Narrative Design – Bell

Smartt Bell, Madison. Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1997. Print.

In Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell offers analysis of plot, character, tone, time management, dialogue, suspense, point of view, imagery, design, symbolism and theme for six linear narratives and six modular narratives. In this way, Bell takes a similar approach to the analysis of writing as I have taken in games – creating a criteria of assessment and analyzing each individually before conceiving of an assessment for the whole. Additionally, many of his criteria could transfer over to games, even if the specifics necessary for assessment required alteration. Bell’s intent with the book is to guide writers through the process of writing a narrative by example. As my goal is not to become a writer, I approached the text differently than its intended audience would. Still, Bell’s discussion of the differences between linear and modular texts is useful in my own research.

Within linear narratives, Bell gives special attention to form, which he says is “the aspect of a story that can be abstracted from everything else and expressed in some other medium, for instance, a graph or some other geometrical figure.” Form is, according to Bell, of primary importance, even over plot as,  “form and function are inseparable” (25). Bell also focuses on “movement” as the primary purpose of linear narrative. He states, “as a process of movement, the linear narrative is timebound and sequential” (29).  Additionally, he notes that plot, suspense, causality, and time are intertwined in linear narratives and move the story forward (29). He concludes his section on linear narrative with the summarizing claim, “The placement and timing of other elements of fiction – patterns of imagery, shifts of point of view or back and forth between first and third person narrative, arrivals and departures of characters – become, in fact, elements of design and are just as important to the overall design as is the plot, and sometimes more so. All these elements are to be arranged, to be used to create a sense of shapeliness, orderliness, balance, and integrity. Each must contribute to the reader’s sense of the narrative as an integrated whole, for the moment when the narrative is apprehended as a whole is the moment where it is fully understood” (33).

By contrast, Bell argues that modular design frees a writer from linear logic and the “chains of cause and effect” and allows the writer to focus less on motion and more on geometric form. In modular narratives, the elements of plot, character, tone, suspense, etc. “can be treated less like strands and more like bricks. They can be managed as if they were discrete, particulate – capable of being assembled in more than a single way” (216). Additionally, modular design, notes Bell, is apt for those stories that are atemporal or timeless (216).

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