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How O’Brien Uses More Than One Writing Style In The Things They Carried

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Due to the unconventional way that Tim O’Brien writes his novel, The Things They Carried, many cannot decide which genre it belongs to. The debate lies in the argument of whether the collection of short stories that are part of the book are of fiction, or true to word memoir. While reading the book, the reader has no way of knowing what is real and what is made up as they are exposed to a way of writing that is unfamiliar to that of typical novels; a combination of memoir and fiction of which purpose is to send a more personal and intimate meaning of the events, according to O’Brien’s distinction of modifying details of real events.

Ultimately, to condense the differences between a memoir and a fictional text can be summed up with the idea of reality versus creative liberties. The complexities that lie between the line that separates the two genres, also seemingly contrasting, land in a grey area once further investigated. Holistically, there isn’t a concrete definition to a completely fictional nor a completely realistic text, as both can utilise elements of creative exaggeration along with reality in order to achieve the goal of better writing.

The purpose of O’Brien’s deviation from the conventions of traditional fiction is to, ironically, create a more realistic visual and emotional image of what it was like to be in the war and to show the true essence of a real war story. The goals of memoirs and fiction are different. A memoir’s goal is to help the author explore his memories and arrive at the truth of how the experience changed and affected his life. As a result, the tone is often selfish, with more emphasis placed on the author’s reflections than developing a cohesive plot.While fiction still reveals truths through themes and morals, its primary purpose is to entertain.

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O’Brien allows for the mix of these 2 styles of writing by narrating the story through the eyes of a self titled soldier, Tim O’Brien. This distinction creates a sense of personal pathos within the story towards the audience, appealing in multiple stages throughout the book as O’Brien switches between diary like entries and narrating war time situations through the eyes of other characters. An example of situations like these is in the chapter “Speaking of Courage” where O’Brien narrates a day in Norman Bowker’s life after the war. The chapter is fundamentally a look through Norman’s head, where he is thinking about what he would’ve said while speaking with anyone, particularly his father, that asked him about the war. Scenes written with this level of detail are evidently fiction as the author cannot have known all the intricacies about Norman and the way he thought about the war the shame he holds because of the traumatic events that occurred. Yet in the chapter that follows, titled “Notes”, the author writes it from his own personal perspective and sheds light on some things that contradict what was said in the differing perspective of Norman. This observation can be seen in the last paragraph of the chapter where he reveals how he edited the story Norman told him and that the guilt Norman felt about not saving Kiowa was actually his own. “I want to make it clear that Norman Bowker was in no way responsible for what happened to Kiowa. Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own”. These shifts in perspective create a sense of confusion for the reader as they don’t know whether what is being spoken is actually what happened or whether it’s just a product of O’Brien’s imagination with the purpose of communicating a speculated image of what happened. The author deviates from typical representations of similar novels by personally stepping into the story and communicating directly with the reader which proves that this part of the story comes from his memories and not a made-up action.

In the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story”, O’Brien speaks as an author about what it is truly like to be in a war and what it is like to attempt to communicate it to other people that have never experienced it. He says “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models for proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” The audience is enlightened and is able to infer that Tim’s narrative shows that a writer has the power to shape his experiences and opinions in the same way that the war distorts the soldier’s perceptions of right and wrong and what actually occurred.

Tim O’Brien communicated his intended message by constructing fictional events to convey a deeper meaning, Choosing to show the audience the “story-truth” instead of the “happening-truth”, he introduced fictional characters such as Kiowa, Mitchell Sanders and Rat Kiley who carried true messages through unreal events. This surrealism provided us with several truths, such as the juxtaposition shown through the ‘real, not real events’ revealing insight of the struggles of American soldiers and the hardships they had to endure through their eyes. This initiates extreme authenticity to the book and made it very personal whilst still allowing the audience to decide for themselves what should be seen as real and what isn’t. He gave the audience multiple stories from varied perspectives of fictional and nonfictional characters who struggled through surreal and true events, many of which he created in order to provide a more insightful image through both his memory and his imagination.

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How O’Brien Uses More Than One Writing Style In The Things They Carried. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
“How O’Brien Uses More Than One Writing Style In The Things They Carried.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
How O’Brien Uses More Than One Writing Style In The Things They Carried. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
How O’Brien Uses More Than One Writing Style In The Things They Carried [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from:
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