Well This is Awkward. (A discussion on narrative drive)
If you haven't seen it yet, the Story Grid Podcast recently published its last episode. This series was meant to run for much longer, but that's how things go sometimes! So my "Things I Wish I'd Said on the Story Grid Podcast" will now be a plain old monthly newsletter. It was fun while it lasted! But, this month's post is still inspired by what would have been our next movie selection: See How They Run.
On the plus side, you can expect to see more specific content in future months to the genres that I specialize in: fantasy and crime! This post will be a transition from the more general podcast content to focusing on these two genres. There are more overlaps between the two than you'd think!
Using Tools from the Crime Genre to Generate Narrative Drive
Even if you aren't writing a crime story specifically, one of the most compelling forms of narrative drive comes from creating a mystery within the plot of a story. (Note: in formal Narrative Drive terms, this usually takes the form of "suspense," where the reader knows as much as the protagonist. I'm using the term "mystery" to refer to a long-standing question whose answer will get revealed over the course of a story) Many novels feature a central plot point around uncovering a truth -- two of my favorite examples of non-crime stories that heavily rely on a mystery are Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Mistborn.
I read the Harry Potter books much later in life, but Chamber of Secrets was an instant favorite for me because it read like an Agatha Christie novel set in Hogwarts. It's worth noting that almost all of the Harry Potter books actually rely on some kind of mystery to keep driving the plot forward even though they are generally, at least in Story Grid terms, Action stories. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry and company are trying to figure out what the heck is even in the Chamber of Secrets, and who is responsible for opening it. Harry uncovers different clues along the way, some of which lead him closer to the truth, and some of which divert his attention away from the true culprit. This story is moved by clues and red herrings, two of the essential elements of a great crime story! Along the way, Harry investigates different scenes within Hogwarts and tries to synthesize the information he has into new leads or insights in pursuit of the truth -- yet another key element that you'll find in a good crime story.
Similarly, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson has one of my favorite mysteries of all time: the true story of how the Lord Ruler came to power. Mistborn is another clear action story, so we get less of the mystery driving every single scene of the story. However, this mystery adds to the existing narrative drive that we get from the heavy action as Kelsier builds the skaa rebellion and executes his plan while Vin learns how to be a Mistborn and participates in the rebellion. It's a slower burn, but its threaded throughout the story beautifully: because the goal is to take down the Lord Ruler, we get to participate in unraveling the story of who he actually is and what that means for actually beating him. It starts by building up the lore around him over the course of the beginning of the story, and then the pivotal moment of discovering his diary, which moves the mystery into its next phase and introduces a new question: the Lord Ruler seemed super normal, what the heck happened to him? The story uses a substantial red herring so that at the final reveal, which doesn't take place until the last 10 or 15% of the story (classic Sander-lanche style), all of the pieces come together as though we've compiled all of the clues, clarified the red herring, and come to understand the truth. On your second read, like with any great crime novel, you'll see that the clues were pointing you to the truth all along.
Great, so two of the most successful authors of our time have expertly crafted stories. What else is new? Well, here's how tools from the Crime genre can help you do the same.
If your story has some long-standing question that your protagonist needs to find the right information in order to uncover the truth, then you might just have a mystery weaved into your story! In order to make sure that your mystery is adding to your narrative drive, and not slowing it down, treat it like they're discovering a murderer. This means that your protagonist should be finding clues that lead them toward the truth one piece at a time. You should also consider having one or more red herrings. This means that there are pieces of information that your protagonist specifically misreads, leading them to the wrong conclusion. Make sure that your red herrings also point to the truth (otherwise your audience will feel you've cheated), but that the protagonist misunderstands in some way. This could look any number of ways, for example:
They've focused or over-indexed on a single aspect of the red herring
They've put the red herring into the wrong piece of the puzzle (connected it to a different clue or connected it wrongly to the puzzle as a whole)
They've jumped to a conclusion based on the red herring
The red herring supports a long-standing belief or assumption held by the protagonist
Additionally, along the way, your protagonist should be synthesizing the information they have to generate insights. This is part of how you both keep a sense of progress in the mystery as well as mislead your readers! Your readers are following along with the protagonist and collecting information with them, so when the protagonist draws conclusions, generally, your audience will at the very least be influenced by those conclusions (if not accept them wholesale from the protagonist!). This enables you to misdirect their attention so that you have that final, crucial piece: the reveal of the truth. Whatever long-standing question your protagonist has been in pursuit of answering, there should be a key moment when the truth is revealed (whether the protagonist has the revelation in the nick of time or too late). At this moment, the clues, and even the red herrings, should all make sense so that the reader experiences the "Aha!" moment right alongside the protagonist. Generally, a reveal like this should take place near a crucial part of your global plot (for example, this insight leads to the final showdown with the villain).
To help you develop your story's mystery, here are some questions and tools to consider:
Most importantly: how does the mystery in your story relate to your primary plot? Generally, you want to ensure it's tied in to your Global story so that it doesn't feel tangential to the main story.
Start with the truth! I always tell my crime clients to start with the end in mind. You can't create a puzzle if you don't know what the final picture is! Or it's way harder to do, anyway. Start with the revelation your protagonist needs to have and use it to work backwards to create the pieces they need to discover in order to ultimately get to the truth.
What clues can your protagonist discover that lead them toward the truth? How do they discover these clues?
Who does your protagonist need to meet in order to get closer to the truth? (Think about different characters who may have information your protagonist needs like witnesses in a crime novel)
How does your protagonist misunderstand one or more of the clues they discover?
What theory or theories does your protagonist have about the truth of the mystery?
In what order does your protagonist discover these clues? Think about what information your protagonist needs, the logical progression of events in your story, and how the order in which your protagonist receives information can delay the revelation of the truth.
Does your story feature a mystery that your protagonist is unraveling? What challenges do you run into crafting and integrating a mystery into your story?