Effective storytelling requires the narrator to stay one step ahead of the reader, unless there’s a good reason not to be. Difficult to do when you’re writing in a genre. After all, the hero must give villainy the heave-ho, the lovers must clasp in its ear, the lovers succeed in their wooing and the detective learns that the butler didn’t dunnit but that someone else did. The problem is how to do it.
One way I’ve noticed is by what I’m calling backtracking. Say you have a scene which everyone knows how it will end: you, the reader, even the alien slime creatures of Arcturus X know, and they won’t hear your story until it’s beamed to them 170,000 light years away.
There’s not much you can do about the absolute end, but you can throw the reader off a bit by not letting what’s supposed to happen happen. You move the story down the track, then cut back to the way you meant to end it all along. It requires a bit of thinking and taking the characters’ motivations into account. You have to have a reason for everything to happen, but fooling the reader can be satisfying both to you and your audience.
For example, here’s a scene from the BBC’s “Sherlock” show. At this point, Watson and Holmes are in their Baker Street digs for the first time, but they’ve just met and have not formed their partnership. They’ve met Mrs. Hudson, who provides a bit of backstory about how she met Holmes, which I won’t spoil because it’s a wonderful, funny bit of invention. Thus far, there’s been three suicides in London that police think are connected, but they’ve not called for Holmes’ help.
As a police car pulls up outside of Baker Street, you know how the scene will end, with Holmes and Watson setting off to find the villain. Check out this 2-minute clip to see how the writer handled it.
1. Watson is a war veteran who walks with a cane and a pronounced limp, an injury which Holmes diagnoses as psychosomatic. Watson gives the impression that he needs rest and to pull himself together, a conclusion which he discards at the end of this scene.
2. Notice the little bits of byplay that steps on Watson’s self-esteem: being told to rest by Holmes, the solicitude shown by Mrs. Hudson (made even worse when she says her husband was a go-getter like Holmes “but you’re more the sitting-down type.”) Watson’s defiant reaction is punctuated by apologies, but he means it. He’s pissed, which makes his “Oh, God, yes” reaction to Holmes (and stepping on the lines in doing so) gives us a vicarious thrill. We’re off!
Storytelling Technique is an occasional series of pieces in which Bill tries to teach himself effective writing. No claims are made about Bill’s storytelling skills. He’s merely an intern trying to figure out how the doctors do it without cutting into the patients himself.