What is Powerful Narrative?

by Bill Henderson

A great story feels as natural as a tide, and just as inevitable.

Page by page it pulls you along. Ordinary time fades. Story time replaces it. Ordinary thoughts, the small worries that nag you through the day––phone calls to make, checks to write, and the dog hasn’t been walked etc.–– are swept away during the time you’re reading. Nothing disturbs you. The phone goes unanswered. People have to speak twice as loud to get your attention. You are in the grip of a powerful narrative.

What exactly is powerful narrative? Like fine wine, it resists definition, but you know it when you taste it. If all I had to do was read, I’d be satisfied with no more of a definition than that. But as a writing coach, it’s my job to go farther than that: my challenge is to break it down as far as possible; in a word, to show how it’s done.

I took on that challenge years ago, in my own behalf. Later, it was for my students: could I save them time by passing on the system of techniques I had devised for my own use? As for defining it, I realized that was the least of my worries. Leave that to the literary scholars, I concluded. Fortunately, fiction writers don’t need to know what it is, only how to do it.

So how do you do it? How do you turn ordinary, even dull, narrative writing into “powerful narrative?”

First, a caveat: I’d like to toss out a notion I hear all the time when this question comes up: that narrative power is an innate capability, unique to the very talented. That you can’t discover their secrets because there aren’t any. In other words, that only geniuses need apply. What a depressing burden to lay on a developing novelist–or any narrative writer, for that matter.

It’s also wrong. Geniuses work hard to learn and internalize a range of specific techniques for creating and managing a powerful narrative. These are practical strategies and tactics that anyone can learn.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be blogging about some of the most important of them. In no particular order they are: character, specificity, distraction (avoidance of it), and forward thrust.

And by the way, it’s worth noting that the elements of powerful narrative—–and techniques for deploying them—–are largely the same for fiction and creative nonfiction. My wife, Carol Henderson, and I perceived this some time ago, and were so fascinated by it that we decided to create a rare joint venture, a workshop in powerful narrative. The Powerful Narrative is an annual retreat-workshop that we do every autumn at a beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain resort––and it’s coming up soon.

But more on that in another post.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tamara August 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm

“Casablanca” is a great illustration of a powerful narrative, but it’s not a great one for /purposefully/ powerful narrative. According to the director’s commentary on the DVD, the movie’s punch was mostly an accident. Back then, they didn’t make these big budget films with years of editing; the studios tossed off one a week and sold tickets for a nickel on star power. The production of Casablanca was rushed as usual, to the point that they hadn’t prepared the script for the second half by the time they were finished filming the first.

Purportedly, Ingrid Bergman came to the director halfway through the filming, frustrated: “Which one am I supposed to end up with? Rick, or my husband?” Nobody knew the answer. Then Humphrey Bogart said, “It can’t be Rick.” And then everyone agreed, it couldn’t be Rick. Rick wouldn’t do that. They wrapped up, and it still seemed unfinished. So they pulled Bogart back to record a voiceover with some crowd-pleasing dribble like, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

So there you go: a “timeless classic” with one of the most famous endings in film, born from uncertainty and sheer necessity.

2 Bill Henderson August 24, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I’d say yes and no, Tamara. If you can imagine Bergman, Bogart, and the gaggle of screenwriters who contributed to the project as a single lonely novelist (a stretch, admittedly), a dose of serendipity like that should be welcomed, if it works––which it obviously did. It’s a fallacy to assume that purposeful should imply linear, as in: “Once they had a clear vision of what Casablanca should be, then they executed it purposefully.” Linear rarely works because writing narrative (purposefully) is always a messy, herky-jerky effort. A random event, like Bergman’s need to know, can be a gift, but only if the writer (or writing team) is knowledgeable enough to recognize how perfectly it fits their purpose.

And, btw, I would liken Bergman’s question to the sort of “interrogation” (via a guided freewrite) a novelist should be prepared to do whenever progress seems to slo-o-ow down, for no apparent reason. That is, start asking tough questions and answering them yourself––on paper or screen––becoming, in effect both Bergman and Bogie.

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