Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Files I Work With, #4

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 20, 2015

Writers are always obsessing about “narrative drive.” We know what it means. It’s the propulsive, page-turning momentum that we all hope to generate in our readers.

Aida Turturro as Janice on "The Sopranos"

But how do we create narrative drive?

A priest, a rabbi, and an alligator walk into a bar …

That’s narrative drive.

There’s no way you and I are not gonna stick around to hear the rest of that joke. Why? Because a question has been planted in our minds, an open-ended question that has hooked us and makes us want to know the answer. (By the way, I just invented that set-up; if an actual joke exists, I don’t know it. Sorry!)

I like to think of these narrative threads as “lines in the water.” Like a fishing boat will trail six, eight, ten different lines with eye-catching lures hoping to attract fish, we as writers will trail as many narrative lines as we think the story can handle.

The goal is identical: to “hook” the reader.

Last week I included the following section from the “Scene by Scene” file I’m working with on a book project right now. Note the word LINE throughout:


Mika reveals that sludge is toxic waste — and human bones in it. ESCALATION of LINE #6. She wants to go to the police. Mika also shows S the JIMMY BRESLIN ARTICLE in the paper, which contains more backstory re B, i.e. LINE #4.

Breslin article prompts S to speculate on who planted it, who made it happen, and why now? LINE #6 and LINE #4. The fact alone that somebody made this happen shows that the stakes of LINE #6 are continuing to escalate. Now they’ve gone public. They’re in the paper.

What I’m doing in this file, among other things, is keeping track of the story’s “lines in the water.” First, I’m very consciously and deliberately opening up those lines. An early scene will plant an open-ended question in the reader’s mind. She, I hope, will keep turning the pages till she gets an answer.

I want to have as many lines as the story will hold and to keep each of them escalating all the time.

How many lines in the water does Game of Thrones have? Seems like a hundred, doesn’t it? No wonder we can’t stop watching.

Same with The Sopranos. Or Mad Men. Or House of Cards.

The idea is to hook the viewer with a slew of open-ended narrative streams, each one of which asks a compelling question. Will Carmela run away with Furio? Will Don Draper finally confront his hidden past? Will Francis ever pay for pushing Chloe in front of the subway train?

The more compelling the “lines,” the more deeply we in the audience will be hooked.

Here’s a trick that soap opera writers have been using for decades:

Give every character a story-line with every other character.

If we’ve got eight main characters, linking them can generate (theoretically) sixty-four lines. And that’s only counting binary relationships. We can also up the ante by introducing alliances and coalitions of characters and having each rival faction compete with every other. This is what Game of Thrones does so brilliantly. Then it goes itself one better by making the roster of these dueling cabals constantly shift and evolve.

Do you remember the character of Janice on The Sopranos? She was Tony’s hippie sister who had distanced herself from the family and fled to the West Coast. Consider the “lines” that series creator David Chase opened for himself when he brought Janice back to New Jersey.

First, Janice becomes involved with, then marries Richie Aprile, the loose-cannon gangster who’s a thorn in Tony’s side. Janice kills Richie with a pistol after he punches her at the dinner table. Tony and Christopher have to chop up and dispose of the body. (So far: Character A has been richly linked with Characters B, C, and D. And we haven’t even mentioned E, Carmela)

Then Janice takes up with Ralph Cifaretto (Tony winds up killing him with his bare hands), then she marries Bobby Baccalierri, while simultaneously conspiring against Tony to get her paws on their deceased mother Livia’s house and property. That’s F, G, and H. See what I mean? And Janice is only one character.

I know, I know, these are soap opera stunts and many of us like to think we would not stoop to such shenanigans. But this is story telling, and you and I are in the business of telling stories. These are the skills of the craft. Even if we elect not to exploit them shamelessly, we need to know what they are and we need to know how to use them.

But back to “Files I Work With.” Taking a page from Shawn’s The Story Grid, I will track each “line in the water” in my Scene by Scene file. (I probably should have a separate file for each, but I’m too lazy.) The questions I’ll ask myself as I survey each “line” are:

1. Is this story-line compelling? Will it hook the reader?

2. Is it on-theme? Am I reinforcing What The Story Is About? (If not, I’ll have to reconfigure or eliminate the story-line in question.)

3. Are the stakes escalating as the story progresses? Is the line becoming more interesting or is it starting to repeat itself?

4. Can I combine this line with any other line? Will that new double line help the global story?

I’m trying, as well, to keep as many lines alive as possible and to have as many as possible converge and pay off simultaneously in the climax.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

10 Responses to “Files I Work With, #4”

  1. May 20, 2015 at 4:19 am

    A priest, a rabbi, and an alligator walk into a bar…it was a pretty low one.

  2. May 20, 2015 at 5:40 am

    At first I thought “64 lines, I can’t keep all of that straight!”

    I’m currently listening to “War & Peace”, trying to undo my Jeff Spicoli High School & College days by reading everything I ever Cliff-Noted, or just didn’t read.

    The difficulty with War & Peace is Tolstoy keeps changing names, from patronymic, to Prince, to first & last…but I think I finally know the characters well enough to keep it all straight.

    Then I immediately thought of ‘Dunbar’s number of 150’ that Gladwell mentioned in ‘The Tipping Point’. The reason we have such big brains is so we can clearly keep all the tidbits of gossip straight in our tribe.

    I imagine that if there are not that many story lines, we will stop reading out of boredom.

  3. Mary Doyle
    May 20, 2015 at 7:07 am

    Sixty-four story lines – whew! Thanks for sharing your tracking questions and for the great illustration using Janice Soprano – I’d forgotten what a vixen she was.

    By the way, you really ought to finish that priest, rabbi and alligator joke. As always, thanks!

  4. May 20, 2015 at 8:59 am

    Love this series. Very helpful. Keep it up – and thanks!

  5. Sonja
    May 20, 2015 at 10:56 am

    This is so generous and wonderful if you to share! Thank you. I need to figure out a few more “relationship” lines in my story too.

    This also reminds me of the movie, Arbitrage, that you recommended (and I subsequently saw becuz of that) with Ruchard Gere embroiled in many sub story lines that threatened his livelihood and his life.

    Onward to battling resistance for the day….

    Thank you!

  6. Sonja
    May 20, 2015 at 10:58 am

    Sorry for the typos! Ugh!

  7. Dick Yaeger
    May 20, 2015 at 11:06 am

    I really liked this. Very useful and thought provoking. I’d venture a guess that “The Profession” came close to 64 story lines, maybe more. Which reminds me. I fell in love with A.D. She should have a book of her own.

    • May 20, 2015 at 12:52 pm

      Agreed. Hadn’t realized it until you wrote it.

  8. May 21, 2015 at 6:39 am

    Many thanks for another excellent post. The timing of this whole series is perfect for the work I’m doing on my novel!

    It also helps me to decode the addictive appeal of shows like “Downton Abbey,” “House of Cards,” and all the other Netflix binge-inducing fare.

    As for the priest, rabbi and alligator, here’s a punchline:

    . . . . The bartender looks at them and says, “What is this? Some kind of joke?”

  9. May 25, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Hmmm. Process really matters.