Mastering The Narrative Line
Previous posts in this series on Marketing are indexed here:
In writing classes, emphasis in the explanation of how to sell your fiction is always focused on the Narrative Hook.
The Narrative Hook is one of those dense mysteries for new writers, especially Romance genre writers because most of a Romance is not NARRATIVE at all, never mind "hook" worthy.
The whole point of a Romance is the emotional Velcro that binds two into one -- yes, Velcro has "male" and "female" hooks that make it stick together, so it is a good analogy. That's not "narrative" but worldbuilding and Theme-Character-Worldbuilding Integration.
We have discussed construction of Narrative Hooks, and will no doubt revisit that pure craft skill. But it occurs to me to wonder if the real reason new writers have such an amazingly difficult time crafting a Narrative Hook lies within a lack of conceptualization of what a Narrative Line is, where it comes from, and why readers expect it. What the Narrative Line has to do with Art and the reader's determination to memorize your byline and find all your books.
The Narrative Line begins with a Hook (on Page 1) and ends usually just before the Plot Climax and Story Conflict Resolution. The Narrative Line ends with the bald articulation of the THEME, which is most effective when phrased as a "one-liner." Those single lines of dialogue that audiences take from movies and quote out of context to reference the underlying theme of the movie -- which has suddenly appeared in their real life.
People communicate in references, in one-liners, and so must your characters.
The Narrative Line is the "Show-Don't-Tell" explication of the Theme.
The Narrative is not the Event Sequence (or Plot, Because Line), and it is not the Character's Life Lesson (or Story). Both of those are derived from the Theme (or generate the theme, depending on where you start creating the novel). The Narrative Line is usually less tangible, less memorable, and much harder to articulate.
The Narrative Line is what makes sense of the World you have Built. If the Plot is the backbone of the novel, the Narrative Line is the Spinal Nerve running down the hollow bone, causing the moving parts to move both consciously and subconsciously.
If you can grasp the concept of Narrative Line, find it operating in your own Reality, and then in the (very different) Realities your readership inhabits, then you will very likely have little trouble crafting a Narrative Hook to alert that specific readership to HERE IS THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE.
Real life work situations are usually very boring, repetitive, dull. Most jobs are tiny parts of a big whole operation that produces something the worker never sees or has any use for.
If you make steel bolts for a living, you aren't involved in enjoying the backyard swing set they hold together -- you never meet those children, have no idea they even exist. You sweat away your days in a noisy factory floor running giant machines that hammer out identical bolts, and get punished if too many aren't identical enough.
You are on the Narrative Line those parents and children are on, but you don't know it, and you're likely too tired to care.
"Art" -- storytelling -- replicates reality by dramatizing (making larger) certain parts, and minimizing others. In the case of making bolts for a living, the noise/sweat/exhaustion part gets minimized and the pride/precision/workmanship and economic elegance of the production line is dramatized.
How would you dramatize making bolts?
Well, what if a swing-set manufacturer had a massive recall because of faulty bolts, and the floor manager and maybe his gang of workers got called to testify in court about the process of creating that particular bolt that broke at the top of a child's swing-arc and sent her over a neighbor's fence into the empty cement pool? The bolt making floor boss has to meet the widowed mother and crippled kid, learn the husband who bought the swing-set committed suicide while the kid was in Shriner's Hospital For Children with bleak prognosis.
See? An isolated, boring, lonely, miserable job can be dramatized by revealing the Narrative Line the boring situation lies on.
This kind of material is sometimes identified as "back story" - and it can be that. But the parts of the back story that belong in this current novel have to be selected, teased out of the whole life stories of all the Characters, and presented in a discernible "line" -- a curve, or arc, or hurtling straight line into a Fate, ass-backwards into a bear trap, or upwards toward a worthwhile goal. Selecting what to include in the Narrative Line is Art. Art is selectivity -- omitting in order to sift a pattern, a statement, a "truth" out of the mixed background noise of "life."
In 2016, we are in the middle of a huge transition in the Narrative Line of the Human Species.
Yes, not "race" because humanity is not a "race" but a species.
And yes, our Narrative Line is about to swoop into a new direction. We have the ability to edit genes (even before figuring out what that gene does), and transform humans. We are using that ability to craft mosquitoes to fight that disease vector. We've found traces of very ancient DNA from viruses inside our genes. We're beginning to see how all living things on Earth are "made out of" each other -- we all contain parts of each other.
Tracing the development of genetic knowledge from the mid-1950's onward, you can create a "Narrative Line" and project it into the future.
Then look at research into Personality and Behavior (even Mental Illness). Brain, nerve, and chemistry studies are probing for the origin of Love inside our physical bodies.
There is even a "line" of studies trying to show how brain configuration determines your politics (Republican or Democrat). This opens the possibility of "editing" genes so we're all Democrats and don't argue so much.
A person with a job in a vast gene-editing operation might do one task repetitively all day long without ever knowing the "back story" of the Narrative Line or the ultimate result of the end of that Line being reached.
Of course, we also have the Automation Narrative Line that started maybe even before Henry Ford implemented the first Assembly Line. Today boring, repetitive jobs are being filled by robots. Today's cars have more parts, and fewer assembly line jobs, even though most families have at least one car (unless they live in the city with bus service). Of course, the self-driving car will put taxi and truck drivers out of work.
Automation is a Narrative Line you can use to dramatize a Character's life.
Take a hot topic, ripped from the Headlines -- Gun Control as the solution to Alien Invasion. You can't have an armed (and ignorant) public confronting the Flying Saucer People -- humans tend to shoot things they don't understand, right? That could start a war we can't win.
Another hot topic, ripped from the Headlines, sexual misconduct by famous people, stars, celebrities, politicians, even Heads of State of other countries. Or the same misconduct by a total nobody, an unknown, whose trial is dramatized by Network News until everyone knows the guy's mother's maiden name.
Yet another hot topic, ripped from the Headlines, Police Misconduct -- over-reaction against suspects who are actually innocent.
Which leads to another topic, the legal principle of Innocent Until Proven Guilty which is the Narrative Line Media News has set aside in favor of Allegations Must Be True Or They Would Not Have Been Alleged. Suspicion = Guilt. For example, merely being on the Terrorist Watch List is cause for suspicion. Or the bureaucratic mishandling of some email documents puts you under suspicion of treason, and we all know suspicion means guilt.
So Narrative Lines have TOPICS. Mass Communications, such as TV News or making Speeches to stadiums full of people, or guesting on a call-in radio show, requires sticking to a TOPIC.
You have probably noticed that these blogs don't stick to a topic. There is an esoteric reason for that. I, personally, do not see the world, reality, or life as divided into separate things of any sort - topics, ideas, points. With one mental eye, I see Reality as one, single, interconnected, single-origin whole -- completely undifferentiated. With another mental eye, I see individual particles and people connected directly to a single origin much more strongly than to each other.
This binocular vision gives me a notion of another "dimension" to Reality.
My Topic in these posts is that other "dimension" -- how it is related to what we see with our everyday physical eyes.
As a result, I bring in what appears to be unrelated material and drop it in the midst of what might be making some sense to you. If you can discern a relationship instead of an intrusion or an "off-topic" remark, you might glimpse a bit of that "dimension" in a way you can use.
Today's topic is The Narrative Line (or arc, circle, spiral). The Narrative Line of a novel has a TOPIC, but is not a topic in itself. The Theme is a slice or cross-section of a Topic, and both contains a topic and is derived from a topic. Theme is what you have to say ABOUT a Topic, not the topic itself.
Once completely drawn, the Narrative Line will illustrate your Theme, and may not appear to most readers to stick to a Topic.
The core skill of Illustration is Depiction. Here's the index on Depiction.
Once you have constructed a Narrative Line, fabricated to illustrate (using depiction and symbolism) your theme, you will have no trouble finding the right Narrative Hook for your own Targeted Readership.
And here is Part 4 of Symbolism series with links to the previous parts:
Here is the key post on Symbolism:
Those posts on Symbolism explain to the fiction writer working in text medium what the visual media (TV News for example, or online video news or advertisement) call "Optics."
Optics is about what the target audience will infer or deduce from the visual image, not about the image itself or the reality behind it. That concept embraces the paradigm "Suspicion=Guilt" that is so pervasive today. An image or angle on an image taken out of context or perspective is as misleading as a quote taken out of context.
This is why politicians learn to speak to Mass Media in sound bytes or Talking Points, pre-scripted, memorized monologues. Professional writers create those Talking Points to be quoted out of context harmlessly. Today's politics is a battle of writers putting words in the mouths of Characters (the candidates) to thwart other writers excerpting those Talking Points to quote out of context and reverse the meaning.
The trick for constructing the Narrative Hook that drags your Target Reader into your Narrative Line and holds them on that line is to select a Topic the reader is interested in, but does not know they are interested in.
When we post a news article on Facebook, we often say "This is interesting." But the truth is the opposite. The quality "interesting" does not reside in the thing itself -- but rather in the observer. What we really mean is, "I am interested in this" -- not that "this is interesting." English has many such grammatical twists which can be used in writing dialogue (but not narrative).
Here's the index to posts on dialogue - there are actually more than 4.
Readers often don't know what is interesting about what they are reading (fiction or non-fiction, the source of fascination is hard to spot and articulate.)
You are familiar with the Acting lessons that emphasize "people watching" -- closely observing people, their mannerisms, accents, dress, and especially "walk" (how they move -- a dancer vs a martial arts master vs a runner vs a soldier etc). Character is intrinsic in one's "walk" or "stride."
Honing the ability to observe random strangers is the key to good acting. Honing the ability to observe one's own reaction to words is the key to good writing.
In other words, good reading is necessary to good writing.
What is the difference between reading and good reading?
Analysis. Just as an actor analyzes the people walking through the mall, the writer analyzes the words of the story being read.
One thing you analyze for is "interest" -- why is this interesting to me? What is it about ME that makes me respond to this? A story, Character or Topic is not inherently "interesting."
Grasp that fact and you'll have an inexhaustible source of Narrative Hooks. Find the right hook for your Line and you will catch a lot of readers.
What it is about you that makes you interested in This Topic is the exact reason why your Target Reader will find This Topic interesting. If you understand the Topic well enough to grasp the import (even on a non-verbal level), you will be able to explain the Topic to your reader in a way that will interest them -- perhaps subconsciously.
How do you teach yourself to straighten your stories out into a Narrative Line and craft a strong Narrative Hook?
Study Network News -- Video News online -- text-news stories and articles such as the one I pointed you to in Part 22 of this Marketing Fiction In A Changing World series.
The very best way to learn "pacing" in fiction writing is to understand what constitutes NEWS. "News" is a Plot Development. Every scene on a Plot-Line starts with a Narrative Hook and ends with NEWS. That is basic scene structure, and it works on stage, screen and text page.
To teach yourself to identify a Narrative Line that large numbers of people (even beyond your targeted audience) are interested in analyze Network News.
To teach yourself to understand why those people are interested in these Narrative Lines, study the Network News.
Don't ask people what they find interesting. They don't know (some do, most don't) why a Narrative captivates them. The most captivating and compelling stories are the ones that communicate with the subconscious, illustrate or symbolize subconscious issues.
Find a Narrative Line that interests you and probe your own subconscious until you see why it does. Chances are good that once you consciously know why that Narrative holds your attention, it no longer will hold your attention.
To get good at Narrative Lines study the ones that you already have no interest in. Some of those will be Narrative Lines you have an aversion to. Those are extremely valuable as they are the raw material of Conflict that can drive a novel.
In our world today, the biggest Narrative Line is the Rate of Change in our world far outstripping our ability to adjust. The human genome (as currently constituted by Nature anyway) has built-in limits on what can be changed at certain ages, and how fast change can happen, as well as how severe and urgent the need for change must be. The older you get, the more severe the need must be and the harder you have to work at it. EXAMPLE: stroke victim learning to talk or walk again. The older you are, the harder it is to create new neural connections.
Which brings us to Snapchat and the article we touched on in Part 22 of this series:
As you see in this quote ...
There are other differences that set Snapchat apart from Facebook, for example the complex algorithms and procedures that have led to accusations that Zuckerberg’s company is editorializing; Snapchat Discover is essentially a feed reader or news aggregator, the magic tool that many of us consider to be the beating heart of our information systems, but that few adults who haven’t grown up with the internet still don’t really understand and thus fail to use. If you don’t use a feed reader you aren’t informing yourself, you’re being informed. Think about it.
... if you don't use a feed reader you aren't informing yourself, you're being informed. I've been using feed readers since they first came available, and many have come and gone since then. Yahoo is being sold, so I expect my all time favorite feed reader page on Yahoo will be gone. Therefore I've been watching Snapchat develop, and meanwhile using Flipboard more and more.
The Snapchat Discover feature has serious promise. The Narrative Line of the world's problems as seen by the young people this Forbes article refers to is very different from the Narrative Line presented by Cable News or Broadcast Network News. They will lose audience share as the older folks die off and the young become Middle Aged, thinking about "the narrative" in a different way.
Meanwhile you can find me:
On Snapchat search for thelichtenberg or click here (on your phone)
As also noted in that Forbes article on Snapchat,
So while most adults either continue to inform themselves via the same media they have always read or simply accept what is put in front of them by whichever social media, young people are learning to choose, to subscribe to publications that mean something to them, rather than accepting segmentation, which they see as creepy, as though they were being spied on, and just about accepting geographic segmentation. Meanwhile, Snapchat Discover is an exclusive club, a place newspaper editors are dying to be admitted to, and that feels free to kick out Yahoo! News after six months because Spiegel thought they didn’t get millennials.
I’ve been saying this for a while now, but Snapchat is much more than it seems, and it is doing what it does spectacularly well. If you’re aged 25 or over you might find it challenging, but make the effort: it’s well worth it.
Look for and identify Narrative Lines embedded in Mass Market News. You can rip TOPICS from the Headlines, but to get the Narrative Lines about those topics that captivate the aggregate subconscious of a country or the world, you need to study more deeply than just headlines.
Mining of Big Data is one Narrative Line to follow.
And the counter move to Privacy embodied in Snapchat -- and also Whatsapp's encryption protocols -- is another Narrative Line.
Gun Control, Privacy, Personal Sovereignty, Income Redistribution, Religious Freedom -- these are TOPICS. Each one has a different Narrative Line on different News packagers (NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters, AP, Fox, etc.).
These News organizations create the Narrative Line then cherry-pick Events, developments that further that narrative.
Once you get hold of how this is done by comparing them on a New Aggregator like Snapchat or Flipboard, you will begin to understand Scene Structure and The Narrative Hook in a new way.
If you are under 25, you may need to make a conscious effort to acquire the Narrative Line of the world as seen by today's teens -- your market in 5 years or so.
my 13-year-old sister, and she’s the most prolific Snapchat user I’ve ever seen.
We live in different states, so I rarely get a chance to hang out with her. That’s what made Thanksgiving so eye-opening. I would watch in awe as she flipped through her snaps, opening and responding to each one in less than a second with a quick selfie face. She answered all 40 of her friends’ snaps in under a minute.
How was this even possible? Is she a freak of nature, or is this just how things are done when you’re young? I had to find out what I was missing. What do these “teens” know that I don’t?
I decided to investigate further…
That single description of a 13 year old's worldview should indicate what different Narrative Lines will look like in 10 years.