Narrative Violations and Narrative Primitives

Quick Read: Sometimes narratives could have ‘violations’. And sometimes, what might at first appear to be a ‘violation’ could prove to be intrinsic to its narrative. Knowing the former from the latter could help unlock great value – across verticals or contexts.

Making sense of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is said to be difficult.

It is considered by many to be one of the most revered and feared compositions in Jazz history. In fact generations of Jazz musicians are known to approach ‘Giant Steps’ as the pinnacle in Jazz improvisation.

Why? This video could provide a delightful crash course of an answer.

Or take Afrobubblegum – the new film genre redefining on screen representation of Africa.

It refers to fun, fierce and frivolous African art that has joy and hope at the centre of it. The pioneer of this style, Wanuri Kahiu a TED fellow and a Kenyan filmmaker says “We’re so used to narratives out of Africa being about war, poverty and devastation. We believe that Africa is joyful and full of pride and respect and hope,” and continues to champion the need for such art that captures the full range of human experiences to tell vibrant stories of Africa.

And tell she did!

In 2018, Wanuri Kahiu’s story of young lesbian love, Rafiki, made international headlines for being the first Kenyan film programmed at the Cannes Film Festival in 71 years of French Riviera cinema history.

What is common between Wanuri Kahiu’s ‘Afrobubblegum’ and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’?

The genre of Afrobubblegum or the Jazz track ‘Giant Steps’ standout because they ‘violate’ the popular narratives around their respective art forms or subjects. They are examples of what venture capitalists call Narrative Violations.

Narrative Violations

While the term could seem like a fancy jargon to reference the essential characteristic of what makes something a ‘contrarian bet’ to a VC, I should admit that it serves its semantic purpose of helping us put a label on something specific through descriptive and non ambiguous terminology.

Perhaps it is this pull that made Geoff Lewis and Eric Stromberg – the founders of Bedrock Capital – write a manifesto for their firm titled ‘In Search of Narrative Violations‘ stating the following..

Some recent ‘Narrative Violations’ listed on Bedrock Capital’s manifesto letter

The letter in its entirety is eloquent and makes for a great read and ends on an inspiring note saying..

“..As our keystrokes hunt for the next narrative high, thousands of possibilities that will never be remain trapped beneath our fingertips. When we allow popular narrative to dictate who, where, and what is worthy of our time or capital, breakthroughs that could transcend remain overlooked, underestimated, or simply fade away.

Against all odds, a few brave entrepreneurs violating the narrative today will come to define profound new truths tomorrow. We’re on a mission to find them

To be clear, the concept of ‘Narrative Violations’ has also had its fair share of critiques for being too reductive. It was even declared 2019’s ‘VC Bingo’ buzzword of the year.

Nonetheless, I find the concept to be a clarifying filter that helps me process or question most things with a healthy dose of scepticism and encourages me to seek out edge cases in popular rhetoric, including say even that around the concept of ‘Narrative Violation’ itself.

Why?

Consider this question.

What if, sometimes, narrative violations are part of the narrative?

i.e., what if a ‘violation’ is actually an inherent part of a larger pattern that constitutes the narrative itself? Like say, a recurring motif that becomes apparent if only one were to step back and consider the big picture. Being able to see if and when that is the case could help us identify emerging paradigms and recognise how such paradigms propagate.

For e.g., after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Carlota Perez published her seminal book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital arguing that the ‘burst’ was completely normal and qualified it by drawing patterns from four similar epochal periods over the last two centuries: the industrial revolution, steel and railways, electricity and heavy engineering, the automobiles and mass production.

Across each of these periods, she pattern matched its associated moments of ‘crash’ (the equivalent of the dotcom bubble burst from 2000) and recognised such instances as inalienable parts of larger cycles that play out over several decades (as opposed to say some inexplicable violations to the popular narratives of their times).

Source: Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital,2002

The master stroke of her framework is that it inherently provisions for moments of ‘big bangs’, ‘bubbles’, ‘crashes’ and then again necessary ‘recompositions’ as part of a single unified narrative that cohesively explains the interplay between financial capital and technological revolutions. And then continues to shine a spotlight on how this narrative seemed to have repeated itself across ages almost inviolably.

(Bonus reads: Two of my favourite thinkers, Alex Danco and Ben Thomspon have recently used Carlota Perez’s framework to write about Debt Financing and Paradigm Shifts in tech. Highly recommended reads indeed.)

To reiterate, a key takeaway for me here is the idea of the narrative as a paradigm that propagates.

Such a narrative construct that propagates needs to be essentially indivisible, should have a full self contained arc of a structure to serve as a standalone story if need be and be able to play out as a cohesive whole even with trivial variations in contexts or actors.

Matthew Ball has a term for this – The Narrative Primitive.

In one of the most intellectually stimulating podcasts I have listened to in the recent past, Matthew Ball joins Patrick O’Shaughnessy to discuss movies, the Metaverse and more and refers to the concept of ‘Narrative Primitive’ to explain why the worlds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars stand out as expansive and immersive. The following lines from the podcast’s transcript shine light further.

… “how would you have told the story 80 years ago if you had all the tools available? How are those stories going to change in the next 10 years?” And in some instances that is unlocking what you might call a narrative primitive, that’s perhaps some of the reasons why the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the tales of Star Wars are so expansive today, so immersive.

Now, when I consider these two concepts – Narrative Violation and Narrative Primitive – together, I am tempted to posit the following.

The essential insight that rock star traders, venture capitalists and story tellers possess is this – they know a good narrative when they see one. And more importantly they have an eye for a narrative violation. Because they think in narrative primitives.


Noteworthy ingredients – that may or may not have gone into the making of this blog post:

[Featured Image: Pendulums on freepik]

Of Similarities and Split Screen

Quick Read: There are ads that try and communicate a message of ‘contrast’ and there are those that communicate ‘similarity’. While the former type of ads ride on a diverse set of story telling devices, there seems to be an interesting trend in the story telling devices deployed by the latter set. It’s the ‘Split Screen’.

A lot of advertising is meant to tease out / explain / amplify an element of a brand that is supposedly in contrast w.r.t the competition. Think about it for a moment and think of the core narratives behind most of the ads that you see around.
A lot of advertising narratives tend to fall into this camp, where they try to land a message through a narrative that is designed to communicate a contrast – sometimes in a straightforward manner or sometimes in perhaps a tongue in cheek style.
A few share worthy ads of that kind below.
1. Jeep,  Anti Manifesto
(Agency: Arnold Worldwide. H/T: Bhatnaturally)
And oh, btw just for fun, see this one and it’s hard to not think that the Jeep’s creative team didn’t have this in mind while conceptualizing the above work.
2. Fevicol, Ezee Spray
(Agency: Ogilvy)
3. Eko Kom, Flight Attendants / Garbage Collectors
 
(Agency: Havas, Prague. H/T: Bhatnaturally)
As you can see, ads that have ‘contrast’ as the core message, ride on a diverse set of story telling devices.
Interestingly, this is in contrast with ads where ‘similarity’ is the core message.
When similarity is the core message..
.. there seems to be an interesting trend in the story telling devices that most of them seem to draw upon. Most of such narratives are rooted in a singular story telling device – the split screen.  
Sample the following examples.
1. The Day Before 
(Agency: Leo Burnett Chicago)
2. McDonald’s
(Agency: Agency: Leo Burnett Chicago)
3. John Lewis
(Agency: DDB Worldwide)
4. Coca Cola UK
(Agency: David The Agency, Buenos Aires)
For the record, the split screen as a story telling device has also been used in ads that seek to communicate a contrast.
Like this one from Apple.
In fact this entire campaign for iPhone (in May 2017) had creatives that all used the split screen.
What other story telling devices have caught your eye in the recent past?

 

Blood In The Gutter – On Smart Narratives

Cleverly disguised as an easy to read comic book, Understanding Comics is a masterpiece from Scott McCloud on what makes comics as a medium – tik. Called as “…one of the most insightful books about designing graphic user interfaces ever written..” by Andy Hertzfeld, the co-creator of the Mac, Understanding Comics bares fascinating insights on time, space, art and the cosmos. A must read for anyone with a curious mind and a willingness to have some fun along the way. Go get yourself a copy if you haven’t yet and it might as well turn out to the best gift you’d have given yourself in a long time.

Blood In The Gutter is the name of my favorite chapter from the book where Scott explains what constitutes the magic and the mystery of comics through a concept called ‘Closure’. Following are some panels from the chapter that explain this concept in lucid detail:

Blog UC 1

Blog UC 2

Blog UC 3

(Scott McCloud (1993), “Understanding Comics”, p. 66, 68, 63)

It is closure that makes Comics an immersive medium that they are. For e.g., unlike in say radio and film, the audience for comics are compelled to participate more because they are required to perceive the gaps between panels and fill in the missing content themselves. No wonder then, artists from different media (Literature, Photography, Film etc) have experimented and adopted the techniques of ‘closure’ as a compelling narrative style in their own works. Three examples where this technique of closure has been adopted in 3 different media: literature, photography and film below:

Closure in Literature: One Day

One Day is a novel by David Nicholls published in 2009. While it is essentially a ‘When Harry Met Sally‘ kind of genre, the unique feature of the book is its narrative. Each chapter covers the lives of the protagonists on exactly the same day (15 July) every year for twenty years.

One Day Movie_book

This literary technique of ‘closure’ as adopted by David Nicholls in One Day had its expected results with the book being praised as a ‘persuasive’, ‘ fast’, ‘absorbing’ and ‘smart’ and went on to be named 2010 Galaxy Book of the Year. Nicholls adapted his book into a screenplay; the feature film, also titled One Day, was released in August 2011. 

As with comics, closure –  when executed well in any media – facilitates smooth and seamless transitions in time and space and establishes a tightly symbiotic relationship between the reader’s imagination and the narrative.

Closure in Photography: The Whale Hunt

The Whale Hunt is a story telling experiment by Jonathan Harris who spent nine days living with a family of Inupiat Eskimos in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement in the United States. He documented their traditional whale hunt with a plodding sequence of 3,214 photographs, taken at five-minute intervals for seven days, and at even higher frequencies in moments of high adrenaline.  He then developed a framework for experiencing this story, allowing the viewer to rearrange the photographic elements of the story to extract multiple sub-stories focused around different people, places, topics, and other variables. (Source)

Go to the WhaleHunt page and experience the story unfold along different dimensions and see the cadence of closure engage your curiosity, senses and imagination.

The Whale Hunt

Closure in Film: I Love Your Work

Using a similar narrative style as used in The Whale Hunt, Harris now steps into a bold new territory by holding the spotlight on the world of lesbian porn.

Called as I Love Your Work, the project in Harris’ words “is an interactive documentary about the realities of those who make fantasies.It is a raw and intimate portrait of the everyday lives of nine young women who make lesbian porn.It consists of 2,202 10-second video clips, taken at five-minute intervals over 10 consecutive days.There is an interactive environment for exploring this material (around six hours of footage).”

What’s revealed through this tapestry of video clips separated by 5 min time intervals is an intimate portrait of a community opening up about topics like sex, gender politics, and their daily grind in a way that’s downright real and some times hard hitting.

I Love Your Work

Read this Fast Company article for a more detailed account of the project.

This powerful concept of closure (as it pans out in comics or in experiments like the ones shown above) seems to suggest one thing for certain. In order to engage, captivate and involve our minds and senses, the narrative of a story need not be continuous or seamless.

In fact what could work better in capturing and sustaining our attention spans can just be fragments of the story that are disjointed enough to let our imagination do the ‘connecting-the-dots’ drill and joint enough to let us feel that we are smart indeed!

Speak about the power of ‘smart narratives’.

Our perception of ‘reality’ is an act of faith, based on mere fragments.

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (1993)