I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about the difference between “plot” and “narrative.” This friend – Chris Kelley, to give full credit – toils in the television industry, and was the one to use the word narrative to name what I am about to describe. For Chris, it is a particularly important distinction, as television can seem, almost more than any other story-driven art form, particularly fixated on plot. Or is it? What we are calling narrative is very much like what I have called the “intentional arc,” that unifying feeling or idea to which all action and characters are beholden. The narrative, however, is more about the flow of the story. What is the difference? The plot in a story is what happens, or the “physical arc,” as I have called it. Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back. That, on the very surface, is what happened.
But the narrative is what it felt like within the story from moment to moment. That is, what did it feel like when the boy got the girl, and then what did it feel like when the boy lost the girl, and so on? What does it feel like to be scared and then safe, in love and then alone? The narrative is the flow feeling, from high to low, from quiet to noise, chaos to peace, that forms the actual movement of any story.
In other words, what happens does mean as much as the feelings these portrayed events stimulate in our readers. It does not matter that our heroine is being chased by a knife-wielding killer, it only matter what it feels like before she was chased, while she was chased, and after she was chased. Without the feeling of safety, danger, safety – the event is meaningless; in fact, it doesn’t even exist.
In this way, our job as writers is much more to find events that match feelings, than to figure out what it feels like to experience certain events. At the end of the day, every living person wants to feel good. Some of us feel good after we’ve been scared; some of us feel good after falling in love; some of us feel good learning to cope with loss – regardless, we are always seeking that which allows us to feel as good as we can feel, both in life and our stories.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.