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.
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:
29. TOXIC SLUDGE
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.
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
ADDITIONAL READING » GOLF
by Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones
In my opinion, the best golf book ever written. Kind of a hodge-podge actually, with tips and lessons mixed in with autobiography—the story of the Grand Slam, and even a chapter titled “The Stymie—Let’s Have It Back!” Like so many memoirs by great men and women who aren’t professional writers, it rings true as gold, page after page. If Bobby wants the stymie back, I’m all for it.
by Penick, Harvey
If authenticity is a virtue, this is the supreme manifestation of it. Harvey Penick and John Wooden both radiate that quality of true-blue excellence and generosity, which explains why both have produced so many champions and are both so revered by all who knew them. Simply sensational.
by Printer Bowler
Full disclosure: young Printer is a dear friend. This is a slender volume that goes deep, from an officer during the Vietnam War who has lived a full and profoundly observed life and distilled there from many lessons that go beyond the front nine or the back. It’ll help your golf game, too.
by Murphy, Michael
Best book ever on golf and spirituality. Packed with wit and inventiveness, not at all full of itself, Kingdom is a yarn you can read over and over. Shivas Irons is probably the greatest fictional golf creation, short of Carl from Caddyshack. And Michael Murphy is erudite. Do you know the scene in Plato’s Symposium, when Alcibiades arrives, drunk, at the dinner party, and enters to make a speech in praise of Socrates? Well, Murphy knocks this off to brilliant effect with a speech in praise of Shivas—and never even winks at his readers.
by Bertrand, Tom and Printer Bowler
Golfing cognoscenti remember the late John Schlee’s student-mentor relationship with Ben Hogan that, alas, ended with both their deaths. Were Hogan’s final secrets lost? No, because Schlee passed them on to celebrated San Diego teaching pro Tom Bertrand. Here, working with Printer Bowler (author of the excellent Cosmic Laws of Golf), Bertrand delivers to us the master’s last secrets on pronation/supination, the left hip, the right knee, and much more—plus fascinating psychological nuggets on competition and the keys to victory. Hogan’s concept of “the moving wall” alone is worth the price of the book. A must-read for Hogan fans and golfing aficionados of all kinds.