Many new writers when they start a tale will concern themselves with the “narrative thread” of the story, or the plot line. Here’s a definition of “narrative thread” from Wikipedia:
A narrative thread, or plot thread (or, more ambiguously, a storyline), refers to particular elements and techniques of writing to center the story in the action or experience of characters rather than to relate a matter in a dry “all-knowing” sort of narration.
It’s not a term that I use often, since many instructors use it in different contexts, and it now seems like a catch-all phrase that can mean many things. But when we talk about it, I usually think in terms of the plot line. When we talk about a plot line, we often discuss terms like the beginning of the tale, the inciting incident, the try/fail cycles, the climax, denouement, validation, and so on. Visually, it looks something like this.
However, one problem that most authors have is that they don’t recognize that a plot has multiple story lines. This picture represents the “outer journey” that a character goes through. If you write a tale plotted only on the outer journey, it feels sort of thin. In fact, when you’re done you’ll realize that the tale seems pointless. A story also needs to have an “inner journey,” a second plot line that carries through the tale at the same time. In short, the inner journey of growth that your protagonist struggles through lets us see the personal growth of that character as he or she stumbles and learns the life lessons needed so that the outer journey can reach a successful conclusion. So a good story has at least two plots. To make matters more complex, there may also be a romantic or friendship plot linked to this—so that many novels have three plots just for the main protagonist.
Now, the idea of a plot line was rather inherent in Aristotle’s discussions of what a story is, and it has been refined and changed over the centuries. For a story to feel real and compelling, one could easily argue that an author needs to weave multiple plots together in order for a novel to be a resounding success.
In fact, each subplot is like a thread, and the more tightly that you weave, the better. So when I’m plotting a novel, I might have five or six viewpoint characters who each have four or five plots tied together—and I might have important non-viewpoint characters added, whose stories become woven together.
One would think that if you have thirty plot lines all integrated in one novel, that would be enough to really create a book that felt like it had weight and substance, but the best of novels and plays do more than that.
Back in the 1950s, J.R.R. Tolkien taught a writing class at Oxford. Recently I spoke to a student who had taken the class and I asked her, “So what did he teach?”
She replied that he taught some complex thing about “the Power of the Broken Narrative.” His point was that when you are telling a story, you can gain some complexity and create added dimension by bringing in a new narrative, weaving in new stories by new characters.
We can see that he does this in Lord of the Rings when he has a narrative about Frodo fleeing the nine riders, but then brings Gandalf in to tell how Sauron hunted for the lost ring over the ages, and how Saruman had betrayed them. He has Treebeard relate his own history in a similar manner, while Legolas and Gimli tell the stories of the elves and dwarves. Further, he splits the narrative when Frodo and Sam set off on their own, while Merry and Pippin go off on their adventures. Thus, he begins weaving a dozen narratives together into one tale that is vastly more powerful than if Frodo had just gone and disposed of the ring alone.
Interestingly, back in the 1960s there was a hypnotherapist named Milton Erickson who would hypnotize people by using what he called “the Broken Narrative” technique. He would begin hypnotizing the patient by telling a story, so that the patient fell into a relaxed and receptive state, but then he would pause and take off on another story—“breaking” the narrative—so that he would force the patient into a deeper hypnotic state. For those who understand the terminology, he would put the patient first into the alpha state, then bring them down into the theta state, almost putting them to sleep so that he could work on “deep teaching.”
It shouldn’t surprise you that both authors and hypnotists use the same technique—nor that it has been used by other fine authors in the past. For example, Edgar Allen Poe tried to pioneer the use of hypnotic techniques in storytelling, and in poems like “The Raven” you can see an example of the broken narrative technique as he splits two storylines. Did you ever notice that his stories make you drowsy? That’s because he is struggling to put your mind into the theta state.
Indeed, storytellers have used the same technique at least as far back as Homer.
You see, when your conscious mind gets overwhelmed by trying to drink in too much at once, it forces your subconscious to work harder, go deeper into your brain to pull the multiple images and storylines into a cohesive whole.
Algis Budrys has pointed out that every novel is either a short story in form or is made up of interwoven short stories. There can be dozens of short stories woven into a longer narrative.
And here is my point: If you have a single story line for a novel-length work, your tale will always feel thin and underdeveloped, regardless of how beautifully you execute the plot. In order to create an engaging tale and move your reader into that deep theta state, you have to learn how to “break the narrative” by weaving multiple plots together!
Remember—the story that you tell may begin well before your character enters it, and it extends long beyond when your protagonist leaves. It involves more than just your protagonist. The story might intermingle dozens of characters and ultimately influence the whole world.
In order to bring your reader down into the theta state, where the story comes alive for them and the reader feels as if they “lived through” the tale, you have to use the broken narrative technique.
Why? Because it is only in this way that you can overwhelm the conscious mind enough so that it struggles to understand all of what is happening.
And the Plot Thickens (Masterclass) – Happening This Week
March 7th – 9th I will be teaching a masterclass in Provo, Utah that will be focused on crafting a powerful plot. Learn more or sign up here.
Today I am Carey – Novel Release
One of my writing friends, Martin Shoemaker, has a novel releasing tomorrow:
REMARKABLE DEBUT NOVEL FROM CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED AUTHOR MARTIN L. SHOEMAKER. Shoemaker proves why he has consistently been praised as one of the best story writers in SF today with this touching, thoughtful, action-packed debut novel, based on his award-winning short story “Today I am Paul.”
Mildred is dying of Alzheimer’s Disease. As her memories fade, she requires the aid of a full-time android to assist her in her everyday life. The android’s duty: to tend to Mildred as Alzheimer’s steals.
Order the book here.