Writing a Page-Turner: Part 1

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As a novelist, I’m fascinated by what keeps readers turning pages. How do we hook a reader at page one, and keep her spellbound until the end? I’ve been looking for an answer to this question for three years, and my search has led me to something called Narrative Drive.

What is Narrative Drive?

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.

In this three-part series, I’m going examine each of the three forms of Narrative Drive, starting here with Mystery. I’ll also be doing a deeper dive into all three forms in Season 4 of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast.

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.

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. Studying Narrative Drive is like following one thread in a complicated tapestry.

With all that in mind, it is still possible to examine Narrative Drive at every unit of story. It’s even possible to track it on a spreadsheet.

Narrative Drive Compels Readers

The forms of Narrative Drive differ in the amount of information the reader has with respect to the protagonist. They also differ in the impact they have on the reader.

There’s a great confusion between the words mystery and suspense, and the two things are absolutely miles apart. Mystery is an intellectual process like in a whodunnit, but suspense is essentially an emotional process.

—Alfred Hitchcock, American Film Institute

While Mystery creates a sense of sympathy for the protagonist, it doesn’t create much empathy. As readers, we don’t empathize with Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. They’re not like us and we don’t connect with them emotionally. We’re fascinated by them and how their minds work. These genius crime solvers are like intellectual super heroes, always a step or two ahead of us. We’re constantly asking ourselves what clue they’ve picked up on that we have missed. What is it they know, that we don’t know? Mysteries are intellectual puzzles.

Suspense, on the other hand, creates high empathy and curiosity with respect to how the story will end. Because readers have the same information as the protagonist, we’re in step with one another. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next, and when done right, we can’t tear ourselves away. Rachel Watson’s storyline in The Girl on the Train is an excellent example of this.

With Dramatic Irony, the reader isn’t wondering how the story will end, we’re wondering how and why the character did what they did. This creates a feeling of dread because we know where the protagonist is heading. It can be like watching a train wreck. For Dramatic Irony to work, it’s essential to have a compelling protagonist, otherwise the reader won’t engage emotionally. If we already know how the story turns out, the only thing we can wonder about is how the character got from Point A to Point B. It’s not about what happens, it’s about how it happened. It’s about the journey. What was anxiety in Suspense becomes compassion in Dramatic Irony. The King’s Speech and the pilot episode of Breaking Bad are two prime examples.

Exposition Kills Narrative Drive

Narrative Drive then, is about parcelling out information in such a way as to keep the reader asking questions and engaging emotionally with the protagonist. This is precisely why long passages of exposition (also known as information dumps) do not work. They reveal too much information and they do it in a way that distances readers rather than intriguing us. J.K. Rowling has said that she rewrote the first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone fifteen times because she kept giving too much away. In fact, in her first draft, she revealed the whole horcrux storyline.

When you’ve got a series of questions that the reader must have answered you definitely don’t want to give away the answer very quickly. The worst thing in the world is when you build up this thing and then give it away in two paragraphs. That needs to be a scene – a satisfying scene. Even if it’s a pretty good reveal, you’ve gotta milk it. And if you can give away your secret in pieces, even better.

—James Patterson, Masterclass

Narrative Drive is about knowing how much information to reveal, and when to reveal it. It’s about understanding what kind of emotion you want to arouse in your reader. How do you learn to stike this balance so that you create just the right amount of tension in your story? Study and practice.

Case Study—Sherlock: A Study in Pink

While stories aren’t exclusively one form of Narrative Drive, they can be primarily one form over another. Crime stories, particularly those involving a master detective, tend to rely on Mystery and Sherlock is no exception. In the pilot episode creators have done an outstanding job of establishing just how smart the character is. Of course we know that Sherlock has amazing powers of perception, that’s not where the Mystery lies. Rather, it’s in the fact that he uses that ability to gather knowledge that no one else has; not the audience or the other characters.

The Sherlock Holmes adventures are well-trodden literary ground and as the pilot episode, A Study in Pink had a lot to deliver. The characters, setting and premise all had to be innovated in a way that would please die hard fans while also appealing to a wider audience. The writers certainly did their job well. From the first minute to the last, we’re captivated not only by Sherlock’s intellectual skills, but by the developing friendship between him and John. Yes, the acting and production are top-notch, but none of it would be possible if the players didn’t first have a solid script with terrific narrative drive.

1. Sherlock Holmes meets Dr. John Watson

A Study in Pink has two primary storylines. The A Story is the murder investigation and that relies primarily on Mystery. The B Story is the friendship between Holmes and Watson and that one relies primarily on Dramatic Irony. We know that they become partners, investigating crimes together, and know Watson eventually chronicles those events. The scene where Holmes and Watson meet focuses on the B Story, and as you’d expect the scene uses a mix of Mystery and Dramatic Irony.

In this scene Sherlock demonstrates his incredible power of perception by revealing information about John’s military history. Since the audience learned this earlier in the episode, we know Sherlock is right. It gives him credibility in our eyes and sets us up for his next display of brilliance. When he presumes to know about John’s brother, we assume that because he was right before he must be right again. Still, we wonder how he knew. Like John, we’re fascinated and intrigued.

The analysis of the Narrative Drive in this scene is as follows:

  • Form of Narrative Drive: Mystery (Sherlock knows more about John than the viewer) and Dramatic Irony (the view knows that Sherlock and Watson will become fast friends).
  • Information Given: Sherlock has incredible powers of perception. Watson is not enamoured with Holmes at first. In fact, he’s annoyed.
  • How are the stakes raised/plot complicated? The buddy salvation story is complicated because John, although fascinated, is also annoyed by Sherlock. Their friendship is getting off to a tenuous start.
  • What emotions are evoked in the viewer? Fascination. Curiosity.
  • What questions are being raised in the viewer’s mind? How does Sherlock do it? Is he right about John’s brother? How long will John stay mad? How will the relationship go from this to a partnership and friendship?
  • When are the questions answered? Questions about how Sherlock’s deduction skills are answered three scenes later. However, answers to the questions about their friendship are doled out bit by bit over the course of the entire episode, and ultimately the series.
2. John Watson meets Mycroft Holmes

Sherlock, we learn, is not the only person who understands the science of deduction. In this scene John meets “an interested party” who knows things he shouldn’t—couldn’t—know.

The analysis of the Narrative Drive in this scene is as follows:

  • Form of Narrative Drive: Mystery (the interested party knows who he is but we don’t, and he also knows how he got the information from John’s therapist).
  • Information Given: Sherlock has an arch enemy. John may suffer from PTSD, but he’s not a broken man. In fact, he thinks for himself, is quite brave and principled.
  • How are the stakes raised/plot complicated? Someone wants Sherlock observed. The writers are planting an idea in our minds that they’ll pay off later.
  • What emotions are evoked in the viewer? Curiosity.
  • What questions are being raised in the viewer’s mind? Who is this man? Why does he want John to observe Sherlock? He is a danger to Watson or Holmes? How did he get the therapist’s notes? How is it that he too has remarkable powers of observation and deduction?
  • When are the questions answered? Questions to all these answers come in the very last scene of the episode. By holding back the answers until then, the writers were able to use exposition as ammunition with a revelatory turning point in the final moments of the show. Once we know that the “interested party” is Sherlock’s brother, everything becomes clear.
3. Sherlock Gathers Clues

This is a partial clip from the full scene, but you can see that the writers here chose to let the audience see how Sherlock thinks. This peek behind the curtain is a brilliant creative choice because we’ve been wondering it; we’ve been trying to figure out what clues he sees that we don’t. Our question has been answered, or so we think. However, what this technique really does is inspire more questions! For a brief period, the Narrative Drive is Suspense; we know what Sherlock knows. However, it quickly flips back to Mystery because Sherlock is able to put these clues together in a way that we can’t. He therefore draws conclusions long before the audience. The writers have shown us how the magic trick works, but in a way that makes us even more curious than we were before.

This scene also serves to develop the B Story. Remember, at the beginning of the episode, Watson is not overly impressed with Holmes. In fact, he’s annoyed. The crime scene is the third time that John has seen Sherlock’s perceptive powers in action, and Sherlock has explained how he does it. Even though John is an intelligent man in his own right, he acknowledges that Sherlock’s mind is superior in this regard. As a result, the annoyance he’d felt at the outset begins to shift to respect. Here, the scriptwriters are providing a partial answer to a question they planted earlier in the show.

The analysis of the Narrative Drive in this scene is as follows:

  • Form of Narrative Drive: Suspense to Mystery
  • Information Given: A glimpse into Sherlock’s process, clues about the victim including the all-important suitcase, the deaths are the work of a serial killer and not suicides as the police had thought.
  • How are the stakes raised/plot complicated? This scene speaks primarily to the A Story which is all about the crime. So, the fact that they’re dealing with a serial killer, and not loosely connected suicides, raises the stakes enormously and propells the story into the middle build.
  • What emotions are evoked in the viewer? Deeper fascination and delight with Sherlock’s method, increased interest in the case, intrigue about the killer.
  • What questions are being raised in the viewer’s mind? How does Sherlock do it? Is there really a suitcase? If so, where is it? How could it possibly lead to the killer? Will Sherlock or the police find it before there’s another victim?
  • When are the questions answered? We never really understand how Sherlock does it, that’s the question that’s kept us interested in this character for over 125 years. The questions with respect to the suitcase are answered three scenes later, but again, in a way that moves the plot forward and raises even more questions.
4. Sherlock Chooses a Pill

This is the moment we’ve been waiting for; it’s the Hero At The Mercy Of The Villain. One question sustains the entire scene; has Sherlock chosen the right pill?

The intensity is created in large part by the shift in Narrative Drive from Mystery to Suspense. By this time, we’ve developed complete confidence in Sherlock’s powers of perception. We’ve accepted that he will always know more than us. But what happens when his logical mind is of no use to him? Then he becomes just like us. By using Suspense, the scriptwriters are able to pull us further into the story. We develop momentary empathy for an otherwise unempathetic character.

The analysis of the Narrative Drive in this scene is as follows:

  • Form of Narrative Drive: Suspense
  • Information Given: Sherlock can’t resist the game. He’s addicted to the adrenaline. Watson has chosen a side (as the “interested party” told him to do earlier in the episode). Watson has no difficulty acting calmly and courageously under pressure; doubts about his mental health are erased.
  • How are the stakes raised/plot complicated? Sherlock’s life depends on a game of chance. Moriarity, Sherlock’s true arch enemy, has entered the story.
  • What emotions are evoked in the viewer? Fear, anxiety, tension.
  • What questions are being raised in the viewer’s mind? Did Sherlock choose the right pill? When will Moriarity make an appearance in the show? Why would Moriarity develop such an elaborate plan?
  • When are the questions answered? The writers made the courageous choice not to reveal whether Sherlock chose the right pill. They sustained an entire scene on a question they didn’t answer, and the risk is that viewers will feel cheated. That’s not generally the impression you want to leave. I can only surmise that the reason they did it, and the reason it works, is that the scene (and therefore the episode) ends on a much more significant note; the revelation that Moriarty is the mastermind behind the murders. Once his name is mentioned, we forget all about the pill. Suddenly, we don’t care whether Sherlock made the right choice. All that matters is that he’s alive and Moriarty is coming for him.

If you’re not moving the story forward, then you’re standing still. And you’d better be careful about how long you’re standing still because the audience won’t hang out with you as long as you want them to.

—Aaron Sorkin, Masterclass

Evaluating the Narrative Drive in your scenes this way will allow you to pinpoint places where the story slows down or stands still. Slowing the action isn’t necessarily a problem, especially if it’s been done strategically to enhance the overall pacing of the novel. Coming to a halt is problematic though, because that’s when readers will lose interest. They’ll put the book down and not pick it back up again.

To learn how to put storytelling theory into practice, subscribe to UP (the Un-Podcast) with Valerie Francis and Leslie Watts.

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Valerie Francis

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. As a writer, she understands what it feels like to struggle with a manuscript that doesn’t work and has spent many late nights rewriting drafts in frustration. That all changed in January 2015 when she discovered The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know (then in blog form). Since then, she has been studying and applying Shawn Coyne’s methodology and knows from experience how well his technique works. In fact, that’s why she became a Certified Story Grid Editor—to help fellow writers learn to apply these editing principles and ultimately become better storytellers.
Her specialties include: love stories, thrillers, horror stories (especially gothic literature and stories with supernatural elements), mysteries and crime fiction, women’s fiction and middle grade stories. She works with novelists, screenwriters and playwrights.
Valerie co-hosted the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast where each week she, and four of her fellow Certified Story Grid Editors, studied how the Story Grid principles apply to film.
Valerie also co-hosted the Story Grid Writers’ Room podcast, and now hosts UP (the Un-Podcast) which focuses on applying the Story Grid method to prose, and helping writers put story theory into practice.