On Narrative: A Story runs through it…

It’s amazing how pervasive the concept of “narrative” actually is. Now, wherever I look, I see a story being told, or something in front of my eyes that is trying to communicate with me.

Obviously, a story, a narrative, is the basis of written fiction, and creating an effective and engaging narrative is more difficult than I had originally imagined when I set out to write “Owe Nothing” back in 2002.

Works of Fiction, obviously…

Works of fiction (and I’m thinking primarily of the “paperback novel” genre) have a common narrative structure which introduces characters and a situation, presents the characters with a problem to solve or a challenge to overcome, and after trials, successes and failures, brings their story to a close with some sort of resolution and reflection. All of this (if popularity to an outside audience is the author’s goal) should be emotionally or intellectually gratifying to the reader in some way, or provide some sort of entertaining escape.

“Voice” in fiction can be first-person (like any hard-boiled detective caper by Raymond Chandler), where the reader is effectively transplanted into the skull of the main character, seeing things (usually) exclusively through his/her eyes. Or itr may be third-person, where the narration of the story seems to come from a camera or invisible observer which is observing the thoughts and activities of all characters, everywhere.

But Non-fiction has an inherent narrative of its own too…

Non-fiction works also have their own kind of voices that “tells a story” of sorts as well. In instruction or technical manuals, both the first-person and the third-person voice shows up quite commonly.

First-person is used when your Instructor is talking to you, the Reader directly, or when the author is citing some personal experience that is relevant to a lesson or point of procedure.

Third-person, in my experience, is used when the manual (or in my most common experience, a user guide) has no one particular person named as the “author” per se, but is ostensibly written by a corporation for their customers. In that case, the voice that is narrating could be composed by multiple unknown, uncredited authors, blended together (“fingerprints removed”, if you will) by a technical writer.

What About text in Interactive Environments? Does it contribute a narrative as well?

In a word, yes. In my opinion, every word on a web page, including the text in links, navigation buttons, mottos and tag lines, all provide context that reinforces the narrative at hand, so almost in effect becoming part of the narrative itself. (This is my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

The major difference with a visual medium (in this case, the user interface of a web site) is the use of graphic visual language that adds the extra dimension of inferred meaning or context to the wordy narrative.

Parsing photographs, words, icons, and interpreting (feeling) colours in a design is all part of “reading the page”. The designer of it has infused their own cultural symbols, values or expectations to some degree, so that the audience can relate to it more effectively.

Perhaps we’re back to Marshall McLuhan again…

If the cover of your favourite book, or the navigation controls on your favourite eBook Reader, have become strongly associated with the words in the text, then I’d say that the medium will have indeed become entwined in the message.


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