Narrative Structure - Some Concepts

In Media Res

Consider the following two ways of starting the same story:

"Mike was a very greedy schoolbody. He liked to eat large meals and his mother always gave him lots of food."

"Another slice of cherry pie, dear?"
"Yes please, Mum," Mike replied, as crumbs from his previous two helpings flew out of his crammed mouth.

The first way is probably the sort of thing that a child would write as the start of a story. The writer simply hands you the facts, and by the end of those two sentences, you know what sort of person Mike is. The second way is a much more mature way of starting the story. The writer doesn't actually tell you that Mike is greedy, but it doesn't take a great deal of working out. We are told that Mike has had two helpings of cherry pie and wants a third one, so he's probably greedy. We also know that his mother is feeding him, so he's unlikely to be a grown man.

The second example is a story that starts in media res, Latin for "in the middle of the matter". Instead of the writer giving the reader all the details, the story starts in the middle and the reader has to run to keep up. It's considered a much stronger start to any story, so much so that most (but not all) stories start this way. To illustrate this, here are the opening sentences of some very famous stories. In each case, what can you tell about the story situation from those opening lines?

"It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."
("Nineteen Eighty Four", by George Orwell)

"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
("Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", by J.K. Rowling)

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."
("The Metamorphosis", by Franz Kafka)

An Introductory Paragraph

There is another way to start a story and that's to include a paragraph (or two, or three) that make some interesting point, or give some moral, or just explain the author's point of view. They don't introduce the characters or set the scene. Here are some examples from famous novels. In each case, note that these paragraphs tell you nothing about what is going to happen in the story. They sound more like the writer simply musing on life itself.

"All children, except one, grow up." ("Peter Pan", by J.M. Barrie)

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife." ("Pride and Prejudice", by Jane Austen)

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." ("The Go-Between", by L.P. Hartley)

Show, Don't Tell

The example of Mike, the greedy schoolboy, above is an example of another "truth universally acknowledged" in writing: Never tell the reader something if you can show it to him instead. Make the reader do some work to get the information. Instead of simply stating that Mike is greedy, the writer shows it by the fact that Mike accepts a third helping of pie when he has just had two. Also, we are told that he speaks with his mouth full, and spits crumbs, so you can probably work out what sort of child he is. Here's another example:

"With a welcome sigh, Sunil sank into his armchair. With a rather fine glass of wine in one hand, his newspaper crossword in the other, and a Schubert string quartet playing on the radio, he was looking forward to a relaxing evening."

In the following five boxes, please type five facts that we can reasonably conclude about Sunil, without being directly told them, from that:

A related concept is the truism that often, less is more. This means that you can leave gaps in the plot, sometimes very large gaps, and let the reader fill them in for himself. For instance, if the action of your story relies on the possibility that one of the characters might be a murderer, you don't have to reveal whether (s)he is or not. Let the reader decide, and interpret the story one way or the other. A good example of this is the play "Doubt: A Parable" by John Shanley, later turned into an award-winning film: A nun becomes convinced that a priest who teaches at the school where they both work is sexually abusing one of the boys, and proceeds to ruin his career to punish him for it. However, it is never resolved whether the priest was indeed an abuser, and the nun herself succumbs to terrible doubts at the end. By not specifying the matter one way or another, the plot becomes much stronger.

The Twist-in-the-Tail

Many stories succeed because they surprise the reader at the end with a sudden revelation that everything the reader thought was true was actually wrong. The technical name for this is subverting the reader's expectations, and it is best illustrated with examples:

A person is watching an attractive blond woman through a pair of binoculars, as she goes into her house. He hides in an abandoned house opposite hers, and watches for an hour or two as she goes about her routine, preparing a meal for her husband who is about to return from work. The man watches as the husband returns, and she presents him the meal. Then the husband says something, jumps up and grabs a large knife, advancing on his wife menacingly. The watcher immediately shouts "Go, go, go" into a radio and the street outside fills with police cars. The police kick the door to the woman's house in and restrain the man before he can kill his wife.

The idea is that the author tricks the reader into thinking that the watcher is a peeping tom, who is secretly watching the woman for his own sordid pleasure. In fact, he knew that the husband was planning to murder his wife, and, as a high-ranking police officer, he arranged for lots of policemen to catch him the act. Why wait until then? Because otherwise they would have no direct evidence of the husband's plan and wouldn't be able to arrest him.

One of the first twist-in-the-tail stories is The Pardoner's Tail from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

Three young men decide they will set out to kill Death himself. They meet an old man who tells them they will meet Death at the foot of an oak tree that he points out, but when they arrive at the tree, they find, not Death, but a large fortune in gold coins. They decide to spend the night by the tree to guard the coins and take them away in the morning. However, they are now hungry, so one of them is sent into town to fetch food and drink. While he is gone, the other two plot to kill him on his return and take his share of the gold. The third man is also planning to kill them, and has laced their food with poison. He returns and they kill him, but then eat the poisoned food and die themselves.

The twist in this case is that the men did indeed meet Death, but only through their own actions and greed. There are many movies with twists in the tail, such as The Usual Suspects, The Wicker Man and The Others. Another good source is the television comedy-drama series Inside No. 9. It is hard writing such stories, but if you can do it convincingly, it's well worth doing. The method can be summarised as follows:

The author Roal Dahl is most famous for his children's stories, but he also wrote a large number of short stories, many of which have well-written twists in the tail. Such examples include "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat", "A Dip in the Pool" and "A Man from the South". All well worth a read if you want to see how a master of short stories constructs them.

Flashback

If a story is told in flashback, then it starts at the end, and the rest of the story explains what has happened to reach that point. This means that the reader or viewer already knows what is going to happen at the end, but the interesting point is finding out how the main character managed to get to that point.

A famous example is Citizen Kane, with Orson Welles as the title character. It starts with Kane's death as an old man. He dies immensely wealthy, surrounded by possessions but with no friends. The only people with him when he dies are his nurse and his butler. The rest of the story shows how he rose from poverty to success in the newspaper world becoming rich but losing his friends in the process. The story also contains a mystery: Kane's last word before dying was "Rosebud", and a running theme throughout the film is what this word means. The answer is revealed in the last few seconds of the film.

Another example is Sunset Boulevard. This also starts with the death of the main character, who is shot and then falls into a swimming pool. The rest of the tail explains how he got to the point where somebody would shoot him. An additional feature (not a twist, because we know about it right from the start) is that the dead man is also the narrator of the story. The story-teller is a dead man!