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This week, Valerie pitched Get Out as a great example of Narrative Drive. This 2017 horror film was directed by Jordan Peele from a screenplay by Jordan Peele of Key & Peele fame.
Genre: Horror > Uncanny
- Beginning Hook – When Chris goes to visit his girlfriend’s parents’ house for the weekend, he must accept their racist behaviour or else jeopardize his relationship with the woman he loves. He decides that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal and even allays Rose’s concerns.
- Middle Build – When Chris gets hypnotized, he must learn to regain control of his mind, or fall victim to the Armitage family. He fails to overcome Missy’s power of suggestion and is taken prisoner.
- Ending Payoff – When Chris regains consciousness and realizes he’s trapped, he must find a way to escape or suffer a fate worse than death (a lifetime in the sunken place). He outsmarts his antagonist by putting cotton in his ears, and escapes the Armitage household.
- What does it mean?
Let’s review what we mean by narrative drive.
It all has to do with how much information the writer is sharing with the reader. (Remember, the reader wants a puzzle to solve.) Industry insiders use the term narrative drive to describe why they like a book and how effective the story is in grabbing and holding their attention. Robert McKee articulated how that’s achieved.
He said that there are three main ways to drive a narrative; dramatic irony, mystery and suspense. Dramatic Irony is when the viewer/reader knows more than the character. Mystery is when the character knows more than the viewer/reader. Suspense is when the viewer/reader and the character have the same amount of information.
In horror movies we also have moments of surprise (for example, a jack-in-the-box jump scare). They definitely keep the audience engaged in the story. So, I’m going to refer to surprises as the “little buddy” of suspense, because the audience and the protagonist both have the same amount of information, and both are startled.
Of course, jump scares don’t translate well to the written page, but that doesn’t mean that surprise doesn’t work well as a form of narrative drive. I’m developing a working hypothesis about this—now, I’m still testing it, so don’t be confused if you hear me talk about it differently in future.
Right now, here’s what I’m thinking. In novel form, “surprises” are major turning points, either active or revelatory.
For example, in Get Out, the deer is a jump scare. While that scene could certainly be in a novel, it wouldn’t work the same way. But when Chris jumps out of the chair in the third act, it would be represented as an active turning point in novel form, and when he pulls the cotton out of his ears, it would be a revelatory turning point. In the movie, these moments are accented with music. In a novel, to give these moment maximum impact (and be surprising) they’d have to be set up properly.
Other examples of surprise as revelatory turning points include the reveal that Georgina is Grandma, and the groundskeeper is Grandpa.
Again, I’m going to refer you to Anne’s excellent Fundamental Fridays article on setups and payoffs.
Leslie – Quick question on this point. If I think about narrative drive, it seems to be something that is forward looking, shaped by the questions that arise within the mind of the reader that keep them engaged and interested in moving through the story. When we think of surprise, it seems to be something that is backward looking, that causes the reader to review what’s happened before. So I’m wondering how surprise relates to narrative drive. Can you talk about that?
Valerie – That’s a really interesting perspective. I hadn’t looked at narrative drive as something that’s ahead of the reader pulling him forward. I see it as a tool we have to grab the reader’s attention and keep them wondering what’s going on. And surprises certainly do that. They’re like little jolts of adrenaline (as in jump scares) or moments where we get a new piece of information that make us sit up and take notice. Of course, this is something I’m discovering for the first time (I wondered how to deal with the deer jump scare and that led me down this rabbit hole!). It’s absolutely something that I need to study more and as I do I’ll test that looking forward/looking back approach. Thanks!
- Why do writers need to know this? Remember, readers want a puzzle they can’t solve; they keep reading in an effort to solve that puzzle before the end of the book, hoping and praying that the author is smarter than them—that the author will give them an ending that is surprising but inevitable.
Puzzle-solving is all about having the right information at the right time. Narrative drive is how you parcel out that information. It’s one of the key ways to to keep the reader interested in your story.
- How does a writer use this concept to create a great story?
I think all good stories make use of all three forms of narrative drive, but which one you favor should be determined by your global genre. As Valerie’s going to point out, horror depends pretty heavily on suspense. Crime, not surprisingly depends on mystery. Why? Well, why do we read crime stories? For the puzzle, yes, but also because crime stories turn on justice and injustice, and we read them at least in part to feel like there are good people out there fighting and solving crimes and maintaining order. Remember: mystery is when the character knows more than we do, and what’s more reassuring than a detective or investigator who is one step ahead of us in solving crime and catching criminals?
By the same token, we read and watch horror stories in order to experience the thrill of fear and terror without actually endangering ourselves. What could bring that sensation closer than moving along step by step with the victim or protagonist as the monster is slowly revealed?
Just a final note on dramatic irony–and this is speculative on my part. It would seem to be the narrative drive best suited to the internal genres. We watch and read internal genre stories in order to feel some kind of relief or satisfaction when the protagonist gets what’s coming to them, either negative or positive, and what better way to feel that than to be one step ahead of the protagonist, to understand a little more than they do, to feel like we’re already at the finish line, rooting for them?
Of course, narrative drive and point of view are tightly twined together, and that’s a subject for another whole podcast…or book. But just keep in mind that when you leave the protagonist’s point of view, you will tend to create dramatic irony, and when you stay strictly within it, you will tend to create suspense.
Valerie – Like the Power of 10 Progressive Complication analysis we did with Waking Ned Devine, this is another huge topic that we need to study more. I’m actually researching now for a future Fundamental Fridays article (or series of articles), so watch your inboxes for more on that.
- Why is this film a good example of the writing concept?
The first thing I need to say about analyzing a story’s narrative drive, is that it’s best done at the sequence or act level. Scene-by-scene analysis is possible I guess, but when I tried to do that for this film, I nearly lost my mind. Why? Because Jordan Peele is so keenly attuned to narrative drive that, although this story primarily uses suspense, moments of mystery and dramatic irony are woven in masterfully. He uses them as accents. There aren’t hard breaks between the types of narrative drive, rather they ebb and flow with one another.
Anne – And that’s a big factor to take into account with almost all the principles of Story Grid. A well-written story will have organic ebbs and flows and fluid boundaries, not just from one form of narrative drive to the next, but in things like progressive complications, or whether a character’s crisis decision is on the page or in subtext. As we say quite a bit around here, “It’s squishy.”
So pulling back to the macro level to get an overview and be able to say confidently that this movie relies mostly on suspense–that’s a skill I think we’ve all developed by analyzing a lot of stories.
Valerie – Ok, so I’m going to hit the highlights here:
Teaser: The film starts with a teaser. Andre’s abduction starts the story with dramatic irony; the audience knows this has happened but Chris doesn’t.
Act 1: Interestingly, Act 1 also starts with dramatic irony. While Chris suspects that Rose’s family might have a problem with his being black (or at least be caught off guard by it), we know that something is afoot. We know danger is in the air (although we don’t know what exactly), Chris only suspects it. He does express concern for life and limb (“I don’t want to get chased off the lawn with a shotgun”) but he doesn’t really think his life is in danger; if he didn’t he wouldn’t go on the trip.
However, once we see how Missy and Dean treat him, we slip back into suspense. Rose clearly has Chris’s back (right?), and although the Armitages are definitely strange, we don’t have any more information than Chris. By the end of the Act, we’ve taken our cue from Chris. Yes, they’re racist—even Rose admits to that—but it’s expressed as awkwardness with the issue, not hatred. In the director’s commentary, Peele said that for a black person in an all-while environment, this is a best-case scenario.
Act 2: Chris is aware that he’s being hypnotized while it’s happening but then forgets, so there’s a brief period of dramatic irony, but only brief. Chris catches back up to us very quickly. When he wants a cigarette and realizes that the thought of it makes him sick, he knows he was hypnotized. Dramatic irony here was used to heighten tension. The fact that Chris figures it out quickly, demonstrates that he’s a smart guy. He’s alert, he’s paying attention to what’s going on around him. If he is in danger, he has a chance of surviving. Again, this is use of dramatic irony to (1) move the story forward and (2) setup a future payoff.
The party is pure suspense – neither Chris nor the audience knows what’s happening until Andre (now Logan) turns around. This is the payoff from the teaser setup. Yes, we’re in dramatic irony, but it isn’t new information and we don’t know much other than this is the guy who was abducted. It has the effect of raising more questions in the viewer’s mind. We have questions and so does Chris.
Interestingly, Rod tells Chris exactly what’s happening, but it sounds too wild to be true. Because of the source of the information (the comic relief character) even though we’ve been told, we don’t believe it. Even Rod doesn’t really believe it.
Anne – The auction scene does an amazing job of making mystery bleed into dramatic irony in way that augments the audience’s feeling of shock. The POV changes–Chris is not present in the scene, and we witness it almost purely as the camera or a reporter. This is critical. All the guests are gathered and have bingo cards. Rose’s father is in front of them, but instead of calling out bingo numbers, he begins silently gesticulating. People in the audience raise their bingo cards. What is going on here?
That’s mystery. These people know something we don’t know. They pose a question that we want answered.
But just as we begin to realize that the guests are bidding large sums by holding up their cards, and that this is an auction, the camera pulls back and we see what they’re bidding ON: a photograph of Chris himself. At that moment, the mystery is solved, and the dramatic irony begins, because now we understand something that Chris hasn’t yet figured out: he’s there to be sold. The cutting back and forth between the auction and the private conversation between Chris and Rose builds our tension as we witness him beginning to suspect something though he still has no idea how horrific it is.
Valerie – When we studied Carrie in Season 2, I said: Horror stories require suspense. When the reader is in step with the protagonist, he’ll be on the edge of his seat wondering what will happen next. Mystery can work under certain circumstances, but dramatic irony is the doom of horror stories. When the reader knows more than the protagonist, he loses interest very quickly.
The issue with Andre/Logan is a major turning point (in fact, it’s the midpoint shift). Tension has been building, things have been weird but up to this point we understand why Chris has stayed at the house. He’s just trying to get through this weekend. He loves Rose and he’s putting up with this for her sake. But now things are different. Now he wants to leave. If he didn’t decide to leave now, we’d lose faith in him. We know he’s a smart guy, staying beyond this point doesn’t make sense.
Rose tells Chris that they’ll go home, that she’ll make something up and that she’ll deal with her parents. This eases the tension in the moment, we think Chris might be safe and he thinks he’ll be safe.
But remember, we’re in dramatic irony here at a major point in the story. Doesn’t that go against what I said in Carrie? Doesn’t that risk losing the audience’s attention? Yup, it sure does. And Jordan Peele knew it. Here’s what he had to say.
Jordan Peele: “Chris is suspicious but is pacified, but the audience knows he’s in for it. [The leaving sequence] is a very tricky moment because you don’t want the audience to be so frustrated because we’re so far ahead of this character who can’t see what’s going on. So, very quickly I had him catch up. And not only catch up, but get a step ahead of the audience so we can trust our protagonist again.”
The leaving sequence is all suspense, and it’s all about Rose. Like Chris, up to this point we’d believed that Rose was in his corner. Whatever else happened, he wasn’t alone. Finding the pictures in the closet shifts our belief and Chris’s, but we don’t know what they’re about. Rose said she’d never dated a black man before. Is that true or not? If she lied, was it for his benefit somehow? Like Chris, we’re wondering what’s going on with her.
There’s a question about that closet door—it bothered me that it was open and that Chris had not looked inside before. Here’s what Peele had to say about that: “Rose is so sick and twisted that she always leaves that door a little bit open just in case they want to find…part of the thrill of the hunt is to leave an opening for Chris to find these pictures.”
When Rose makes up the story about Chris’s dog going to the vet, we’re more confused than ever. Is she trustworthy or not? As soon as she finds the keys we know, just like Chris, that he’s in deep trouble. Although exactly what kind of trouble, we don’t yet know.
Act 3: The third act starts with some comedic relief, and we’re in dramatic irony again. We know that Rod is looking for Chris. Again, this is brief and it has a purpose; it gives us hope. It increases anticipation. When the police laugh at Rod, our hopes are dashed.
By the time we cut back to Chris tied to the chair, we’re firmly back in suspense. We don’t know if Rod will track him down (as his friend, Chris can hope that he’ll come to rescue him, like we do, but no one knows for sure).
The surgery scenes are also suspense: while the audience sees it unfolding, Chris is aware of it because he’s already watched the video. In fact, that video is a device that Peele used to make sure that the audience and Chris have the same amount of information.
There’s a moment of mystery when we have the closeup of Chris pulling at the cotton. We see that he has an idea, but he doesn’t know what. Again, Peele is using something other than suspense to increase attention and drive the narrative, and again, it’s a relatively brief period because his plan is quickly revealed. We’re quickly brought back to a state of suspense. Peele is making sure that the viewer and Chris are in step; one not getting ahead of the other for very long.
Testing the Proposition
Kim – This film is amazing for so many reasons. Once you’ve seen it, your mind can’t help but replay it and pick out all the subtleties you missed the first time through. (Oh that’s why she wanted him to quit smoking…to preserve his body for the buyer!) It’s similar to the way I felt after watching the Sixth Sense, which I only realized as I was preparing my notes for the podcast which made me wonder if Get Out is in fact a Worldview-Revelation plot, and when I went to check the conventions, sure enough it meets them all.
Protagonist is an expert in their field: Chris is a successful photographer, his gift is his “eye” for the world, to see things that other often overlook. Also, as a black man, he has an expertise about the way the world works. So this combination sets him up as someone who is aware of his surroundings and can pick up on the subtext of what is really going on.
A clear goal or want that they are actively pursuing that involves solving some kind of mystery.
Clues that tip them off that something is not quite right (opposite of red herrings): The way that Walter and Georgina are acting, Missy’s hypnosis, everyone’s behavior and specific dialogue at the party, finding the photos of other men in Rose’s closet.
This is the revelation moment (the Key event in a Revelation story, the moment when the protagonist realizes the Truth. It’s not just a twist, it’s a reversal of all the protagonist believed about themselves or their circumstances): This plays out in three sequential parts. First when Rose drops the act and says, “You know I can’t give you these keys right?” and Chris is knocked out. Then when he wakes up in the chair and watches the video from Rose’s grandfather. And finally when Chris’s buyer, art dealer Parker Dray, comes on-screen to lay it all out–they will be transplanting Parker’s brain into Chris’s body. Originally Chris is concerned Rose’s family will not approve of him being black, and also thinks Georgina is sabotaging him Rose is white. But it turns out Rose’s family is not racist the way that Chris originally believes, they do not want to destroy black bodies, they want to appropriate black bodies.
The Truth is directly related to the protagonist in major way: Chris was not brought there to meet Rose’s family but to be shown off as merchandise for purchase.
Strong Mentor figure: Chris’s friend Rod who calls it out from the get go, pursues the leads, and comes to the rescue.
Big Social Problem as subtext (racism, misogyny, class conflict, etc.): Racism but it’s not all that subtextual 🙂
Shapeshifters as hypocrites, secondary characters say one thing, do another: pretty much everyone but Rose most of all.
Win-but-lose, lose-but-win bittersweet ending: Chris survives and gets away but the truth is so horrible he will never be rid of it.
The key element that writers are after in order to create narrative drive is interest, how do we get a reader/viewer to get interested and stay interested. Robert McKee says, “This task is next to impossible unless the design attracts both sides of human nature–intellect and emotion.”
He suggests we do this by arousing curiosity, which stimulates our intellectual side by posing questions and opening situations, that our mind then tries to answer to close. But in order to get those answers we must continue with the story, so we are driven to stay; and by arousing concern, which stimulates our emotional side through empathy and a desire for positive values (justice, strength, survival, love, truth, courage) to win out. If we can empathize with a protagonist and have a reason to be concerned that what McKee calls “the center of good” is in danger, we will also be driven to stay with the story, to find out what happens.
Mystery is when the characters have more information than the audience (this could be the protagonist or antagonist). The audience will receive clues indication that there is more to know/some information is being withheld and that creates intellectual interest aka curiosity.
Suspense is when the characters have the same amount of information as the audience (McKee posits that 90% of fiction operates like this, where we are attuned to the characters experience and know what they know as they come to know it). This creates both curiosity and concern (intellectual and emotional interest).
Dramatic Irony is when the audience has more information than the characters. This can be used in a variety of genres (a comedy of errors for example). Hitchcock was huge proponent of dramatic irony (example of scene with shower / shadow). It certainly works in horror when we know where the monster is and the victim doesn’t, leading to inevitable screaming at the TV “DON’T GO IN THERE!” Dramatic irony operates primarily through concern. Even though we know more information (either how something is going to turn out, say from a framing story, or other information from an alternate POV) we are still driven to stay with the story because we are emotionally invested in the outcome. How do things end up that way, or what will happen when they find out X?
These three different elements of narrative drive play out on all levels of story–global, series, scene, beat.
The opening scene begins as suspense (with the car following Andre), adds mystery (who is the guy in weird knight helmet? And why is he attacking Andre? Is he dead or alive?) and then the entire scene puts us in place of dramatic irony in context of the rest of the story. This continues to happen throughout the film, weaving these micro elements to create this drive.
Just as Anne explained, the Silent Auction is an amazing example of this. It becomes a huge moment of dramatic irony for the audience. There was another moment of dramatic irony when Chris is headed outside to smoke and we see Georgina walk by in the background, but Chris doesn’t. It adds an extra element of creepy.
There was a distinct moment of mystery when Chris picks up the bocce ball to take out Jeremy (how the heck is he still awake?) and then we get the reveal that he has cotton in his ears from the chair. Just prior to this, during the moment when he is staring so intensely at the stuffing coming out, I was so distracted by the brown skinned chair full of white stuffing and the stuffed deer head on the wall, I didn’t anticipate him plugging his ears coming at all. (I’m still on a symbolism / metaphor high from our Wizard of Oz episode!)
Anne – That was a brilliant use of misdirection, which is probably a necessary component of Valerie’s Little Buddy of Suspense, aka Surprise.
Kim – The term suspense is frustrating because, like genre, it gets used in a lot of different contexts and means something different each time. I wanted to address difference between McKee Suspense and Hitchcock Suspense. When McKee is referring to suspense, he means the definition we’re talking about here–having the same information as the reader. When Hitchcock is talking about suspense, he means tension, the angst we feel when there is conflict in a scene.
Hitchcock Suspense vs Surprise – there is a video on YouTube where Hitchcock discusses the difference between Suspense and Surprise and again what he is referring to is suspense as drawn out tension vs surprise as a sudden moment with no build up. In fact the example he gave in the video uses dramatic irony to create this “suspense” aka tension. Several other videos discuss suspense vs surprise (where suspense means tension) and also used dramatic irony to illustrate the difference.
There are tons more great Hitchcock videos online and I highly recommend you take some time to dig into to those.
So surprise seems to be an element that could relate to any one of the three. It seems that often the creepiest and scariest moments are created not from pure suspense but from intentional placement of all three–mystery, suspense, dramatic irony–that oscillate our levels of curiosity and concern.
Get Out works so well, but that it’s not because it relies on suspense (same amount of knowledge as the character), it’s because we often have dramatic irony (more information than the character). Which is also interesting in light of it playing out as a Worldview-Revelation story (similar to Arrival). Such wonderful examples of innovation on every level.
Leslie – There’s a lot going on with narrative drive in this story, but I want to focus on the Controlling Idea/Theme and other elements that are delivered particularly well in this story.
This is what I identified as the Controlling Idea/Theme: Life is preserved when the protagonist outwits societal monsters by looking beneath the veneer of polite society, no matter how awful the truth, to discover and exploit the monster’s weakness.
Which brings me to Social Thrillers. These stories focus on issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, or nationhood, often within the format of external genre films, usually film noir, drama, horror. (To me this is akin to the Conspiracy plot we talk about in the context of Action stories though they appear in other stories as well). You could use society as the villain or monster in a wide variety of content genres.
The film explores a very dark side of our culture: The monster is polite society. Peele said, “The best and scariest monsters in the world are human beings and what we are capable of especially when we get together. I’ve been working on these premises about these different social demons, these innately human monsters that are woven into the fabric of how we think and how we interact, and each one of my movies is going to be about a different one of these social demons.”
With specific details of Chris’s experience and the family’s gaslighting, along with close psychic distance, Peele conveys the more universal discomfort of feeling isolated in a crowd of people. There is no one to validate the sense that things are very wrong in the midst of polite cocktail party conversation during a weekend in the suburbs. Except for Katherine, and of course, she’s in on it.
This film contains complex subtext and speaks to different audience members on different levels, from the person who watches for pure entertainment to those who appreciate the social commentary within film. One commentator notes, “[I]t’s not just a certain shade of liberalism that’s being lampooned here, it’s the fervour of allies so desperate to prove their bona fides that they end up consuming and subsuming the very voices they’re meant to be supporting. Fetishisation can be as harmful as bigotry, it says; and when you’re told to get out, run.”
The film shifts effortlessly between creepiness and humor in a way that is deeply satisfying. One writer commented that the ending payoff revelations are cathartic because of the depth of the creepiness. Humor along the way releases tension, but also it allows different people to enjoy the film.
Peele combined aspects of style and mood to create a claustrophobic setting in the open air and sunshine, high-ceilinged rooms and expansive suburban home. The contrast adds to the feeling of unease evoked by other story elements.
Important takeaway for writers: A stellar story like Get Out doesn’t happen by accident. From the commentary, we can tell that Jordan Peele understood the message he was trying to convey, reviewed several masterworks, innovated the conventions and obligatory scenes of the genre, and made deliberate choices about the details within the story.
Valerie – As Anne said, narrative drive and POV are linked. When studying narrative drive, analyze the story from protagonist’s pov first.
Let’s take a minute to look at Rose’s reveal; it’s surprising but inevitable. Our minds go back over the story and land on the scene with the cop. Then she’d seemed like a champion, but in hindsight we see that (1) she knows exactly what the rights are and (2) she does not want the authorities to know who Chris is. She knows that he’ll go missing and she doesn’t want any record of him having been in the area, especially not with her.
We also remember the party scene when Rose introduces him around. We realize she’s displaying him. We understand that when she suggests they go for a walk (and she keeps him away until after dark) that she’s actually allowing time for the auction.
Alternate (Original) Ending: Chris is arrested. Peele felt that this was too real. Although the screenplay was written during Obama era, the film was released during Trump era. By then, viewers need a hero.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Reid Bracken. Reid writes:
During my story, can I get inside the head of more than one character using 3rd person narration? Not head hopping in a scene, but just get into the heads of two to three characters, only one character per scene as long as it drives the story?
I got the impression you thought I could only get into the main character’s head throughout my whole story.
Anne – The short answer is Yes, you can get inside the head of more than one character.
The slightly less short answer is that your choice of whose point of view to use in a given scene is going to determine, or at least figure strongly in, your narrative device–as I hope today’s discussion has made clear. So switch point of view if it serves your story. A rule of thumb is not to switch within a scene, but honestly, I’ve seen that rule effectively broken, especially in older novels. Don’t do it if you aren’t 100% sure of yourself.
Remember, too, that a strict, close point of view–that is one that puts us inside a character’s mind and feelings, where we see what they see and hear what they hear–makes us sympathize with that character. If you’re going to set the reader up with that kind of sympathy, be sure you pay it off by making sure that POV character plays a strong role in the story.
If you have a question about Narrative Drive, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by going to storygrid.com/resources, clicking on Editor Roundtable Podcast, and leaving us a voice message.
Join us next time to find out whether Kim can make the case that the 2011 movie version of Jane Eyre is a great example of using a framing story as a narrative device to raise stakes and create pacing. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?
Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.
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