I’d like to welcome to The Z-Axis one Peter Samet, newly-published author of ZERO ECHO SHADOW PRIME. Peter’s compelling debut proves how well he knows how to tell a good story – here, he shares his insight into the keys to crafting a narrative, and how writers can capitalize on our human nature as storytellers.
Why We Love Stories
The best novels have a certain quality that ensnares the reader’s attention, baiting him or her to riffle through the pages until the last one is flipped. Let’s call it “story magnetism,” for lack of a better term. Unfortunately, story magnetism is often elusive—even the most seasoned authors produce the occasional yawn-fest. Which raises the question: is there any hope for a sure-fire method of magnetic storytelling?
Before I answer that question, I must ask another: why do humans swap stories at all? After all, we’ve been doing it for ages—stories are told in every known society and can be traced far into our prehistory. Cave-paintings told stories. Oral histories were passed through the generations, and the ancient Sumerians eventually wrote them down in cuneiform. Stories are universal to the human condition. But why?
Here’s my take (corroborated somewhat by science): we crave the information transmitted through stories. Pretend for a moment that you’re a child living tens of thousands of years ago, before the days of classrooms, textbooks, and Google. How did you learn to navigate this strange world of ours? How did you learn to properly interact with your fellow humans? Through stories, of course.
Stories of heroism taught you how best to behave, according to the values of your culture. Stories of scandal taught you how not to behave. Gossip, perhaps the crudest form of storytelling, kept you informed of your neighbors’ activities and their overall status within the group. Stories even provided you with practical, life-saving tips. Accounts of the previous flood equipped you to better handle the next one.
Fast forward to modern times, and we’re still telling stories. We crave the underlying information, same as our ancestors. Which brings me to my argument: the key to magnetic storytelling lies in good information management.
Questions and Answers
The most important element of your story is the “ANSWER.” If storytelling were a sport, then the ANSWER is the ball. It’s the thing that captures your reader’s attention. What is the ANSWER answering? Usually a question that you pose (either explicitly or implicitly) in the first act of your story.
Examples of story questions include: “Who is the killer?” “How will the hero overcome these incredible odds?” “Will the hero succeed?” “Why is the hero acting so strange?” Story questions can even be as lofty as: “What is the most ethical viewpoint in this controversy?”
Your story hinges on who knows the ANSWER. Of course you, the storyteller, should know it inside and out. But who else? The villain? The hero? The supporting characters? The physical world of the novel (i.e. clues)? The reader? (Yes, even the reader is allowed to know the ANSWER upfront—I will explain momentarily.)
These three boxes represent the three potential recipients of the ANSWER, and now I shall present to you my method of storytelling in its simplest (and perhaps most clinical) terms.
Step #1: Formulate your question and ANSWER.
Step #2: Check one or two of these boxes to represent who receives the ANSWER at the outset of your story.
Step #3: As the plot progresses, leak the ANSWER to the remaining box(es).
Of course, you’ll also want to consider characterization, goals, themes, tone, setting, and all the other elements of a well-told story—but those are largely just details. The core of your story arises from the flow of information, from ANSWERS spreading across boxes, because Homo sapiens are information addicts.
The boxes you check will determine the type of story you’re telling. (And a quick disclaimer: because of my film background, I will mostly cite film references.)
The mystery utilizes perhaps the most basic and obvious type of information flow. In act one, you pose the question and in act three, you answer it. At the outset, neither the hero nor the reader knows the ANSWER, and the primary joy of reading comes from trying to figure it out.
Obviously, murder mysteries fall into this category, but the mystery structure isn’t limited to whodunits.
Science fiction could fall under this category, as it poses questions about the nature of our universe. The works of Arthur C. Clarke, for example, generate most of their entertainment value by posing such scientific mysteries: “How will the human race continue to evolve?” and “Why did this seemingly vacant alien ship arrive at our doorstep?”
Monster stories (e.g., Alien) can also be classified as mysteries, as they pose the very practical question of: “How do we defeat/evade this monster?”
The “I’ll Show You” Story
Not every story involves a search for the ANSWER. The “I’ll Show You” story is the opposite of a mystery, in which the reader knows from the very beginning that the hero will overcome the odds and save the day. This begs the question: Why should the reader continue flipping pages if they already know the ANSWER? I can think of two reasons:
- Even if the reader knows the hero will succeed, they don’t know exactly how (another mystery).
- But the bigger reason harkens back to our species’ love affair with stories. We enjoy listening to stories, but we also enjoy telling them. So yes, we know the hero is going to win (and maybe the hero is confidant of this as well), but we continue reading because the other characters (the villain, especially) do not yet know it.
The “I’ll Show You” story comes in a variety of flavors.
In the false-accusation flavor (e.g., The Fugitive), the reader knows the hero is innocent, but most (if not all) of the supporting characters believe they’re guilty. And we want the hero to be vindicated in the eyes of society.
In the revenge flavor (e.g., Braveheart or most Liam Neeson flicks of late), the villain wrongs the hero and smugly dismisses their ability to retaliate. Of course, the reader knows better. We eagerly anticipate the villain’s comeuppance, but simple retaliation is not enough. If a boulder were to suddenly fall on the villain’s head, for example, that would be hugely unsatisfying. Rather, we hope the villain is made to see the truth (that they’ve made a huge mistake) before justice is served.
Proving people wrong, both in stories and in real life, is immensely satisfying because it reaffirms our sense of justice and truth.
In the social commentary flavor, the hero and reader are aware of a universal truth (for example, in The Help, we know that racism is wrong), but many of the other characters in the story’s world do not, and the reader takes pleasure in watching their way of thinking wither under the light of reason.
In a tragedy (e.g., Shakespeare), the hero doesn’t know the ANSWER, but the reader does. The ANSWER, of course, is that the hero will fail (or die). Often, the hero possesses some sort of “tragic flaw,” or perhaps they commit an evil act, and while their comeuppance doesn’t provide the same giddy thrill that a traditional villain’s would, the reader is left satisfied nonetheless that justice was served.
Suspense also takes advantage of this dynamic, in which the reader knows more information than the hero. It’s the “don’t open that door!” effect. We know that something horrible awaits the hero behind the door, and we simply cannot tear ourselves away from the page (or screen) until the tension is resolved.
The Secretive Hero
This final story type is less common than the others. The hero knows the ANSWER, but the reader doesn’t. Often the hero acts in peculiar ways and the reader, as well as the other characters, are left to ponder why. The hero hides aspects of their past, which aren’t revealed until the story is almost over. The effect is similar to a conventional mystery tale, except the secret is internal to the hero rather than external.
The Machinist and Rachel Getting Married are the only two stories I can think of in which the primary conflict revolves around a hero’s dark secret (if you can think of others, please let me know). The dynamic is more commonly used as a subplot. An otherwise forthright hero might have a mysterious phobia, quirk, or obsession that isn’t explained until later through backstory.
As you’re probably aware, most stories don’t neatly fit into one type or another. They usually pose multiple questions and provide multiple ANSWERS. Alien, as I’ve mentioned, contains elements of both mystery and suspense. Braveheart contains elements of mystery, suspense, and “I’ll Show You.”
I’ll wrap up this essay by presenting a case that features all four types of information flow: The Lord of the Rings. The overarching mystery of the trilogy is: How will our heroes get the One Ring to Mount Doom? The naysayer is Saruman, and we hope our heroes prove him wrong. The tale is littered with moments of suspense, in which we learn of traps and threats before the heroes do. And often the heroes—Gandalf and Aragorn, in particular—keep secrets from us, frothing our interest for the eventual revelations.
If you enjoyed this post, Peter would be delighted if you would follow him on Twitter for more writerly insights and general nice-guy stuff, or if you would check out his website to learn more about his debut novel, ZERO ECHO SHADOW PRIME.