July 24, 2019

Books as Verbal Storytelling

Drink tea, read books, be happy.
Books are worth your while, and are a unique form of storytelling. I probably don't have to convince most of you of that, since you're probably following this blog as someone familiar with The Styx Trilogy or my short stories. Also, I'd wager that most people think that books are important. But what makes them unique? Why read—or write—a book instead of watching a movie or playing a video game?

Lets begin with the basics. Books—and I'm going to include novels, book series, and even short stories under this umbrella—use verbal storytelling. They are the only medium to be completely without a visual component. This means that the author must choose his words carefully in order to convey what the characters, scenes, or actions look like to the audience. At the same time, there is a natural disconnect between what the author sees in his mind's eye and what the reader will imagine. This is a good thing. Each reader will have a somewhat unique experience of the book, while still getting most of what the author intended.

Hiding in Plain Text

This non-visual-ness also means that the author can choose what details are important to a scene. While different stories might both take place in the same city, one author might choose to include descriptions of the smell of the rained-on sidewalks and the color of the cloudy sunset on buildings, giving the reader a pleasant feeling of the place. A different author might talk about the jostling crowds and the cigarette butts steeping in dirty puddles, making the scene feel more grody. Still another might bypass descriptions of the place itself, and instead say, "He walked the three blocks from work to his apartment, hands stuffed into his pocked and eyes gazing at his own feet," which hides what's around the character since he's probably ignoring it himself.

Clever authors can also use our inability to see what's happening to surprise the audience. For example, in the dystopian novel The Giver, the main character begins to think something might be wrong with him because he was tossing an apple in the air and it "changed". At first, we the audience don't know what that means, as he himself has a hard time describing it to other people. Only later do we realize that the "change" was the apple turning from grey to green because, as it turns out, people in this society have lost the ability to see colors! It really hit home the idea that there was something off about society but we—the characters and the audience—weren't aware of it. That blew my mind when I first read that book, and there is no way you could do the same thing in a visual medium.

Similarly, I read a mystery (can't tell you which one, because even that would be a spoiler) where the twist at the end was entirely precipitated on the fact that we, the readers, could not see what one of the detectives actually looked like. And the writer knew it. He basically led the readers by the nose, knowing what assumptions they would make going into the story, then pulled the rug out from under them at the end. It was marvelous!

Unique Narration
A charming picture of a charming series with a charming narrator!
Another aspect of books is the telling, rather than the showing of the story. That is, aside from what's needed to convey something visual to the reader's mind, narration and narrative voice can also be used to enhance the non-visual parts of the story. Narrators can give their opinions—reliable or otherwise—about what's happening in the plot, give lively exposition, or go off on tangents that have little to do with what's actually going on. First-person narrators like the fiery, feral Lina Inverse of the Slayers series or the hapless Bertie Wooster of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster books tell their stories with such gusto that it feels like talking with a real person, rather than reading a book.

In some cases, the narrator might not even be a character, but can have such personality that it feels like one. The dryly comedic narration in Douglas Adams's Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy series is just as, if not more memorable than, the plot. The narrator of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is calm and gentle, obliged to repeat well-known details of the characters' lives, since it's an episodic cozy mystery, but in such a charming way that it feels like chatting with an old friend.

Humans and Language

And that is why books are unique and worthwhile. As much flak as I gave bookworms in my last post, books actually do harken back to the oldest forms of storytelling: poetry, song, even myth. Humans are verbal creatures--the only ones, in fact. The ability to understand the world in language, in abstractions, is a large part of what makes us human. Books and textual storytelling is a way of recording that language for future people to access down the line. Some stories can be told best in this way, with words and not pictures. Some stories can—should—be told in words only, because visual mediums can't always do what this solely verbal medium can.

And those, dear readers, are my thoughts on books.

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