Narrative Drive: “What Matters Is That The Ship Is Always Trying To Get Somewhere”

You know how books about writing novels and stories always talk about “conflict”? And you eye your delicate love story or strange evocation of an agoraphobic fantasist, and wonder how you’re supposed to get the Kalashnikovs or the divorce-court drama in there? I know why it gets said – I know why this issue matters, and matters hugely – but I’ve never found “conflict” as a term particularly helpful: so often the human dynamics which drive good stories just don’t seem to file under that heading.

“Obstacles” is perhaps a more useful term, when we’re talking about plot and story, and fits very neatly with the smaller-scale business of fortunately-unfortunately, which keeps the reader turning pages. But an obstacle tends to sound like a one-off: once you’ve climbed over it, skipped round it or blown it to smithereens, you can forget about it. And, of course, real life – and therefore fiction – isn’t quite like that.

So I was pleased to find this analogy emerging as I was trying to describe to an aspiring writer how narrative drive, and a whole story, grows from characters-in-action, from “What do they want?” onwards. I’ve had fun elaborating my analogy since then (just as I had fun with my analogy for writing a story as being like building a bridge). But it still, I think, makes sense and is helpful. I haven’t yet tried to map it onto act-structure of the sort I explored here, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but meanwhile, here goes: See More . . . 


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