In classical terms, rhetoric is the study of persuasion—or more specifically, the study of the means of persuasion. And for a couple thousand years, it was mostly divorced from literature. The history is long and twisted, shaped by institutional politics, religion, and philosophy, but the result has been this: writers, scholars, and students have had to choose between the literary arts and the study of persuasion. For recent English majors, that’s meant either an MFA or a rhetoric degree. But as Wayne Booth and plenty of others have made clear, fiction relies on rhetoric. A story works only when it convinces us that Ahab is real, that Daisy Buchanan lives behind the green light.
This guest column is by John Mauk, who has a Masters degree in literature from the University of Toledo and a PhD in rhetoric from Bowling Green State University. He writes and works at the intersection of rhetoric and fiction. He has three college writing textbooks, published by Wadsworth/Cengage. In 2010, his short collection “The Rest of Us” won Michigan Writer’s Cooperative Press chapbook contest, and its first story, “The Earthbound,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His debut novel, Field Notes for the Earthbound, was a finalist in the Hudson Prize contest. For more info, visit johnmauk.com.
So what particular elements convince us? How does a story compete with the real world and all of its lures: air, cell phones, family crises, food, and drink? For me, it all comes down to the narrator, to the storytelling voice. Narrators don’t simply say what happened. They create a reality, a world that readers believe, keep on believing, and want to keep believing. Whether first, second, or third-person, good narrators make fictive worlds real, which takes a lot of persuasive power—more than all the politicians in Congress. And while the list of persuasive elements is long, here are three small but crucial moves, things that narrators do when they most successfully convince us:
Create Memory: Most people, on most days, wake up in the same room, with the same insufficient hairdo, wearing or staring at the same clothes. We see the same stuff and forget to ask, “Am I still me? Is the world still here?” Memory is a persuasive force on consciousness—a reflex that keeps convincing us of this reality. Narrators get to use that force. They get to create and then call on memory. They establish a detail (the way a family cat limps or the fact that Melissa spilled a full cappuccino in her Toyota Corolla last Tuesday) and then bring that detail back at some later point: there’s Limpy the cat again and that milk has created a serious funk now that it’s a week old. Each time the cat walks through the house, every time that dead milk smell wafts up from the floor, readers nod along. They are comforted by what they already know and reminded that they belong here in this world.
Create Horizon: Every reality has a place where vision stops, where the walls, mountains, trees, or curvature of the Earth won’t let us see further. The basic feeling of location comes only because we can’t see everything at once. The same goes for readers. If they are to belong, they need horizon, a way to distinguish here from everywhere else. There are countless ways to make this happen—a small stream of facts that murmurs of faraway business, a finger of smoke, something we see in the distance, anything that lets us know that a factory is churning, that a reactor is reacting. The most stunning and explicit version of this—at least in my mind—is Love in the Time of Cholera. Even the title suggests the up-close and the faraway. In the story, the narrator occasionally reminds us of some distant affairs—national turmoil, sickness, and brutality writ large. And those affairs occasionally haunt the immediate.
Sometimes, horizon is crucial to the narrative tension—to the way we feel while drifting with Huck and Jim, romping with Ennis Delmar and Jack Twist, or romanticizing Antonía. The narrators in these stories create horizon differently, but it’s there and it’s crucial each time. Scenes are often imbued with a sense of up-close and faraway—in other words, space. And without space, there is no reality.
I should, though, admit that this might get dangerous. A clumsy or self-involved narrator can abandon the main characters in favor of abstract exposition. But horizon doesn’t require lengthy passages. It needs only a quick turn of the head, a brief glance into the distance, or a squint over someone’s shoulder. If characters are like people, they’ll look up from their own laps—even their own cell phones—often enough to remember what’s out there.
Disclose All: The best narrators tell all. They say so much right out of the gate (in the first five pages, for instance) that they establish an agreement with readers: if you stay with me, I’ll tell you everything as soon as I know or remember. That’s an attractive promise. Consider how Annie Proulx’s narrator in The Shipping News heaves so much at us, how that torrent of facts about Quoyle’s sloppy life comes rushing out in a few pages. The sheer volume and intensity of terrible stuff demands acceptance.
Of course, we have to acknowledge the unreliable narrator, the voice that’s intentionally holding back or shifting facts for personal gain. But I stand by the notion that the promise still gets made. Whether or not the narrator keeps it is another compelling matter.
In closing, I’ll admit: these three strategies can be characterized as artistic rather than rhetorical. But that nasty old distinction doesn’t help us. In fact, I believe it hurts fiction writers and poets alike. When I imagine my narrators as persuaders, they develop voices of their own. They get real. In short, there’s much to be gained when we see our narrators as the ultimate rhetoricians, when we make cuts, additions, and tweaks based on the single most important goal: to create a coherent reality, one more solid and factual than all the news and history channels can conjure.
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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.