Pressure in Narratives


I teach in an old building that’s long had its problem when it comes to heating and cooling. Last Tuesday, we had heat in parts of the building but not others. Also, something had happened to cut off electricity to the elevators, so they weren’t working. Then, overnight, some pipes burst, and we had flooding in the basement and on the first floor. To top it all off, the flooding knocked out the electric panel under repair, so there we were with no heat and no electricity. I taught my Thursday class via Zoom.

Word has it, the building is slated for demolition sometime in the future, but as it is with all narratives, I’m concerned with what’s happening in the here and now. Narratives have great power when their events, preferably those created by the choices characters make, put increasing pressure on the people living amid them.

Your main character’s choice can put a sequence of events in motion. Maybe they do something or say something (or maybe they refuse to do something or say something), and because of that, the next thing happens. That next thing makes the next thing happen, and on and on, each event increasing the pressure your main character feels until we reach the breaking point, that part of the narrative where something monumental shifts for your characters and their worlds. No further choices can be made, at least not in this narrative. The pressure has had its release, and that release has brought your main character’s life to a place beyond which it can never be the same.

We shouldn’t be afraid to let our characters bring trouble to their lives. That’s how we get to the precious thing, those moments of consequence that resonate with what Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart.” Remember, the characters themselves are causing the trouble; we’re just amping up the pressure. Think in terms of a causal chain: Because this happens, this next thing happens, one event creating another. We can’t be polite when we’re constructing narratives; we have to put our thumbs on our main characters until they reveal some truth about themselves and their situations, some truth that was hidden until the pressure of the plot caused it to surface.

So, here’s a story starter for you. A character walks into a public building to find the elevators aren’t working. What choice do they make and what does that choice produce? How does it lead to a series of events, each of them increasing the pressure on the character? You might consider the reason the character walked into the building. What do they have to do there? What’s at stake for them? You might also consider what’s happened to the character just prior to them stepping onto the page. What’s their history? Who else is in their life? How does whatever’s happening in the main character’s personal life interact with what’s happening in that public building? How will the choices the character makes complicate things? How will the sequence of events increase in intensity, and how will the narrative shake the character’s world to the point that everything changes forever?




Leave a Comment