Want to know what D.D. Johnston’s favourite book was when he was a kid? Probably not. But he’s going to use it to illustrate a rule of storytelling that holds for almost every genre of writing.
Video transcript follows below:
When I was wee my favourite story was a ladybird book called The Deeds of the Nameless Knight. The plot was fairly simple. The protagonist – the eponymous Nameless Knight – has to rescue a damsel from a tower where she’s been imprisoned. With retrospect I can see there’s an obvious feminist critique of this book, but give me a break – I was like eight or something.
So the Nameless Knight’s objective is to rescue the damsel, and – sorry for this spoiler – he’s ultimately successful. But before he achieves his objective, he has to overcome various impediments. He faces impediments in the form of a series of other knights whose land he has to pass through. For some reason these knights are intent on fighting with him – there are many things that I’ve either forgotten or that weren’t ever in the text. Like how come the hero didn’t have a name?
But what’s important for our purposes is that the story demonstrates a fundamental necessity of narrative – the impediments intensify as the narrative progresses. The story escalates. So, the Nameless Knight gets on his horse and trots off and after a wee bit he meets the Green Knight. And he has a fight with the Green Knight, and to be honest the Green Knight is a bit pants. It doesn’t take all that long before the Nameless Knight has beaten him and is back on his horse.
So he trots on and soon he encounters the Blue Knight. Now the Blue Knight is a pretty competent fighter and the Nameless Knight needs all his reserves of skill to beat him. But after a short struggle he overcomes him and continues his journey.
But then he meets the Red Knight. And the Red Knight is a bad ass and the Nameless Knight battles him for hours. The battle ebbs and flows until, finally, the Nameless Knight is victorious.
Exhausted now, he hauls himself onto his horse and trots onwards. By the time he encounters the Black Knight – the villain who has imprisoned the fair damsel – the Nameless Knight is hungry and fatigued. And of course, the Black Knight is the most fearsome Knight in all the land. He’s a total bad ass. And they fight all day and all night, and only as the sun comes up does the Nameless Knight – now bloody and wounded and close to dying – finally, desperately, slays the baddie. At which point it turns out that he misread the whole situation and that the damsel’s in love with the Black Knight and the whole imprisonment thing was actually consensual S&M. It doesn’t really.
The point is that the story wouldn’t work if he fought the Black Knight at the start and then the challenges became increasingly easy. Nor would it work if the challenges he faces were all equally difficult. The story only works because the impediments intensify. The challenges escalate.
And the same rules apply to most types of narrative. A minimalist short story in the realist tradition needs to escalate just as much as a children’s Arthurian legend does. Consider Ray Carver’s short story ‘Cathedral.’ The problem the protagonist faces is that he’s awkward about his wife’s blind friend coming to visit. His awkwardness escalates when the blind guy actually arrives. And it gets even worse when his wife leaves them alone together. Finally, it peaks when the blind guy asks him to put his hand on his so they can draw a cathedral together. It’s a climactic moment that pushes the protagonist to have an epiphany.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
(The thumbnail for this video uses a photo by Stewart Chambers. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stewc/)