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Author Topic: Alternative Narrativism  (Read 4802 times)
Mark Johnson
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« on: October 16, 2005, 06:12:05 PM »

Dogs is great for narrativist play, if you define narrativist play as we do here. Not so great, necessarily, if you define it any other way.

Narrativism is very tightly defined here. Games that are best viewed here as facilitating or designed to facilitate Narrativist play (addressing premise, authorial/player commitment to addressing this premise/theme, notions about conflict) are based on ideas that are highly correlated with Lajos Egri's ideas on dramatic development. 

I have seen people allude to a more robust or possible alternative definitions of Narrativism before, for example:

Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing is, fundamentally, a manual for writing "modern drama" or Realist drama, one of the two main subgenres of early 20th century playwriting, precipitated by the work of Henrik Ibsen.  (Its counterpart was Chekhov's Naturalist drama.)  Egri uses works other than Ibsen's in his discussions, but only Ibsen and his followers actually wrote using methods resembling Egri's theories.  Realism is far from de rigeur in theatre nowadays, and indeed never was all that popular to begin with.

Egri was a hardcore prescriptivist, and I fear this harshly colors what is considered "Narrativist" play.  His insistence that everything be infused with the strong, overarching Premise functions to tilt the student strongly in the direction of writing polemics.  The wisdom among playwriting texts of the current day and age is that what you write will carry what you feel with it in any case, and determining a preset theme is to hamstring yourself - for Egrian Premise creates a stilted, unnatural worldview that is ultimately far less compelling than plays written in the more naturalistic (or epic) style that has been favored of late.

Walter Kerr describes in his How Not to Write a Play in some detail how even Ibsen's characters struggle against the bonds of their too-restrictive Premises; if the character embodies the idea, then the character can never have true life.  He justly describes Nora in A Doll's House as having nearly escaped, but just barely not quite, and the title character of Hedda Gabler as having gotten away - but shot by Ibsen in the finale.  It is not surprising, then, when Hedda is a superior play to Doll's House.  So it is with Willie Loman, who is fascinating precisely because he fails to make an unmistakable point about America.  (Again, Kerr's observation.)

Ultimately, I feel that Premise was the wrong tool for the job when Egri wrote The Art of Dramatic Writing, and remains wrong for Narrativist roleplay in the here and now.  Premise is a cart before a horse, and its role as the basis for Narrativism needs to be strongly rethought.

Are there any alternate theories of drama that might make for a suitable alternative to Egri for roleplaying?  A game produced with a theorywould not be "Step On Up" or "The Dream", but would not also be classified as "Story Now" here since Narrativism seems to be defined as addressing premise.  Or is everything not using Egri's theories simply pastiche?
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Alan
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« Reply #1 on: October 16, 2005, 06:49:24 PM »

Egri was a hardcore prescriptivist, and I fear this harshly colors what is considered "Narrativist" play.  His insistence that everything be infused with the strong, overarching Premise functions to tilt the student strongly in the direction of writing polemics.  The wisdom among playwriting texts of the current day and age is that what you write will carry what you feel with it in any case, and determining a preset theme is to hamstring yourself - for Egrian Premise creates a stilted, unnatural worldview that is ultimately far less compelling than plays written in the more naturalistic (or epic) style that has been favored of late.

Walter Kerr describes in his How Not to Write a Play in some detail how even Ibsen's characters struggle against the bonds of their too-restrictive Premises; if the character embodies the idea, then the character can never have true life.  He justly describes Nora in A Doll's House as having nearly escaped, but just barely not quite, and the title character of Hedda Gabler as having gotten away - but shot by Ibsen in the finale.  It is not surprising, then, when Hedda is a superior play to Doll's House.  So it is with Willie Loman, who is fascinating precisely because he fails to make an unmistakable point about America.  (Again, Kerr's observation.)

The critique of Egri's theory here seems to be that it requires a consistent answer to the Premise.  Well, as have been mention many times in Actual play and elsewhere on the Forge, narrativist play cannot have this restriction.  Players must be free to answer premise any way they like--whether they make some attempt at consistency is up to them.  You'll note that the defnition of the narrativist creative agenda is that premise be addressed, it does not dictate how it should be addressed.  So Ron may have borrowed the concept of the Premise question, but he did not extend his borrowing the prescriptive aspect.  So this critique doesn't apply.
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- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com
Alan
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« Reply #2 on: October 16, 2005, 06:50:27 PM »

Sorry the last paragraph in the previous message is mine, not Marks.  I messed up the quote brackets.
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- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com
lumpley
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« Reply #3 on: October 17, 2005, 05:24:47 AM »

Since you quoted me, Mark, I'd just like to say that I don't consider any definitions of narrativism valid except the one we have here.

Read my "you" in the passage you quoted to mean one singular person, mistaken about what narrativism is. Don't read it to mean alternate rigorous schools of thought about what narrativism is - there are none, that I've ever seen. And since Ron here invented the word, that stands to reason.

All of this is beside your real point, of course.

-Vincent
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Jason Lee
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« Reply #4 on: October 17, 2005, 07:13:14 AM »

Nar, based on its use here on the Forge, isn't as narrowly defined as Ergi's approach.  Ergi's approach is, from my understanding (I haven't read the book), beginning the creative process with a specific driving theme in mind.  For Ergi this is a specific statement, a Premise, like "love of a child is greater than love of a spouse".  I think the use of the word premise in an unusual way is significant, reflecting that it is the initial assumption of the story, not unlike the normal use of the word ("There are bright yellow slug men under the sea who control the world secretly.")  Ron has taken the same concept, Premise, and put it in the form of a question.  Which while still about theme, is 180 degrees from the point of a Premise statement, because it is no longer a driving assumption.  This makes Premise in Nar much more open.  I take the Nar definition of Premise simply to be the way Ron discusses theme, just like creative writing books seem to like discussing theme in terms of character motivation.  Elsewhere on this site, in a thread that isn't terribly related, I quoted Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern:

Quote
Theme

When literary critics use this term, they generally mean the idea or point of a work.  Writers are often made uncomfortable by questions like, "What is the theme of your novel?"  It seems reductive, like someone asking, "What's the bottom line on this thing?"  Writers hope that people will read and think about their work, understanding it through experience.  Some writers respond evasively to questions about theme, saying things like, "It's just a story," or, as Mark Twain wrote in his notice preceeding The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot."

Other writers are more intellectual in their inspiration and more analytical about their creation.  They clearly have a theme in mind, and their work is an exploration of a particular idea.  Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre used their fiction to discuss philosophical issues.  Margaret Atwood and Robert Coover are explicity interested in political themes.

If you want to explore philosophical, psychological, or social ideas in your fiction, think of theme as akin to character, setting, or imagery.  Themes, like characters, can advance the plot, contribute to the tension, be attacked, and suffer ironic fates.  John Barth made his themes the central characters in the End of the Road and Giles Goat-Boy.  Aesthetic ideas almost talk to each other in Julian Barne's Flaubert's Parrot.  Saul Bellow's characters embody themes.

Though many writers like to think of themselves as primarily storytellers, yarn spinners, and fabulists, themes and ideas are inevitable.  Every work raises questions, examines possibilities, and imagines the consequences of actions.  You can't avoid meaning even if you want to.

That said... I think Cadriel is right.  A very common thing that must be explained about Nar is that theme needn't be predefined and/or intentional.  One can only assume this is because of the way in which theme is described.  Not that I think Ron's way of discussing theme is in anyway wrong, just that it lends itself to a specific type of misunderstanding quite easily.

Anyway, that's just my personal take on it and is in no way official or inspired by anything official.
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- Cruciel
Sean
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« Reply #5 on: October 17, 2005, 08:31:22 AM »

I don't have a satisfying definition of Narrativism, but it's a really basic and common phenomenon of RPGing IMO. Like when that kid in your group playing the monster-killing, treasure-gathering game wanted his character to be a prince whose father's kingdom had been overthrown? He might have been hoping that the adventure would make him have to decide between, say, loyalty to his father and the good of the people, or family vs. personal achievement, or something like that. I remember a few kids who made characters like that anyway, with those kinds of ideas in mind.

Wanting to get those kinds of conflicts/questions dealt with in roleplaying is the narrativist impulse in my view. Now, qua impulse this can show up in all creative agendas, as we know; where a Narrativist agenda is visible is where addressing that kind of stuff is the point of play.

Or anyway that's the best I've been able to do with it.

Insofar as we ignore the GNS stuff and focus on your second question, though, that sounds like a great way to design a game to me. Find a theorist with a good grasp of how stories get made in another medium (theater, fiction, etc.) and try to write a game that produces a story in something like that way. Now that's a way we could really start to get a better handle on Narrativism, by finding different useful structural motifs that satisfy that same itch!
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #6 on: October 17, 2005, 08:44:36 AM »

Yeah, very important, the idea of narrativism had been around long before Ron likened it to Egri's ideas. What Egri does for Ron is to provide some terms to use that make sense to some people in describing narrativism. But with neccessary caveats. So it's really more of an analogy. Ron says, "Narrativism is like Egri's ideas, except that XYZ." In historic context Ron was looking for ways to put into words the definition he had floating around in his head, and Egri provided a convenient way for him to state it.

To whit, you can define narrativism without at all refering to Egri. Premise becomes "question which when answered becomes theme." Sorta circular, but you get my meaning. You can use plain english to explain narrativism just fine.

Because the behavior behind narrativism, what Sean cites as being obviouly identifiable in the player of the "Prince of the Overthrown Kingdom," are their own phenomenon, and not just some abstract concept. One can look at narrativism and point at it and say, "Aha! There it is!" and everyone agrees. What's difficult is putting into words what was observed.

In any case, you can probably find some inspiration in other literature models for how to create a system that supports narrativism. But you'll also as likely find models that support sim or gamism. Because RPGs aren't literature, and narrativism is not about creating literature. Or really anything like it.

Mike
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