Monday, August 12, 2013

Tool # 36: Mix narrative modes.

. . . Combine story forms using the broken line.

Today I am featuring another chapter tidbit 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.

     Some writing tools work best for straight reports and explanations.  Others help the writer craft compelling narratives.  The author will often need tools to do both: construct a world that the reader can enter, and then report or comment on that world. The result is a hybrid, best exemplified by a story form called the broken line. . .

     Most movies are unbroken narrative lines. . .On occasion, a director will break the line of narrative for some other purpose. . .Writers can draw on dramatic literature and movies for examples of explanatory interruptions of narrative action. . .Think of the stage manager who addresses the audience in countless high-school productions of Our Town by Thornton Wilder. . .

     That is the secret and the power of the broken line.  The writer tells us a story, then stops the story to tell us about the story, but then returns to the story.  Imagine this form a a train ride with occasional whistle stops, something that looks like this:


                                                              Narrative Line

 Roy then gives a few examples from early literature:

To many, Moby Dick feels like two books: the tragic story of a crazed sea captain's search for a deadly whale, interrupted time and time again by explanations of whaling and the humdrum life of sailors.  Even Huckleberry Finn describes a journey down a river, a narrative line with several landings along the way. . .

     The broken line is a versatile story form.  The writer can begin with narrative and move to explanation, or begin with straight information and then illustrate the facts with an anecdote.  In either case, the easy swing, back and forth, can feel like clockwork.

Now put to use a tool from Roy Clark's toolbox:

-As you read or write fiction, pay attention to the way information and explanation mix with narrative.  Notice if facts are blended into the story or framed as separate elements.

Next week: Tool # 37: In short works, don't waste a syllable.


  1. I have never heard of it referred to this way before. But it sounds like a helpful way to think of it. In relation to my own WIP right now, I'm trying to make sure those interruptions to story are really necessary and if they are, spacing them out so they don't detract from the main story. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. I'm glad it was helpful, Ruth, and pleased that you can put it to use right away!


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