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Full life, tight space? Consider narrative shorthand.

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An interesting writing move recently caught my eye in Rosalind Bentley’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution profile of poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. For lack of a better name, I’ll call it the “narrative overview,” and I now see it everywhere.

In Bentley’s profile, this overview is expressed as a litany of verbless sentences, each revealing — with brevity — an important aspect of the subject’s life:

The shorthand of Natasha’s life reads like words plucked from a free verse poem: Native Mississippian. Black mother. White father. Poet father. Poet daughter. Atlanta and DeKalb public school student. ‘A’ student. UGA head cheerleader. Trauma survivor. Big sister. Decatur resident. Meticulous housekeeper. Proud wife. Exacting professor. Historical poet. Nobody’s pushover.

This writing move creates — in a tight space — the essential elements of the subject’s life story. It serves as a bulletin board of items that will be pursued more fully in other parts of the story. ”Trauma survivor,” for example, signifies the abuse and murder of the poet’s mother by her stepfather.

Coincidentally, I bumped into this passage early in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, describing the character Melquiades:

According to what [he] himself said…, death followed him everywhere, sniffing at the cuffs of his pants, but never deciding to give him the final clutch of its claws.  He was a fugitive from all the plagues and catastrophes that have ever lashed mankind. He had survived pellagra in Persia, scurvy in the Malayan archipelago, leprosy in Alexandria, beriberi in Japan, bubonic plague in Madagascar, an earthquake in Sicily, and a disastrous shipwreck in the Strait of Magellan.

Here, the goal is not to foreshadow events narrated elsewhere in the novel, but to create a quick and colorful backstory that will help us understand the magically realistic actions of the character.

Back to journalism, Tom French included this narrative overview in his feature obituary of Herman the chimp, killed at a zoo in Tampa; a piece that would grow into his book Zoo Story:

He was carried across an ocean, installed inside a cage, taught to depend on the imperfect love of strangers.  He charmed Jane Goodall, threw dirt at the mayor of Tampa, learned to blow kisses and smoke cigarettes, whatever it took to entertain the masses.

In this case, the author uses the overview as a kind of promise to the reader, a narrative table of contents, saying in effect, “Here are some of the cool things that happened to Herman in his life. If you want to know more about them, please keep reading.”

Then I came upon Robert Manning’s 1965 piece in The Atlantic titled “Hemingway in Cuba.” It begins:

Who in my generation was not moved by Hemingway the writer and fascinated by Hemingway the maker of his own legend? ‘Veteran out of the wars before he was twenty,’ as Archibald MacLeish described him. ‘Famous at twenty-five; thirty a master.’ Wine-stained moods in the sidewalk cafes and roistering nights in Left Bank boites. Walking home alone in the rain. Talk of death, and scenes of it, in the Spanish sun. Treks and trophies in Tanganyika’s green hills. Duck-shooting in the Venetian marshes. Fighting in, and writing about, two world wars. Loving and drinking and fishing out of Key West and Havana. Swaggering into Toots Shor’s or posturing in Life magazine or talking a verbless sort of Choctaw for the notebooks of Lillian Ross and the pages of the New Yorker.

This move is everywhere, I tell you. And why not?

I suddenly realized its familiarity and utility are almost 2,000 years old, expressed in the Nicene Creed, that act of faith recited in countless vernacular languages at Mass each day by millions of Catholics across the globe.  I can almost recite it by heart, that Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father….”

To use the narrative overview well, realize that it is not, strictly speaking, a narrative at all, any more than the trailer is the movie.  Those spectacular or funny moments in the previews of coming attractions are but tiny parts of longer, much more significant and coherent scenes.

So when Rosalind Bentley uses just three words — “UGA head cheerleader” — to mark a moment in the life of the American poet laureate, she is not yet transporting us to another place in time, to view a formative scene on the sidelines of a college football game in Athens, Ga. There is no dialogue yet. No revealing details of our poet at an earlier time.

But there could be. That’s the versatility of the narrative overview. In fiction or nonfiction it can establish a foundation of character and action to be followed later in the story. Or it can fill in some informational blanks, building a backstory that will allow the narrative elements to shine more brightly.

UnknownRoy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute. His new book is How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.




2 comments

  1. posted October 18, 2013 at 10:27 am | permalink

    Thanks for pointing out this narrative technique. It works best, though, when the abbreviated phrases are carefully crafted pictures of actions that characterize the subject — things the reader can visualize, rather than abstractions or the writer’s labels of the categories the subject belongs to.

    So Bentley’s descriptors — meticulous housekeeper, proud wife, exacting professor, trauma survivor, nobody’s pushover, etc. — evoke only vague (and cliched) images, and they intrigue the reader far less than do those of French and Manning. In this case, showing trumps telling.

  2. Bill Marvel
    posted October 18, 2013 at 10:12 pm | permalink

    A wonderful technique, but now that you’re promoting it I dread the day it becomes common practice, a cliche. Could you keep these little tips to yourself?

3 trackbacks

  1. by Brevity | AM Carley, Writer on October 17, 2013 at 11:41 am

    [...] Clark suggests, to fiction and nonfiction writers, the usefulness of the “Narrative Overview.” [...]

  2. by More pocket profiles | Wylie Communications, Inc. on March 30, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    [...] In a recent issue, I introduced “pocket profiles.” That’s squeezing a big life into a small space — without compressing all of the life out of a person — by using “narrative shorthand.” [...]

  3. by Pocket profiles use 'narrative shorthand' on May 7, 2014 at 2:58 am

    [...] Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark calls this approach “narrative shorthand.” He praises Rosalind Bentley’s use of narrative shorthand in her piece about America’s [...]

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