Models and Narrative

[General,Research] (09.06.08, 11:12 pm)

I wrote down some notes from a recent meeting for Janet Murray’s narrative project studio, SNAPS. I think there is a web link for this somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it. During the meeting, we discussed several cases of narratives that are especially interesting from the perspective of digital media. Much of the discussion led to some reassurance of the idea that narratives are really about underlying models. Additionally, there was discussion of the idea of the essence of narrative, or the quality of “storyness” that makes narrative satisfying.

The primary conclusions that I drew from the meeting where this: Narratives work to describe a story world, and underneath the story world is a model that drives the causal logic of events in the world. The model in these cases is generally not a simple reduction or maxim, but rather a system that allows everything to ultimately make sense. However, the reader or viewer is exposed to the model not by outright declaration, but by witnessing it unfold and comparing it against predictions or expectations. This is part of appeal when Keith Oatley says that narrative is really just a simulation that runs in our minds. It is not just a simulation, but a predictive effort.

I think that stories are most engaging when the reader/viewer is trying to put the pieces together and things to not add up until the end. This end is usually a catharsis or a dramatic revelation or a climax or some ultimate resolving moment. I think what is happening at these moments is that the underlying model finally snaps into place, and its implications become more fully known. There are many approaches to looking at how a climax works, from an aesthetic perspective. Aristotle is an obvious example. There is an emotional, embodied, or vicarious response that might occur. These perspectives are important, but looking at it from the perspective of models brings in a funny cognitive dimension to an emotional experience. I would say that no one of these elements is superior to the other, but they each address the matter of the reader/viewer experience in a different way.

In many cases, when narratives are adapted to digital media, there is an approach which aims to strongly preserve the form of the original work. Some approaches will express the work in a manner that is navigable either spatially or temporally, and from different perspectives. This exposes the story world much more, which can communicate the model, but it does not allow the user to reach down into the model and see what it is about. To do so may not be possible or even desirable in some cases, but I think it would be ideal in others.

I am going to give several examples which were discussed in the meeting and relate some of the above aspects about these particularly.

The Norman Conquests: The Norman Conquests is a play by the British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. This is sort of a triptych of three different plays, having the same cast of characters, and taking place in different parts of a house during the same weekend in diegetic time. The curious bit is that when one character goes off stage from one play, they will probably make an entrance onto another. Each play is meant to stand on its own, but the user experience is enhanced by seeing all three of them, because the elements of the “underlying story” are understood more fully when seen from a complete perspective. Essentially, each play is a view of the same scenario that is taking place. What is happening across all three plays could be described as a story, but might be better described as a story world. A story takes a world and describes a representation of that through narrative. If one were to construct a story out of the entire Norman Conquests, it would be a new construction, as opposed to something that was already there.

Two Towns of Jasper: Two Towns of Jasper is a documentary about the horrifying racially motivated murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas in 1998. The documentary is unique in that, to explore the depth of racial division within the town, the filmmakers (one black, one white) collaborated by separating into segregated teams and following the trials of the murderers and interviewing the white community and black community separately. The filming is unique in its use of methodology to illustrate very precisely the depth of racial division. The resulting documentary forms a consistent narrative, but has a disjointed feel. There was an IDT project to make an interactive version of the documentary, which would allow the viewer to follow different characters, and navigate the places in the town spatially. This approach also provides a way to navigate the world as the events around the trial unfold. The essence of the film is about division. Division is the foundation of the model that controls this world.

Bertolt Brecht: Brecht is most well known for the Threepenny Opera his only commercial success, but this was a play he considered his worst failure, as it failed to communicate his message. Brecht was a Marxist playwright who worked to spread the model of Marxism through his plays in Germany before the Nazis rose to power. His plays were in the tradition of modernist theatre, and often explicitly denied the audience a clear climax or resolution, but attempted to instead communicate the idea that the social world taking place in his plays was really the same as the world of Wiemar Germany. The world of Brecht is filled oppression and squalor, and the working people subjugated by the bourgeoise. What is interesting about these plays (I don’t have a specific one to refer to) is that they do not provide a climax in the context of the narrative itself. Instead, the climax is rather when the epiphany is made by the audience that the world of the play is no different from the world of the audience, and they are incited to rebel. What is also the case is that the plays are instantiations of the model of Marxism. Greg Costikyan has written a fascinating description of a role-playing game based on the ideology and aesthetics of Brecht, called Bestial Acts.

Speculations About Jacob: Another example of German literature comes from Uwe Johnson: a modernist and experimental novel called Speculations About Jacob (I can’t find a Wikipedia article, sadly). The book is about the character Jacob, who is suddenly killed in the beginning by a train. It is set in East Germany, and is filled with the sort of fractured portrayals that echo the divided nature of the country. The book paints a spotty and incomplete picture of Jacob, his life and surroundings. The eponymous speculations are what led to his death and why. The narrative approach of using incomplete information to convey a story world is not unique, but helps convey a model of a world that is made only partially visible or knowable. Interestingly, the book also transitions suddenly from one mode of narrative to another: a character’s thoughts may suddenly turn into a conversation. Not only is explicit information missing, but pieces of the connective logic or framework are absent as well, leading to ambiguity. The reading also denies a cohesive resolution. Instead, it is an essentially open work (in the Umberto Eco sense), leaving the readers to finish the construction of the world or model themselves.

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