Believing The First Narrative


red flag warningI think most people are trusting. Maybe too trusting. Chances are, unless we have some prior knowledge that would lead us to doubt or discount what someone says, we are apt to believe the first person who tells us about an event or gives us their opinion.

I saw a TV show the other night. A medical professional saw suspicious signs of abuse on a young patient from a juvenile facility. Red flags went up. She questioned the boy and heard his tale of being mistreated—purposefully denied hydration, disciplined by being burned with cigarettes, and more. She informed the authorities who called in the person in charge.

His story was quite different. This was a troubled teen who was lying, hurting himself. But without further evidence, no action could be taken on either side. Yet, the medical professional continued to believe the patient . . . until physical evidence proved he was in fact lying.

Most people, I think, have some level of trust. Someone comes to the door selling candy for a school fund raiser. Chances are, most of us don’t think this is actually a serial killer or some form of con artist.

Conversely, when the news program we watch regularly reports that there are email scams going around and we shouldn’t send money to people contacting us for financial help, we are most likely going to be suspicious of email asking us for money. On one side are the friendly faces of the news reporters we see day in and day out, and on the other, an anonymous person who says he needs help.

I have no problem deleting those emails. Those are the scams the news warned me against. Probably. I’ll never know for sure. I’ve believed the first narrative I heard and acted accordingly.

Others, however, believed the narrative that someone was in great need of help, and in fact, they would be repaid for their kindness. That was the first narrative they heard. They wanted to help and they wanted to make a little money in the process. So they emptied their bank account, and lost everything.

Another group of people have lost to scam artists that present a more respectable front. Take those who lost so much in the Bernie Madoff investment scandal back in 2008. Or how about the Fanny Mae fiasco: “In December 2011, the SEC brought a civil suit charging three former top executives with securities fraud for misleading investors about the extent of the mortgage giant’s holdings of higher-risk mortgage loans during the financial crisis.” (Forbes)

Understandably, investors believed the people they were hiring to handle their gambl speculatio capital venture. But a set of ciminals took advantage of that trust and bilked the investors of millions.

Believing narratives is critical in other areas, too. Take politics, for instance. In 2010 independently wealthy Meg Whitman ran for the governorship of California. Her campaign looked promising, until the first attack ads accused her of trying to buy the election. In contrast, independently wealthy Donald Trump has proudly exclaimed that he is funding his own campaign without the help of financial backing so that he doesn’t owe anyone any favors.

In one case, the opponents wrote the narrative, and in the other, the candidate got ahead of the issue by telling a different story. In each case, the public seems to have believed the first story released.

This tactic is a favorite of Donald Trump’s. For instance, he said in a televised debate that Jeb Bush was weak, and every time the former Florida governor spoke, Mr. Trump made faces or mocked him or repeated the accusation. He gave no facts, produced no evidence, but the charge was picked up by news analysts and stayed with Mr. Bush for weeks afterward, if not until the end of his campaign.

The fact is, however, that people have agendas. The kid trying to sell candy has an upfront agenda which he announces in his first sentence or two. Other people, however, have layered agendas. The investment scammers, for instance, did want people to give them their money to invest, but they also wanted to cheat those people out of that money. They needed to come across as believable and trustworthy when in fact they were the opposite.

So what?

The Bible has clear counsel for the believer. We are to be on the alert. We have wolves in sheep’s clothing who would fool even the elect if they could. We have an enemy prowling around like a roaring line. We have spiritual forces that come against us, that require spiritual armor. Woven throughout other counsel for handling such conflict is the command to be alert.

This idea, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, means we are to be “quick to notice any unusual and potentially dangerous or difficult circumstances; vigilant.” It also has a second connotation: we are to be “able to think clearly; intellectually active.” Being alert, then, requires critical thinking.

A companion word might be discernment. If we are to be alert we must discern what is a true threat and what is simply true. We are to “keep our thinking caps on,” as one of my old teachers would say. Our job is to pay attention and to evaluate so we can spot error.

In truth, if we are to be alert we must be willing to question those first narratives, even when they come from friendly news anchors we watch day in and day out. We can like them. We can laugh at their jokes and ooohh and aahh at the same baby Panda video that they do. But we still need to be alert when they present a narrative for us to believe.

Often times we hear a narrative from an unofficial source first. A neighbor shot a video and gives it to the news. The snippet played on TV suggests an unprovoked attack by one person. Later when the investigation is complete, however, a different story emerges. But some people refuse to believe the official version of what happened. Why? Because they trusted the first narrative. They believed what their friends the news reporters showed them that first night.

Some of those folks might even become conspiracy theorists, thinking that the second narrative has been invented to cover up the “obvious” facts. No amount of proof can move people who have been convinced by the first narrative.

I think Christians should be alert and therefore should learn to question. Not that we should become skeptics, but we should develop a realistic view of the world. The fact is, those who do not believe in Jesus as God’s Son sent to save sinners, will see the world in a vastly different way than do Christians.

In addition, people running for office want our vote and sometimes our donations. People on TV want us to keep watching their program or their network. They may also want us to see the world as they see it. They may assume we have the same values as they do.

If we realize these things, we can simply agree or disagree. We can turn the channel or read a book. We can smile and say no, my values are different. Or we can say, That makes sense; I’d like to learn more.

What we must avoid is mindlessly repeating as truth what we heard from someone else without any investigation on our part. That’s the opposite of being alert. That’s closer to giving ourselves over to brainwashing.

Scene and Narrative, Part 5


I nearly forgot to tell you: Nicole Petrino-Salter invited me to do a guest blog at her site, concerning the difficulty of writing my first book. I joked with her that writing it wasn’t hard, it was the fifty revisions that followed that proved difficult—but I wasn’t really kidding. Anyway, I’ve recounted the beginning of my writing experience over at Hope of Glory.

– – –

Examples. Author and CSFF Blog Tour member Robert Treskillard suggested I give examples of scene and narrative to show the difference.

I’m tempted to give you the examples from Monica Wood’s book Description. One reason I like that book so much is because she does exactly what Robert is asking. She explains, then illustrates. And not from some published works where it would be hard to compare. She writes segments, then rewries them, and often rewrites them again.

OK, I talked myself into it. Her examples are much better than anything from my writing.

Without further fanfare, Monica Wood:

Narrative (“telling): Ms. Kendall was Middleton School’s most popular teacher. She was always bringing in maps and atlases to brighten her classroom and motivate her fourth graders. The children adored her and ran to her aid every time they had a chance. Mrs. Brimley, the other fourth-grade teacher, watched this daily homage with a mixture of resentment and awe.

Then, after some brief comment:

Scene (“showing”): Ms. Kendall paused at her classroom door and shifted her full-color maps of the NATO nations from one arm to the other Spotting her, a small group of fourth graders dropped the books they were hauling and rushed to her aid, yipping like puppies, each clamoring to be the one to turn the knob.

“Children! Children!” Ms. Kendall trilled, her musical laughter echoing down the dingy corridor. “One at a time, now. You can’t all help at once.”

Mrs. Brimley, marooned at the far end of the hall amidst a splatter of upended math books, thinned her lips and sighed over the echo of stampeding feet.

Following this, Wood dissects the styles:

Most of us have been trained to think of narrative (telling) as “bad description” and scene (showing) as “good description.” Certainly a case can be made that in the above examples, the scene is better than the narrative passage, but that’s only because both passages are rendered in such extremes. The narrative passage is dull and expository—it doesn’t vividly describe the Kendall-Brimley conflict. The verbs aren’t particularly strong (was; motivate; ran; watched). and the picture being painted doesn’t engage he senses. There is no sound or movement; again, we’re watching characters on a screen. The scene, on the other hand, contains noise and movement and dialogue and marvelous verbs like “marooned” and “yipping.”

Next comes a rewrite of the narrtive that is just effective as the scene:

Narrative, second draft: Mrs. Brimley envied Ms. Kendall’s youth: her silky arms, her just-washed hair, her easy way with the thirty-five fourth graders they divided between them. The children preferred Ms. Kendall, every last one of them, and who could blame hem? She had the voice of an angel; her laughter was a salve. I love her, Mrs. Brimley whispered dozens of times a day. And I hate her.

Wood doesn’t stop there. After additional comments, such as “Narrative does not have to be merely informational. This passage contains imagistic language (‘silky arms’ and laughter like a ‘salve’) and a haunting bit of sound with the whispered ‘I love her … I hate her.’ The internal monologue … brings your readers deep inside Mrs. Brimley’s experience,” Wood gives a final example:

Combination narrative and scene: Mrs. Brimley’s 4A’s, each with an armload of math books they were helping to transfer from the library to Room 3, spotted Ms. Kendall at the other end of the corridor. She was stalled at her classroom door, shifting her own bundle—full-color maps of the NATO nations—from one arm to the other. Dropping their books like so many bombs, the 4A’s rushed to her aid, yipping like puppies, each clamoring to be the one to turn the knob.

“Children! Children! Ms. Kendall trilled, her musical laughter echoing down the dingy corridor. “One at a time, now. You can’t all help at once.”

Mrs. Brimley, suddenly marooned amidst a splatter of upended books, thinned her lips and sighed over the echo of stampeding feet. She envied Ms. Kendall’s youth: her silky arms, her just-washed hair, her easy way with the children. Who could blame them for adoring her? She had the voice of an angel; her laughter was a salve. Mrs. Brimley sighed, bending to retrieve the books. I hate her, she whispered, tucking back a ripped page. And I love her.

Wood goes on to discuss how to tell well, how to show well, and when to use which.

I think I need to reread this section, maybe the entire book.

Published in: on April 18, 2008 at 10:29 am  Comments (2)  
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Scene and Narrative, Part 4


Agent Rachelle Gardner recently held a two-part contest she dubbed Finalist

This was an enjoyable writing exercise, one I needed to get me back into creating a character, a scene, a scenario.

But here’s the interesting thing. The winning entry, posted today at Rachelle’s Rants & Ramblings, is almost all narrative. Not scene.

Contrast it to my honorable mention entry that jumped into a scene as quickly as possible.

Is there a lesson here? I wish I knew. Of the six honorable mention first pages, three were primarily exposition and three were primarily scene.

I’ve decided that my strength as a writer is in creating scene. I tried a different style and have learned some things in the process, but more than once I’ve had readers tell me that the scene version of a passage rather than the exposition of the same events is stronger.

So maybe that’s the point. A writer needs to create a story using his or her best tools.

Of course, I’d love it if my pieces of exposition were as strong as my scenes. I suppose that might be what an editor is looking for. 😉

Published in: on April 16, 2008 at 12:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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Scene vs. Narrative, Part 3


I mentioned yesterday that I’d made a comment in response to Dave Long’s post at Faith in Fiction about the use of narrative and exposition. Mostly I quoted from one of my favorite writing instructors. As I did a search of my archives, I did not uncover a single reference to this writer. Hard for me to imagine that I haven’t mentioned her here before.

I’m referring to Monica Wood, author of Description, (Writers Digest, 1995). By that publication date, you can see that, in all likelihood, she was operating in the writing era before the emphasis on all things short and quick. Still, I think her advice is sound. Here’s the basics of my response to Dave’s post:

It’s just that there’s a way to do exposition and narrative well and a way to do it so that the story suffers.

I’ve read some beautiful prose that really doesn’t belong in my opinion. Not in a novel. Not as it appeared anyway.

Maybe it’s just what I like, but I’ve bought into some of the principles Monica Wood teaches in her book entitled Description. For example:
“Forward movement in fiction is twofold: physical and emotional …Stories move forward most seamlessly when plot and character mesh.”

Then later: “There is no greater (nor annoying) motion-stopper than immobile chunks of physical description … Deliver physical characteristics a few at a time, and the character in question becomes much more seeable.”

And from the beginning of the chapter on forward motion: “Don’t ask who your character is; ask what your character does.”

And those lines in a book on description! 😮 But don’t get me wrong. Wood clearly believes narrative has a place. From the chapter entitled “Showing and Telling”:

[Referencing a previous example] all this “showing” is taking the spotlight away from someone else who is more important. Besides, too much showing can start to seem self-conscious, as if you’re brandishing your arsenal of similes and metaphors just for the heck of it. Your characters might even disappear in the process. Don’t let your prose style overwhelm the story you want to tell.

Too much telling can flatten your story, too much showing can overwhelm it … A combination of showing and telling usually yields the best description.

Perhaps that combination, once favoring narrative, now favors scene, but I think the combination is still necessary. More from Wood:

Scenes have to be relieved by spots of narrative, though, or your story will never end … You can suggest the torpor of the long afternoon without subjecting the unfortunate readers to a torpid scene.

So maybe there really is no “versus” in fiction when it comes to narrative and scene. But I still need to click on that link Dave posted and read what J. Mark Bertrand had to say about the subject. Could be I’ll have more thoughts on the subject tomorrow.

Published in: on April 15, 2008 at 10:19 am  Comments (2)  
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Scene vs. Narrative, Part 2


Nearly two years ago, Bethany editor Dave Long wrote his thoughts about narrative on his blog, Faith in Fiction:

And the second thing I think I’ve noticed may be counter-intuitive to much of the advice given today. That is: density of story emerges primarily through narrative and exposition rather than dialogue … the heavy work of filling a book is done between the scenes.

This becomes difficult to parse out because in the best novels everything is for the sake of advancing the novel at some level. If it does no work, it should be excised. However, too often we’ve reduced that maxim to simply, “Everything must advance the plot.” And with that I disagree. A richer understanding of a character’s thoughts, a fuller development of a theme–these things make up the richness and fullness to which I’m referring.

Richard Russo’s Straight Man begins with a seven page prologue. It is at once superfluous to the plot and intrinsic to the main character. Do you leave it?

Lying Awake pauses in its story to give flashbacks, set apart in italics, of Sister John of the Cross’ childhood. Not a single one is pertinent to her dangerous medical condition. But each opens her life a little wider to us.

There are more and better examples out there. Hopefully you see what I’m getting at. Story is all. But story is not plot. And therefore plot is not all.
::

Mark Bertrand has recently visited this topic in his study on craft, although from a slightly different angle, cracking that old chestnut about “showing, not telling.”

We do need to learn to show. But as Mark says, we also need to learn to tell…well.

::

Faith in Fiction, May 17, 2006

As Dave said, this view seems counter-intuitive to the advice given today. Although I have some differing ideas, I agree there is an important place in fiction for telling well.

I finished Assassin’s Apprentice (Robin Hobb) last week and have to say, I don’t think the story was hurt by the amount of telling—considerably more than most CBA books, I’d wager. But was it helped?

For me, the key point Dave made was that plot does not equal story.

Your thoughts?

Published in: on April 14, 2008 at 10:24 am  Comments (10)  
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Scene vs. Narrative


Brandilyn Collins, as gracious as she is talented, left a comment to yesterday’s post in which she remarked about the change in her style of writing since she was first published:

I like the books I write today, but they are different from Eyes of Elisha and Dread Champion. Those books were each about 120,000 words. Way too long for today’s standards and for what my publisher wants. The longer word count allows for multiple storylines and subplots. Can’t do that in the current word count.

However, if you’re referring to “leaner” as a style of writing, that’s a different thing. My style IS leaner today. That is, every word counts, whereas in EOE and DC I had longer paragraphs and was more wordy in general.

The thing is Eyes of Elisha came out in 2001, with Dread Champion following in 2002, so this change we’re talking about happened over the last six or so years.

By the way, this span of time has been the height of the Harry Potter craze, with books five through seven weighing in at 500 pages or more.

Is it genre then, that has created a distinct style?

I know people often talk about writing for the MTV generations, implying that these readers need things with graphics, written in sound bites, including sidebars, without depth. Thus, shorter books.

Of course, part of the “shorter book” concept might just be the economics of it. I mean, it’s what the candy company and the canned soup people did. Don’t raise the price; shrink the product.

Could publishers be taking that route? With the exception of those who have a blockbuster hit on their hands. Those books can come in at 600, 700 pages and the publisher will still clear a tidy profit. (Is that understated sufficiently, do you think? 😉 )

So, what does this have to do with “scene vs. narrative”? I suggest scene is leaner. Narrative tends to be wordy.

Here’s an example from the book I’m currently reading, Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (Bantam Books, 1995):

That afternoon I was back with Hod, practicing until I was sure my stave had mysteriously doubled its weight. Then food, and bed, and up again in the morning and back to Burrich’s tutelage. My learning filled my days, and any spare time I found was swallowed up with the chores associated with my learning, whether it was tack care for Burrich, or sweeping the armory and putting it back in order for Hod. In due time I found not one, or even two, but three entire sets of clothing, including stockings, set out one afternoon on my bed. Two were of fairly ordinary stuff, in a familiar brown that most of the children my age seemed to wear, but one was of thin blue cloth, and on the breast was a buck’s head, done in silver thread. Burrich and the other men-at-arms wore a leaping buck as their emblem. I had only seen the buck’s head on the jerkins of Regal and Verity. So I looked at it and wondered, but wondered, too, at the slash of red stitching that cut it diagonally, marching right over the design.

So ends one paragraph from pp. 68-69, followed by a scene (and I wonder how many of you managed to read the entire paragraph. 😮 Is blog reading affecting the way we want our fiction?). I opened the book at random to find that section of narrative, which, by the way, was preceded by several similar pages, and I feel confident I could find an example nearly every time I randomly selected a page.

The question I’m pondering is this: Rather than balancing scene and narrative, does the contemporary style of fiction shun narrative as a necessary evil to be avoided whenever possible? And the correlaries: Is fiction mirroring television, and should it? Are only certain genres, like suspense, pulled into a faster-paced style?

OR, is an overbalance of scene a result of “rules” enforced because new writers have a propensity to tell too much and tell poorly? In other words, are we Browne-and-King-ing narrative right out of our stories? Is this a tendency in Christian fiction alone, or are writers in the general market also writing less narrative?

Your thoughts on any of these questions?

Published in: on April 10, 2008 at 11:40 am  Comments (13)  
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