Strong Narrative Through Synergy : Examples of Powerful Fiction Narrative

The art of great fiction writing (and why shouldn't we be great?) demands the writer must produce powerful, energetic narrative, and not just occasionally, but throughout the novel. Each narrative block is the result of a synergistic effect, i.e., multiple elements working together to create a totality of vivid and absorbing impression.

We will compare contrast authors and styles below. Note that narrative examples whose verve depends on the subject matter (The Painted Bird) as a necessity rely on fewer stylistic devices (The Shipping News) to render the narrative. Why? Because the stylistic devices of Updike and Proulx, for example, would slow down the pace.  The writer must learn to balance the two extremes, i.e., high impact subject matter vs. poetic rendering.


Aggressive Narrative Enhancement by Ralph Ellison

Below are examples of relatively passive situations ignited to heat by the powerful prose of Ralph Ellison. Note how the eye of his imagination captures detail, sees things ordinary humans cannot. Thus, the author is able to energize the narrative, preventing any potential of dull moment.

From Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

(driving a car)

"We were driving, the powerful motor purring and filling me with pride and anxiety. The car smelled of mints and cigar smoke. Students looked up and smiled in recognition as we rolled slowly past. I had just come from dinner and in bending forward to suppress a belch, I accidentally pressed the button on the wheel and the belch became a loud and shattering blast of horn. Folks on the road turned and stared."

(giving someone a drink)

"I saw Halley tilt the bottle and the oily amber of brandy sloshing into the glass. Then tilting Mr. Norton‘s head back, I put the glass to his lips and poured. A fine brown stream ran from the corner of his mouth, down his delicate chin. The room was suddenly quiet. I felt a slight movement against my hand, like a child‘s breast when it whimpers at the end of a spell of crying. The fine-veiled eyelids flickered. He coughed. I saw a slow red flush creep, then spurt, up his neck, spreading over his face."

(a musical event)

"Several terraces of student‘s faces above them, the organist, his eyes glinting at the console, was waiting with his head turned over his shoulder, and I saw Dr. Bledsoe, his eyes roaming over the audience, suddenly nod without turning his head. It was as though he had given a downbeat with an invisible baton. The organist turned and hunched his shoulders. A high cascade of sound bubbled from the organ, spreading, thick and clinging, over the chapel, slowly surging. The organist twisted and turned on his bench, with his feet flying beneath him as though dancing to rhythms totally unrelated to the decorous thunder of his organ."

(a street scene)

"On Eighth Avenue, the market carts were parked hub to hub along the curb, improvised canopies shading the withering fruits and vegetables. I could smell the stench of decaying cabbage. A watermelon huckster stood in the shade beside his truck, holding up a long slice of orange-meated melon, crying his wares with hoarse appeals to nostalgia, memories of childhood, green shade and summer coolness … Stale and wilted flowers, rejected downtown, blazed feverishly on a cart, like glamorous rags festering beneath a futile spray from a punctured fruit juice can. The crowd were boiling figures seen through steaming glass from inside a washing machine …"


Choosing Subject Matter: The Painted Bird-ness of Jerzy Kosinski

Jerzy Kosinski wrote a powerful novel, The Painted Bird, which was the account of a small Gypsy boy forced to wander the surreal and cruel landscape of peasant Europe during World War II. By choosing this subject, circumstance, and setting, Kosinski is assured of plenty of provocative and startling subject matter. Thus, as a writer, he has an easier time of it, i.e., the power of the subject matter itself pushes the narrative forward.

As follows:

"Here and there I saw ax cuts on tree trunks. I remembered that Olga had told me that such cuts were made by peasants trying to cast evil spells on their enemies. Striking the juicy flesh of the tree with an ax, one had to utter the name of a hated person and visualize his face. The cut would then bring disease and death to the enemy. There were many such scars on the trees around me. People here must have had many enemies, and they were quite busy in their efforts to bring them disaster."

"From time to time the blacksmith was visited by mysterious mounted guests, who carried rifles and revolvers. They would inspect the house and then sit down at a table with the blacksmith. In the kitchen the blacksmith‘s wife and I would prepare bottles of home-brewed vodka, strings of spiced hunter's sausages, cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, and sides of roast pork. The armed men were partisans. They came to the village very often, without warning … The village was also searched by German troops, who interrogated the peasants about the partisan visits and shot one or two to set an example … Sometimes the partisan factions would attack and kill each other while visiting the village. The village then would become a battlefield; machine guns roared, grenades burst, huts flamed … The peasants hid in cellars embracing their praying women. Half-blind, deaf, toothless old women, babbling prayers and crossing themselves with arthritic hands, walked directly into machine-gun fire, cursing the combatants and appealing to heaven for revenge."

"From behind the cemetery appeared a mob of village women with rakes and shovels. It was led by several younger women who shouted and waved their hands …The women held Ludmila down flat against the grass. They sat on her hands and legs and began beating her with the rakes, ripping her skin with their fingernails, tearing out her hair, spitting into her face. Lekh tried to push through, but they barred his way. He tried to fight, but they knocked him down and hit him brutally. He ceased to struggle and several women turned him over on his back and straddled him. Then the women killed Ludmila‘s dog with vicious shovel blows."

"One evening my face began to burn and I shook with uncontrollable tremors. Olga looked for a moment into my eyes and placed her cold hand on my brow. Then rapidly and wordlessly she dragged me toward a distant field. There she dug a deep pit, took off my clothes, and ordered me to jump in. While I stood at the bottom, trembling with fever and chill, Olga pushed the earth back into the pit until I was buried up to my neck. Then she trampled the soil around me and beat it with the shovel until the surface was very smooth. After making sure there were no anthills in the vicinity, she made three smoky fires of peat … Like an abandoned head of cabbage, I became part of the great field …"

Centaurisms: The Prose of John Updike

As an artful and meticulous recorder of the mundane, Updike can’t be surpassed. Quite the opposite from Kosinski, John Updike, in The Centaur, immerses himself in the minutiae of tame and ordinary life. Thus, Updike, as a writer, must use the power of experienced wordsmithing to achieve a literary effect, i.e, one that holds the reader’s attention. This involves not only creative description, but narrator interpretation of the world around him. Note that Updike includes more interpretation and pondering than Kosinski. Why?

(making coffee)

"The brown powder, Maxwell‘s Instant, made a tiny terrain on the surface of steaming water, and then dissolved, dyeing the water black. My mother stirred with my spoon and a spiral of tan suds revolved in the cup.

(mother angry, cogitation on this condition)

"A glance at my mother‘s mottled throat told me she was angry. Suddenly I wanted to get out: she had injected into the confusion a shrill heat that made everything cling. I rarely knew exactly why she was mad; it would come and go like weather. Was it really that my father and grandfather absurdly debating sounded to her like murder? Was it something I had done, my arrogant slowness? Anxious to exempt myself from her rage, I sat down in my stiff peat jacket and tried the coffee again. It was still too hot. A sip seared my sense of taste away."

(simple yet colorful)

"My father was striding across the sandpaper lawn. I chased him. The little tummocks raised by moles in warm weather made it buckle in spots. The barn wall was full in the sun, a high dappled pentagon."

(lots of imagery, masterfully done)

"I looked back: our home was a little set of buildings lodged on the fading side of the valley. The barn overhang and the chicken house were gentle red. The stuccoed cube where we had slept released like a last scrap of dreaming a twist of smoke that told blue against the purple woods. The road dipped again, our farm disappeared, and we were unpursued. Schoelkopf had a pond, and ducks the color of old piano keys were walking on the ice. On our left, Jess Flagler‘s high whitewashed barn seemed to toss a mouthful of hay in our direction. I glimpsed the round brown eye of a breathing cow."


Between Kosinski and Updike: Barbara Kingsolver

In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver places her strong-willed characters into the historical morass of the Congo’s struggle to free itself from Belgium. Choosing this setting enables Kingsolver to include many interesting characters and intense situations that otherwise would not have been possible in a more sedate environment. Thus, like Kosinski, energy is derived from the subject matter itself.

As follows:

"On each occasion he bought a gift: first, fresh antelope meat wrapped in a blood fold of cloth (how hungrily we swooned at the sight of that blood!). Day two: a neat spherical basket with a tight-fitting lid, filled with mangwansi beans. Third, a live grouse with its legs tied together; fourth, the soft, tanned pelt of an ant bear. And on the last day, a small carving of a pregnant woman made of pink ivory. Our Father eyed that little pink woman and became inspired to strike up a conversation with Tata Ndu on the subject of false idols. But up until day five—and ever afterward, on the whole—our Father was delighted with this new attention from the chief. The Reverend cockadoodled about the house, did he. "Our Christian charity has come back to us sevenfold," he declared, taking liberty with mathematics, gleefully slapping the thighs of his khaki pants. "

"Our Father, who now made a point of being home to receive Tata Ndu, would pull up one of the other chairs, sit backward with his arms draped over the back, and talk Scripture. Tata Ndu, would attempt to sway the conversation back around to village talk, or to the vague gossip we had all been hearing about the riots in Mataki and Stanleyville. But mainly he regaled Our Father with flattering observations, such as: "Tata Price, you have trop de jolies filles—too many pretty daughters," or less pleasant but more truthful remarks such as: "You have much need of food, n’est-ce-pas?" For his esoteric amusement he commanded the joiles filles (and we obliged) to line up in front of him in order of height. The tallest being Rachel, at five feet six inches and the full benefit of Miss America posture; the shortest being myself, two inches less than my twin on account of crookedness … Tata Ndu clucked his tongue and said we were all very thin. This caused Rachel to quiver with pride and stroll about the house preceded by her pelvis …"

"Tata Ndu‘s attention then lapsed for a number of days, during which time we went to church, swallowed our weekly malaria pill, killed another hen from our dwindling flock, and stole turns sneaking into our parents‘ bedroom to examine the small carved woman‘s genitalia. Then, after two Sundays had passed, he returned. This time his gifts were more personal: a pagne of beautifully dyed cloth, a carved wooden bracelet, and a small jar of smelly waxy substance, whose purpose we declined to speculate on or discuss with Tata Ndu. Mother accepted these gifts with both hands, as is the custom here, and put them away without a word."

"Nelson, as usual, was the one who finally took pity upon our benighted stupidity and told us what was up: kukewela. Tata Ndu wanted a wife … "A wife," Mother said, staring at Nelson in the kitchen house exactly as I had seen her stare at the cobra that once turned up in there. I wondered whether she might actually grab a stick and whack Nelson behind the head, as she‘d done to the snake."

"At night the lizards run up the walls and upside down over the bed looking down at me. They stick up there with their toes. Mice, too. They can talk to me. They said Tata Undo wants to marry Rachel."

Prose of "The Shipping News" by E. Annie Proulx

Like Updike and Ellison, E. Annie Proulx is a master stylist. Once again, the mundane is made interesting by her artful attention to details.

(note the overall impression)

"A great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed eighty pounds. At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face."

(interesting things, place names, plus a "deviated septum")

"Changed the talk to descriptions of places he had been, Strabane, South Amboy, Clark Fork. In Clark Fork had played pool with a man with a deviated septum. Wearing kangaroo gloves. Quoyle in the Adirondack chair, listened, covered his hand with his chin. There was olive oil on his interview suit, a tomato seed on his diamond-patterned tie."

(lots of things here, plus "hot, juggling music")

"The next evening, Quoyle was there, gripping paper bags. The front of Partridge‘s house, the empty street drenched in amber light. A gilded hour. In the bags a packet of imported Swedish crackers, bottles of red, pink and white wine, foil-wrapped triangles of foreign cheeses. Some kind of hot, juggling music on the other side of Partridge‘s door that thrilled Quoyle."

("he smelled submission")

"Ed Punch talked out of the middle of his mouth. While he talked he examined Quoyle, noticed the cheap tweed jacket the size of a horse blanket, fingernails that looked regularly held to a grind stone. He smelled submission in Quoyle, guessed he was butter of fair spreading consistency."

The Amazing Writings of Michael Chabon and Michael Neff

Below we have excerpts from the Pulitzer winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, as well as a relatively obscure novel (such is fate) by Michael Neff, Year of The Rhinoceros. You will see below that these narrative styles falls on a scale somewhere between Kingsolver and Proulx, but closer to Proulx.

As follows:

"Houidini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews: Samuel Louis Klayman was all three. He was seventeen when the adventures began: bigmouthed, perhaps not quite as quick on his feet as he liked to imagine, and tending to be, like many optimists, a little excitable. He was not, in any conventional way, handsome. His face was an inverted triangle, brow large, chin pointed, with pouting lips and a blunt, quarrelsome nose. He slouched and wore clothes badly: he always looked as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money. He went forward each morning with the hairless cheek of innocence itself, but by noon a clean shave was no more than a memory, a hoboish penumbra on the jaw not quite sufficient to make him look tough. He thought of himself as ugly, but this was because he had neer seen his face in repose ..."

"Manny Eden had never met a man like this. First of all, Mr. Basil R. Hunsecker acted and looked the stereotypical bad boss: a middle-aged prick in three-piece gray and tacky pink tie who disturbingly resembled Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (narrow head and brooding Italian look), only an older version, with a thinner face, pock-marked cheeks, and big, protruding, blue-bone eyes that sucked in everything and contrasted in an irritating way with his sallow brown skin—as if he were the victim of one too many spray tans. His odor, somewhat unique, like cooked shellfish marinated in mildew. What Manny didn‘t know was that Hunsecker remained the owner not only of a rare, painful, and mummifying disease that ate away the body fat between his skin and muscles, but also of more than one post-pubescent social trauma, his memory way to full of punky kids screeching at him: Hey, pizzaaa face, you fucking shithead pizzaaa face!”

"He wore suits of an outdated, pigeon-breasted, Valentino cut. Because his diet consisted in large part of tinned fish—anchovies, smelts, sardines, tunny—his breath often carried a rank marine tang. Although a staunch atheist, he nonetheless kept kosher, avoided work on Saturday, and kept a steel engraving of the Temple Mount on the east wall of his room. "

"As for the rest of his body, Manny stood out lanky and dish-white wherever he went, a six-foot-one-inch high chiaroscuro without meaning: hair and eyes of darkest brown against that pale Wisconsin skin. If he walked naked into a bare, sunlit room, he morphed into a smear of shadow. His real physical handicap though was what Kenosha elders, cosmeticians and convenience store clerks termed, "a punch-it face." Even Mommy K said he sported a "smirky mug," the kind people liked to hit, and that‘s why Dr. Killany, chief therapist at St. E‘s, and Manny‘s biggest enemy, often imagined Manny to be dismissing him as a loathsome bureaucrat for deliberately falsifying Manny‘s condition in order to keep him a political prisoner of Washington.”

"Then a hand as massive and hard as an elk‘s horn, lashed by tough sinews to an arm like the limb of an oak, grabs the boy by the shoulder and drags him back to the wings ... "You know better, young man," says the giant, well over eight feet tall, to whomthe massive hand beongs. He has the brow of an ape and the posture of a bear and the accent of a Viennese professor of medicine. He can rip open a steel drum like a can of tobacco, lift a train carriage by one corner, play the violin like Paganini, and calculate the velocity of asteroids and comets, one of which bears his name."

"Before the boss can utter another word, Manny lashes out. He starts with a simple frying pan. He imagines it hurtling out of the kitchen. It skims Hunsecker‘s head and whirls across the dining room like a loose helicopter blade to knock one of the Washingtonians unconscious, ricocheting off his forehead with a loud kuh-whang before skidding to rest in a plate of Caesar salad. At the same time, the faux-plants in glass begin to squirm and seep loose into the walls. Some of them imbed snugly in the gypsum and crisp to fossils. Others slide like melting plates of wax to the floor, congealing there to fly-trap mouths that squeak like tortured mice and scurry around in search of toe prey."


The Ruminations of Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin excels at observing and ruminating on the human condition. Much of the power of her narrative depends on her ability to create interesting characters whom she then dissects. The following excerpts are from her novel, Evensong, the story of Margaret Bonner, the pastor of a church in a small town, and how she interprets and reacts to the characters in her life.

Note how the narrator contemplates. Something in the setting or the general mood provokes a question that she attempts to answer.

As follows:

"Would Gus and Charles, as involved in their building and doctoring as Adrian and I were in our school mastering and pastoring, be able to live up to the words better than we were doing? I hoped so. I hoped so for their sakes. I sketched a Celtic cross in the left-hand corner of the card and began shading in the background. What had happened to Adrian and me? In my more pragmatic moods, I tried to settle for the practical explanation: our jobs were making so much of us that we had not time left to make much of each other. But by nature I wasn‘t a pragmatist; I was a digger, a delver into complexities.

"At the bottom of my father‘s Slough of Despond, I now realized, had burbled a dependable tiny wellspring of lugubrious self-love: somehow he had been at ease lolling in his melancholy. Whereas at the bottom of Adrian‘s despondence, I had discovered, lay a flinty bedrock of self-hatred. But if my father had been something of a loller, my husband was a fighter: his whole history testified to this. He'd work hard and achieve a profession, then heed a call to a fuller use of his potential, bravely pull himself up by the roots, and expand his skills: from Chicago to Zurich, from Zurich to seminary, from seminary to the church, from church to this experimental school in the mountains of western North Carolina. "A falling short of your totality was how he had defined sin on the day I met him in my father's garden, and he was still at work trying to fill out his own totality. But then there‘d be an emotional setback—the death of my father, the death of our unborn daughter, the death of Dr. Sandlin--and, whereas anyone would be plunged into grief, he plunged beyond grief, right back down to that hard, cold floor of self-hate.

"As I laid aside the new sermon note card before I cluttered it with doodles, my gaze was arrested by old Farley‘s moon painting, which hung between the two windows in my study: Every time I looked at it I of course thought of Madelyn and the changes she had wrought on our family simply by walking into our house and being Madelyn Farley and walking out again the next morning with my mother. But the painting itself remained a rich source of contemplation for me. That round white disk riding the night sky between its trail of bright clouds had been created on a dark, freezing porch by an ill-humored old man who in his last years had become fixated on the moon. Why? Because its fast-rising, elliptical variations were so hard to trap in pigment and water? Or were all his moonscapes (conscious or unconscious) an exercise in self-portraiture: obsessive studies of a cold, hard, cratered, dark thing, like himself, that nevertheless had been endowed with the capacity to reflect light and beauty?"


Italo Calvino Transfigures His Prose in "Under The Jaguar Sun"

Italo Calvino, similar to the Latin American writers such as Marquez, gives reality a whole new depth. He instills his world with a fantastical and meaningful aura, one that seeps down to the roots of all his fictional being. In the excerpts, note Calvino's use of parentheses to deliver extra information.

interesting details on facial parts and their movements

"Right in the midst of chewing, Olivia's lips paused, almost stopped, though without completely interrupting their continuity of movement, which slowed down, as if reluctant to allow an inner echo to fade, while her gaze became fixed, intent on no specific object, in apparent alarm. Her face had a special concentration that I had observed during meals ever since we began our trip to Mexico. I followed the tension as it moved from her lips to her nostrils, flaring one moment, contracting the next, (the plasticity of the nose is quite limited -- especially for a delicate, harmonious nose like Olivia's -- and each barely perceptible attempt to expand the capacity of the nostrils in the longitudinal direction actually makes them thinner, while the corresponding reflex movement, accentuating their breadth, then seems a kind of withdrawal of the whole nose into the surface of the face)."

physical scene setting; details, picturesque

"Waiting for evening to fall, we sat in one of the cafes under the arcades of the zocalo, the regular little square that is the heart of every old city of the colony -- green, with short, carefully pruned trees called almendros, though they bear no resemblance to almond trees. The tiny paper flags and the banners that greeted the official candidate did their best to convey a festive air to the zocalo. The proper Oaxaca families strolled under the arcades. American hippies waited for the old woman who supplied them with mescaline. Ragged vendors unfurled colored fabrics on the ground. From another square nearby came the echo of the loudspeakers of a sparsely attended rally of the opposition. Crouched on the ground, heavy women were frying tortillas and greens.

from observation to interpretation

"We visited the church ... : a theater-church, all gold and bright colors, in a dancing and acrobatic baroque, crammed with swirling angels, garlands, panoplies of flowers, shells. [now Calvino not only reports but interprets the nuance and significance of the environment] Surely the Jesuits meant to compete with the splendor of the Aztecs, whose ruined temples and palaces -- the royal palace of Quetalcoatl! -- still stood, to recall a rule imposed though the impressive effects of a grandiose, transfiguring art. There was a challenge in the air, in this dry and thin air at an altitude of two thousand meters: the ancient rivalry between the civilizations of America and Spain in the art of bewitching the senses with dazzling seductions."

complexity, varieties, lots of information delivered equals color and verve

"And as far as they themselves were concerned, they had only to conceive and compare and correct the recipes that expressed their fantasies confined within those walls: the fantasies, after all, of sophisticated women, bright and introverted and complex women who needed absolutes, whose reading told of ecstasies and transfigurations, martyrs and tortures, women with conflicting calls in their blood, genealogies in which the descendants of the conquistadores mingled with those of Indian princesses or slaves, women with childhood recollections of the fruits and fragrances of a succulent vegetation, thick with ferments, though growing from those sun-baked plateaus."