The narratives of the world are numberless.
In fact, theory doesn't silence the writer at all; it enlarges the boundaries.
I meet a lot of writers in Canada who have blocked, and the problem
is often, it seems to me, rooted in an insufficiency of theory. They
have come to the end of what they've picked up unconsciously, and they
don't know how to break through to a new plateau. And I swear it's theory
that would help them out. (Kroetsch
This is the paradox of every poetics, and doubtless of every other activity
of knowledge as well: always torn between those two unavoidable commonplaces
- that there are no objects except particular ones and no science except
of the general - but always finding comfort and something like attraction
in this other, slightly less widespread truth, that the general is at
the heart of the particular, and therefore (contrary to the common perception)
the knowable is at the heart of the mysterious.
I'm really glad people are starting to think about theory because...
entertaining any such thoughts used to be that somehow your vital juices
would dry up... if you got involved in theory, that somehow it was zero
sum game and that your creativity would suffer. Twenty pounds of the
genius of writing would have to be removed in order to cram in twenty
pounds of theory. That's crazy. (Bowering
Though the theoretical study of narrative and the practice of creative
writing are usually treated as distinct, even as oppositional, there are
places of illuminating convergence, such as the stories and novels of
John Barth. Yet on the part of writers a deep distrust of narrative theory
persists, a romantic resistance to becoming conscious of fictional forms.
This sometimes-justified suspicion of the thought-out as opposed to the
felt, often with rooted beliefs in the Muse or the Unconscious or the
Body, nourishes a mystique of the inspired artist. But this wish for spontaneous,
untutored originality conflicts with the very etymology of "narrating",
which means "knowing".
For story-tellers, during certain phases of composition, an avoidance
of self-conscious technique might offer needed emotional space, as well
as possibilities of textual discovery; however, artistry in fiction means
skillfully realizing informed expressive choices. The reader's sense that
a superb novel feels magical derives from what is invisible: the writer's
laboursome (and exciting) process of finding the linguistic rightness
and the apt story-telling form to create that magic. I am convinced that,
ultimately, novelists have to know about narrating. And within the profuse
energies of thinking about literature in the last few decades, a place
of much activity has been narrative theory.
Unfortunately, in seeking to clarify how stories are told, formed, transposed,
and received, narrative theorists have also made a lot of smoke. Some
of this smokiness results from vocabularies that are erudite, new-coined,
exotic, heavy-handed, whimsical, and partly overlapping. But most of the
obfuscating smoke in narrative theory comes from the dozens of different
fires lit to illuminate different vantage points of a shared terrain.
Examples of critical terms that are initially baffling but might prove
useful for fiction writers are defamiliarization, closure, mise-en-abyme,
double voicedness, dialogism, double focalization, and scripts. These
theoretical terms can both spark an initiating sense of design possibilities
and illuminate the mysterious acts of revision, where a writer often intuits
that something is not working, but can't quite figure out why. It is the
aim of the following writerly experiments with narrative theory to examine
a few sites of brightness, and to suggest how such theoretical flares
might be of value in the creating of fiction.
After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The
object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it
- hence we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects
from the automatism of perception in several ways. Here I want to illustrate
a way used repeatedly by Leo Tolstoy, that writer who... seems to present
things as if he himself saw them, saw them in their entirety, and did
not alter them.
Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object.
He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an
event as if it were happening for the first time. In describing something
he avoids the accepted names of its parts and instead names corresponding
parts of other objects. For example, in Shame Tolstoy 'defamiliarizes'
the idea of flogging.... (Shklovsky
According to this perspective on language and art, the "estranging"
effects of literature are desirable because they disrupt the routinized
perceptions of everyday life. Chris Baldick finds interesting parallelisms
to this concept of defamiliarization in both Romantic poetry and in Brecht's
Samuel Taylor Coleridge... wrote of the 'film of familiarity' that
blinds us to the wonders of the world, and that Wordsworth's poetry
aimed to remove. P.B. Shelley... also claims that poetry 'makes familiar
objects be as if they were not familiar' by stripping 'the veil of familiarity
from the world'. ...Brecht's theory of the alienation effect in drama
starts from similar grounds. (Baldick
These correspondences point to an aesthetic of self-conscious artistry
that is opposed to a simple "slice-of-life" realism that seeks
merely to duplicate habits of language.
- Narrate in two ways an incident of someone knocking over a drink during
his or her first encounter with an attractive person: first, simply
designate the other character as "handsome" or "beautiful";
second, omit such an abstraction and create through vivid description
a startled sensation of physical attractiveness.
- Write a description of a character's appearance which uses clichés,
and then another description using unexpected and unusual words. Which
passage works better and why? What can be lost in straining after unfamiliar
language? What can sometimes be achieved?
- As an exercise in setting, describe how the same room looks to someone
who is five, then to someone else who is eighty. In both cases choose
diction and syntax that are fresh.
- To create a character who is suicidal, try sketching an interior
monologue in sentence fragments.
- A famous writing exercise invented by John Gardner is the following
one: "Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been
killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man
doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather
and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention
love or the loved one" (Gardner
203). Find vivid language to describe how a kitchen looks to someone
who has just learned of the death of someone very close, and then, in
another paragraph, describe how that same kitchen looks to someone who
has just fallen in love. Is setting more subjective than objective?
- Convey three distinct emotions by describing a character's perception
of a key object in her or his life three times: first encounter, later
in time, and a final glimpse. Don't identify the object.
We have our vital interest in the structure of time, in the concords
books arrange between beginning, middle, and end. ...Our geometries,
in James's word, are required to measure change, since it is on change,
between remote or imaginary origins and ends, that our interests are
fixed. In our perpetual crisis we have, at the proper seasons, under
the pressure perhaps of our own end, dizzying perspectives upon the
past and the future, in a freedom which is the freedom of a discordant
reality. Such a vision of chaos or absurdity may be more than we can
easily bear.... Merely to give order to these perspectives is to provide
consolation, as De Quincey's opium did: and simple fictions are the
opium of the people. But fictions too easy we call 'escapist': we want
them not only to console but to make discoveries of the hard truth here
and now in the middest [in the midst of life]. We do not feel they are
doing this if we cannot... hear the discoveries of dissonance, the word
set against the word. The books which seal off the long perspectives,
which sever us from our losses, which represent the world of potency
as a world of act, these are the books which, when the drug wears off,
go on to the dump with the other empty bottles. Those that continue
to interest us move through time to an end, an end we must sense even
if we cannot know it... (Kermode
In his commentary on the lack of concordance between a "comfortable
story and the non-narrative contingencies of modern reality" (Kermode
128), Kermode speaks of some plots as being "too consolatory to console"
(Kermode 164), and prefers the difficult sense of an ending articulated
by Henry James who argues that "'relations stop nowhere, and the
exquisite problem of the artist is eternally to draw, by a geometry of
his own, the circle in which they shall happily appear to do
so'" (quoted. in Kermode 176). This paradoxical closure, one which
only seems complete, perhaps also relates to Bakhtin's notion that the
novel as a form involving time defines itself by unfinalizability, a quality
of "becoming" (Bakhtin 1981: passim).
Much of modern fiction with its "successiveness of time" (Kermode
176) makes widespread use of an open ending that feels more like a pause
than a finality, since even after the last page there remain gaps and
questions and impulses to further narrative.
- Take a story you have written and transpose the ending from upbeat
to downbeat, or vice versa. Does it falsify the previous stretch
of narrative, or does it reveal a hidden potentiality? Are there ironic
effects? If the transposed ending works effectively, might it be a measure
of the indeterminacy in the character's life?
- End a story with a car or plane accident. Why do readers usually
resent accidental endings in narrative when they can occur in real life?
- "Since reality is incomplete, art must not be too afraid of incompleteness"
(Iris Murdoch quoted. in Kermode 130). Take a story you have completed,
and put a significant gap into the ending. Does this interest or frustrate
- Read a story for the first time and stop before the final paragraph.
Write your own last paragraph, then compare it with the author's. Try
this experiment with the very last sentence. How closely does your version
match the author's in action, image, and tone?
- David Lodge suggests that "the short story is essentially 'end-oriented',
inasmuch as one begins a short story in the expectation of soon reaching
its conclusion, whereas one embarks upon a novel with no very precise
idea of when one will finish it. We tend to read a short story in a
single sitting, drawn along by the magnetic power of its anticipated
conclusion; whereas we pick up and put down a novel at irregular intervals,
and may be positively sorry to come to the end
of it" (Lodge 225). Is there more openness
at the end of your shorter or longer works of fiction?
- Write a story that is resolutely set in the "now", with
no hints of long perspectives, of birth or death. Does this limitation
(by denying a sense of time and change, which imply beginning and ending)
make narrative impossible?
- Write a short story that has two endings: one in which all questions
are answered ("'a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions,
husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful
remarks'" [James quoted. in Kermode 22]), and a second version
that leaves significant gaps. Which do you prefer? Which do you prefer
An analogy which verges on identity... is known in French as mise-en-abyme.
It can be described as the equivalent in narrative fiction of something
like Matisse's famous painting of a room in which a miniature version
of the same painting hangs on one of the walls. Ever since Gide's expression
of a predilection for mise-en-abyme, described in his journals
as a transposition of the theme of a work to the level of the characters,
the technique has been much discussed. ...A famous example from Gide's
own work is The Counterfeiters (1949) where a character is
engaged in writing a novel similar to the novel in which he
appears. (Rimmon-Kenan 93)
This narrative holding up of the mirror to itself in the very act of
mirroring the outside world creates a metafictional consciousness within
the reader who is constantly aware of the fictive process. As Chris Baldick
indicates, "[t]he 'Chinese box' effect of mise-en-abyme
often suggests an infinite regress, i.e. an endless succession of internal
duplications. It has become a favoured device in postmodernist fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and others" (Baldick 138). Such
works, through the use of mise-en-abyme, simultaneously create
and reflect upon their themes, often reflexively blurring the traditionally
separate planes of characterization and fictional form.
- Write a story whose form is a menu and whose main character is a chef
who is making the dishes listed on that menu. What about a story that
takes the form of a sex manual, and whose main characters are trying
out various positions, or a visionary hero whose written prophecies
become part of the narrative, and which she finds herself enacting?
- Using a maze-maker as the central character, design a narrative shape
that is in itself a maze. How do these two aspects of your fiction converge,
and reflect on each other? Besides texts of imagined lives of accountants,
baseball scorers, and weigh-scale operators, what other score-keeping,
number-crunching professions might lend themselves to a story-telling
in which theme and character fuse?
- Create a text whose form becomes an extension of characterization,
such as a heroine who is a mural painter in a story that has a fan-fold
- Make the rhythm and design of a narrative analogous to the Fibonacci
numbers (made by adding consecutive numbers, 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13,
), and choose a mathematician as either the protagonist or the
- What other texts could be created that merge character, theme, and
the formal properties of a book?
- Imagine a critic in the process of trying to write a critical article
[A] mode... exemplified in the peculiar play of 'voices' at work in
the use of 'free indirect discourse' in Zola Neale Hurston's Their
Eyes Were Watching God. Above all else, Hurston's narrative strategy
seems to concern itself with the possibilities of representation of
the speaking black voice in writing.... Free indirect discourse is represented
in this canonical text as if it were a dynamic character, which shifts
in its level of diction drawn upon to reflect a certain development
of self-consciousness in a hybrid character, a character who is neither
the novel's protagonist nor the text's disembodied narrator, but a blend
of both, an emergent and merging moment of consciousness. The direct
discourse of the novel's black speech community and the initial standard
English of the narrator come together to form a third term, a truly
double-voiced narrative mode. (Gates
Indirect discourse can be either tagged ("She said that she was
hungry") or free ("She was hungry"). In both cases there
are two perspectives: the narrator's and the character's. Typically,
the narrator of fiction uses "standard" English, while the character's
voice ("She could eat a horse") often emerges through informal
diction, familiar tropes, and spoken rhythms. The double voicedness inherent
in the indirect style can either emphasize the narrator's presence by
effacing the linguistic details of a character's expression, or foreground
a character's voice (usually through the free indirect form) so that the
narrator becomes covert. In between there are interesting mixtures and
ambiguities. The weighting towards the narrator or the character largely
determines narrative distance, which, in turn, creates effects of coolness
On a larger scale, the doubling of voices can emerge via a character's
difference in language, culture, or class from the standardized discourse
of the narrator. Out of this clash (e.g. when a character speaks in a
dialect) there can be a tone of condescension, or (in Hurston's novel)
the creation of an invigorating hybrid, fusing in the reader's consciousness
two distinct kinds of expression.
- Using standardized English, narrate briefly in the tagged indirect
style the break-up of a couple. Establish a cool distance to the material.
- Focus on one of the characters in this break-up, and, using the free
indirect style with words specific to this character's voice, relate
the event so that empathy results.
- With a character vantage point other than "correct" English,
and without creating a sense of condescension, use the free indirect
style to narrate an experience of otherness (regional, ethnic, linguistic,
etc.). Does this material feel vivid, false, innovative? Is anything
except cultural self-representation a kind of appropriation of voice?
If yes, is there a reduction of fiction to autobiography?
- What effect is achieved if, as your story progresses, the separate
voices of the narrator (in standard English) and the speech of the central
character (in some linguistic variant) begin to merge in the telling?
The relationship to another's word was... complex and ambiguous in
the Middle Ages. The role of the other's word was enormous at that time:
there were quotations that were openly and reverently emphasized as
such, or that were half-hidden, completely hidden, half-conscious, unconscious,
correct, intentionally distorted, unintentionally distorted, deliberately
reinterpreted and so forth. The boundary lines between someone else's
speech and one's own speech were flexible, ambiguous, often deliberately
distorted and confused. Certain types of texts were constructed like
mosaics out of the texts of others. (Bakhtin 1981: 69)
In Bakhtin's theory of language, for any word spoken there is a complex,
nuanced, agitated, oppositional history of utterances that is beyond full
retrieval or elucidation, but which dialogically shapes meaning. Speech,
therefore, is a kind of quoting, with every voicing of a phrase involving
a sideways glance at previous usages, along with an awareness that nothing
can be finalized even for the speaker (since there are always second thoughts
and interior formulations to anticipated replies). Bakhtin therefore asserts
that "no one sentence, even if it has only one word, can ever be
repeated: it is always a new utterance (even if it is a quotation)"
(Bakhtin 1986: 108).
A text like Eliot's The Waste Land which is full of quotations
- a verbal mosaic - is startlingly new despite its assemblage of the past
through echoes and allusions. Such a patchwork poem made up of the works
of others is called a cento. Given the dialogic nature of language,
the paradox of intertextuality is that repetition can involve semantic
renewal and difference.
- Have a character repeat a quotation three times such that the reader
response to the first usage is one of belief in the character's sincerity,
to the second one, a sense of the character's verbal irony, and on the
third occasion, a sense of ambivalence due to uncertainty about the
character's intention (mockery or piety?) - an ambiguity perhaps derived
from the character's interior conflict.
- Have a character quote him/herself three times (in different paragraphs)
such that reader response to the first one conveys the character's smugness,
to the second one, the character's sardonic self-belittling, and to
the third, a sense of the character's wavering resolve.
- Write half a page of dialogue in which one character jokingly makes
a quotation from a song, book, or film, and have another character take
that jesting reference seriously, with comic results. Write a half page
in which one character responds to another's "pious" quote
as an occasion for laughter, and trace out some serious consequences.
- Through "dialogized" repetition, first use a word respectfully,
then on its next usage transform it into one of scorn or accusation
(see Shakespeare's use of the word "honourable" in Julius
Caesar, Act III, first by Brutus, then by Mark Anthony). Reverse
the process, and show how a character's "dialogized" insistence
on self-respect changes a term of contempt into one that is affirmative
(e.g. Shylock's repetition of the word "Jew" to assert his
- Write a short short story in which a key word is used five times,
shifting its emotional values with each recurrence.
- In a brief phone conversation, open with a character saying something
quite striking; conclude with another character deliberately distorting
those initial words as a kind of rebuttal.
- Can a story be told by creating a mosaic of three other stories?
...[W]e [as readers] have access... to the last thoughts of
Bergotte on his deathbed, which... cannot in point of fact have been reported
to Marcel since no one - for a very good reason - could have knowledge
of them. ...[I]t is irreducible by any hypothesis to the narrator's information,
and... must indeed [be attributed] to the 'omniscient' novelist - ...enough
to prove Proust capable of transgressing the limits of his own narrative
...Proust manifestly forgets or neglects the fiction of the autobiographical
narrator [Marcel] and the focalization which that implies.... But the
truth quite obviously is that two concurrent codes are functioning here
on two planes of reality which oppose each other without colliding. (Genette
According to Genette, this double focalization in Proust's Remembrance
of Things Past ("scandalous... for the purists of 'point of
view' [Genette 208]) defies "the conditions of realistic illusion:
it... transgresses a 'law of spirit' requiring that one cannot be inside
and outside at the same time" (Genette 210). Although it is often
a strain for a writer using a single interior narrator, "I",
to encompass all aspects of a story (or even convey a simple physical
self-description of the main character, hence, the omnipresence of reflecting
store / bus / train windows, polished hubcaps, 'chance' photographs),
ever since Henry James's use of a restricted character perspective (as
a "sentient centre") such technical constraints of narration
have been identified with the modern art of fiction. Therefore, to use
two kinds of points of view in the same story would ordinarily
seem clumsy or incoherent, but Genette argues that the double focalization
of Proust's novel results in "textual coherence and narrative tonality"
(Genette 208) and, in fact, "no code prevails anymore and... the
very notion of infraction becomes outworn" (Genette 210). Such a
postmodernist disregard for narrative conventions partly relates to Brecht's
alienation effect, where the audience is constantly reminded of art as
artifice, and denied the uncomplicated emotions of realistic illusion.
- Take a story you have written consistently from the first-person
limited-interior point of view, and rewrite part of it using the omniscient
point of view, seeking to preserve narrative clarity. Is it possible?
Has the greater story-telling freedom been achieved at the cost of characterization
or psychological intensity? Has the tone altered to something more playful?
- Take one of your stories that is consistent in its point of view throughout,
and in a postmodernist manner transgress the chosen narrative code by
inserting various types of focalization, so that the reader is constantly
"alienated", unable to comfortably settle into a sustained
realistic illusion because the revised text always draws attention to
itself by its shifting perspectives. How is such a rewritten text disturbing,
interesting, assaultive, provocative? How does it alter the reader's
role and expectations?
- "[Frank] Gehry's California Aerospace Museum, ...in southeastern
Los Angeles, introduced the 'village of forms' concept, which he would
develop further in many subsequent projects. Instead of aiming for architectural
unity to which all elements contributed, Gehry's notion was to break
the structure down into discrete, dissimilar forms that did not necessarily
come together at all; this struck him as a truer expression of contemporary
life" (Tomkins 42). If the prevailing aesthetic
has been one that Coleridge terms "organic unity", what chaos
or excitement occurs when a story is put together with dissimilar forms,
with shapes "that do not necessarily come together at all"?
...[D]evelopments in language theory and cognitive science that have
occurred after the heyday of structuralist narrative poetics... may
throw light on the problem of what defines narrative. Of special relevance
is research in the field of artificial intelligence on knowledge structures
that have been characterized as schemata, scripts, and frames.
For Dennis Mercadal a script is a 'description of how a sequence of
events is expected to unfold.... A script is similar to a frame in that
it [a script] represents a set of expectations.... Frames differ from
scripts in that frames are used to represent a point in time. Scripts
represent a sequence of events that take place in a time sequence.'
...This research suggests that the mind draws on a large but not infinite
number of 'experiential repertoires,' of both static (schematic or framelike)
and dynamic (scriptlike) types. Stored in the memory, previous experiences
form structured repertoires of expectations about current and emergent
experiences. Static repertoires allow me to distinguish a chair from
a table or a cat from a bread box; dynamic repertoires help me to know
how events typically unfold during common occasions like birthday parties
and to avoid mistaking birthday parties for barroom brawls or visits
to the barber. (Herman 1047)
If cognitive research suggests that memory often stores knowledge as
scripts, then much of human understanding can be described as "'a
process by which people match what they see and hear to pre-stored groupings
of actions that they have already experienced'" (Schank and Abelson
quoted in Herman 1048). This kind of matching would reduce, or maybe even
avoid, the imaginative demands (and duration) inherent in repeatedly engaging
the complexity of the world through fresh perceptions and new inferences.
Having learned hundreds or thousands of these scripts, each with its own
Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end, and ordered by chronology and
causation, humans possess a narrative representation of many aspects of
their cultural world, so that, in effect, future experiences have already
been largely anticipated and sorted out by past ones that the brain has
stored as stereotypical process analyses involving consecutive steps leading
from an expected beginning to a preconceived end. Literary narratives
require familiarity with many of these scripts as part of an understanding
of what is happening in a novel, and scripts perhaps act as the prototypes
for such story-telling. Furthermore, some scripts, such as "reading
a novel" model our dependency on prior experience, and our stored
scripts of previous textual experiences as readers of fiction create expectations
that may habituate us in advance to a "new" novel.
Literature, though it depends on the reader's knowledge of many familiar
situations and stereotypical events, mostly uses the scripts of the world
as backdrop (except in satire). Since literary value is allied to the
mystique of the original, "[t]he formal impetus, the constitutive
gesture, of literary fiction has been the rejection or at least the backgrounding
of scripts in which prior texts were anchored and the complementary foregrounding
of new scripts matched to changing ideas about narrative" (Herman
1054). So, while scripts may offer the novel its prototypical form, a
shorthand means of representing the world, and its very followability,
paradoxically, literature might be defined as (in a Hollywood nightmare)
eternal script revision.
- If the process of cutting the lawn or baking a cake is already a script
we have stored in our heads, what has to be added to make a literary
narrative? Is naming a character and giving a time frame enough? e.g.
"At 12:37 on Friday, Oct. 31, Jim Churcher pulled the cord that
started his lawn mower." Try adding description (say, of the pattern
of mowing). Does this specificity somehow create emotion or tension
or character? Invent an incident (such as tangling an electrical cord
while turning a corner, or running into a rock, or over dog-shit). How
do these micro-actions create interest and lift the lawn-mowing script
out of mere how-to-manual prose?
- Create two parallel narratives that grow out of a specific everyday
situation which has become stylized as a cultural script, such as brushing
your teeth, or ordering food at a restaurant, or boarding a plane, or
getting money from a bank machine. Although the same sequence of steps
occur in each narrative sketch, have you managed to create a drama out
of descriptive or narrative dissimilarities in the varying
performances of this single script? Make the dramatic counterpointing
greater by having the two characters contrast in age, gender, or ethnicity,
- According to Herman, "[t]he processing of narratives is more
complex when they inhibit what might be termed the naïve application
of scripts and promote instead reflection on the limits of applicability
of the scripts being invoked" (Herman 1055). Using the same script,
write three brief narratives that grow increasingly complex, that is,
become harder and harder to paraphrase as a stereotypical event sequence.
How is literary interest related to complexity?
- Sketch out a story that might arise from three different scripts which
overlap in time, such as the dating script, the watching the movie script,
and the introduction to a stranger script. Is readerly interest partly
correlated with the number of scripts used in fiction? How many scripts
are there in a best-selling novel besides sex and shooting and shopping
and travel? Do genres have typical scripts, such as rescue for the adventure
novel, or going to school for the Bildungsroman, or seduction
for the romance?
- "...I know what to do when the waiter comes up to me in a restaurant
because I have been in restaurants before and remember the standard
roles of waiter and customer" (Herman 1050). Write a story that
arises from the breakdown of such a script, one involving dialogue between
two characters. Is this likely to be comic or playful, creating laughter
out of the unexpected, or is it as likely to be serious and pathetic,
and lead to a disclosure of genuine feeling, perhaps due to some inability
to sustain appropriate social roles (too drunk, crazy, distressed, enraged).
Explore a character who can't follow an expected script.
- A naïve narrator might be understood as a child just learning
worldly knowledge, one for whom the scripts of sequential behaviour
have not yet become cultural givens. Through the eyes of a five-year-old,
show in a brief narrative the process of learning about one stereotypical
process. Sci-fi might be the maximal use of such a naïve narrator,
i.e. a point of view with no applicable scripts memorized for, say,
Saturn. Write down in a diary form the sensory experience and intellectual
extrapolations and psychological stress of a Martian who has come to
earth scriptless, without a worldly grasp of our usual configurations
and predictable sequences. (See Claude Raines's poem, "A Martian
Sends a Postcard Home".)
- Depict the loneliness of an old person as one who is finding that
familiar scripts no longer apply to the world outside, and the character
is bewildered by new phenomena for which she or he has no script.
- Does the moment of recognition or epiphany in a story occur when some
cherished script of the hero no longer fits his experience? If worldly
understanding is stored in memory as scripts, and constitutes the basis
for a character's behaviour, what happens to these everyday scripts
when the world is drastically transformed (say, through the invention
of the birth control pill or the dropping of the first bomb from a plane
on people)? How do such macro-scripts as urbanization or Marxism (and
its relative disappearance) affect the repertoire of smaller scripts
by which individuals - and characters in novels - enact their future
- The scripts of human memory can be viewed as akin to mimesis, a mode
of representing action in the world. A mise-en-abyme effect
thereby results for all literature, since characters in fiction (and
in drama and film more overtly) mimic the way every human performs a
variety of mimic procedures. The pan-human mirroring of the world as
scripts held in memory anticipates and parallels novelistic mimesis,
which, in turn, selects and combines and updates and queries worldly
scripts. Does the shaping of fictional narratives then become a way
to consolidate, and even to create, knowledge?
When I have asked emerging writers to try out some of these experiments
in creative writing workshops at colleges and universities in Canada,
most students have been happy to focus their imaginative energies briefly
in the theoretical ways specified, and many have then been quite willing
to read aloud their newly achieved work. A few have balked. Interestingly,
though, such students have not always resisted subsequent and different
experiments in narrative form.
Perhaps the exercise that writers have carried out most vividly is one
in defamiliarization, where they describe in concrete language how a kitchen
appears after the death of someone intimate without ever mentioning that
death. For students, the most engaging exercise in closure among those
listed above has been the one in which they write the final paragraph
of a published short story and then compare their version to the author's;
often they delight in discovering proximity, though sometimes the student
writers have composed endings that suggest alternative narrative possibilities.
(What also is instructive in this exercise is the need to imitate the
original's voice and tone in order to make the newly created ending join
seamlessly with the preceding story.) The experiments with mise-en-abyme
I have used sparingly in workshops, but those student writers attracted
to postmodernism rather than realism have creatively shaped stories out
of a sense of connection between planes of telling. Double voicedness
is a concept I have introduced into many classes, where the exercises
in narrating a break-up of an imagined couple through the use of different
diction and speech patterns have usefully clarified such terms as irony
and empathy, as well as opening out for discussion the notion that English
has many "Englishes", fused or separate. Some of the experiments
listed under Bakhtin's term "dialogism", such as those involving
"dialogized" repetition, have also proved illuminating in creating
an awareness of how to achieve ironic or sincere effects, and these experiments
make clear as well that words are not inert, but shifting, contested,
and dramatic, thereby enlarging writerly understanding of language and
expressiveness. Only in advanced workshops with sophisticated writers
have I introduced Genette's term, double focalization. Mere incoherence
can result from contradictory ways of telling, but, as a creative writing
teacher, I believe that it can be salutary on occasions to explode a convention
such as unity of point of view if only to understand its strategic value.
In some cases, such conscious departures from the norm can free up other
expressive possibilities that can make for a narration that is unexpectedly
potent. Perhaps the main usefulness of "scripts" in student
writing is to counter the tendency in much of beginning writing for characters
to exist only as bodiless consciousness; by narrating a process such as
cutting the lawn or baking a cake, the student writer has to remember
that the character is participant in the outside world and subject to
duration, preconditions for more significant actions and plot development.
Overall, I feel these narrative concepts and creative experiments can
be helpful. For several student writers these exercises have acted as
originating fragments in the creation of fuller stories. Less directly,
such experiments can at once focus and broaden story-telling horizons.
Also importantly, these theoretical exercises can offer new fiction writers
confidence that they can understand and revise their initial narrative
Note: An earlier version of this paper appeared in Journal of English
and Foreign Languages (India)
Keith Harrison, born in Vancouver, studied at UBC, California (Berkeley),
and McGill (PhD, Deans Honours List). He has published many scholarly
articles, focused on such writers as Byron, Patrick Lane, Malcolm Lowry,
Pat Lowther, Gabriel García Márquez, Herman Melville, Ian
McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, and Shakespeare. He has also written essays
on documentary film, comics, exploration literature, narrative theory,
and hockey. As a writer of fiction, Harrison has completed three novels,
Dead Ends (1981), a finalist for the Best First Novel in Canada
Award, After Six Days (1985), and Eyemouth (1990), shortlisted
for a QSPELL Award. His collection of short stories, Crossing the
Gulf (1998) includes a piece that won the Okanagan Short Story Award.
A non-fiction novel, Furry Creek (1999), was selected for the
BC 2000 Award and nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. He has
edited an anthology, Islands West: Stories from the Coast, that
appeared in the fall of 2001. He teaches in the Departments of English
and Creative Writing at Malaspina University-College, and lives on Hornby