Who’s Telling the Story? The Importance of Narrators in Contemporary Fiction

By February 7, 2013Writing about Writing

In his essay “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said ‘Once Upon a Time,’” Steve Almond uses a trend among his creative writing students as the basis for a larger argument about the effects that passive viewership of mass media has on our ability to make sense of both historical and contemporary cultural narratives. While his argument is likely to have the greatest impact on creative writers, his points apply to other genres of writing as well as to modern society in general. His discussion caused me to question a few of the creative writing mantras and taboos still thrown around in workshops today and reconsider the effects technological advances are having on writers at large.

Almond begins by describing “a particular species of student story” that usually focuses on an amnesic or otherwise disoriented protagonist attempting to make sense of his or her inexplicable existence in “dire cirumstances.” While he notices recurring problems in his writers’ reliance on images over plot and use of non-linear narratives for the sake of imitating Christopher Nolan’s Memento that demands a non-linear narrative, Almond concludes that the fundamental element missing in each story is an effective narrator.

Almond brings up the anti-exposition pedagogy of writing workshops and student dependence on television as potential catalysts for the abandonment of such an important literary device, but soon moves towards a more comprehensive discussion of literary trends and the rising influence of mass media over the past few centuries. He points to pre-modernist writers like Tolstoy and Dickens as prime examples of this convention because their ability to shift from intimate, subjective points of view to more omniscient, objective ones allows them “to portray…how individual fates collide with history.”

With the modernist movement came challenges to conventional modes of storytelling, and it’s interesting that Almond sees Ernest Hemingway’s focus on the purely external aspects of character as a precursor to contemporary prose that is so heavily influenced by the movie camera.

While there are plenty of provocative films out there that engage audiences both visually and psychologically, I agree with Almond’s assertion that film and visual media in general are primarily concerned with providing entertainment that demands significantly less investment from the audience than a piece of writing does. It is this change in the conventions of storytelling, the ability for audiences to passively absorb a narrative without using their imaginations that Almond believes is affecting his students as well as every other member of society.

“On a grand scale, we’ve traded perspective for immediacy, depth for speed, emotion for sensation, the panoramic vision of a narrator for a series of bright beckoning keyholes.”

Because narrators make their stories personal by providing meaningful reflections on their experiences, Almond feels that the erosion of narrative renders the historical and social context of our present existence increasingly elusive. When there is no way to make sense of the outside world or one’s place in it, people succumb to the emotional and psychological escapes provided by social and digital media. Almond describes such temptations as “fraudulent folklore whose central aim is insulate us from the true nature of our predicament.”

By the end of the essay Almond admits that he did give in to his students and saw the film he felt was corrupting their ability to tell cohesive stories. Surprisingly, Almond claims that he loved Memento, viewing it as a reflection of the incomprehensible narrative that humanity currently faces.

“[The protagonist] is trying to do the work of a narrator — to make sense of his life, to divine the meanings concealed in the baffling world around him. The film resonated with my students precisely because they recognized something of themselves in Leonard and his desperate quest.”

Almond’s discussion expresses a compelling new perspective on the technology debate. Arguments for or against technological advancement are frequently centered on measurable consequences including individual isolation, ease of long-distance communication, and dissolution of content ownership, but this essay considers a much more intimidating and mysterious phenomenon.

Whether Almond is talking exclusively about first-person narrators or not is an important point of clarification here. I assumed that he was referring to narration in general, but if you look over the essay, you’ll notice that a specific point of view is never mentioned. Regardless of what perspective a writer chooses to take on a given project, context, exposition, and tension are vital to the construction of a coherent story. Writing workshop mantras like “show don’t tell” and “people never say what they mean” are helpful in certain contexts, but can potentially do more harm than good if understood as absolutes. Almond simply wants us to see that being up-front with the reader about aspects of character and context isn’t a bad thing. It’s becoming easier and easier to draw from visual media as an influence for storytelling, but no matter how pervasive post-modern conventions become, the ‘classics’ should still be relevant inspirations for plot and character development.