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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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WAR STORIES

War Stories

Over thirty-plus years of reading and researching, I've compiled a wild and crazy library in my head. In this series, I want to share some of it--the arcane, the obscure, the occult. It'll be eclectic. The posts will bounce all over the place. I plan to feature stuff from Hemingway to Homer, from von Manstein to Moshe Dayan. Posts will come from movies and plays, myths and legends, from journalism and personal correspondence and combat reports. Not all of it will be "war stuff." But it will all deal with issues of honor and virtue and courage in the face of adversity. A lot of it will be real literature. All of it, I hope, will be inspiring.

I also want to invite everyone to chip in with their own stories. Write me at steve {at} stevenpressfield {dot} com. Suggest passages—1000 words or less—from favorite books. Or send in something you've written yourself. Tell us about a patrol in Kunar province, or a letter your Dad sent to you from Pleiku in 1969. If it's great, we'll run it.

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DO THE WORK WEDNESDAYS

Do The Work Wednesdays

For a few weeks during April and May of 2011, I took a break from "Writing Wednesdays" and wrote "Do The Work Wednesdays" to accompany the launch of Do The Work.

THE WARRIOR ETHOS

What It Takes

"The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy, but where are they?"
Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

These posts are intended for our men and women in uniform, but I hope that artists, entrepreneurs and other warriors in other walks of life will find them useful as well. The series examines the evolution of the warrior code of honor and "mental toughness." It goes back to the ancient Spartans and Athenians, to Caesar's Romans, Alexander's Macedonians and the Persians of Cyrus the Great (not excluding the Garden of Eden and the primitive hunting band). Sources include Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Xenophon, Vegetius, Arrian and Curtius--and on down to Gen. George Patton, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and Israeli Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan.

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WHAT IT TAKES

What It Takes

"What It Takes" is a journal of the campaign to make The Profession a New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller. You'll be in on the meetings, the marketing and publicity, what works and doesn't work—everything. Expect a play-by-play as the campaign unfolds.

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WRITING WEDNESDAYS

Writing Wednesdays

I wrote The War of Art primarily for writers (its original title was The Writer's Life), but since it was published in 2002, I've received hundreds of e-mails from business entrepreneurs, actors, dancers, painters, photographers, filmmakers, military service members and others, telling me how the book seemed to have been written specifically for them—and how much it has helped their creative and entrepreneurial endeavors. Sometimes the e-mails are short, a sentence or two of thanks. Other times they've been sagas, life-stories packed with more drama and heartbreak than a soap opera. I know exactly what these correspondents are talking about. Resistance kicks everybody's ass—and the desperate desire to defeat it is equally as universal. Writing Wednesdays is an ongoing, blog-version of The War of Art. It's the chapters I would have written if I'd kept on writing the book. Then there's the added dimension of the comments from readers. I always scroll down and take a look. Some of the insights are better than the post itself. "Why didn't I think of that?"

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THE CREATIVE PROCESS

The Creative Process

I always want to know more about the people behind the work I admire. How do they do it? What does the process feel like from inside their heads? Wouldn't it have been amazing to sit with Hemingway, the way he sat with Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and others, to discuss writing? The Creative Process is a Q&A with a wide range of creative people—from writers to business entrepreneurs and beyond—probing how they do that thing they do.

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Gates of Fire
The War of Art
The Authentic Swing
The Lion's Gate
Turning Pro
The Profession
The Warrior Ethos
Do The Work
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The Virtues of War
Killing Rommel
Last of the Amazons
The Legend of Bagger Vance
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