On Narrative Flow
For my first official post on Reading Like a Writer, I want to talk about Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk.
I almost called this post “In Praise of Narrative Flow” because that’s what initially pulled me into H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald’s crazy-natural use of narrative flow.
But before I get into that, I should say up front that I kind of loved everything about this book. In a very personal way, it was exactly the right read at exactly the right time, so I can honestly say without any reservation that it’ll probably be one of my favorite books of 2016.
Now, to get back to narrative flow. What I mean by narrative flow is how the writer’s use of pacing, rhythm and execution, and how they interact with the reader. Here’s an example from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”:
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
Side Note: If you haven’t read Hemingway, goddamn, check out his short stories. I’m not a huge fan of his novels, but his short stories are a-maze-ing. He really was a master of the form.
So, narrative flow. This quote captures the tone of the story – staccato, disjointed and ambiguous. Things are said in this story through what is not said – the way the woman looks at the girl, the way the girl is looking off, the way the hills seem separate from the land. The flow is a little choppy, a little disorienting and that’s perfect because it mirrors the heat of the day and the girl’s state of mind. In this case, the narrative flow feeds into the story’s overall tone. It’s brilliant.
Helen Macdonald does something equally brilliant in H is for Hawk. Narrative flow is important regardless of what kind of narrative it is – fiction or nonfiction, short or long. Whereas Hemingway used flow to give his short story a visceral impact, Macdonald uses it to a different effect – she weaves a tapestry with it so the reader becomes wrapped in her grieving state of mind. And yet, the hawk remains firm and clear in the middle of her grief. The hawk is always the focal point.
The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.
Macdonald’s imagery is threaded through her prose. It’s sensory and very specific. It also accurately reflects how thoroughly the hawk will come to define her life for a time. There are a million gorgeous quotes I could pull from this book, but they all have this quality – the prose is packed with more than words. Expand that out to the entire book and you get narrative flow.
There are two main threads in H is for Hawk and I’ll admit that, at first, I didn’t quite buy into one of them. In addition to her own autobiography of grief, Macdonald weaves in a mini-biography of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, as well as, (more importantly for this book), The Goshawk, an account of his failed attempt to train a hawk. In the beginning, the White chapters felt a bit strange and intrusive. But slowly, they began to make sense. Slowly, they begin to reflect Macdonald’s fears and isolation as she trains her own goshawk, Mabel. The White chapters become critical to understanding the depth of Macdonald’s grief and how falconry becomes a metaphor for the process of healing.
They also act as a counterpoint to her relationship to her own hawk. White botched his hawk’s training horribly. Macdonald, by comparison, is hyper-aware of the bird, to the point that she begins to over-identify. As she does, the flow becomes leaner, tighter, and narrower, almost reflecting the pinpointed focus of the bird she’s training. Then, as the training progresses and she processes her grief, the focus slowly expands. The flow loosens. Macdonald’s narrative develops a rhythm that underscores her emotional experience. That alone helped me, as the reader, to connect to the book on a basic, instinctive level – it bypassed my brain and hit my emotions, which for me is where it counts.
And that’s the power of narrative flow – it’s a way to by-pass the reader’s logic and burrow under their skin. I’m sure there are other names for it, but that’s essentially how I think of the structural rhythm of a book. Some writers engineer it ahead of time, but that almost never works for me. When I write, the flow kind of just happens in the first draft. Then I hone it through revision and edits. Macdonald’s narrative rhythm feels so natural, so deeply tied to the text, that I wonder how much of it was engineered and how much of it just happened. If I’m ever lucky enough to talk to her someday, I would love to ask.