On Using Model Narratives to Teach The Novel

I don’t see a model as a template, but rather as something a class can examine and talk about to expose the structures used in narrative. I have used Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest as a model novel. I have spent time with students mapping the narrative structure of this book. The nice thing about Kesey’s book is how strictly he adheres to a fairly stock model structure. It makes for a good model.


In thinking about models I keep thinking about the movie Adaptation that just came out written by the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. It is about trying to adapt the nonfiction book The Orchid Thief into a movie. This book features as THE VILLIAN the screenwriting guru Robert McKee who has a great book called STORY which makes the case for the universality of narrative, and how these universals apply to writing a screenplay, and this book by McKee has informed my idea of how a model narrative works (along with books like Aspects of the Novel, by EM Forster and Roland Barthes.

I have a great deal of writerly panic when anyone begins to talk about universal anything when it comes to writing and more so to principals. And so teaching this workshop sometimes causes panic myself because to get at how to write a novel I have to assume a stand of, well, here are some things that novels do, and this in-turn quickly degenerates into a kind of laundry list of rules, each item beginning with the bullet “ALL NOVELS DO THIS.” Well they may do this. Adaptation is a movie that is basically about beauty, but it gets there in this circuitous route by looking at a screenwriter who refuses to just get on with it and write his story and in so doing I think addresses a lot of the problems of just trying to tell a story. This workshop is going to look at how to tell a story, and I will probably be unable to resist digressing into why just telling a story is a problem. If you just want to tell a story… But readers, really, just want to hear a story. When my daughter wants to hear a story, she doesn’t want me to digress on why telling her a story is difficult. This does not change the fact that telling stories is difficult.

Also, I just read Stephen Pinker’s book The Blank Slate that makes a very strong case against the body of ideas we all refer to as The Blank Slate, and in fact (along with his other books) argues that much of our brain comes pre-packaged with genetically designed machinery for processing information. This includes the software for acquiring language. One of the principal problems of modern and post-modern writing has been “how do we know ourselves in language…” and in essence this hands that questions over to geneticists, essentially killing the Modern movement. (In the beginning of Modernism, artists were declaring that the true spirit of the age belonged to Engineers and at the end it belonged to Advertisers.) Contemporary linguistics suggests, for instance, that rather than learning our language from our parents, we use a universal grammar and our parents supply the materials (sounds and various linguistic configuration options) to build the specific instance of our language. It is less a process of learning and more of one of configurering, if that makes sense. AND this suggests — this universal grammar (pretty much a done deal scientifically; it exists) — is that telling narrative probably functions in much the same way. And so there are rules. The only consolation about this, from my end — as a writer I’ve also jumped at rules because they seem a chance to break something. Maybe I’m a bit of a thug? I don’t know — is that these rules aren’t rules like you’d find in Robert McKee’s book, just like the schematics for a universal grammar are so mechanical and general, they don’t result in grammar books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, but rather give us solid clues about how the mind works.

And so a model may approximate the structure of a novel, a structure that somehow satisfies what is probably a hardcoded, genetic sense of narrative, that rises from the same impulse that tells us that a subject-verb-direct object is a sentence. Understanding this is essential to having a command over the sentence, but understanding this does not impart fluency in writing sentences, and in the same way, I don’t think having a sense of the grammar of narrative will impart a fluency in the writing of narrative; but this understanding is essential to a writer’s command of narrative.

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