The Nature of Narrative and the Narrative of Nature

Little writing hut at the Dundee Botanic Garden

Little writing hut at the Dundee Botanic Garden

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.)

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6 Responses to The Nature of Narrative and the Narrative of Nature

  1. Diane says:

    Seems like you had fun (I mean you personally leading the poor unsuspecting students into you trap!!) I would have loved to be there. Nice to share the examples though and to get a glimpse into what you discussed.

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  2. Cate says:

    Good stuff, Rachel. The thing is, context in narrative is all, and everything in a narrative should serve the writer’s purpose or be cut out. This includes all descriptions–of nature, places, people, whatever, no matter how fine and precious they are to the writer as personal tours de force. The story demands unity of purpose and the story is god. But I just wanted to add one of my favourites to your list of samples of nature in narrative—the famous opening pages of Hardy’s Return of the Native. I always wonder what a modern-day editor or agent would make of that intense description of moorland as a story-opener. I suspect it would merit Hardy a big “Thanks but no thanks” letter. Further thoughts on current trends and fashions in fiction, and how they affect talent that might not be in step with the times….? 😀

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    • Rachel says:

      Cate, your statement ‘This includes all descriptions–of nature, places, people, whatever, no matter how fine and precious they are to the writer as personal tours de force. The story demands unity of purpose and the story is god’ is so true. Cut, cut, cut. Unless it moves the story forward, you’re right. It must go.

      But you also bring up another interesting point. Why the difference between current literature and the ‘intense description’ found in novels from the past. Why do we not want to linger over those passages any longer? Although, have the bit of expository description of the past become trite because those coming through the slush pile aren’t of the same calibre as works like ‘The Return of the Native’? Publishers didn’t used to have thousands of novels to read in the slush pile, so is it a weeding out process?

      Then again, I don’t particularly like reading long descriptive passages that do nothing for the plot. Maybe we’re just different now.

      So, yes, this would be an interesting conversation. Fashions in literature.

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      • Cate says:

        Maybe the loss of descriptive writing in novels has something to do with the huge visual emphasis of modern popular culture, with its ubiquitous screens?….a bit of a paradox there, for sure, but I’m thinking that we are so used to seeing stories unfold on a screen now that we don’t need the background painted in, as it were? Did description in narrative start to go out when movies came in….? Are we just more sophisticated than our Victorian predecessors—we don’t need a writer to hold our hand through the streets of London because we’ve either been there or we’ve seen it a million times on TV….? Or is it a pace-of-life thing— that we have less time these days, we’re too busy to labour over those long paragraphs so we just jump to the bits of dialogue because that’s where the story is happening anyway? Too often, this is sadly true, especially in the case of serial writers like, say, Dickens, who was paid by the page and had to pad out the writing per issue to order. But Hardy to me is a bit different, because the landscape in his novels, and especially in Native, is bigger and deeper than background—it’s almost like the soul of the book, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, so if you skip it you do miss some of the meaning…..Not sure this is making any sense, just reelin’ it out here…. 🙂

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      • Rachel says:

        I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said, or asked. Do we (as a society) have less of a need of descriptive commentary in writing because our entertainment is now primarily based in the visual? It’s may not just be about pace-of-life and information being fed to us (which I do agree would play a large part), but modern society isn’t just better educated and more travelled than previous generations, but because of television, the internet, glossy colour photos, and other visual aspects of communication, we know what a part of the world looks like that we may not live in.

        For example, when Willa Cather described the American prairies many people had yet to see those lands or even see pictures of it — let alone in colour. So, she needed to describe it to them. Today, you say ‘prairie’ and an image already pops into my mind. I don’t need to be told that it is flat, expansive and filled with mostly grass. I’ve seen pictures, lots of pictures. Even places that we’ve never seen a picture of we, can now shape an image through knowledge of similar areas. For example, I’ve never been to Namibia, and I’m not positive I’ve seen a picture. But I do know it’s a desert region in Africa, and — from other desert pictures I’ve seen in Africa — I can figure out what I’m supposed to imagine.

        I guess, photos have taken as much away from our imagination as television and the internet.

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