Editor Roundtable: Murder on the Orient Express

 

This week, Valerie pitched Murder on the Orient Express as a great example of the narrative drive of mystery. This 1974 film starring pretty much everyone was directed by Sidney Lumet from a screenplay by Paul Dehn, based on the 1934 detective novel  by Agatha Christie.

Interesting side note: the novel was originally published under the title of Murder in the Calais Coach. This much less fascinating title was chosen to avoid confusion with Graham Greene’s novel Orient Express, published two years earlier.

 

 

  • The Story

    Genre: Crime > Murder Mystery > Master Detective

    • Beginning Hook – When a passenger is killed on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot must help his friend (the director of the train line) by solving the mystery before the police arrive, or stand aside and let local police investigate the matter. Poirot decides to help his friend and begins his investigation.
    • Middle Build – When Poirot discovers that there are too many clues at the scene of the crime, he must interrogate all passengers of the Calais Coach to discover who the murderer is. When the clues do not point to one clear killer, Poirot must conclude that all 12 passengers are culpable.

    Note: there’s really no crisis per se of the middle build. Yes, Poirot expresses frustration at the clues not lining up, but he forges on nonetheless. There’s no question whether he’ll continue or be able to solve the crime. It’s possible to see the revelation of the murderer scene as part of the middle build, which would take Poirot out of the ending payoff. But for my money, the middle build consists of the interrogations and the ending payoff the revelation of the murderer.

    • Ending Payoff – When Poirot discovers whodunnit, he must decide whether he’ll give the authorities the simple answer to the crime (that a mystery man boarded and then left the train), or the complex one (that all 12 passengers of the Calais Coach murdered Ratchett). Poirot decides to let the director of the line make the choice and accepts the decision, although in doing so he must wrestle with his official report and his conscious.

    The Principle

    Valerie To Recap: Narrative Drive is all about how much information a reader has in relation to the protagonist and there are only three options to choose from.

    1. Mystery is when the protagonist knows more than the reader.
    2. Dramatic Irony is when the reader knows more than the protagonist.
    3. Suspense is when the protagonist and the reader have the same information.

    Each of these three options elicits a different response from the reader; they raise different questions and evoke different emotions. It’s because of these questions and emotions that the reader is compelled to turn the page. She needs answers and catharsis.

    A couple of things to keep in mind as we begin our study.

    First, these forms of Narrative Drive do not exist in isolation. A story will not be purely mystery, dramatic irony or suspense, although it can be primarily one or the other. For this podcast, I’ve chosen to study Murder on the Orient Express because it primarily uses mystery as its form of narrative drive. In the Fundamental Fridays post I wrote about mystery, I used the pilot episode of the BBC series, Sherlock, for the same reason.

    Second, there is no standard definition of these terms—there isn’t even a common understanding that these three things make up a technique known as Narrative Drive. The words, like the story principles themselves, are fluid. In fact, they’re often used interchangeably. For example, when Alfred Hitchcock talks about suspense, he’s referring to the thing I call dramatic irony. The definitions I use are the ones I’ve learned from Shawn. Shawn, in turn, learned them from Robert McKee. The bottom line here is that when storytellers discuss their craft and what keeps a reader’s attention, they’re invariably talking about how much information a reader has in relation to the protagonist.

    Finally, it’s impossible to separate Narrative Drive from other story principles. It is inherently linked to point of view, progressive complications, escalating stakes, exposition as ammunition and pacing, to name a few. Anne, Leslie and Kim are going to take us through a few of them in a minute.

    For now, let’s take a look at how Agatha Christie handled Narrative Drive in Murder on the Orient Express.

    I’d argue that Murder on the Orient Express primarily uses mystery and the question that sustains the entire story is, ‘Who killed Ratchet?’. It evokes curiosity in the viewer.

    Alfred Hitchcock said that mysteries are intellectual puzzles and of course, he’s right. We don’t really relate to any of these characters or have empathy with them. By the end of the story we sympathize with the passengers; we can see why they’d want to kill Ratchett. And, we empathize with Poirot because we’ve all been in situations where, when faced with a crisis, we’re not sure whether we should choose the simple answer or the complex one. But that’s only at the very end.

    That said, while it’s primarily mystery, it’s not exclusively mystery.

    Act 1, where we meet the characters, is primarily suspense because we know as much about them as Poirot. Yes, the other passengers know that they intend to murder Ratchet, so they have more information than Poirot.

    But remember, Narrative Drive is about how much information the reader has in relation to the protagonist. Not how much information the protagonist has in relation to the other characters. This can get very confusing, very quickly, especially in stories like these; here, the train’s passengers know more than Poirot — at least initially.

    In Act 2, Poirot reviews the clues and interrogates the suspects. Immediately it’s clear that he knows more than the audience. For example, he knows that there are too many clues in the room. He knows that Ratchett’s real name is Cassetti. He knows that every single passenger is lying to him.

    A quick note about the prologue: It’s tempting to think that this creates dramatic irony, but it doesn’t because it doesn’t give us more information than Poirot. Its purpose is to give us the same information that he has so that later, when we see ‘aisy arms’ on the burned paper we can make the connection with Poirot.

    With master detective mysteries it’s important that we, as writers, not let the detective get too far ahead of the audience. If we do, they’ll get lost. Conclusions that the detective comes to will seem unreal, like there’s no possible way he could have known that. This is one of the many problems that the Kenneth Branagh film had. When his Poirot exclaims that Ratchett is really Cassetti, it comes out of nowhere and it’s just … weird.

    In Act 3, Poirot reveals who the murderer is. This is one long scene that moves from mystery to suspense. He knows whodunnit, but we do not. The Narrative Drive moves to suspense once Poirot lets the director of the train line decide whether to let them go or turn them into the police. Although it’s not really that suspenseful because, let’s face it, his decision isn’t really that much of a surprise.

    As part of my study, I’ve come up with a way to analyze the Narrative Drive at the scene level, so I thought it might be useful go through one scene to show you how I approach it. That way, you can analyze the Narrative Drive in your own novels.

    At the moment, I’m using a spreadsheet with six key questions on it. So, I have a column for the scene number, a column for the scene description, and then six columns for the questions. Those questions are as follows:

    • What form of Narrative Drive is used in the scene?
    • What information is given in the scene?
    • How are the stakes raised/plot complicated?
    • What emotions are evoked in the viewer?
    • What questions are being raised in the viewer’s mind?
    • When are the questions answered?

    To illustrate, let’s take the discovery of the dead body scene. (approximately 38 min mark)

    • Form of Narrative Drive: Suspense; at this point Poirot doesn’t know any more than we do.
    • Information Given:
      • Ratchett was drugged then stabbed.
      • Bianchi (director of train line) has a weak stomach — he can’t stand the sight of blood or the dead body.
      • Time of death between midnight and 2:00am.
    • How are the stakes raised/plot complicated? This is the inciting incident (even though it’s so late in the story) so it establishes the stakes and kicks off the plot.
    • What emotions are evoked in the viewer? Curiosity.
    • What questions are being raised in the viewer’s mind?  
      • Who stabbed Ratchett and why?
      • Why 12 times?
      • Who drugged him and why?
    • When are the questions answered? These questions are answered in the ending payoff when Poirot confronts the passengers.  

    So, to analyze the Narrative Drive in your story, go through each scene and answer these six questions. What this will enable you to do, is figure out:

    1. how information is being doled out to the reader. Remember, the reader is on a need-to-know basis.
    2. Then, as a result of this information, what questions is the reader asking herself about the story?
    3. And how is she reacting emotionally and/or intellectually to the story? Is she compelled to read on?

    If you want more examples of how to apply these questions to scenes, check out the Fundamental Fridays post I wrote on mystery. There I analyze three scenes from Sherlock.

    For now, I’ll turn it back to Leslie.

    Other perspectives on the story

    Kim– Progressive Complications and Stakes

    Since Murder on the Orient Express has little to no internal genre for me to study, Valerie asked me to take a look at the Progressive Complications and Stakes, and how they tie into Narrative Drive, which I eagerly accepted.

    But after I watched the movie and made my scene list, I went to pull my notes together and realized I didn’t have a clear enough understanding of how these elements are connected to make any helpful observations or draw any helpful conclusions.

    Whenever I’m attempting to understand something at the fundamental level, my brain has to take a giant step back then walks step by step forward in this kind weird computer-codey if this/then this thing it likes to do, which creates a mental model I can begin follow. In this case, it goes something like this.

    Q: What is narrative drive?

    A: It is what makes the reader want to keep reading…what drives them to the climax.

    Q: What makes us want to keep reading?

    A: When we’re interested in what happens. (aka the opposite of bored)

    Q: How do we create interest?

    A: Thankfully Robert McKee helps us pinpoint this answer in Story: by engaging the audience either intellectually or emotionally.

    Q: How do we engage the audience intellectually?

    A: By creating curiosity.

    Q: How do we create curiosity?

    A: By withholding information.

    Q: How do we engage the audience emotionally?

    A: By creating concern.

    Q: How do we create concern?

    A: By providing information.

    So we can see that curiosity and concern (aka interest) are evoked by the amount of information the audience has at any given time.

    • When the audience has less information than the characters (mystery) they experience curiosity
    • When the audience has more information than the characters (dramatic irony) they experience concern
    • When the audience has the same amount. Of information as the character (suspense) they experience both curiosity and concern.

    So today we are discussing the driving force of Mystery, that is when the audience has less information than the characters.

    A quote from Robert McKee on Story:

    “Mystery means gaining interest through curiosity alone. We create but then conceal expositional facts, particularly facts in the Backstory. We arouse the audience’s curiosity about these past events, tease it with hints of the truth, then deliberately keep it in the dark by misleading it with “red herrings,” so that it believes or suspects false facts while we hide the real facts.”

    This paragraph then becomes our checklist!

    1. Create then conceal expositional facts, particularly in the backstory
    2. Arouse the audience’s curiosity about these past events
    3. Tease them with hints
    4. Then deliberately keep them in the dark with misleading red herrings

    Tada! Now they believe / suspect false facts while we hide the real facts.

    Let’s look at this in terms of progressive complications and stakes with Murder on the Orient Express.

    The prologue: little girl of wealthy family is kidnapped, many members of the household are helpless to stop it, one is even accused of being involved, parents pay the ransom, but the little girl is found slain. A total gut wrench.

    Here are my observations: This provides us information and we feel concern. It establishes stakes (Injustice and Death) so we understand clearly what kind of story we are in and what is possible later, meaning the risk of death is on the table.

    Communicating this is crucial for any story you write. Beginnings are the place to establish multiple aspects of the genre: reality (setting), style (prose), content (life values) – this is not exhaustive but you get the idea. Don’t be afraid to show us what is at stake up front. Then, when we things progressively complicate, we have clearer context to understand what that means and why we should care (aka be interested and keep reading).

    Okay, then we jump to five years later, without any additional information. We are introduced to characters (one of which is Colonel Arbuthnott, a name my 8 year old would think is hysterical), all the while guessing at what their connection could be, if any, to the tragic events in the prologue. We meet our master detective, Hercules Poirot, and form an initial impression, which for me was that he’s a little bit silly, but is a renowned detective who has just completed a high profile case and has now been called to London.

    As the train pulls away from the station, quite dramatically by the way, we have a certain amount of information provided just based on the characters who’ve been introduced, and their odd demeanors.  Because we know Death is possible we can’t help but wonder if they are connected to the previous or some future murder. The title of the story is The Murder on the Orient Express. So, it’s just a matter of time before things go down! (how’s that for some dramatic irony). Our detective seems to overhear/notice these moments too but plays it off coyly, so we get the impression that much of his demeanor is a schtick, disarming others which allows him to gain access to information he needs, but it is, ahem, a mystery.

    It’s an interesting exercise to pause and walk through WHAT WE KNOW at any given point in the story.

    Prologue to leaving the station (set up) – the initial crime, the current cast of characters (sort of), the fairly confusing circumstances surrounding Poirot’s sleeping arrangements, and that the journey is to take three days.

    From leaving the station to discovering the body (the murder) – Mr. Ratchett is a jerk and is being threatened, circumstances the night of the murder (after Poirot’s odd and highly amusing bedtime routine, there are several odd goings-ons in the night), then in the morning the door is locked from the inside with the chain

    From beginning the investigation to completing the investigation (the investigation) – all the revelations and complications that arise during questioning the passengers, and the additional clues/evidence that comes up (button, uniform, dressing gown, dagger….just to name a few)

    Disclosing the solution (solving the crime) – when Poirot finally enlightens us and walks us through the two possible solutions. #1 Anonymous mafia guy who escaped the train at the snow drift, or #2 that all 12 of them are co-conspirators to the murder because of their connection to the Armstrong case, which he details one by one.

    In the end, he allows the simpler solution #1 to be provided to the police, rather than what he knows to be true. This is a very interesting turn of events and there is something very specific I want to point out that I think allows it to work.

    After Poirot uncovers part of the hidden message from the burned paper AISY ARMS, he tells us the rest of the story about the people form the prologue case. There were two criminals involved: the actual murderer was tried, sentenced, electrocuted but Cassetti was the second to a bigger boss, got ransom money and got away (INJUSTICE)

    [note: this is a great set up for the fact that there is more than one murderer in this case! But introducing that it is possible. Surprising yet inevitable…]

    After Daisy was found slain:

    Mrs. Armstrong – gave birth to a stillborn baby & died

    Mr. Armstrong – shot himself

    Maid who was falsely accused – jumped out of window

    CASSETTI IS RESPONSIBLE FOR FIVE DEATHS (EVEN MORE INJUSTICE)

    Pierre – wife died of grief, daughter died of scarlet fever (later we’ll learn that Pierre was Paulette the maid’s father, so if his wife died of grief from their daughter’s death, this brings Cassetti’s death toll even higher – MORE INJUSTICE)

    Continuing to build these stakes of INJUSTICE from the Daisy Armstrong case shown in the prologue is really important for the ending. If Poirot is going to make the decision he makes (letting the real murderers go free by choosing the simpler solution #1) then the audience HAS TO UNDERSTAND what is truly at stake. In this case, that the 12 affected acted as a jury and delivered “true justice” or “poetic justice”.

    As I went through my scene list / notes, it was easy to see each and every moment of progression and establishing of the stakes (something I am really hoping will be equally as clear to me when we study the global internal genre films!)

    In the case of today’s film, we experienced progressive complications and progressive revelations. In the context of a crime story, this has a valence aspect to it, as though complications move us away from the truth and therefore justice and revelations move us toward it. Detective finds clues REVELATION, in this case too many clues COMPLICATION, that lead to possible suspects REVELATION that are then ruled out COMPLICATION. And because we understand the STAKES (life values), these negative complications and positive revelations have a greater impact. We need to know what we’re trying to achieve.

    Another interesting element is the snow drift complication, forcing them to a halt, but then help is on the way, and then help arrives – this is a clock element that progressively complicates things and raises the stakes for Poirot: if he doesn’t solve the case by the time they reach their destination, the murderer could go free and justice would not be served. This could also affect his reputation as a renowned detective (slight performance aspect here)

    All of this seems to point back to the fundamental principle to KNOW (meaning choose) YOUR GENRE. Specific genre choices lead to specific limitations (the life values at stake and core emotion). Knowing these explicitly influence HOW you want to tell the story to create Narrative Drive (interest through intellectual and emotional engagement, meaning creating curiosity and concern by withholding and providing information at intentional times throughout the narrative.)

    Knowing the the CORE EMOTION of a genre, aka the experience the audience is seeking, can inform the tactic you use:

    Mystery – withhold information to create curiosity (less than the characters)

    Dramatic Irony – provide information to create concern (more than the characters)

    Suspense – provide some but not all information (same as the characters)

    Easy right?!

    Anne – Mini-Plot Structure

    Totally easy. I’m studying complex story forms this season–nested stories, nonlinear narrative, and multiple stranded stories that intertwine.

    I was interested in this movie because I remembered it as a mini-plot structure–that is, the stories of multiple characters woven together in a single overarching plot. I don’t think it really quite qualifies as miniplot now that I’ve watched it again, because the individual characters barely have stories of their own. But it’s an example of a type of story that was popular in the 1970s and still seems like a lot of fun.

    Other examples are classic disaster movies like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and Towering Inferno (and parodies of them like Airplane!), which were built around multiple characters with their own stories, brought together by the disaster. The TV series Lost used the technique in its opening episodes as recently as the Aughts.

    A couple of really ripping narrative nonfiction books I’ve read in recent years also made great use of this multi-strand story-weaving method. One was The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, by Timothy Egan, which was about the massive western wildfire of 1910.

    Another was Eruption: The Untold Story of Mt St Helens, by Steve Olson.

    What these nonfiction narratives and good old disaster movies have in common is the way they set up a series of characters–fictional in one case and historically documented in the other–who would have no relation to each other except through the coming disaster. We meet the individuals, generally representing a range of social classes and backgrounds, and develop sympathy, empathy, or antipathy towards them, depending on how they’re presented.

    None of the characters in these kinds of stories has precisely a full internal arc. But we are given enough to connect with them, care about them, or suspect them.

    This is where I’ll disagree with Valerie just a little. The characters in Murder on the Orient Express certainly don’t have a lot of scope for internal stories that make us feel connected to them, but we’re given enough glimpses of them to develop definite preferences.

    Dramatic irony is operating in most of these cases because we the readers or viewers already know that these stories are about a massive wildfire, a volcanic eruption, or a capsized ocean liner. We know that each character we meet is going to be involved somehow, though the characters themselves don’t know it yet. This is the Hitchcock definition of suspense: we’re eagerly waiting to find out who’s going to live, who’s going to be a hero, who’s going to die, and so on. We may suspect one seeming villain, who turns out to be innocent or even heroic. The dignified matron might turn out to be the arsonist. Will the cynical loser redeem herself by saving the child?

    The Vanessa Redgrave and Sean Connery characters in Murder on the Orient Express are made sympathetic with a hint at a love affair. We feel for the John Gielgud character, whose dignity is so far above the coarse rudeness of the rich man he waits on. When the same rude boss deprives Anthony Perkins of his dinner, we feel for him, too, even though in 1974 we still think of him as the guy from Psycho, and will naturally suspect him of being the murderer. The Ingrid Bergman character is frightened and out of place enough to garner some sense of pity.

    Just like the true life and fictional disaster stories, here we have a wide array of social classes, from a real princess to the humble missionary, from the sophisticated count and countess to the American car salesman, and several members of the service class.

    I think the disparate types of people are an important element, because we naturally wonder what would bring them all together, especially in an exclusive environment like the Orient Express. That’s a little mystery underlying the big overarching murder mystery. What brings a beautiful young aristocratic couple swathed in furs and silks together with the loudly-dressed talent agent and a car salesman with gold teeth?

    Presenting the reader or viewer with diversity–at least diversity of social status in this case–gives the writer a chance to explore the overarching story from different points of view, so that when adversity unifies them, that unity feels even more moving and powerful than it would if they were all from the same team or walk of life.

    The closing scene of Murder on the Orient Express shows all these people sharing a moment of profound emotion and understanding as they solemnly drink their champagne toast. They all came together for a dire but strangely noble purpose. They succeeded, and they’ll probably never meet again. It was surprisingly moving.

    So my takeaway as a writer is that multi-stranded or multi-character stories might work better if the cast of characters is clearly diverse on some scale, because the diversity can stand in for a certain amount of back story or internal arc, and help create reader empathy, engagement, and suspense.

    Leslie – POV, Conventions, and Villains

    POV and Narrative Drive: The intersection of POV and narrative drive relates to the information available to the reader or viewer.

    Murder on the Orient Express is presented largely in what Norman Friedman would call dramatic mode, which limits the reader’s or viewer’s information to what the characters do or say. This is a subset of third person narration, but it’s as if we’re watching a play, rather than hearing the internal thoughts, and feeling the visceral experience and emotions of the characters. There is no overt narrator providing information, with the exceptions of the shots of newspaper headlines along with dates that indicate that the present time of the story is five years after the kidnap and murder of Daisy Armstrong.

    I wanted to see how the POV choice in the book might be different, so I read the opening chapter of the book. It’s very similar, but we get some commentary from a covert, unidentified narrator related to what the characters say and do. Norman Friedman would call this neutral omniscience, which could allow the reader access to the internal experience of the characters, but the writer can choose not to share that information, especially in a mystery.

    When you choose and evaluate your POV choices (and narrative circumstances or device) you should consider how these choices work with your narrative drive choices. POV has to do with the sources of information available to the narrator (based on who they are, where they are in time and space relative to the story, why they are telling the story). Narrative drive, as Valerie explained, relates to the information revealed to the reader compared to what the protagonist knows.

    What does that mean in the context of a master detective crime story? When so many characters know the solution to the puzzle presented by the crime story, revealing their thoughts would be extremely tricky while maintaining a sense of fairplay (more on fairplay in a moment). So editorial omniscience, or any other POV that could give us access to the criminal’s thoughts would usually be a bad choice in these stories. (Although Christie took on this challenge in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.) You could tell this story from the detective’s POV (in close third or first person), sharing the internal experience , thoughts, and emotions, as happens in the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley, an amateur detective, but with a master detective like Poirot, generally you want to withhold his preliminary hunches and conclusions that would reveal the solution to the puzzle too soon.

    To learn more about these choices for your story, check out this article about POV choices and this one about narrative situation or device.

    Innovating Conventions: I’m studying conventions this season, and though my focus is on the action subgenres, this film presents an interesting example of innovating genre and category conventions.

    Here are the conventions for a typical story within the Murder Mystery-Master Detective subgenre of Crime Stories.

    • Master Detective: They solve the crime through mental analysis and effort and are rarely put in danger in the classics within the subgenre. Hercule Poirot with his little grey cells is a detective of great reputation and skill. One of his strengths is the the way he can see through Red Herrings.
    • Victim: The victim of the crime before us is Mr. Ratchett, but one might argue that the real victim is Daisy Armstrong and her family and friends.
    • Villain to be brought to justice: Again, it depends on how you look at it, but for Ratchett’s death, we can say that the group received poetic justice.
    • Multiple innocent suspects: This is a convention that Christie innovates, as I discuss below.
    • A MacGuffin (the villain’s object of desire, can be conscious or unconscious): The family and friends of Daisy Armstrong want justice/revenge on her behalf.
    • Investigative Red Herrings (seemingly revelatory false clues that mislead the detective): Too many to list all of them here, but I think the biggest one is stabbing Ratchett twelve times, though this, with several other clues, ultimately helped Poirot solve the crime.
    • Murder: In master detective stories of this era, the crime is a murder that happens offstage, and there is little blood or gore. The emphasis is on solving the puzzle, not creating excitement as in a crime thriller.
    • Making it personal: The villain must manipulate the detective in order to get what they want. Here, the collective villains seem appeal to Poirot’s sense of justice, more than manipulate him.   
    • Clock: There is a limited time for the criminal or detective to act: The killers have a small window of opportunity to kill Ratchett without being detected. Poirot must unmask the killer before the snow can be cleared, allowing the criminal to escape at the next stop. But also, once he learns the truth, Poirot must decide how to see justice done before the local authorities can meet them.  

    Remember that the conventions of the content genre are promises the writer makes to the reader that set up the story. Agatha Christie wrote enough stories that she developed her own conventions, beyond those of the genre (crime) and subgenre (cozy murder mystery [Jane Marple] or murder mystery with master detective [Hercule Poirot]). Until Murder on the Orient Express was published, her detectives had always revealed one murderer, and readers came to expect that as a convention of her stories.

    Some fans cried foul, claiming that Christie wasn’t playing fair in this story because readers at the time believed one Christie-specific convention to be a detective unveiling a single culprit, who is then brought to justice. I would instead say she innovated her style of story and used her reader’s expectations as red herrings, paying  them off in a satisfying way.

    If you are interested in writing crime stories, I recommend the following resources:

    Antagonists, Villains, and Criminals: We often say that the key to writing a good villain is to understand that they are the hero of their own story, in other words, that they have a point. I wholeheartedly agree, but would take it a step further. It’s even more useful to figure out what that story is. For example, in Murder on the Orient Express, if you were to view the story from Mrs. Hubbard’s perspective (that is Daisy Armstrong’s grandmother), you could see it as a caper without the comic elements—and find the conventions and obligatory scenes explicitly or implicitly. (See our discussions in Mad Money and Waking Ned Devine episodes.) Capers explore crime from the criminal’s perspective and explore what drives ordinary people to commit crimes as well as our notions of justice. In a complicated story like this one, with lots of suspects, clues, and red herrings, plus fairplay with the reader being critical, you might want to take the time to identify the story and genre from the antagonist’s point of view.   

    Listener Question

    To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Bruce Boyer on Twitter. Bruce asks:

    The crisis of a scene is a perfect time to go to the next chapter, as a great cliffhanger. Why wait for the climax and resolution? In other words, why not cut the scene right there with a question?

    Kim: You’re right! A turning point / crisis can be a perfect time break a chapter. BUT beware on overplaying that card. As Robert McKee says, “Repetitiousness is the enemy of rhythm”.

    So just a quick clarity for everyone, a scene is a small but complete unit of story that has a clear turning point where the life value shifts, either +/-, -/+ or bad to worse, good to great. A chapter is a break in the narrative but it is an artistic choice to assist narrative drive.

    So breaking at the turning point can be a great tool and one that is a good fit for certain genres (action, crime, thriller) but you want to be selective with when/where/how you do this so that you don’t in fact have the opposite effect you’re going for. As we can see with Murder on the Orient Express, narrative drive does not rely on artificial breaks in chapters but on engaging the reader intellectually and emotionally by providing and withholding information to create curiosity and concern.

    If you have a question about narrative drive, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by clicking here and leaving us a voice message.

    Join us next time to find out how The Shawshank Redemption demonstrates Jarie’s subject of study this season: how set and setting drive great dialogue. 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.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Comments (9)
Author Leslie Watts

9 Comments

ANNE HAWLEY says:

In a purely external-genre story like Murder on the Orient Express, the protagonist need not undergo a lot of internal change for the story to work. Sherlock Holmes never changes either. There’s no internal genre to speak of.

Big action stories sometimes fall into this same category: James Bond, Indiana Jones…those types of action hero characters don’t really change and we can hit the reset button over and over again on them. They just keep solving crimes and defeating villains. The narrative drive in these stories comes from the reader/viewer’s desire to see justice done, a puzzle solved, or villains thwarted, rather than from identifying closely with the struggles of the protagonist.

Reply
Larry Pass says:

Like Anne, I’m old enough to have watched the movie when it first came out, and that brings up a question for me:

When we reread a story or watch a movie for the second (or third, or…) time, we always know more than the protagonist, or anyone else in the story. Does this mean that the Narrative Drive is always Dramatic Irony on subsequent reading, or do we need different categories to describe Narrative Drive – what keeps us reading or watching – for when a reader or audience comes back to a story a second or third time?

Reply
Valerie Francis says:

Hi Larry,
Narrative Drive is best analyzed on a first read, from the protagonist’s point of view. Yes, as soon as we’ve read a book once we’re in a state of dramatic irony. However, the idea is to consider the story from the position of someone experiencing it for the first time.

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Loretta says:

Wow! What a great episode! I can’t say enough about how instructive and fun this was. Now I have to go back and watch that old movie again!

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Valerie Francis says:

It’s a bit of fun for sure. I like this version, but for me David Suchet will always be Hercule Poirot!

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One of the best episodes yet, especially Kim’s breakdown of progressive complication and stakes. I don’t usually read capers, but I started reading this book on Friday and was quickly reminded that Agatha Christie’s success was no accident. Thank you so much. The editor roundtable podcast is my favorite.

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Valerie Francis says:

You are very welcome! I’m thrilled that we’re your favourite podcast, and yes I agree, Kim did a fantastic job! (as always)

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Martha Knox says:

I’ve read this book, Murder on the Orient Express, many times. It is one of my favorite Agatha Christie stories. Although I didn’t care for this actors portrayal, but the story is wonderful as ever. David Suchet will be my favorite. I thought the newest MOTOE movie was interesting. I’ve seen all of them. Every time I read and re-reread Agatha Christie’s books I never tire of them. Even when I know whodunit Her character studies, plot structure, dialogue, and more never disappoints. I enjoy reading the subtleties behind the scenes. I loved the breakdown round table. Very informative. My Story Grid copy is well thumbed. Bought three editions, the paperback, the ebook, and the Jane Austin. On my bucket list is to ride the Orient Express. There is a great documentary on it.

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