Narrative Maps (Worldbuilding Wednesday 11)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

As readers and as writers we often rely on narrative maps to navigate the rhythms and structures of a story.

By a “narrative map” I don’t mean a map of where the character goes during the story, although that is one definition of a narrative map.

A narrative map can also be defined as the structure of a story. Aristotle wrote that tragedies have a three part structure: beginning, middle (complications), and end (resolution). This is a narrative map used so commonly in Western stories that readers and audience who are accustomed to it may have a hard time engaging with stories that don’t follow its basic outline. It is by no means the only narrative map in terms of internal structures. “Beads on a string”–an episodic structure–is another way of structuring story, although the individual episodes may (or may not) use an internal “three act” structure (as per Aristotle, above). People get used to these rhythms and feel their absence if they are lacking even though other story structures are just as legitimate.

A narrative map may also be defined as a familiar plot form or plot outline. There are seven basic plots, or maybe it is eight, or there is a universal monomyth that follows a known pattern, or folktales repeat similar patterns of departure, journey, and return. All of these can be true at the same time without being the only truth, without being universal. I’m a huge fan of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale as a way of thinking about structure, but it isn’t the only way. These general plot-outline theories are ways of comprehending and analyzing narrative and how it functions within the human psyche.

Another way to think about narrative maps is as landmarks. Most of us walk through familiar terrain every day as part of our ordinary lives. We navigate by means of landmarks we have become so accustomed to that we half forget they are there. Turn right at the gas station. Drive past the statue of Napoleon. The foothills rise to the east.

When it comes time to give directions we often use landmarks; they are easier to grasp and identify. In older times, before GPS systems, printed maps, and copious signage, people relied on landmarks and knew them well.

As readers we come to rely on landmarks as well. A happy ending or a tragic one, depending on the tone of the story. The expected point in the tale where the good guys suffer a terrible setback. When a couple meets cute, or meets in a hostile manner, we recognize the terrain: after a series of obstacles they will find a way to be together. Character types who will behave a certain way or fulfill specific roles within the story make us feel welcome and comfortable.

Readers may feel a story fails if it doesn’t meet their narrative expectations. If characters behave in ways that go against common tropes readers may feel cheated. They may read past problematic elements if expectations are otherwise met. Often problematic aspects of a narrative are part and parcel of its map, so embedded that the story doesn’t really function without them.

Do we contest biases that are embedded in the text if they are so familiar we have come to expect them? I’m reminded of this every time I see a children’s feature cartoon in which 80% of the voice actors are male, with a single lead female actor and one or two minor roles for women. I’m reminded of this every time I read a science fiction or fantasy novel or watch a tv show that features numerous prostitutes and strippers: space hookers, tavern wenches, brothels, rape towers, strip joints doubling as important meeting places for plot developments. It’s remarkable what a high percentage of women in the narrative universe are involved in sex work, and how often readers and viewers simply let it flow past without remark, because it is the landmark they expect. This comment is not about sex work, by the way, but rather about the common narrative expectation that women-as-characters are most important in terms of their sexual availability and attractiveness to men. Another example is the increasing narrative use of violence to solve problems rather than solutions like competence, negotiation, debate, bargaining, and so on. Recently my spouse and I watched a European film and he kept expecting violence to break out but it never did; he was watching the film as if it had been made in Hollywood, in which case random acts of violence would have been used to ramp up tension and to settle the conflict. It’s sobering to realize how violence-as-appropriate-solution has become embedded in our narrative map.

These narrative maps are the ground we walk on. As writers we can use familiar maps to guide people through our stories. We can strive to create narrative maps that incorporate familiar elements but let them branch off into new directions, or twist back in unexpected ways. It is difficult and perhaps impossible to write a story (within a larger cultural setting) that touches no known landmarks, offers no accustomed landscapes or understood patterns. But by examining context and thinking about what narrative maps we may be walking through without conscious thought, we can vary and complicate an otherwise standard story.


Next week: Either a guest post by Juliet McKenna about tropes. Or an extremely long essay by me on writing women characters in epic fantasy without quotas. Which will it be? Check back next week!

Coming soon: More on tropes. Invisible context. Cultural ecology. Writing past gender defaults. And I know some of you are waiting for the next practical example.

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives, Writing Outside Your Own Experience