. . . Stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader.
Today, I am featuring another chapter from Roy Peter Clark's book,"Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer," published by Little, Brown and Company. You can find a copy here.
Who done it? Guilty or not guilty? Who will win the race? Which man will she marry? Will the body be found? Good questions drive good stories.
This narrative strategy is so powerful that it needs a name, and Tom French gave it to me: he calls it the "engine" of the story. He defines the engine as the question the story answers for the reader. If the internal cliffhanger drives the reader from one section to the next, the engine moves the reader across the arc from beginning to end.
In the same edition ( Roy's local newspaper) I read a much more serious story about tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka:
In the pediatric ward of the town hospital here, Sri Lanka's most celebrated tsunami orphan dozes, drools and, when he is in a foul mood, wails at the many visitors who crowd around his crib.
His identity is unknown. His age, according to the hospital staff, is between 4 and 5 months. He is simply and famously known as Baby No. 81, the 81st admission to the ward this year.
Baby No. 81’s awful burden is not in being unwanted, but in being wanted too much.
So far, nine couples have claimed him as their own son.
This story raises questions in our minds, which Roy asks:
What will happen to Baby No. 81? Will we ever learn his name and identity? Who will wind up with Baby No. 81, and why? How will they determine the true parents among conflicting claims?
The newspaper article (first appearing in the New York Times) raises questions of its own, including, as Roy suggests, "the story's higher meaning:"
Could it possibly be that nine couples honestly believe Baby No. 81 to be their flesh and blood? Could it be that childless parents are looking for a boon amidst the disaster? Could it be that a photogenic baby boy has inspired a craving that a girl would not haven. All these theories circulate on the streets of Kalmunai.
Later, Roy invites us into his WORKSHOP to use a tool:
-Look for engines in films and television narratives. Does an episode of I Love Lucy have an engine? How about an episode of Seinfeld, which is supposed to be about "nothing"? How about one of the many police procedure dramas?