The Energy that Powers a Story and Drives it Forward

Narrative drive is the energy of a story, the force that propels it forward, the promise that something important is going to happen. You create a strong narrative drive with a focused story goal, strong characters, and the questions you raise in readers’ minds.

For example, in the beginning of my novel More Deaths Than One, Bob Stark is reading that day’s newspaper when he comes across the obituary of his mother, who he had buried twenty years before. This scene generates so many questions that it should be impossible for readers to put the book down until they get the answers to at least a few of the questions. Is the obituary a hoax? If not, how could his mother have died twice? What is Bob going to do? How is he going to find out the truth? How would I react if this happened to me?

When Bob goes to the cemetery to check it out, he sees himself (or rather, a man who looks exactly like him) standing by the open grave with his college sweetheart and a passel of children, which raises the granddaddy of all questions — what the hell is going on? Bob wants to know, and so do readers. (At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.)

I began Daughter Am I with a question. “Who were James Angus Stuart and Regina DeBrizzi Stuart?” Mary asked, trying to ignore the mounted heads of murdered animals staring down at her from the lawyer’s wood-paneled walls. Even though that question is the theme of the book (and “murder” a foreshadowing of events to come) and hopefully will be the question that readers want to know, just voicing the question out of the blue like that is nothing to drive the story. But, as the chapter continues, and we find out that James and Regina are Mary’s grandparents who were recently murdered, leaving her their farm, and that her father claimed they were dead — Now that raises questions. Who were James and Regina, and what did they do that was so horrible their son disowned them?

By the time a few of these questions are answered, if I did my job correctly, I will have raised more questions to which readers will want the answer, and so the story is propelled forward to a satisfying ending.

If the story goal isn’t focused enough, if the characters are weak, the questions the story raises in readers’ minds falls under the heading of “who cares?” Why am I reading this? Why isn’t anyone doing anything to resolve the problem? When is something going to happen? Not questions you want readers to ponder!

What about you? What propels your story forward? What questions does your story (ideally) raise in readers’ minds?

2 Responses to “The Energy that Powers a Story and Drives it Forward”

  1. Rod Marsden Says:

    For well over a decade I wanted to write about my experiences in an office. I had been an office worker for over nine years for the same firm and couldn’t wait to get out. I had worked with some good people but the place was still run very much like a Kafka nightmare. I didn’t think this was right and I still don’t think this was right.

    Franz Kafka worked in local government in Europe way back at the beginning of the 20th Century. He was well aware of the one suit fits all kind of mentality that goes with government and wrote about it. Twenty years ago I wrote a short story called The restaurant which was very much in the style of Kafka and showing the one size fits all view is often a dangerous and destructive one. Recently I have been working on Desk Job. It touches upon the Kafka notion that one size does not always or even most of the time fit all. It was and is my way in to talking about my office experiences.

    Large offices need rules and regulations. What they also need are administrators who can interpret these rules and regulations and apply touches of humanity to them. This is what drives desk Job. I have examples of administrators who know their stuff and their people. I also have administrators that make their work places into reverse sexist and reverse racist versions of hell.

    Lewis Carroll was writing surrealist stuff way before the tag surrealism came into vogue. He is the big daddy of writers such as Terry Pratchett and yours truly. The craziness and the absurdity you will find in Desk Job could have come from a 21st Century Lewis Carroll and helps things along because it returns the reader to how the groupings of people in the office actually work and think.

    Ultimately, Desk Job is about a murder that took place on a floor of an office building. Straight up we know who was killed and we know who did the killing, at least in the physical sense, but not why. It is the why and who else was involved that matters.

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