Apologies for leaving you all hanging last week, it’s been busy and I’ve been a little under the weather but, to make up for it, to day I’m going to try and cover something meaty, a brief review of tools in the story-telling toolbox.
So, back in school we were all taught from early on that a story comprises a beginning (where you establish characters and setting), a middle (a situation in need of resolution) and an end (the situation is resolved). Fortunately for us, way back in the mists of time, someone said ‘Is that it? Hold my beer!’ and story-tellers have devised a great many narrative tools to satisfy the requirements of their stories.
So, if we disregard genre for a moment, most stories fall into two styles, linear and non-linear. A linear story follows a chain of events, cause and effect, down a sequential time-line (this even applies to time-travel stories told from the PoV of the traveler although, sometimes the effect comes much later). A non-linear story jumps from point to point, back and forth in the process of the telling. Flash-backs or flash-forwards highlight things that happened before or have yet to happen but that have a relevance to the ongoing story. Once in a while someone will shale things up, in the 2000 movie Memento by Christopher Nolan the linear story takes place in reverse. The MC played by Guy Pierce has lost the ability to form long-term memory so the film is a series of flashbacks telling the story from end to beginning. The Time Travelers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger tells the story of a woman romantically involved with a man who jumps in time, sometimes backward, sometimes forward so, while the story is kind of linear her experiences of her husband are disjointed as he appears out of sequence in her life.
So, the basic model of storytelling, the Male Ejaculatory Arc (as dubbed by Douglas Rushkoff) is a steady escalation until resolution. The situation introduced at the beginning gets worse and worse until it is resolved. This steady stream of stress can, over the course of a full-length novel, lead to reader burnout so, how do we switch things up? Breathers and Victory Laps, moments when an immediate problem is dealt with and the characters can catch their breath or celebrate some small victory. These can take the form of character developing interactions (and character development throughout a story is very important) or more intimate social moments between two or more characters. It’s important to show the reader that these characters are individuals with fears and frailties outside of the current situation.
Escalation, as it applies here, is raising the stakes. Whether that be in terms of threat and danger, emotionally or the consequences of certain actions. Different Genres handle that escalation differently, as the number of survivors dwindle in a horror piece, the threat of another victim showing up in a crime thriller, the prospect of open hostilities in a political piece or external interest by a rival in a romantic novel.
If the stresser is introduced early and needs ongoing effort to resolve (as in many comedy settings) then there can be gradual progress to resolve before ‘The Fall’ or a catastrophic event where everything goes belly-up and undoes all the progress so far. The fall generally leads to a Hail-Mary effort by the characters to bring about a fitting resolution. The sudden tug of the rug out from under the main cast as everything they worked for falls apart and they have to double-down and risk all or lose everything to achieve the goal is a well-known tool in narrative.
As mentioned above, flash-backs and flash-forwards can stir up a story. Pieces of the history or the outcome, out of context can liven up a story or give the reader a deep desire to discover how things got this way. I started my second book Dragon Fire with a section from the opening of the second act, a scene of devastation with the goal of teasing my readers onward into the story. Employed at the very beginning this ‘Hook’ is intended to grab the readers attention, whet their appetite for the adventure to come. Hooks come in many forms, the first hook in your arsenal is your title. A strong Title draws eyes to your book, you might employ a tag-line, a single compelling sentence to supplement the title and then the blurb on the back cover. Inside the book your hook is your first line, paragraph or chapter. A prologue as a flash-back to something the reader is familiar with (as with Black Knight) but changed in some way to pique their interest is one technique. As above the flash-forward into the story is another. Whether you use one or neither of those approaches the first line of a book is the most important, you can gain or lose a reader on its strength.
Fake-outs, the red herring or the dead end. When the investigation loses track or the action hero appears to be dead. Again, genre to genre, there is massive disparity in the accepted use of this mechanic. An action story or horror tale might play host to one or two fake-outs (when the Slasher appears dead but comes back for a final ‘Hurrah’ or the apparent death of a named character) but, a mystery novel is occasionally built on red herrings (a suspect characters odd behaviour is explained away by some personal catastrophe). In noir it’s acceptable that, when the PI has exhausted their avenues of investigation, that’s the moment the crime boss takes notice and has them kidnapped or someone comes forward with a key piece of as-yet unrevealed evidence. Used sparingly (relative to the genre) they can add an unexpected twist or turn to a story, but too many and the reader will roll their eyes and shut the book.
The key thing to remember, even as you employ these tools, is pacing. Some books suffer by over stimulating the reader with a constant barrage of escalation and some over estimate the readers need to rest between narrative hits. If you look around you’ll find other blogs, some with diagrams, about escalation and rests. Something that should be recognised is that, what appears a small triumph or victory lap for one character may not be for another. Dealing with multiple story lines among a group of characters allows you to add another dimension of escalation and rest and that doesn’t necessarily count toward over stimulating your readers. Some readers will root for one character, others for another. What might be seen as a resolution for one character can be interpreted as an escalation for another and that will apply to your audience too. The escalation/rest swing doesn’t need to be totally rhythmic, it’s not a pendulum. Life is erratic, why should your story be any different.
That’s by no means the exhaustive list, I’ve missed a bucket load but I hope these will help you develop your work and maybe encourage you to go looking for more tools for your toolbox.