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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:

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.
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