of providing insights, whether reliable or not. I don’t really think there are any insights at all about anything.

    Honesty is the only way to connect with anyone on any level that is not flimsy and false. Or, I should say, all of those levels of connection are flimsy and false, but if you are honest, as horribly honest as you can be, it might touch something in somebody, flimsily and falsely, and that is about as perfect as you can get. Honesty can come through story just as much as character and voice, I suppose, so to me it doesn’t matter either way.

    I don’t really work in the way the two of you have described working — about crafting and delicacy, thought and care, the idea of imperfection applied with skill, story versus character versus voice. I’m not a skilled writer. I’m just disgustingly honest.

    • Oh, don’t think I actually craft something with any meaning in sight! What I said up there does kind of sound like I have a master plan, but I’m with you on how I write. It’s just honesty, and it is what it is. So so so far from created. I’m not a skilled writer, either. It’s all accidents.

      Insights do get us in a lot of second-guessing trouble. But you really have to take it for what it’s worth (I hate that phrase, but can’t think of another way to put it). You just kind of have to read and nod and keep going on your way.

      (Not to discredit what you’ve said, Marc. I enjoy seeing your thoughts.)

    • Daisy, I write off instinct in the main, rather than planning terribly much. I do like to riff off words though – they lead me into places in the writing. I tie this very closely in with ‘voice’ the language a character uses to express their thoughts and their speech tells me so much about them.

      I don’t think in terms of story. Rarely in terms of character. Don’t have truck with plot. It’s like a bacterial growth in a petri dish, where the spores are the language. Truth/honesty or not – I can only let my reader judge.

      • Maybe I ought to state my credentials to spout this – NONE.

        No degree in Lit. No creative writing courses ever.

        Just 25 years of writing and trying to assess and evaluate just what the hell it is I’ve been doing. Always retrospectively.


  3. Your book sounds fascinating. Sometimes not telling a story can work if (like you said) the character’s voice and journey are interesting and compelling enough. A page turner does not only have to be about action. It can be a racing of the mind to get to the end of a journey well travelled.
    Your character’s voice, realible or not, seems intriguing enough to reel a person’s interest in and keep it captivated. If this doesn’t turn a page, I don’t know what else will.
    Anne LG

  4. Marc, that was an inspiring post. You’re right about the weight that should be allocated to character development, but I must say it is much more demanding to write that way. My hat’s off to all who can and will take that route.

    As for the definitive book on archetypal stories, see Joseph Campbell’s masterful “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. I read it once a year and recommend it highly.

    • Thanks H. I agree with sarah, that from a personal point of view, i need to consider what the novel does in our 21st Century times. I’m not saying I’ve hit on the right tack even just within my own narrow concerns.

  5. Marc, one sentence jumps out of this at em as being of particular value:

    ” we no longer need story narratives to organise the world for us”

    not because I agree with t – I don’t – but because it is such a concise and accurate analysis of the role of story.

    Why don’t I agree? Well, in theory I DO agree that story is simply a construct, a gloss to help us – falsely – organise a disorganised, fragmented, random world. To that extent it is exactly like “number” and “category” – a constructed deception. But a useful one. In fact, I would say essential – if we always see life in its genuine fragmentation we will be overwhelmed by data and rendered paralysed. Story is necessary in order to make life possible. To that extent if we as writers are to engage with life story is our way in.

    But – and this is the interesting but – we SHOULD challenge that deception or at least point it out – so should we, sometimes/all the time, to make people see the construct – howeever useful – for what it is, deliberately DISENGAGE them?

    I will throw two things into the mix that I’d like to elaborate on after breakfast:
    – urban and medical myth
    – Barthes


    • My interest I suppose is political (non-party). To strip away the illusions upon which we construct life and society – not because I have some superior model to instal and reimpose some manageable order on proceedings – I don’t, but simply because I see such illusions as we currently labour under as particularly pernicious. I am not interested in exposing the quantum & fragmentary nature of existence as some sort of ground zero, but I am interested in their metaphorical value. Apart from yielding me a potential poetics of ruin from stripping away these illusions, what emerges from under the upturned stone is less of a concern to me. There probably isn’t even such a thing as truth (in a quantum world), but sure as hell these persistent lies need withering and I find language and metaphor the best tools. And yes, hopefully I can weave a poetics out of it that has an aesthetic value/pleasure all of its own.

      I’m glad you agree to story’s artifice, but cannot agree that just because it has always been pivotal for our brain functioning with regards to literature, that still holds in the ever-changing world we live in today. Different media deliveries to the brain; the huge resource of having all literature, all narratives at the touch of a button and therefore emptied at a stroke; our own structure of life as the pace of living seems to be ever speeding up and fleeting fragmentary… I can’t help feeling that those in the Globe’s cockpit shouting out at the action, as much as they were following the storyline, they were heckling and panto hissing and cheering the characters. They were flibbertygibbets and gossips; the equivalent of audiences at Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle. Partisanship and gossip holding sway as much as story.

      I’m not sure about disengaging the reader from their surroundings. Sounds very Brecht.

      Looking forward to the medical & urban myth analysis.

      I’m off for lunch.


      • “I am not interested in exposing the quantum & fragmentary nature of existence as some sort of ground zero, but I am interested in their metaphorical value. Apart from yielding me a potential poetics of ruin from stripping away these illusions, what emerges from under the upturned stone is less of a concern to me.”

        Marc, I listened to a fascinating paper at the Berlin Wall conference i attended in the summer about Dubravka Ugresic’s literature of the ruins – of course, for her the ruin and fragmentation was the real one that happened to her former home in Yugoslavia, but it is the same point – we need to expose the wound as a wound – only then, acknowledgeing it as such, can we begin to heal. Otherwise we can paste over and carry on in the deception but we only ever live half a life.

        Or, to take a more pessimistic/realistic approach, we can say with Daisy (as I think I would) that we should epose the wound not so that we can try to begin to heal, but because it’s there, and if we only have one life, then, to me at least, the thought of that brief time being a construct and alie is more nauseating than the thought of living alongside the pain. Which is what I think drives me to write. Feeling as I do, I don’t know if I would rather live unaware of the deception. There are times when I envy beyond envy those who are able. And times I would never swap places. Which is pretty much how I feel about being bipolar. That said, I would wish my place upo no one. But if anyone wants to come looking, I’d like my words to be there to explain to them.

  6. “Today the distinction between a goody and a baddy is less clear.”

    I disagree – we find them in different places but our morals are as uncomplex as ever. One only has to watch X Factor or Big Brother, see the coverage of the banking collapse and Fred the Shred, follow Obama’s pre-election coverage in the UK media, or note the reaction whenever the names Thompson & Venables are mentioned to know that we have our goodies and baddies as much as we ever did.

    I also think we are as communal as ever – Facebook, Bebo, LAN gaming, bluetooth connectivity – all of these are premised on the fact that we prefer to do things, by and large, in groups. We are fundamentally creatures of gossip.

    You know, I’m fascinated by what I see as a potentially self-undermining argument. You are arguing, I think, that we no longer have the unitive concept fo narrative that we used to – but, of course this is self-defeating as an argument – either by pointing out that a lack of metanarrative is itslf a metanarrative, or that progress to disunity is itself progress.

    And to elaborate:

    Barthes of course sought to deconstruct modern myths (as he did with wrestling). Oli is the one amongst us who also does so.
    Urban and medical myths – these days we have foundation myths, but they tend to be pseudo-scientific ones – and our deconstructotrs are not authors but the likes of Ben goldacre

  7. Arghh, there’s so much to deal with here!

    I don’t see deconstructing myths as necessarily progressive. Maybe I just favour the collapsing chaos. Not sure.

    I disagree with you disagreeing with my contention about a blurring of goodies and baddies. Offering X-factor is interesting as the contestants (their advisers) have realised they need an angle, a back story to progress through the rounds. It is a popularity contest. But these are hides they apply to themselves that are done with public opinion in mind – meta in some way I can’t define. They are an artificial morality, designed for purpose, not a naturally felt one. It is equivalent to the moral economy of the crowd regulating reasonable bread price rises, or rough music…

    Obama was also a myth creation – look at his utter inabliity to live up to the ideal presented (like duh) – even my wife fell for it, rushing home to hear his inauguration, owning merchandise etc. My role as a literary cultural critic/observer is to penetarte this as ‘doh, we fell for it again’. Hegemonic mutation. Please don’t think all writers are charged with this as a duty!

    Banking collapse – panto villains, yah boo hiss. We have no relation to them in the flesh. We don’t know what we are protesting about really. It’s easier to caricature them and lampoon them, but we are not truly engaged with them and the issues in reality. Morality is relative or it is cartoon goodies and baddies. Thompson & Venables? I bet you over 50% of my generation won’t be able to rack their memories and place their names? (That’s why we need writers to reinfect their nightmares with the coccus of truth).


    • I abslutely agree with your analysis of today’s myths Marc – it’s the fact that you see them as different from yesterday’s I disagree with.

      • Soup & rice are on, so got a brief window. The myth-making process is the same. The way myths operate are the same. Our excuse to still fall under their spell has gone, that is all that is different.


  8. Oh yes I forgot to address community/collectivity. of course on one level you are right, through technology we have never been so closely accessible to one another. But these communities are VIRTUAL. There is something to be said for a flesh on flrst contact, rather than the disembodied intelligence on line that can adopt any personality they choose to hide behind. Human interaction has to be inflected with gesture and voice – so to my mind this is an inferior quality of interaction; not one to be dismissed entirely, but not a model to be held up as a sign of robustness.

    Now I really must go and nourish my brain with food. And prevent my kids from starving!

    Laters potaters


  9. I agree with you, I don’t think you can heal the wound. Hence can you write pain in a meaningful way for an audience? …


  10. shit, i’ve been doing it wrong this whole time, dammit.

    well, can’t go back now.

    ok funny ha ha aside. daisy nailed the point that to me as a reader and as a writer makes the experience most compelling, which is honesty. you/i can write fiction that is honest. it goes back to something i posted a short while back about writing heart; and then writing without “writing.” deconstructing the process of writing character, like barthes, helps suck out the truth, i think we can all agree.

    what i always have to be careful of is tricking the reader. deception in the old agatha christie way is entertaining. but betraying the reader with a true character whose ambituity turns out to be “false hope,” as marc describes in his obama analagy, just isn’t cool. like in business, you have to earn the readers’ trust. that also means you want the reader to trust your character(s), right? so there has to be some level of predictability on even the slightest, existential level at least, i think.

    here’s my hand, you may slap it if i don’t yank it out fast enough.


    • I agree about honesty – I don’t necessarily think deconstruction of character in front of the readers’ eyes undermines this though – after all, by creating a character in the first place the foundation myth of our narrative is a lie. Of course, like all myths it is only a partial lie, and the honesty, er, lies in the truth we convey through the lie. I always come back to Kundera and the way he describes how he as author dreams up characters and scenarios before launching us into them – it’s absolute artifice, but I always find his characters honest despite the deconstruction. One could rgue that the honesty comes from being open about the artifice, only of course he isn’t because the “openness” is just more artifice. What he very successfully shows, though, is that suspension of disbelief is not a requisite for creating characters and worlds that are honest and real.

  11. I just want to say that I don’t particularly dig the language /reference games of writersd like Jasper Fforder & Russell Hoban. They strike me as a tad soulless, playing with the aritifice with nothing beneath. One learns very little about what it is to be human from these type of books. That is not my intent.


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