In Praise of Simple Storytelling
Storytelling today has become a complex business, full of laws and prohibitions. Transgress, we are told, and readers will be confused, dismayed, and disappointed. And yet the vast body of existing literature stands in violation of most of these laws and prohibitions. It uses plain simple storytelling. Its readers were not confused, dismayed, or disappointed. Nor would they be today with any book that used plain and simple storytelling and used it well.
A case in point is the novel I discussed last week, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. Shute writes in what is called the “omniscient point of view”, a term I despise. It was doubtless conceived innocently enough, but in current usage it has become both misleading and a term of abuse. The problem with it is that the storyteller is always omniscient. The novel is their creation, and they know all things, and create from nothing anything they decide they should know as and when the need arises. What the storyteller does is exercise control over what they tell the reader and how they tell it.
They may decide to tell it through the voice of one of the characters. If they do so, they may decide to tell it as if the character really were reporting it to someone (for instance, as if they were writing a letter or a book). Or they may have them tell it in the immediate present, as if the events were happening as the character spoke. This is a particularly complex approach. If the character is absorbed in action or in conversation with another character, they cannot also be relating their experience to the reader. Where, exactly, then, is the reportage coming from? Not really from the character, since they are manifestly engaged in doing something else. And yet by presenting it as the voice of the character, the author makes everything they say, and how they say it, an aspect of their character. And in any but the most expert hands, the character shown by the narrative voice ends up at odds with the character shown by their dialogue and actions.
Plain simple storytelling avoids these narrative complexities. The writer simply tells the reader what happens. There are variations in this. The writer may wear two hats, both relating events and, from time to time, commenting on them. The most famous opening line in literature is of this kind:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Whose sentiments are these? Mrs. Bennet’s clearly. But Mrs. Bennet would certainly never think of them or express them in this way. Rather, this is Miss Austen parodying Mrs. Bennet and all such mothers with daughters of a marriageable age. (Imagine the confusion of characterization if these words were put into Mrs. Bennet’s mouth.)
In case the reader misses the point, Miss Austen makes it clear:
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
This commentary draws the character of Mrs. Bennet succinctly and brilliantly. But it could be said by no one but the storyteller. Be it Lizzy, Jane, Lydia, Mary, D’Arcy, or even Bingley, in their mouths it would paint them as too wise or too cruel or too interested. Plain simple storytelling gives the author freedom and scope that the more complex forms restrict.
Shute’s narrative is even plainer and simpler. He simply begins with a character and describes his circumstances and actions:
Lieutenant-Commander Peter Holmes of the Royal Australian Navy woke soon after dawn. He lay drowsily for a while, lulled by the warm comfort of Mary sleeping beside him, watching the first light of the Australian sun upon the cretonne curtains of their room. He knew from the sun’s rays that it was about five o’clock: very soon the light would wake his baby daughter Jennifer in her cot, and then they would have to get up and start doing things. No need to start before that happened; he could lie a little longer.
Plain simple storytelling.
Too many books begin with a character waking up. Often it takes the form of the character lying in bed thinking about their backstory for ten pages. None of that nonsense here. A man wakes and lies in bed waiting for his baby daughter to wake. It is a lovely image simply conveyed. But there is more to the storytelling art here. Tension is created subtly but strongly by the contrast of the opening phrase with what follows. “Lieutenant-Commander Peter Holmes of the Royal Australian Navy woke soon after dawn.” The first words of the novel name a naval rank. A naval officer awakes soon after dawn. Ah! A sea story, a war story, full of high adventure. The enemy is out there, just over the horizon.
But no, the naval officer is lying next to a woman. Subtly she is not identified as his wife. He lies with his mistress or some woman he met in a bar in some foreign port. A sea story with a bit of sex then!
But no again, his baby daughter is lying asleep in the next room. He is at home. For a moment, at least, he has no pressing tasks (though tasks there will be soon enough). He can lie in bed a while. But in that very idleness a sense of tension now abides. Did the reader fully form these false expectations from one sentence to the next? Probably not, they are just a tickle, the smallest signal of what is afoot. The reader’s assessment of the scene is still pending. Nonetheless, the arc from the urgent-seeming military opening to the languid domestic conclusion creates a tension that the reader will feel even if they never fully imagine or analyze the way it is constructed.
This is the art of storytelling, plain and simple.
Shute commits several transgressions against modern storytelling doctrine. He will dip into the thoughts of multiple characters in a scene, though only in the few cases where their thoughts matter and cannot be made apparent from their words or actions. In do doing, he avoids the trap that so many contemporary authors fall into of having characters do or say things that they would not naturally do or say as a way to reveal their thoughts.
The equal and opposite trap of modern storytelling is to dive into the character’s thoughts and stubbornly stay there even when their thoughts could be much more easily conveyed through speech and action. (Here the sacred doctrine of show don’t tell is sacrificed on the altar of the doctrine of reducing psychic distance.) Plain simple storytelling avoids this trap too.
We should note in this context that revealing a character’s thoughts is not always the point. Words and actions are not a lesser subject than thoughts. When we meet people and interact with them in real life, it is their words and their actions we interact with and must contend with. The novelist does have the rare privilege of dipping into the private thoughts of their characters, a privilege which should neither be abused nor denied.
Other sins: He uses adverbs. He will follow one character into a scene and another out of it without so much as a blank line for a scene break. And no, the reader is not confused or misled. Were this reader not a novelist himself, made hyper-aware of the contemporary rules of storytelling by constant rebellion against them, he would not have noticed it either.
This is not at all to suggest that Shute’s narrative is artless or unmanaged. Plain and simple storytelling it may be, but the management of tension, the economy and timing of its reveals are immaculate. One requires no narrative gimmicks to achieve these things. One is generally better off without them. One requires only the storyteller’s art.
Where the storyteller’s art is lacking, all these things can become points of failure for the narrative. The modern proscriptions on simple storytelling, I think, largely result from a misguided attempt to avoid such failures. If it can go wrong, don’t do it at all seems to be the maxim. But the circumlocutions required to tell a story when you don’t do these things at all actually create a storytelling style with far more difficulties. “Show don’t tell” takes half the arrows from the author’s quiver. The obsession with close point of view combined with a horror of changing point of view adds blinders to the author’s difficulties.
In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster rejects this legislation of technique:
The novelist … can show the subconscious short-circuiting straight into action (the dramatist can do this too); he can also show it in its relation to soliloquy. He commands all the secret life, and he must not be robbed of this privilege. “How did the writer know that?” it is sometimes said. “What’s his standpoint? He is not being consistent, he’s shifting his point of view from the limited to the omniscient, and now he’s edging back again.” Questions like these have too much the atmosphere of the law courts about them. All that matters to the reader is whether the shifting of attitude and the secret life are convincing, whether it is πιθανδν (possible) in fact, and with his favourite word ringing in his ears Aristotle may retire.
Forster, E. M.. Aspects of the Novel (pp. 84-85). Rosetta Books. Kindle Edition.
A defense of plain and simple storytelling is not a rejection of every other narrative style. They can all be used to good effect for the right project and in the right hands. But the art of storytelling does not lie in a raft of regulations and prohibitions about narrative technique. It depends, first and foremost, on the order and timing of revelations, on the creation and maintenance of tension, and on the authenticity of character and behavior. The complex modern doctrines of narrative are more likely to hinder than to help in getting these things right, creating additional hurdles to the management of these storytelling essentials. Worse, these technical complexities can provide the author with a false sense of accomplishment — if they have obeyed all the regulations, surely they must have done well. The reader doesn’t care that you have obeyed the regulations. The reader only cares about the story. As long as the story is well told, the reader doesn’t notice how it is told.
Much good would be achieved in literature by a return to, or at very least, a renewed appreciation for, plain and simple storytelling.