Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How many kinds of narrative are there, anyway?

With Robb Montgomery in here yesterday talking about all kinds of narratives -- graphics narratives, voice narratives, etc. -- and us talking fairly regularly about true narrative stories, here's my take on the differences:

This is not a definition to exclude all others, but, as we've learned over the past two years in our storytelling focus, true narrative is a story with a beginning and end ... a conflict that is resolved ... a story told over time, usually chronologically, which allows the story to unfold as it actually did ... and a story that is reported so that you have the dialogue, scenes, action, tension, timeline and so on that you need to effectively tell the story.

A true narrative story is not a passage of descriptive writing, or an anecdotal lead that contains six grafs of narrative writing, or a piece of dialogue within a broader conventional story. And a true narrative story is most certainly conceived, planned, reported and written differently than news stories or feature stories or profiles or any other type of story we do.

They are emotionally and intellectually pleasing to read and experience, because human beings love stories, and in fact have used them and relied on them for centuries as a way of recording what happens in their lives and communities, of recording history, of passing on culture, and as entertainment; and because it is satisfying to have an experience in which someone you like or can identify with faces a problem you can see yourself facing, and finds a way out of it.

When Robb about other types of narratives -- say, graphics narratives, voice narratives, video narratives -- he's broadening and stretching the meaning of the word to include snippets of stories, or complete stories that aren't necessarily conflict/resolution, or layers of stories (like the text that would accompany a video.) Ideally, those 'other narratives,' say, text in a video, would not simply be for the convenience of the video's producer or just haphazardly included; the text would be written with the aim of telling in a different way, or reinforcing, the story being told by the visuals.

Robb is also talking about inviting readers/users to create their own narratives ... which can mean nothing more than information on a topic they discover by fooling around on your web site for an hour one day. In other words, he's not saying readers/web users are going to write our Sunday enterprise narrative story. He's saying that by using the info we put out, and that others contribute to our site, they essentially create a personal story.

For example, we could do Utterz at the fair and we could ask fairgoers to do them too. Then someone goes on their computer and listens to, say, half a dozen. They've just created their own personal narrative of the fair. It's not a true narrative, and it's not necessarily the story we offered them, but it's their story nonetheless.

One big thing to remember, I think, is that there is not only room for both kinds of narratives in what we do, there's a need for both. People are going to want to create their own stories by using bits of information we give them in various forms (the soldier death map, or posts on the biz blog, or fair Utterz). But people also are going to want us to make sense of things -- major events like the guy who got stuck on the spike fence, daily-life events like the woman who lost the scarf her dear friend had given her, and so on -- through storytelling. They want and need us to, in a paraphrase of something Hoover said yesterday, go out and find stuff out and come back and put it in a story to tell people things they didn't know before.

There is always going to be an audience for that.

And a P.S. -- Robb Montgomery says "the web is about small talk. Small talk leads to big talk." That fits right in with our focus on Felix Feneon this year -- essentially, the narrative story in three lines. That's one way to think about writing for the web -- make a little say a lot.