ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Shadow Narrative —

I’m sure there’s a name for this but I never heard it in film school and I suspect it’s a writer’s term that’s used instead.

My experience has been that there is a secondary narrative in presented works, whether they be films, books, or even music. This second, shadow narrative, is being told by the nature of the media and most importantly the structure of similar works at the same time as the work’s creation. It is in some cases capable of overwhelming the primary narrative, losing it completely, but other times it exists merely as a hum of distraction or an opportunity to surprise/entertain certain members of the audience in a new way.

Very haughty, I know. But I’ve thought about it for years and so it’s taken on this sort of elaborate construction, no matter how I try and simplify it.

Let me give some examples.

  • When you watch a movie, the people who you know are famous will be treated special in the world the film takes place in, regardless of where it is. They will survive where others don’t, or if they are killed/removed from the narrative they are going to be complete in their lives/place in the film. Things or people they interact with are likely to be important or function with ease for their needs. If they don’t, then nothing is functioning at all and so they will consistently not-function just like everything else. In doing so, they will be helpful to the person’s goal to fail. The shadow narrative is once there was a person whose existence had a vital point worth observing.

  • A story in which there is a mystery will have that mystery solved. When you hear people speak, they are discussing actions or ideas that in some way will resolve and answer a hanging question in the air, one either mentioned or not mentioned. The shadow narrative is here was once a world where a story had to be told, and that you will soon hear.
  • A song in where there are lyrics about people will eventually clarify what those people are and why you are listening to a song about them. The lyrics may repeat and diverge from where you expected them to go, but they will eventually relate what happened. The shadow narrative is there are people you should know about and you are going to hear about them.

This contention of mine, which is a little difficult to defend and I even lose the thread of it myself occasionally, is something that is probably the hardest single context to maintain for historical purposes. This is why I bring it up; I think that it’s important for someone working with historical items to know these shadow narratives and provide them with the material.

This is all separate from “backstory”, like where you find out that a newsletter someone made was done at the expense of their marriage, or that a computer was designed due to the release of a competitor’s amazing computer at a recent trade show. In those cases, the work’s motivations or lack/height of quality has some explanation outside of the work. That information is generally harder to find but is still pretty findable. During the creation of my documentaries I often find these backstories, some of them vital to know, others unprintable or racked with human emotional pain. But that’s a separate situation.

The shadow narrative is almost always a function of culture. An example of the imposition of a shadow culture is the Hays Code of movies, established by the film industry to prevent legislative control of the outcome/production of films. By having a set of rules of what could be acceptable in a film, film companies were more than happy to comply with them. Guidelines, no matter how arbitrary or unfair, are still preferable to the terrifying black hole of uncertainty, after all. As a result of this Hays code, films made during its imposition ensured that you would never see certain sexual or “immoral” acts portrayed on film. In other words, there was a parallel understanding while watching a set of actions, that which certain things could never happen. A character not only was unlikely to take drugs to stay awake, he couldn’t. It would be as unexpected as having a pet dog and it spontaneously growing wings; you would never arrange things in your home concerned about your flying dog getting stuck in the rafters.

This shadow narrative would lie dormant except for the situation that people occasionally break it. And in some cases, break it on purpose. Agatha Christie comes to mind as an author who broke shadow narratives consistently; in one of her books, the narrator did it. In another, everybody did it. In many others, the most dead character was the murderer. As a reader, you would have an expectation of surprise in being given a set of people and deducing the culprit, and you read a mystery novel like Christie’s with that expectation. Christie knew this and would craft her books in such a way that even though there was a plot and a set of actions and dialogue occuring, those were one set of “world” and the endless pairs of eyes watching this set of events, waiting for the inevitable conclusion. Characters would make references that were of little use to the world they inhabited but which a person intent on “solving” the events would take interest in.

I am saying that a person who did not know that mystery books needed to be “solved” would read these books and probably be annoyed that someone was killed and all anyone could talk about was this murder. This doesn’t happen because we generally understand what mystery books are.

There is a recent book by Stephen King in which he breaks the shadow narrative in two, writing a work in the form of a mystery and then never solving the mystery. The book, devoid of the context of “oh boy it’s Stephen King” but bearing the context of “it is a mystery book”, is annoying as living hell to anyone who fell for that. The book, in fact, has an afterword with you being given a pleasant talking to about how brilliant it was to have no solution to the mystery. Like a piece of metal that’s magnetized being twisted away from the natural magnetic field it wants to follow, a broken shadow narrative can really cause distress in the audience.

I had a friend give me Beethoven’s complete symphonies as a 30th birthday present. To accompany this, he gave me a one-hour lesson (it was very entertaining) on the history of music and specifically the rules and expectations of how music was crafted in Beethoven’s time and before. As it turns out, there were a bunch of expectations of format, construction and implementation that are, very simply, lost to a lot of modern ears. Beethoven, you see, would love to screw with the audience and knock them off guard, going in unusual places or mix-mastering up the structure. Now, however, most people just listen to them and enjoy them; there’s no broken shadow narrative for them.

This idea needs expansion and explanation, but it sits in my mind; I have a shadow narrative in the BBS documentary episodes, and there’s one for GET LAMP as well; I feel the movies are better for addressing it.


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2 Comments

  1. Jeff Milner says:

    You may be interested in the podcast WNYC’s Radio Lab Musical Language. Specifically if you listen to it at 30:45 you’ll hear the story about the musician Igor Stravinsky and his breaking of social expectations using a dissonant chord and apparently causing a riot.

  2. Jason Scott says:

    Kind of, but even more persuasively a part of the world the media is taking place in. And also contextual to culture and therefore shifting. But I agree that Chekov’s Gun is an example of one bit of what I’m talking about.