A few Saturdays ago, I taught a marvellous class at the Dundee Botanic Garden called the ‘Nature of Narrative‘. I’ll admit, the class was poorly named in relation to the course topic. The class was a chance for writers to discuss and understand how nature* can play a role in narrative. Whereas, because the word ‘nature’ could be defined as ‘inherent features’ of something, ‘Nature of Narrative’ implies a discovery of the basics of narrative. I apologise for not coming up with a better name, but sometimes alliteration is the easiest way to go.
The first thing I asked the class was, ‘What sort of language do you think is used when describing nature?’
I must admit this was a leading question. I knew, or at least hoped, they would answer along the lines of ‘flowery words’, ‘lots of adjectives and adverbs’ or ‘not much action’. I am happy to report (sinister laugh and rubbing of hands) they fell right into my trap and answered accordingly. I wanted them to answer in a specific way so I could rip through preconceived ideas of what nature writing is about. (I’m not always devious when I teach, so please don’t get the wrong impression.) But, before we continue, have a look at the samples I showed the class. If you click here, a document will open which includes four bits of writing that engage with nature.
Did you read them? Notice anything?
Actually, you should notice several things: few adjectives, minimal adverbs, lots of verbs, and an active voice that places the protagonist in the scene. In fact, each of these excerpts — with the exception of Treasure Island — uses landscape or ‘nature’ to provide information about the protagonist. For example, the narrator in Passage to India found Chandrapore un’extraordinary’, highlighting a familiarity with the region. Also, did you notice that these excerpts do not represent nature as bees and flowers and prancing wind nymphs. Nature can be bold or even boring, depending on the narrator or protagonist’s point of view. Regarding Treasure Island, this passage shows how setting the scene with nature simply provides the reader with a map. It’s basic, like getting directions, but provides important information for later.
Placing nature in your writing can — and probably should — do more than just set a scene. It can help move the plot along by providing directions, highlight a character’s intentions or personality, or foreshadow future pivotal developments (for example, setting the scene with an old oak tree outside a termite infested wooden house, may be useful to create tension in a later scene featuring a hurricane). In fact, you’ll find the best use of nature intertwined with plot: John Steinbeck‘s The Pearl, Barbara Kingsolver‘s The Poisonwood Bible, Lewis Grassic Gibbon‘s Sunset Song, and Mark Twain’s Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn are examples of novels in which nature features as a character. It causes conflict and tension, and pushes the characters in order to move the plot in a certain direction. Without nature in these books, the plot would not develop. You’ll also notice that these novels do not use ‘flowery’ language. Each of these writers are succinct and strong story tellers (yes, that it is an understatement of a lifetime to say that Mark Twain was a strong story teller). They do not wax lyrical about the song bird unless that song bird is about to be shot in the eye.
So, what did we learn on that Saturday? We learned that maybe the title I invented for the course wasn’t too far off the mark. That nature and narrative are intrinsic to one another, and that direct and simple language can best describe the environment at hand. Of course, it took us all day to figure this out, but that’s the secret fun of writing classes — it’s an excuse to sit outside and have a chat about literature.
*For the purposes of this discussion it will either include places that are not man-made or places that may be man-made but are strongly influenced by landscape (ie. a meadow, or a house with sights and sounds from a field leaking in.)