WRITING & PUBLISHING
Unpacking Narrative Purpose
Welcome to MFA Lore’s third Write On! Roundup. This is a feature of my newsletter Aimee Liu’s Legacy & Lore where you get to ask the questions that are currently vexing you in your writing life and I try to answer as best I can.
This week‘s first question focuses on narrative purpose. In other words, what matters most in your writing?
I wonder if you could address the topic of the narrative purpose. What if we have complex layers of purposes? How do we handle the POV then? For example, I want to tell my own perspective of how it’s like to be born in Mao’s China, grow up in British colony Hong Kong, and then migrating to the West. While the inner psychological world would be the focus of my story, I also want to layer it with external historical events that shaped my family’s and my paths. For that outer layer, I don’t necessarily have a bird’s eye view, but to limit that to my limited understanding (as told in 1st person) would make the story deprived of rich, factual details (as told in 3rd person) that may draw the readers in.
I’d wager that most of us believe we’re writing “about” one thing when we start, only to realize late in the game that we’re writing about something else entirely.
Narrative purpose is such a great phrase! I use it often. But it’s not an “official” term of art, and that makes it tough to pin down. I use it to mean the internal purpose of the story, the heart of the matter. What is the emotional truth or revelation that the whole work is driving toward? That, to me, is its narrative purpose.
Make no mistake, we all have many goals and intentions when we launch a new piece of writing. We may want to open up an obscure piece of history. We may want to explore a web of family secrets. We may want to share a unique personal perspective that deserves to be explored. We may want to write something that will lure millions of people and make us rich [Haha!]. But none of those quite fit my definition of narrative purpose.
A better guide may be found in Vivian Gornick’s framework of The Situation and The Story:
“The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
The thing one has come to say. In this lexicon, the story embodies the work’s narrative purpose.
It can take many, many drafts to identify, refine, and embrace your narrative purpose. I’d wager that most of us believe we’re writing “about” one thing when we start, only to realize late in the game that we’re writing about something else entirely. I’ve spent years working on a memoir about the secrets my father carried to his grave, only to figure out late in the game that I’m really writing about the intergenerational effects of shame on my family’s dynamics and on my own identity.
Back to your original question: What if we have complex layers of purposes? How do we handle the POV then? I think narrative purpose — once you’ve identified it — is always complex and layered. And the guiding craft question then becomes: What does the reader need to know to fully receive and understand “the insight, the wisdom, the thing” you’re writing to say? If you’re writing about migrating from Mao’s China to Hong Kong, and then the West, and there are essential aspects of the story that demand a more objective approach, by all means incorporate that approach. You may even want to use a braided structure [see below!] But let your story guide your decision, not some external concept about what will draw the reader in.
However long it takes to grasp a story’s true narrative purpose, the most impactful final drafts leave the reader feeling as if the story had been written, plotted, and structured from the inside out. In other words, as if every word, sentence, section break, and transition had grown organically in service of the overall purpose.