The Plusses and Pitfalls of Non-Standard Narratives

In whichever mediums stories are told – in print, on a screen, orally – they usually have a similar narrative structure. The story is presented as it is, with perhaps some limitation on the point of view of the narrator, but without any particular artifice. Sometimes creators do something a little different and impose some kind of artifice on the narrative. That can be a thrilling creative choice, but it can also pose some potential problems. I was thinking about that over the weekend when I encountered two largely successful examples of non-standard narratives.

Evil Eye, by Madhuri Shekar, is an “Audible original,” one of those short freebies offered up to members every month.

EvilEye

Although Audible is mostly known for audiobooks, in my experience these have been closer to podcasts or radio plays, for the most part. Evil Eye is a story about an Indian-American woman struggling with her mother back in India who keeps trying to arrange a marriage for her. When she finally meets a guy without mom’s intervention what begins as a light rom-com kind of thing dives headlong into a story of revenge, reincarnation, and violence. It’s pretty damned good, even if Shekar doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Part of what made Evil Eye so compelling was that it was told entirely through phone calls and voice mail messages. It takes a little while to get a handle on, but it’s used pretty effectively. For example, there a portion of the story where one character basically disappears and another frantically tries to find them. The repeated voice mail messages to a phone nobody is answering, combined with the ratcheting up of the caller’s anxiety, is a great effect.

It doesn’t all work, though. The climax involves a confrontation between multiple characters that can’t really play out in a phone call. The work around is to have one character make a call, then leave the line open while the confrontation happens (in pristine audio detail). It’s clearly a cheat, but not one I hold against Evil Eye too much.

Can’t say quite the same for Searching, a movie that came out last year.

Searching

Searching is about a widower father searching for his high-school daughter who failed to come home one night. It’s fairly suspenseful and engrossing, at least until the writer/director decided it needed a happy ending, at which point the wheels really come off.

Searching’s gimmick is that it’s told entirely through computer screens – via deep dives into emails, Google searches, and Facetime calls (it’s an Apple household, naturally). For the first half of the movie or so this is really effective. The opening segment that sets up the family dynamic and the relationship (or lack thereof) between father and daughter is really excellent, reminding me in terms of storytelling efficiency of the beginning of Up.

Things start to a little sour after that, however. While the father is digging into the digital realm the gimmick works pretty well, but when he has to interact with other people it wears thin. Every conversation between the father and the cop leading the investigation into his missing daughter takes place over Facetime. Why? Because that’s how the movie is made, not because it really makes any sense. The father has a public confrontation with a possible suspect, assaulting him, but we only see it from crappy cell phone videos. Most problematic, when the father confronts his brother about potentially explosive allegations he does so only after rigging the brother’s house with surveillance equipment. Again, why? Because of the gimmick, not because it makes any kind of sense.

Indeed, sometimes you just have to be willing to drop the gimmick and get on with the story. The most famous example of non-standard narratives in literature may be Dangerous Liaisons, which is told entirely in letters between the two main characters. The fact that it’s one of the few books that’s been improved upon by putting on screen suggests that the gimmick isn’t the important part of that story.

Using gimmicks to tell a story can be fun. It can knock your reader of her narrative feet, shaking her up and forcing her to engage with the story in a different way. It can also help you get more deeply into a character than you might in a story told in a more traditional way. But gimmicks can become their own problems, boxing you in to certain narrative choices that might not work best for the story you want to tell.

Remember, kids: always keep control of your gimmicks – don’t let your gimmicks control you.

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