Narratives – so creative and so hard to write. So many possibilities, characters, scenarios – and no ‘formula’ to make it easy to teach or do.
But here’s some good news. There is no formula. But there is a pattern!
Most professional authors read all through their childhood. They were the ones with the torch under the blankets reading long after parents had called lights out. They somehow managed to pick up the pattern.
Yet authors don’t deconstruct – they don’t share what they know.
The simple pattern to creating a great narrative is not a ‘Formula’, but it is a structure.
Here’s how it goes.
The job of the first paragraph is to make your readers want to know more. Therefore you start with large impact (think James Bond where the opening scene is massive action – chasing, shooting and dying) or at a Moment of Change (the discovery of a diary, the start of a divorce).
Once the engagement of the reader is ensured, then you can afford to slow down a little and start to lay down the plot. The sunny day picnic under the dam wall that will burst. The young child struggling in sport – though they will eventually be an Olympic hero.
The more boring bits – like who, what and why can be covered in two ways:
a) In a second scene – e.g. the wonderful Judy Dench briefing scenes of James Bond. ‘James come into my office, we have a situation in Bulgaria…’
b) Or drip fed throughout the action scene.
My Dad is allergic to me. No joke. Well, no-one in our house is laughing, that’s for sure.
‘Dad, can I…’
‘Dad, about my pocket money…’
‘You said you would…’
‘Achoo! Achoo! ACHOO!’
That’s how all our conversations go lately… Some people give up smoking or peanuts for their New Year promises. My Dad gave up breathing whenever I come near.
(Achoo! by Jen McVeity. Macmillan Education.)
Now it’s time to increase the stakes. To build up great tension, use the Pebble, Rock, Boulder technique. First you set up a small problem.
Let’s take the dam breaking story. Here’s how it might go:
Two kids fight with their parents and storm off towards the dam wall.
Now to create bigger problems.
They notice a crack in the dam wall. Then it becomes a real leak. Water gushes out. More and more of the wall starts to disintegrate. The children panic and try to flee. But one of them trips and injures an ankle. Now they are really struggling.
Time to drop a boulder. This is usually the massive tension scene in a novel or movie.
The dam wall is crumbling, water is flooding the river. The parents are panicking – where are their children??? The two kids are trying to run, but one can barely walk. The water is rising, trees are being washed away, the parents are terrified, struggling to beat their way to the children. How will they all survive???
The tension scene is one of the strongest scenes in a book or movie. (It is usually 20 minutes in a 1.5 hour movie.)
The children find a massive tree – one they have played on since childhood. They start climbing and climbing, helping their parents. The waters flood down towards them, debris is flung against them. Smaller trees are swept away, then parts of houses, whole cars, they watch terrified. Yet high in the tree, in the end, they are safe.
This is the scene that gives richness to the story. This is not a ‘big’ scene, it is quiet, yet packed with emotion.
The children realise how strongly they are loved and the parents know they have been given a miracle to have their children safe.
Often humour is used as a release from massive tension.
The kids might crack a comment ‘Didn’t know you could climb so fast Dad.’ The parents might answer in kind. ‘You just staged that fight for getting out of the dishes, right?’
And then there is a quiet contact, a joining of hands, a smile and a laugh. Healing and growth and a stronger family.
This character resolution is often what students leave out. They get to the climax of the story and then want to wrap it up fast. Character resolution to many students is ‘…and they all lived happily ever after’ or ‘…and then they went home to bed’.
Showing students how to draw out the emotional end of the story is a critical way to add power.
Next time you watch a movie, read a novel or share a picture book with your kids, look out for the Sizzling Start, backfill, Pebble/Brick/Boulder and the character resolution.
Knowing the pattern behind the Story Graph is what makes writing a narrative so much simpler.
Author of 20 books, creator of Seven Steps to Writing Success
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