Why We Tell Stories

Many aspects of storytelling are explored in the novel, The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. In particular, whether or not a fictional truth can be greater than the real truth and secondly, perhaps more important, what’s the point of storytelling?

The storytelling technique Tim O’Brien uses blurs the line between what really happened and what is simply a story. This is achieved by naming the narrator of the story after himself. With this, the text can be read almost as a memoir instead of a fictional piece. For instance, the narrator, Tim O’Brien, considered his participation in the war to be cowardly because he did not want to be shamed by his parents and neighbors and other people in his town for avoiding the war. This notion is expressed in the story called “On the Rainy River”.

This raises the question if the author, Tim O’Brien, felt the same way and if not, then does that take away from the narrator’s feelings or does one simply accept the fact that similar notions of cowardice must have circulated the minds of other soldiers who ultimately accepted their enrollment in the army.

The narrator also goes through a transformation, from being an anti-war student with the hopes of going to Harvard, to wanting revenge on a medic who he felt wronged him in the story “The Ghost Soldiers”. When the narrator points out this transformation, one cannot help but think of how war changes the individual. No matter who you were prior to the war, you were going to be someone else afterward. To me, this transformation is made more real because of the author’s choice to blur the line between fact or fiction. Having read other war novels where the main character is changed due to the war, the effect does not seem as concrete as potentially having the author himself be changed. The novel does a good job at eliciting emotions that perhaps only a memoir can do.

However, what if all of it is just fictional? An exaggeration of what really happened. After all, the text is still a novel. The idea of truth is brought up in the novel and how the different ways of telling a story can have an impact on the truth. Can a story be truer than what really happened? If it didn’t really happen does that mean it isn’t true?

The feelings elicited by the stories seem to be real. When the narrator Tim O’Brien describes his first kill and the disfiguration of the Vietnamese soldier in the story “The Man I Killed”, one cannot help but feel sorry for not only the individual who has died but also O’Brien himself for by killing the soldier, he kills a part of himself. However, it is then revealed that the narrator never killed the man but rather he walks up to a corpse of the disfigured individual but to him, it was the same thing. He had played a role in the killing by participating in the war. However, by having described the scene as if he was the one who had killed the Vietnamese soldier, it adds an extra layer to the storytelling, a realistic coat and although we have two accounts of what happened, they both still feel real and both are believable. A soldier did kill that Vietnamese soldier and a soldier did wake up to find the disfigured body and have feelings of guilt and sadness.

The narrator suggests a true war story cannot be written, which calls into question the point of this war novel. Perhaps this is why certain passages are exaggerated, stories that come into the realm of fictional, that cannot be believed, maybe that is the only way to actually tell a true war story. One such story being the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” where a soldier flies in his girlfriend from America and in the course of a few weeks, the girlfriend transforms from an innocent girl from the Midwest to a savage soldier who disappears in the Vietnamese forest. Such a thing may have never happened however, there were countless soldiers, innocent themselves, who fought and got lost in Vietnam. In that sense, the story about the girl is as true as anything else.

Or perhaps the only way to tell a war story is by shouldering the responsibility of the war and with it, the death of the soldiers. This can be seen with the death of Kiowa in the story “In the Field”. Several soldiers believe that it was their fault that Kiowa died. In the same way, the narrator believed that it was his fault that the disfigured Vietnamese soldier died. By assuming responsibility, one may be able to explain what happened, why it happened, how it happened, even though that individual was not at fault. In this way, the truth is different than the story however, the story could still be true.

Furthermore, the narrator explains why he is writing this story. To me, the narrator’s explanation seems to be the explanation of the author, Tim O’Brien for the reason behind the novel is that through storytelling, one is able to capture the soul of the individual who is not there anymore. In the story, that individual gets to live. This notion is expressed fully in the text “The Lives of the Dead”. The story keeps the soul alive. Which may be the reason why the author decided to name all the characters after people he knew. The soldiers that had passed away were still alive in this text. The girl that he loved when he was a kid is still alive in this text for in the story, she is dancing and laughing and the two of them can talk to each other. Perhaps the reason why the narrator is named Tim O’Brien is so that after the author has passed, his soul still lives on through this story.

Storytelling can then be thought of as a way to cope with our past. To explore and understand our experiences. To unpack the hidden truths and come to terms with them. To keep alive a part of yourself or someone else as time goes on and erases everything that has been and will be after.

Vladimir Nabokov & Storytelling Techniques

Perhaps the worst offense man can do is to rob a child of their innocence purely for their own unbridled desires and pleasures. This happens to be the story of the novel, Lolita. The text speaks volume for Vladimir Nabokov’s writing ability for he took such a horrific subject matter and at points, managed to ingrain beauty and lyricism into it. Still, one can never truly justify the actions of Humbert, no matter how much he pleads his case as we read the story from his point of view.

Reading the novel, I could not help but be inspired by Nabokov’s masterful writing. Hence, I made a list of a few things I learned about the craft of storytelling as I read this book. Of course, there are many more lessons than what I have listed especially when it comes to sentence construction or paragraph construction but I’m mainly focusing on the storytelling aspect of Nabakov’s work.

On The Use Of A Foreward: Nabakov uses the foreward to essentially tell the reader how the story will end for we know the fate of Humbert right away. What this does is that it neatly packages the story, for now, we have a semblance of what kind of story is being told. Also, by prepping us for the coming unreliable narrator, Nabokov, as the true narrator, can then have a bit more creative freedom for we are not going to be told an unbiased story but rather, the story will be a criminals memoir.

Additionally, by mentioning the possible mental health issues Humbert may have had, Nabakov also attempts to create some sympathy for his character because once the story begins and we start to read about his pedophilic activities, creating sympathy becomes almost impossible.

On Conflict: At the core of it, conflict is what drives a story. In Lolita, Nabakov constantly presents various different conflicts for Humbert to deal with. The overarching conflict being his desire for a child to satisfy his needs. In doing so, Humbert creates a narrative in his own mind in which he almost blames these children, “nymphets”, as he calls them, for seducing him. Although he is clearly wrong in his reasoning, this is an example of how the character would try to justify his actions in order to overcome a conflict.

Additional examples being simple conflicts such as running low on money or Lolita being attracted to other boys or nosy neighbors. Additionally, a series of conflicts may take place in a single scene such as when Humbert meets Lolita’s husband. In that scene, there is an overarching conflict, whether or not to kill the husband, and then smaller conflicts such as trying to get Lolita to come back with him or whether or not he should express his love to her again.

What I took away from this is that a character must always be trying to resolve something. He or she doesn’t have to succeed in solving the conflict but there must be something they are trying to fix or overcome or avoid in order to bring stability and order back into their lives. Stability and order which has been interrupted by the conflict.

On Expectations: Nabakov also plays on the reader’s expectations to build suspense and to keep the story interesting. This is aided by the fact that we, as the reader, are inside of Humbert’s head and so, whatever Humbert expects to happen, we also tend to think will happen. Nabakov is then able to use this to subvert our expectations and take the story in a different direction. An example of this is Lolita’s mother’s death. We know Humbert did something bad for him to be in prison, as stated in the foreward, and we also know that the mother presents an obstacle for Humbert. Hence, Humbert plans to kill her. It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that Humbert will go to prison for killing the mother and yet, that does not happen, in fact, the story takes a completely different turn as the mother is accidentally killed in a car accident.

Furthermore, such a technique is even used at a smaller scale such as when Humbert is meant to initially live with a family with young children and so, he begins to dream about things to come, only for his expectations to be crushed when a random fire causes him to move into a different home. Now, with his lowered expectations, he enters this new home, where he finds Lolita. Once more, the expectations for things to come are raised.

Another way of manipulating expectations is to give the character what he expected but in a manner that was unexpected. A case for this can be seen in Humbert’s plan to be alone with Lolita when they, including the mother, go to the beach. However, the plan doesn’t even get a chance to start because Lolita brings a friend with her. But, the very next chapter, Humbert almost on accident finds himself alone with Lolita in their home and is able to fulfill his desires as he had wished previously. So, the end goal is realized but through different means.

Constantly, Nabakov plays with Humbert’s expectations and our own, raising them, cutting them short, turning them around, giving hope and so on. It is a simple technique and yet powerful because if the character is taken by surprise and then so is the reader, hence, the story remains interesting.

Too Much Detail/Unpacking: The only issue with the novel was the level of detail concerning things other than Humbert or Lolita or other characters. I am fond of Nabakov’s writing, like many people are, however, it was a chore at points reading several pages in a row that merely described the setting or where they were going in such detail that it was tiresome to keep up with the long sentences.

However, it is the same level of detail and care which makes this book so incredible. So, when that detailed, unpacking style is aimed at the characters and what is happening to them and what is going on in their minds, you get to see these figures that almost seem real, living, breathing humans. But when aimed at objects and things, it can really slow the pace of the novel down. This is a personal preference. I am interested in the characters more so than the world.