By Shawn Coyne | Published: June 14, 2013
Above all else, writers want to be read.
Editors and publishers, and especially readers, require just one quality in a writer’s work to make this dream come true. When a work has Narrative Drive, clichés like “I couldn’t stop turning the pages” and “it reads like a bat out of Hell” come out of the mouths of even the most eloquent of speakers.
Narrative drive is that quality that keeps readers riveted. It is the lightening in a bottle that creates great fortunes. If your work has none…fuhgetaboutit.
It’s an obvious quality too, easy to wrap your mind around. So simple it seems that many amateurs are convinced that they could do what major commercial writers like James Patterson or Nora Roberts or John Grisham or Gillian Flynn or Nicolas Sparks do.
Hey, I’m no Thomas Mann, but I could write up one of those potboilers over a couple of weekends…
It’s true that not one of the aforementioned writers is in the running for a Nobel Prize in Literature, but I promise you they have the gift that many of those who are in the running wish they had. They compel us normal folks without a PhD in Literature to give them hour after hour of our very valuable attention. And isn’t attention what we all really desire in our heart of hearts?
The truth is that teaching someone how to imbue work with Narrative Drive is no day at the beach…perhaps it’s even impossible.
Trying to do so is a bit like telling someone where Picasso bought his paint, how tight he liked his canvass to be stretched, what time of day he found most productive, the kind of brushes he used, and his overarching aesthetic philosophy and then expecting the student to create Le Moulin de la Galette.
But to think that Picasso didn’t know his paint, canvass, time, brushes and philosophy deep within his cells before he painted Guernica though is also ridiculous. He didn’t knock out masterpieces without first mastering the form of his craft.
Alas, form is not a recipe. But without a comprehensive understanding of form, the wannabe artist will futz and fumble. If he never learns the form of his chosen art, he will never get close to lasting creation.
The form of Narrative Drive—its component parts—is mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony.
Drilling deeper, the ability to create Narrative Drive requires a consummate understanding of how best to manipulate the relationships between the reader/audience, the characters in a story, and the storyteller.
It’s all about information. Choosing how much of it to reveal and when. Quintessential storytellers have this skill down pat.
Never forget that the writer is in the power position in the Reader/Character/Storyteller relationship triangle. You, as the writer/storyteller, are God.
This is what makes writing so enticing to begin with, isn’t it? How many opportunities in life do we have to play God? How many times are we encouraged to not only revel in monomaniacal omnipotence, but also actually be praised for blasphemously seizing that role? Damn few…
But with totalitarian power comes great responsibility. You, as the creator, must be a fair, unpredictable and invisible string puller or no one will follow your work. That is, you can’t cheaply create mystery, suspense or dramatic irony. You must deliver it organically.
Back to the crux—how a writer dispenses information to generate Narrative Drive. A story has three possible informational scenarios. I call them LESS, SAME, and MORE.
LESS is when the storyteller gives the reader less information than the characters in the story have.
SAME is when the reader and the characters in the story discover the same things at the same time.
MORE is when the reader knows more than the characters.
The “LESS” scenario generates mystery.
The “SAME” generates suspense.
And the “MORE” generates dramatic irony.
Mystery requires LESS information, withholding information from the reader. Classic “closed” mystery stories open with a dead body and by the end of the book the killer is discovered and revealed by a detective/investigator/amateur sleuth/cat/whatever who has pieced together the truth from the lies told by other members of the cast. A bunch of false clues are seeded inside the story called “red herrings” that are used to outwit the reader. They’re fun to read, but books that rely solely on mystery for their narrative drive tend to lose their appeal after a while.
“Open” mysteries also withhold information from the reader, but in a different way. While the reader witnesses a killer’s “perfect crime,” he doesn’t know the fatal flaw in the plan that will bring the killer to justice. The investigator comes into a crime scene, suspects who the killer is and then figures out where the killer screwed up. The characters know more than the reader, the killer knows what part of his plan makes him vulnerable and the detective eventually knows too. The fun for the reader comes from guessing what mistake the killer made and how the investigator will figure it out and prove guilt. These are “Master Detective” stories like Columbo.
Whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit stories are inherently about curiosity and thus require withholding of information.
Suspense requires the SAME information, sharing the same information with the reader as it comes to light to a character. The storyteller places the reader, like a parrot on the shoulder of a pirate, in the exact position as the character.
In a War Story, the reader always follows the protagonist into a combat zone. We, like the soldier, don’t know if there is a sniper with a bead on us or even if one of our own fellow warriors behind us is fully capable of covering our back.
We move into a building to clear it and we see rubble on the left and a passageway on the right. Should we move over the rubble where there may be an enemy soldier taking cover behind it? Or do we go down the passageway where other enemies could be lurking behind closed doors? Do we send in another soldier ahead of us?
All of these possibilities sit right in front of the protagonist and the reader at the same time, which binds the reader to the character. It’s as if the reader becomes the character. This anxiety created by the numerous choices that the protagonist faces puts the reader in the protagonist’s shoes. We empathize and become suspended in the action.
In this case concern about what will happen creates narrative drive. We need to know because the storyteller has put us inside the “body” of the lead character.
Remember that readers have seen/read/experienced so many stories in their lives that they inevitably start to answer all of the questions raised in a scenario way before you as the storyteller answer them.
This is one highly intelligent invisible parrot on the shoulder of your protagonist. Polly is capable of running the risk scenarios faster than you can lay them before him. Rubble on the left, clear passage to the right, allies behind except maybe that guy the protagonist just had a fight with back at the FOB…the best decision would be to…
Setting up the suspense with multiple choices and outcomes is only the first part of creating narrative drive. The second part is that you must convincingly “zag” after the reader is convinced that the story will “zig.” If you don’t, the reader will figure out what is going to happen in ten seconds. When what they expect happens, they’ll throw your book across the room…never to pick it up again.
What to do? Perhaps you use the genre and setting of the story to surprise the reader. Very early on in the war story you could have the protagonist or one of his mentors offhandedly refer to IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). So as we walk point with the protagonist, you use this critical piece of information set up from earlier on in the book and pay it off on this patrol. Here’s how.
The protagonist chooses to clear the room by himself, but before he can he turns to see one of his men walk over to an injured dog under a fallen beam to lend aid. Before our protagonist can warn his man not to get too close, the soldier touches the dog’s body which detonates an IED.
Because the reader believed that the danger would come from snipers or from enemies in front to the left or to the right, the fact that there was an unexpected threat that the reader had forgotten about from the very beginning of the book will realistically and convincingly shock them. That is, if you haven’t been ham-handed about dropping the IED clue earlier in the book.
You as the writer have been fair, unpredictable and invisible. Thus suspenseful Narrative Drive has been achieved.
Dramatic Irony requires MORE information, giving the reader information that one or more of the characters don’t have. The storyteller places the reader in the “dread” position. That is, they see the train coming that will shatter a character’s life before the character does. How he reacts or doesn’t react is the source of tension.
Here’s an example from a screenplay:
In The Graduate, Mrs. Robinson seduces the son of her husband’s business partner, the recently returned college boy Benjamin Braddock. She tells the confused young man that she will sleep with him any time he’d like as long as he never goes near her daughter. The frustrated and confused Braddock agrees.
Soon thereafter, Braddock is forced on a date with the Robinson daughter, Elaine. He tries to beg off, but he can’t squirm out of it. Mrs. Robinson is apoplectic but Braddock tells her not to worry, he’ll have a quick drink with Elaine and that will be that.
After abusing Elaine by taking her to a strip club, Braddock sees just how corrupt he’s become. Her hurt reaction to the cheap display brings him to the realization that he’s lost himself in his purely carnal relationship with an older woman. He falls for Elaine right then and there.
He recovers his humanity, confesses to a bad affair, and Elaine likes what she sees. The two talk all night and fall in love.
Mrs. Robinson is livid and tells Braddock to dump her daughter or she’ll destroy him. This gives Braddock two very bad choices. Does he stop seeing the woman he loves or does he tell her about the affair he’s had with her mother and hope that she will forgive him?
The only people who know about the affair are Mrs. Robinson, Benjamin Braddock, and the reader/viewer. The scene when Benjamin goes to tell Elaine about the affair is a brilliant example of dramatic irony. The reader/viewer is dreading what will happen. The dread is at such a high level that it is practically excruciating.
Here’s Buck Henry’s screenplay:
Elaine – I have to tell you something.
He holds her against the wall in the corner.
What is it?
That woman –
That woman. The older woman.
You mean the one who –
Yes. The married woman – it wasn’t just some woman –
Mrs. Robinson’s FOOTSTEPS can be heard coming down the hall.
What are you telling me?
The FOOTSTEPS stop.
ANGLE – CLOSE ON ELAINE
Back in the corner. Mrs. Robinson’s face appears in the crack in the door at Elaine’s shoulder. Elaine looks from Ben’s face to the crack through which she can see her mother’s eyes staring.
Please – will somebody tell me –
She looks back at Ben, then back at her mother’s face again.
Mrs. Robinson’s eyes watch her through the crack in the door. Elaine looks away.
Oh – no.
Remember that Buck Henry was writing the screenplay, not the novel. He knew that having Benjamin come flat out and say “I’m sleeping with your mother” to Elaine would fizz the scene. Henry knew that the viewer doesn’t want to hear the confession. He wants to see it. Screenwriting form requires wordless action. So that’s how Henry paid off the scene.
Narrative Drive is the end result of a writer using mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony to best effect. It is the stuff that pulls us into alternative universes and keeps us spellbound.
If you learn how to master the way you parcel out information in your work, you’ll never have a problem pulling a reader into your world.