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Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Narrative capital

I've had some requests to expand on what I mean by 'narrative capital', so here we go.

'Narrative capital' is a phrase originally used by my husband, which I've nicked because it's so extremely useful. I've defined it elsewhere on the blog thus:

What the writer accrues by setting up situations, tensions, threats and other build-ups. If the author decides on a shocking climax that blows everything wide open, they will be spending the narrative capital they've saved - having the warring couple suddenly acknowledge their love, for instance. The more capital saved, the better the climax - but you can't spend the same capital twice, and if you try to have a climax bigger than your capital can buy, the audience feels robbed.

But such things are always easier to understand with examples, so I'm going to use some. Let's start with an example of well-deployed narrative capital: one of the most gripping classic novels on the shelf, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice is, as Carol Shields remarked in her excellent biography of Austen, a book that we find ourselves reading in breathless suspense even when we know what's going to happen next. The accumulation of suspense and stakes in the plot are so powerful that it's become more or less the template for at least half of modern romance novels. If anyone built up some narrative capital there - capital that's kept an entire genre and industry afloat for centuries - it was Jane Austen.

So, how is it done? What exactly does she accrue? The fact is that in terms of narrative capital it's done fast and efficiently, throughout the book, and with a - pun intended - economy that is truly remarkable. 

Consider, for instance, the first chapter, almost entirely dialogue between Mr and Mrs Bennet. In it, she establishes several important factors. First: the Bennet family is financially precarious, and if the girls cannot establish good marriages their futures will be bleak. Second: there is a new tenant in the neighbourhood who might be the way out of this predicament for one of them. Third: neither of the Bennet parents is going to be much of an asset in this possible quest. Mrs Bennet is a public embarrassment who may (and does) put off eligible suitors, and Mr Bennet is detached and whimsical and unlikely to provide the useful protection and guidance young women need from a father in this world (which he doesn't). And there's a useful corollary to this element, too: being unhelpful as they are, particularly Mrs Bennet, the Bennet home is a place that young women of sensitivity and self-respect would wish to leave for a better, more 'rational' place. (This is what I mean by 'economy'. A single fact serves several ends at once.) Fourth: that one of the sisters, Elizabeth, is more intelligent than the others, and will probably be the heroine. 

That's a lot of set-up for a first chapter. 

When I was teaching myself to write, I discovered a useful rule for short stories: if, by the end of the first page, there were not at least one or two incidents or moments that suggested new scenes to write, the piece needed to be abandoned. Check out this early short story of mine, 'Plain Useless', for instance: I found, by the end of the first page, that I had in hand a setting my heroine wanted to join and a man she wanted a relationship with who she could only be in if she did join it, but a heroine herself who had no qualifications to participate in this new world - and also the implication that these characters would eventually have a child, who thematically speaking would need to come to a new resolution with the same problem. Okay, that was enough to go on. It took me some time to work out exactly how to resolve all these issues - I remember swimming up and down in a quiet pool, racking my brains for an ending - but the point was, by the end of the first page (which in handwriting was about three or four paragraphs), I knew I could continue without struggling for ideas on how. I had accumulated some narrative capital. 

If we go back to Austen, we see the same thing. Straight away we have established a home that it is both financially and emotionally necessary to escape, a possible way out, and that the necessity of leaving is also a reason why it may be difficult to do so. There's a sense of unfairness, of Catch-22, to the Bennet girls' plight: if they didn't need to get out so badly, it would probably be easier for them to do so. From there in her first chapter, Austen has plenty of story to tell.

But she doesn't stop racking up narrative capital there. Establishing the older sisters as the heroines and the younger sisters as a further liability - an established point that will later explode into the plot with Lydia's elopement - she takes them to a ball. Bingley and Jane hit it off: this establishes a certain amount of narrative capital, but only enough to depend on external obstacles to keep it interesting. Instead, we see one of the most famous and imitated moments in fiction: Darcy's rejection of Elizabeth. 

Capital is stored up mightily in this moment. First, we see the character of Darcy: superior in wealth, intelligence and good looks to Bingley, the man on whom, a chapter ago, we were pinning all our hopes. Suddenly the stakes rise. At the same time, there is the mismatch between himself and his environment: he sneers and resists, establishing both a necessary future moment for his character - he will have to learn he was wrong to do so - and a tension between himself and every other player. When he contemptuously refuses to dance with Elizabeth (which in Georgian ballroom etiquette, depending as it does on numbers to make anything work, is an appallingly rude thing to do, more or less a public declaration that you'd rather inconvenience everybody else in the room than dance with that girl), the central point of the narrative is established in a flash. Darcy is at once desirable and out of reach; Elizabeth is at once in need of and offended by him. This tension between the characters will drive plots down the generations.

Were Austen to resolve the book by clearing up this misunderstanding, it would be rather a waste: there's plenty enough to keep us interested, but not quite enough to buy a really exciting conclusion. Instead, what she does is invest her narrative capital like a whizz: she introduces Wickham into the mix. Attractive, so a sexual disturbance; penniless, so a marital no-no ... and with a grudge against Darcy.

Look, at this point, at what we have set up in opposition. A home Elizabeth must escape. A family that unwittingly blocks her exit. A man we want her to marry. A set of circumstances that make neither her nor him willing to oblige us. A rival man who has an apparent history with Darcy ... but is that history all that it appears?

That is a vast amount of narrative capital. At this point, it's ready to spend. But instead, Austen dangles it before us like a miser's will by having Darcy propose to Elizabeth, spending the capital residing in having his feelings for her unknown but immediately getting it back by having her reject him so sharply she can believe those feelings extinguished. She spends a little more by having him tell her by letter the true history of himself and Wickham, but again instantly creates more by having Elizabeth bound to silence about it, meaning that now the tension is not between our hopes and her knowledge, but between her knowledge and everyone else's expectations. 

And so it goes on. Pride and Prejudice works so brilliantly because it builds and builds the stakes, playing out a little tension here and spending a little capital there, but always spending to invest, to buy further tension, right up until the very end. Further intimacies buy further obstacles: the chance to know Mr Darcy better, for instance, also brings with it the knowledge of his egregious aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh, enough to chill any marital hopes - and whose final confrontation with Elizabeth is a masterpiece of wise spending, allowing Elizabeth to both glimpse a romantic hope while conveying one to her lover, while also giving her the chance to assert herself, thematically, against the privileges of wealth and the judgement of society that have been shadowing her whole life. This scene is as much of a climax, if not more so, than any scene between Darcy and Elizabeth themselves, precisely because it does so many things at once: the capital of uncertainty is spent in buying not only a hope of marriage but a chance to give the personification of privilege a good piece of our minds. 

Well, hopefully you see how it works. Narrative capital, basically, is the promise of further story down the line, be it revelation or resolution. If it isn't spent, the story feels unresolved; if it isn't earned, the story feels false.

But it's always helpful to have a counter-example, so let's talk about a poor use as well. 

A while ago I spoke on a panel for the British Association of Science Fiction, and another guest there, the novelist Nick Harkaway, also made a speech. In it, he referred to what he called 'Gladiator moments', which he defined as 'moments of unearned emotion'. He was talking about the scene in Gladiator where Maximus (Russell Crowe), having just made a big showing in the Roman arena for the first time, finds himself facing his nemesis in the form of Joaquin Phoenix's corrupt emperor Commodus: Maximus is masked, Commodus demands to see his face ... and Maximus unmasks and makes a big speech about how he's 'father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my revenge.' 

And honestly, despite the drama of the speech, it's a bit of a let-down. Because wouldn't it have been more exciting to have Commodus unaware of who Maximus was for a while before we got to this confrontation? Wouldn't it have lent - pun intended - some drama if we'd had scenes where Commodus supports the masked fighter, unaware that he's plotting Commodus's downfall? Wouldn't it have been a more emotional scene if Maximus was able, not just to tell Commodus that he hated him, but to take weeks or months of Commodus's support and throw them in his face? And while it brings about the problem that Commodus can't kill a popular gladiator even if the man's his declared enemy, wouldn't it have made even that situation more tense if Commodus knew that Maximus wasn't just popular with the Roman plebeians, but acknowledged by himself to those same plebeians as a former protege? Wouldn't that make it even harder for Commodus to kill Maximus without looking bad, and make him look even stupider to his people? 

Wouldn't it? Because all of those things could have been bought with the narrative capital of 'emperor unknowingly favours his enemy'. It's a great piece of capital - or could have been, if it hadn't been squandered. 

Now, I know a story about that. One of the scriptwriters was William Nicholson, whom I heard speak at a college dinner (we both went to Christ's College Cambridge, a friend of mine was another speaker that evening). Addressing the assembled, Nicholson - a very pleasant and polite man - identified himself as the author of this scene, which was, according to him, written and shot on the same day. Crowe, he said, had been objecting all along, and when presented with the new scene declared that it was 'shit' and that he wouldn't do it. After much wheedling, the director persuaded him to at least try it on camera and see how it went. Crowe made the speech, the director called cut and said, 'Russell, that was great! I don't know why you said you didn't want to do it.' To which Crowe snapped, 'I'm the greatest actor in the world. I can make shit sound good.'

Now, if this story is true - and that, I cannot confirm, I'm only repeating what Nicholson said - I can say nothing for Crowe's manners, but while the point was not nicely made, there is a point in there nonetheless. Actors can make bad lines sound good; I don't know if Crowe is the best actor in the world (he's got some stiff competition, let's put it that way), but certainly, 'making shit sound good' is a big part of the job description. And while 'it's shit' is not a very precise criticism, he wasn't entirely wrong that the scene had a problem. It wasn't that the speech itself was bad; it was that it was in the wrong place. If this story is accurate, it was most likely a problem created by too many writers and too tight a schedule, a situation where one writer could only change a scene when was really needed to be changed was the structure. It was a 'Gladiator moment'. 

It was a moment in which narrative capital was blown when it should have been invested. It had only been earned a few minutes ago, it could have bought a lot of nail-biting suspense, and instead it was used immediately to buy a speech that would have been more dramatic, more weighty, more valuable, if it had had time to earn some - pun intended - interest. 

Money may be a dry-sounding way of talking about fiction's emotional impact, but there's more to it than it seems. The recent book Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber theorises that contrary to popular assumption, the barter system does not predate money, but that in fact barter is a post-money system, a system used by people who understand the concept of money but don't have access to currency and are substituting goods or services. Prior to money, Graeber suggests, what people relied on instead was a culture of interconnected favours. If you have a chicken and your neighbours are hungry, you let them have some of the eggs. Maybe next year they'll help fix your roof, or maybe another set of neighbours will, knowing you're the kind of person who shares eggs and may support them if they run into lean times later. The original currency, according to Graeber, is not money, but obligation and expectation. She did this for him, I should do this for her. I did this for you, you should do this for me. Memory and anticipation.

And what drives fiction if not memory and anticipation? We begin with no memory, like a newcomer to the village. The author begins at once to oblige us, to stack up anticipation. Past a certain point, those remembered anticipations lend weight to what we are being given. We look back at what has happened, we look forward to what we expect will happen, we appreciate the gift of surprise and the satisfaction of a finally resolved promise. 

Authorial promises only hold good within the book itself, of course; if an author fails to deliver within the book, we can't exactly send the boys round their house demanding they pay up. The only penalty they incur - or should incur, anyway - is the loss of our interest. A book is a self-contained economy. But within that economy, memory and anticipation are the currency. The narrative capital. And how an author accumulates and spends that narrative capital determine how much of their attention the reader will - pun intended - invest. 

There's a reason why I keep saying 'pun intended' here, and it's not because I'm trying to be funny. It's the same reason I talk about 'narrative capital.' So many of our metaphors for emotional engagement are financial. And it's not because we run on money. It's because, fundamentally, money runs on emotion - and so does fiction. Money is itself one of the greatest fictions of modern society, an agreed-upon and utterly imaginary value attached to pieces of paper and metal. So, too, do we attach an utterly imaginary value to pieces of paper and ink. But if you're handling either, you need to have some sense of economy ... otherwise there's something broken, something broke, about the whole - pun intended - business. 

I think there are potentially two separate things going on here: one is the degree to which the reader cares about the characters and their problems, and the other is the degree to which potential situations are flowing out of the present ones. I'm not convinced I'm understanding how the narrative-capital concept is split between them. I'll try to be clearer with examples:

* One of the classical problems of bad fiction, Dorothy Heydt's Eight Deadly Words - "I don't care what happens to these people". The characters may be involved in all sorts of risky doings, but if we don't care about them on a personal level then we often don't really mind whether or not they succeed.

* The "nothing happens" or slice-of-life novel: we may care about the characters (indeed, we should, if the book's worth anything at all), but there's nothing going on in their lives, no particular sense of tension or implication that these are particularly significant times for them.

How do these fit into the narrative-capital scheme? Or am I barking up entirely the wrong tree?
I'd say they're interconnected, because it's hard to care about characters who have nothing at stake, but I don't think it's accurate to say that there's nothing happening or at stake in a slice-of-life novel. The stakes are more intimate and interpersonal, little micro-aggressions - Mr Ramsay saying 'But [the weather] won't be fine' - but structurally they're just as much narrative capital as bigger-scale events. That's an issue of taste rather than plotting.

I'd say that narrative capital is necessary to make a plot interesting*, but it's not sufficient. A flat style or characterless characters won't hold the attention no matter what's happening to them.

Narrative capital itself is actually hard to accrue if the characters don't feel real. If Elizabeth wasn't bright and bold, we'd have no sense that her pique at Darcy had any force, so there would be no real feeling that it would have much effect on the plot. If Crowe and Phoenix couldn't act, there would be no potential drama to waste, and so on. There are lots of elements to making a story interesting and narrative capital is just one of them, but stories are an organic process and their ecosystems - or their economies - involve a lot of interrelated elements. Each affects the others and none work in isolation.

*At the edges of experimental writing this rule can be bent, but only by exceptional writers; let's call it a general principle rather than an axiom.
And now I am thinking of stories that put the ending (or, more often, the climactic confrontation) first, and the point of the plot is to find out how we got there.

The TWILIGHT novels, for all their many faults, are pretty good examples of this. Structurally, they all start out with us *knowing* what the climax will be, but then immediately backtracking into a situation where such a life- and happiness-threatening situation not only seems IMPOSSIBLE, but also paradoxically DESIRABLE; after all, you can't have an insurmountable threat to the Bestest Love Evah unless these two (unlikely, or separated) characters fall in love *first*.

That means once you spend your accumulated romantic tension capital on the great Declaration of Love scene, you immediately get it back with interest by the reader's foreknowledge that outside forces are gathering to destroy the relationship.

It's a rather cheap trick -- sort of like putting kittens and puppies in the path of your onrushing meteorite collision -- but equally effective.
And now I am thinking of stories that put the ending (or, more often, the climactic confrontation) first, and the point of the plot is to find out how we got there.


That means once you spend your accumulated romantic tension capital on the great Declaration of Love scene, you immediately get it back with interest by the reader's foreknowledge that outside forces are gathering to destroy the relationship.

Sticking with the financial metaphor, this is leverage. The author takes out a "loan" of capital at the start to set up the flash-forward, and then the reader buys in to the true opening with more interest than she would otherwise have. The capital expended with the opening is earned after the fact, with the reader an active collaborator.

When done well, this heightens the reader's interest in less-interesting parts, and it infuses the tranquility with an undercurrent of dramatic irony -- "these characters don't know what's in store for them!" When the climax is reached and the opening revealed, the payoff is all the greater for it.

When done poorly, it's a loan that is never paid back, and the reader is left feeling let down or cheated.

Memento comes to mind as an excellent example of this accounting. The story simultaneously expends narrative capital in the "backwards" scenes while building seemingly unrelated narrative capital in the "forwards" scenes. The books don't balance until the end of the movie, but the view has to deal with the tension throughout.
Sticking with the financial metaphor, this is leverage.

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