Writing a Page-Turner: Part 2

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This week, I continue with the second of a three-part series on narrative drive. Part one covered mystery and part three is about dramatic irony.

I’ve been studying narrative drive quite a bit in the past few months and have already gone into great detail about what it is in the post on mystery as well as the Story Grid Editor Roundtable Podcast episodes on Get Out, Murder on the Orient Express and just about every episode of Season 4. If you’re new to this discussion of narrative drive, I highly recommend you check out those resources as well. 

However, for the purpose of understanding this article, here’s what you need to know.

Narrative drive is all about the information the reader has with respect to the protagonist. There can only be three options namely mystery, suspense and dramatic irony. Which option you use, and when, will determine the emotional engagement your reader has in your story and the questions your reader is asking about the events in the story.

Suspense is when the reader and the protagonist have the same level of knowledge and is used primarily to create a sense of curiosity, tension and empathy. In his article on narrative drive, Shawn Coyne says that suspense “binds the reader to the character. It’s as if the reader becomes the character.” We need to know what will happen next “because the storyteller has put us inside the ‘body’ of the lead character.”

That question, ‘What will happen next?’ will drive your narrative. It will keep your reader turning pages.

While the theory is simple enough to understand, to really know how it works, you need to study how the masters have used it and you need to practice creating it. There are no short cuts on this one.

In part one of this series, I devised a series of questions for analyzing narrative drive at the scene level. They are:

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

For my study of suspense, I’ve taken my process one step further. Using Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film, Rear Window, as my masterwork, I’ve created a spreadsheet and mapped out the narrative drive from beginning to end. 

You can download the spreadsheet here.

It’s a fairly tedious process, but it reveals some fascinating information. 

I want to pause here to mention that completing a narrative drive analysis of your story should only be done after you’ve made sure that your story works. So, answer the Editor’s Six Core Questions and complete the Story Grid Spreadsheet first. Then, and only then, complete a narrative drive analysis to find any areas of your work that might be losing momentum. 

How to Complete the Spreadsheet

The first thing I did was list all the scenes and/or events in the story, and number them. This is the same information you would have already created for your Story Grid Spreadsheet.

Then, I identified the main story lines in Rear Window. As a thriller, the A Story (or global story) is all about Thorwald and whether he killed his wife or not. The B Story is the love story between Jeffries (Jeff) and Lisa. There are a number of smaller subplots involving the neighbours, but I listed the main ones only. Those that I omitted, like the woman carving the sculpture, didn’t have much of an impact on the A or B stories.

Finally, I created columns to list the form of narrative drive at play in the scene, to identify what information was being given in the scene, what questions were being raised in the scene and when (or if) those questions were ever answered. 

I could have added another column to list the emotion evoked in the reader but, as you can see from the spreadsheet, Rear Window relies so heavily on suspense that I could analyze that on a global rather than scene level.  

Hitchcock keeps the viewer with Jeff, inside Jeff’s apartment throughout the entire film (except when he falls out the window near the end), so for the vast majority of the story, we know what Jeff knows. There are a couple of notable exceptions, of course. Scenes 13 and 26 both flip over into dramatic irony, and there are a couple of beats of mystery throughout the film. I go into great detail about these exceptions in Season 4, Episode 9 of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable Podcast (airing March 6, 2019), but let me review the highlights.

The two instances of dramatic irony are used to cast doubt about Jeff’s state of mind and to evoke a feeling of dread in the viewer. 

Casting Doubt: The first instance of dramatic irony makes us doubt Jeff’s state of mind. For eight scenes Jeff is convinced that Mrs. Thorwald is dead, but we saw a woman leave the apartment. We don’t know for sure that it was the wife, but it makes us question Jeff’s assertion. 

Evoking a Feeling of Dread: In the second instance of dramatic irony, Jeff is so busying scrounging for bail money that he doesn’t see Thorwald leave his apartment. By this point in the story, we know Thorwald killed his wife, as well as the neighbour’s dog, and he’s assaulted Lisa. Thorwald knows that Jeff has been watching him and that it was Jeff who sent the letter. So, the fact that we know Thorwald is on his way to Jeff’s place, is like jet fuel for the narrative drive of the story.

This is an excellent example of Hitchcock’s famous ticking bomb technique. (Keep in mind that the terms suspense, mystery and dramatic irony are used interchangeably. Here, Hitchcock is explaining how giving the audience more information than the character (i.e., dramatic irony) can increase the tension in a story.)

“The element of suspense is giving an audience information. Now, we’re sitting here and suddenly a bomb goes off. Up we go, blown to smithereens. What does the audience have? Five or ten seconds of shock. Now, we’ll do the scene over but we tell the audience that there’s a bomb under this table and it’s going to go off in five minutes. This innocuous conversation [we’re having] about football becomes very potent. [The audience] says, ‘don’t talk about football, there’s a bomb under there!’ That what they want to tell us. And their anxiety will be as long as that clock ticks away.”

—Alfred Hitchcock—

A couple of times in the film, like the moment in scene 19 when Jeff asks Lisa to bring his slides to him, the narrative drive shifts to mystery at the beat level. Jeff knows something about the flower bed that we don’t know. It takes less thank two minutes of screen time, but we’re rivited. We’re trying to figure out what Jeff knows that we don’t. What clue is being presented that we aren’t seeing?

These brief periods of dramatic irony and mystery help shape the story into a compelling piece of art. They’re like crescendos or accents in a piece of music. Composers don’t write symphonies with all instruments playing in every bar at the same volume. They shape the music by playing with tempo and volume, and by highlighting different instruments. Writers do exactly the same thing. We use the tools in our own tool box—like the forms of narrative drive—to shape the stories we’re telling. If Hitchcock had strictly used one form of narrative drive at every unit of story, he would have created a song with only one note. He would have lessened the viewing experience for his audience. 

Although Rear Window uses both dramatic irony and mystery, the main driver of the film is suspense. Like Jeff, we’re constantly wondering whether Thorwald killed his wife, or if indeed any crime has been committed at all.

“Setting up the suspense with multiple choices and outcomes is only the first part of creating narrative drive. The second part is that you must convincingly ‘zag’ after the reader is convinced that the story will ‘zig’. If you don’t the reader will figure out what is going to happen in ten seconds.”

—Shawn Coyne—

Rear Window does an excellent job of zigging when the viewer expects a zag. The effect is that we’re constantly asking questions about Thorwald’s guilt or innocence. However, we’re also wondering about Jeff’s state of mind (and by extension, our own inability to figure out what’s going on). One minute he’s very clever and astute, the next minute he’s drawing conclusions that simply don’t seem logical. As a result of suspense and a close point of view, we’re in step with Jeff the entire story, reviewing the facts, drawing conclusions and then second-guessing those conclusions. Sound arguments are presented on both sides which keep us off kilter just enough to compel us to keep watching.

Let’s examine these scenes with Detective Tom Doyle. Doyle is an old army buddy of Jeff’s and has been called in to help investigate the suspicious activity at the Thorwald residence.

Both men are making sense here. Doyle is right when he says that Jeff hasn’t witnessed a murder, or seen a dead body. He’s right when he says that it’s too obvious and stupid a way to commit murder, and he’s right when he says that Thorwald is too cool and relaxed to be a man who has just committed murder. The audience has been thinking these things too. When Doyle makes inquiries all indications are that Mrs. Thorwald simply went out of town.

On the other hand, Jeff also has valid reasons for thinking that the woman has been murdered. He has a point when he says that Thorwald’s wife couldn’t have gone out of town because she’s sick in bed, and as we’ve already seen, she requires constant care. Even though Jeff is an amateur sleuth, he realizes the superintendent’s information isn’t proof of Thorwald’s innocence because it came from Thorwald himself. Doyle, the professional detective, missed that. 

This sort of back and forth goes on throughout the entire film; one of them makes a good argument and sways the audience to one belief, then the other presents an equally good counter argument and pulls us back toward the opposite belief.

In this scene, we see suspense and mystery working together.

The scene starts with a beat of mystery that causes us to ask three questions:

  • Jeff has an idea, but what is it? What’s he planning to do?
  • Why does he want the paper?
  • What is he writing?

By using a high camera angle, Hitchcock keeps us guessing for as long as possible. We see the message at the last possible moment—in other words, we know only when we need to know. A high camera angle isn’t something that a novelist can do, but there are other ways we can withhold information from our readers. For example, we could easily have Lisa write the note instead of Jeff. 

Once the note is written, the scene switches back to suspense. The audience is watching events through Jeff’s camera lens, and like Jeff, all kinds of questions come to our minds.

  • What will Thorwald do when he sees the letter?
  • Will Lisa get caught running down the hallway?
  • Will she get caught outside the back door?
  • What will Thorwald do now that he knows someone is on to him?

That’s two forms of narrative drive and seven questions in two and a half minutes of storytelling. Not bad, hey? Most of the questions are answered within the scene but the big one (What will Thorwald do now?) pulls us through to the end of the movie. 

“One of the biggest secrets of suspense is setting up questions that the reader must have answered…what happened, whodunnit…the more questions the better. [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—

The audience, whether viewer or reader, is on a need-to-know basis. Regardless of which form of narrative drive you’re using, the key to getting the audience to ask questions is to withhold information. This is one of many reasons why long passages of exposition in which you dump a bunch of information, don’t work. 

Information dumps kill narrative drive because they keep the audience from having to ask questions. No questions, no drive. 

At both the micro (scene) level and macro (global story) level, Hitchcock doles out information one morsel at a time. 

Let’s revisit the scene in which Jeff looks at the slides of the flower bed. He knows something we don’t, but what? Hitchcock has to fill the audience in on what’s happening. He could have done it with a simple piece of dialogue. Jeff could have said, ‘Thorwald buried the knife and saw in the flower bed. I know because those two yellow zinnias are shorter than they were last week. That means he must have dug them up and replanted them’.

He could have done that but he didn’t because that would have been an information dump; it would have been giving too much information too quickly.

Instead, Hitchcock makes us wait. He makes us go through the exercise of looking at the yard and the slide, and comparing the two. I wasn’t able to find a video clip of this scene, but I do have an audio. Have a listen:

It takes nearly two minutes to reveal all the information in this beat (and yes, it’s a beat within a larger scene), and during that time we ask ourselves:

  • Why does Jeff want his slides?
  • What is Jeff looking for?
  • Which murder has he solved?
  • How does the slide solve the dog’s murder?
  • What does the dog’s murder have to do with Mrs. Thorwald?
  • What’s the difference between the flower bed and the slide?
  • What one important change does Jeff see?
  • Why is the height of the yellow zinnias important?
  • How could the flowers be shorter?
  • What’s buried in the flower bed?
  • Will Lisa dig the saw and knife from the flower bed?

Which method do you think is more effective?

Passive audience members will watch this scene completely unaware that they’re asking themselves eleven questions in two minutes. It happens sub-consciously. But we’re writers and if we want to improve our ability to tell stories, we don’t get to be passive. We must consume stories actively so that we understand the craft behind the storytelling. 

From the spreadsheet I completed, you can see that Hitchcock does the same thing for the story as a whole. It takes one hour and thirty-three minutes to answer one question; Did Thorwald kill his wife?

Do you know which form of narrative drive your story relies on most heavily? If it’s suspense, Rear Window is an excellent masterwork for you to study. After all, who better to learn the technique from than the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. 

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.