How to Structure a Strong Narrative

ken_follett_the_pillars_of_the_earth

Copyright Pan Macmillan Publishing

Following on from the post on the action-consequence principle in building a strong narrative plot, in this post I’ll illustrate how to build a narrative mini-arc, by using one of the greatest examples of accomplished narrative structure, Ken Follett’s masterpiece, The Pillars of the Earth.

According to the action-consequence principle, every event in a story has to be either the cause or the effect of another event. Events can’t take place randomly, in the shape Character X did Action A, then he did B, then C and so on. A story is stronger when events are arranged in such a way that Character X does Action A either because of a previous Action Z or in order for a later Action B to become possible.

This might sound confusing, so I’ll use an example.

Towards the end of Chapter 9 in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, there is a battle scene of crucial significance in the story: Lord William Hamleigh’s army attacks the small village of Kingsbridge causing devastating harm and human damage.

It is essential that Kingsbridge villagers find out about the imminent attack before it occurs.

However, they don’t just happen to find out about it by chance. The episode is masterfully built using the technique of the narrative mini-arc and forms part of the larger structure of the story arc.

The mini-arc starts with a reflection scene from Tom Builder, one of the main characters, in which he looks back over the last few years, what he had achieved, how he had overcome the loss of his wife, found love again and how content he now was with his life, especially for having his little son, Jonathan, around every day.

This short episode of reflection brings the reader into the first action scene of this mini-arc: Tom seeks out Jonathan to take him out to a fair in the village. Note that even the small detail of bringing the child into the scene is not random. The author could have chosen to say, ‘Mid-morning, Tom sought out Jonathan to go out to a fair in the village,’ but why tell when you can show?

At the fair, during a rather gruesome bear-baiting scene, Jonathan gets lost. Tom starts looking for him and spots him high up on the scaffolding of the cathedral they are building. He climbs the scaffolding and in a painstakingly slow and tense scene, he brings the little boy down safely.

And then, while climbing down the scaffolding, Tom notices the approaching army. ‘There was a cloud of dust on the road leading to Kingsbridge, about half a mile away. After a moment, he realised he was looking at a large troop of men on horseback, approaching the town at a smart trot.’ (The Pillars of the Earth, Macmillan, 2009, p. 484).

From here on, we are thrown into a fierce action scene that lasts for the rest of the chapter.

Note how the author builds momentum through a series of action-consequence episodes to bring us to the climax of this mini-arc, which is the battle scene. The battle scene is a major event in so far that it acts as the cause that sets in motion a series of consequence-events, which all form part of the overall story arc.

After reading The Pillars of the Earth, one could easily liken storytelling and page-turning narratives to the construction of a cathedral: brick by brick, wall by wall, arc by arc.

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About Lorena Goldsmith

Literary consultant at Daniel Goldsmith Associates.
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