Three Take-away Tips from Narrative Structure and Expectations – Kate Elliott
Kate Elliott’s guest of honour talk used a close reading of the opening scene of the movie West Side Story as a launching place to talk about reader expectations and the all-important opening. It was a great talk – really informative and well-structured and I’m not going to attempt to summarise quite so much material.
However, the three most important points I took from it are these:
1. Familiarity can help the reader enter the story, providing they share the cultural assumptions of the writer. The opening needs to resonate with the reader’s knowledge. Elliott quoted the opening of George R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones but I’m going to pick the first two sentences of Helen Garner’s short story ‘My Hard Heart’:
I met my husband at the airport, and then he told me some things that wiped the smile off my face. He put his suitcase down outside the International Bar and leant his face and arms on the fire hose: he wept, I did not.
We’re immediately into that Garner story – she has us hooked by jolting us from our complacent familiarity with the anticipation of the loved one’s return, just as her narrator is – note the laconic colloquialism, ‘wiped the smile off my face’ which is immediately followed by the unexpected vision of the man weeping in a public space. The specificity of the public space is deftly detailed, too. Brilliant!
2. Stories that don’t fit the reader’s expectations – that challenge expectations which are erroneous, can seem revolutionary and can lead to a reader turning off. However, you can use familiarity to establish the territory for the reader and then begin to reveal more complex, different narratives.
3. Make sure you understand the difference between conflict and complication. The conflict in West Side Story is the gang warfare. The complication is the love interest. That should be obvious, but sometimes writers get stuck on the complication/s and mess up the conflict – which, in turn, can play havoc with your over-arching theme.
She ended her GofH talk with a quote from Rumi – which every writer should have stuck above their desk:
But do not be satisfied with the stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth…
Rumi, Selected Poems, (translated by Coleman Banks) Penguin, 1995.