Saturday, 31 December 2011

4 ways your protagonist can learn the truth


It's not just detective stories that require the protagonist to discover hidden truths. An MC actively pursuing some hidden knowledge will provide strong narrative propulsion to any story – providing it is done right. Here are four paths to discovery that you could use in your work.

The chain

This is perhaps the simplest causal structure outlined here, whereby the MC discovers a series of indicators that eventually lead him to the truth. One discovery leads him to a place where he discovers another piece of knowledge or understanding which leads him to another place where he discovers something else etc. etc.

The pieces of knowledge could be a clues, insights into a personal trauma, understandings about a relationship he didn't have before or a mixture of all the above – anything that is appropriate to your story. The key is that each discovery drives the character onto to the next – hence 'the chain'.

The convergence

This is where a series of possibilities are known or suspected by the MC and the story is about him discovering which one of these is correct. In the simplest sense this could be a detective trying to discover the murderer from a fixed set of suspects – the classic Agatha Christie-esque situation – but it could equally apply to a whole heap of other stories. The MC then (either knowingly or unknowingly) eliminates all the possibilities until alighting on the correct one.

You can have all sorts of fun with this set-up – using dramatic irony where the audience/reader knows the truth while the MC doesn't, or keep the reader as ignorant as the MC. Exceptionally clever writers can convince the MC and the reader that one possibility is a dead certainty, only to discover it's false and a least suspected option is actually the case.

The divergence

This is where the truth seems simple to the protagonist but the situation is far more complex than he imagines. A classic example of this is where an event occurs, which could be quite innocuous, but there turns out to be a massive conspiracy behind it. With 'the convergence' the solution is simple and manageable, but with 'the divergence' it is anything but. Perhaps the MC can do something about it, perhaps the reality is so large (or cosmic) that he can do nothing at all. One way to make a distinction between 'the convergence' and 'the divergence' is that in the former the problem gets smaller and more is known, but in the latter, it gets bigger.

The thunderbolt

Probably the simplest and cheapest device of the lot – where the knowledge comes right out of the blue for the character. This can be a twist (re. Sixth Sense) or reveal (Darth and Lukes' relationship) – and can provide dramatic interest or insight, but used alone will not provide narrative drive unless it leads on to the more causal structures outlined above.

Obviously your not compelled to use only one of these devices, you can use them all – and it's worth noting that these aren't the only ways to provide narrative drive. Mash it up and use of many of them as you can, and you'll be half-way to writing a story that's unputdownable.

Happy New Year and good luck.

5 comments:

  1. Very insightful post. After a few moments reflection, I think most of the stories that i find unputdownable employ divergence. And though these techniques are perhaps most obvious in a mystery or thriller, the same clues and hidden meanings can be important in any type of story. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Love reveals in books. Love when a writer uses multiple ways to keep the surprises coming. To me that's an unputdownable story!

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  3. @molly - thanks for commenting, Molly - glad you approve. I've found this way of considering plots to be quite useful both in analysing established work and considering my own.

    @Deb - thanks for reading and commenting, Deb - and welcome to the blog.

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  4. These are really helpful, James. :) I think most of the cozy mysteries I like use the chain and convergence to great effect. Interesting to think about!

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  5. Thanks EF - glad you found the post thought-provoking and I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

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