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Credit: Paula Sharp
"Make what is old, new. Make what is new, relatable."
This is what seems to be in the back of my mind every time I try to tell a story. It's not impossible to be wholly original, but it is hard and even harder to do it successfully. So instead of agonizing about whether something is original, take a look at tvtropes.org and understand that the real battle is one against cliche. If something is familiar to the audience, present it such that it subverts their expectations. And if there is something unexpected in your writing, make sure there is something for the audience to feel grounded in.
Let's start with a passage from Mostly Harmless, the fifth installment of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series:
He preferred just to sit and read - or at least he would prefer it if there was anything worth reading. But nobody in Bartledanian stories ever wanted anything. Not even a glass of water. Certainly, they would fetch one if they were thirsty, but if there wasn't one available, they would think no more about it. He had just read an entire book in which the main character had, over the course of a week, done some work in his garden, played a great deal of netball, helped mend a road, fathered a child on his wife and then unexpectedly died of thirst just before the last chapter. In exasperation Arthur had combed his way back through the book and in the end had found a passing reference to some problem with the plumbing in Chapter 2. And that was it. So the guy dies. It just happens. It wasn't even the climax of the book, because there wasn't one. The character died about a third of the way through the penultimate chapter of the book, and the rest of it was just more stuff about road-mending. The book just finished dead at the one hundred thousandth word, because that was how long books were on Bartledan. (Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams)
In the end, we want to have told a story. On the planet of Bartledan, they tell stories based on the kind of narrative structure that must land exactly on 100,000 words. It is an objective, non-sensationalized reflection of Bartledanian life. The plot points in their books do not rely on a sense of building up narrative tension and releasing it and thus their storylines are very much point A to point B affairs.
This is not how most humans like their stories told. A plot is more than just a series of interconnected events. Most humans seek out conflict in stories, conflicts that both have short-term and long-term consequences by the time they reach the last page. For this, the plot must be guided by a narrative structure. The basic components of narrative structure are familiar to everyone: Beginning, Middle, and End. These simple terms hide complex ideas of craft give us the ability to turn anything from the story of a Sunday afternoon in the park to a space opera bank heist into an incredible thrill ride for the reader.
For three examples of Narrative Structure, check out the bottom of the page. But please read everything else first.
The question: What happens next? We want the reader to be asking him or herself this question continuously. But we need to be responsible with how we deliver an answer. Mainly, we do this by controlling the narrative tension of the story.
Build-up: For instance, building up the narrative tension for a scene might be a woman getting on a plane and being jostled by the obviously drunk pilot. That would certainly cause a relatable tension for the woman and even greater tension would be caused by the realization that no one else noticed and the plane was going to take off anyway. This sets up tension for the entirety of our plane ride. Further tension would be created by sudden turbulence and a slurred apology from the pilot over the intercom.
Release: The woman gets off the plane, unharmed OR the plane crashes. Regardless of once transpires, at some point the tension you just built up becomes a past thing and you've given your reader a new set of things to worry over.
BUT THERE IS SO MUCH MORE WE COULD DO WITH THAT SCENE!
Let's talk about Lulls, Provocation, and Climaxes.
On a two hour plane ride, this woman is doing more than sitting and holding her breath. She has emotions to process, decisions to make. But she decides to do something about this situation, she decides she first needs to calm down. To do this she focuses on the couple speaking in the seats next to her. The conversation those two are having has nothing to do with the woman's current fears and don't forward the plot in any meaningful way. This is called a Lull. This is a chance for not just the woman to exhale, but for the reader to process everything as well. At the same time, the writer can still build narrative tension because the nonrelevant conversation emphasizes just how clueless the rest of the passengers are about the situation. Other examples of Lulls: Dream the woman might have, the movie the plane is showing, the woman worrying about her children. A Lull is not the absence of narrative tension, but the build-up and release of tension without provoking the plot to move forward.
A Provocation does move the plot forward and is usually a release of tension such that other tension can replace it. For instance, if the woman decides to stand and tell the flight stewardess that the captain is drunk, well then now we are getting somewhere. Perhaps word is about to spread throughout the cabin and people will start panicking. That creates a whole new set of questions and possible avenues for tension.
At some point, things have to come to some sort of conclusion. Everyone on the plane could just hug themselves and pray that nothing bad is going to happen.
Now, inaction might not seem like the ideal sort of climax. But inaction is action and is it is up to the writer to use his skill to bring everything to a head.
But say inaction is the choice of the passengers. One possible climax of this is a crash, sure. But we also have the opportunity to focus of the emotional climax of the scene. Eventually, the woman will experience an emotional peak such as "life flashing before her eyes", dwelling on her past mistakes. If the reader cares about the character, they will see the test the character is going through and her response as more satisfying than the plane crash or the near brush with death, which really is just a resolution to the story.
There is no set of rules that govern what does generate narrative tension or what doesn't. But almost all of them are related to "What Happens Next?"
Quick exercise: How could the following things be a source of narrative tension?
Breaking a Toy
Counting down to 0
A passing comment from a stranger
Think about the classic "chase in the many-doored hallway" scene from Scooby Doo. It is played for comedy sure, but comedy is also a source of narrative tension that would not be present if the story followed The Gang into each room. In fact, in all likelihood, no matter how good the animation action scenes in each room were, the viewer would be bored by the constant sameiness of how it all plays out. Enter a room, get cornered, think of something clever to do, escape. Again and again.
As formulaic as Scooby Doo is, it is only derivative of itself over the course of multiple episodes. Within each episode, the show employs a variety of tricks to entertain. Yes, there is a lot of chasing and escaping, but nothing ever plays out the same way twice. Scoob and Shaggy are always scared and skitish, but that does not always result in them fleeing and alerting the others, sometimes they get in costume and trick the villain, sometimes they find themselves in a kitchen. Freddie always has a plan that doesn't work out the first time, but it doesn't take forever for them to come up with a better one.
Blah blah, you get it.
The point is. Scooby Doo is a classic show that gets away with being repetitive because it paces itself so well. It begins with a mystery, and paces itself with a mix of scares and laughs. We always know at what point in the episode we're in, so we never need to look at our watches. The key of pacing is knowing when to move the story forward quickly and when to slow down.
So when does a story need to move quickly? Usually as we get to the end, things start to accelerate. Battlelines that were drawn in the beginning get crossed, brother betrays brother, the evil doer unveils his ultimate plan.
A story can have many ups and downs in its pacing. For instance, it's usually a good idea for a sense of conflict to build during first page of your story. You might start your story with a big battle sequence. But after awhile, you need to decide to let the narrative have a breather in order for something else to be new and interesting.
In the case studies below: Note how a story hums along even though its not always cranked up to 11.
1. Summarize a plot and its major story beats. Then describe at least five lulls that would fit between the plot points. Speculate as to what the purpose of each lull is. What does it add.
Again, so much credit to Paula Sharp.
Any constructive criticism is much appreciated.