Use Storybreaking to Fill Narrative Gaps

Once you’ve made your book map, you may find that it reveals a gap or disconnect in the writing — a place where you’ve jumped from point A to Point D without explaining to the reader how you got there. Storybreaking can help you close that gap.

Narrative gaps can happen when you know how your characters accomplished something, but the readers don’t. In first drafts we may accidentally omit a scene that needs to be included. It’s also possible to write a scene so quickly that your characters accomplish their goal but you’ve failed to give enough detail for the reader to imagine it happening.

Sketching out a storyboard is a good way to break down a story if index cards aren't your thing. • Illustration via Fotolia

Sketching out a storyboard is a good way to break down a story if index cards aren’t your thing. • Illustration © ojtisi • Fotolia

Let’s say your hero is breaking into the villain’s fortress. In Scene 41 he arrives at the alligator-filled moat. In Scene 42 he climbs through the window of the drawing room. Wait, what? How did he cross the moat, evade the guards, and scale the wall? We need a storybreakdown here.

Get out your index cards.

Working from the onset forward works for most writers. He arrives at the moat — then what? Will he swim, or something else? Let’s say there’s a flying buttress on the other side, so he’s going to get out his grappling hook, toss it onto the buttress, and swing across the moat. Write that on a card.

Now see, that was a cool bit. Aren’t you glad we thought to add it? Now go back earlier in the story and edit that grappling hook into his kit so it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Conversely, you can work from the result backward: to climb in the window he has to scale the wall, so write “scale the wall” on a card. That grappling hook will probably come in handy there, also. From there you can keep stepping backward until you close the narrative gap.

Nonfiction

This technique isn’t just for novelists. A memoir writer may gloss over an incident, thinking it’s unimportant. But omitting the incident can leave a gap in the reader’s knowledge that leaves a subsequent scene confusing.

If a memoirist is writing about the time she was on her way to an event and was angry with her friend for not being there, we have no context for understanding her anger if we haven’t had a prior scene to set that context.

Step back: Why would the memoirist expect the friend to be there? How about because the friend was the one who talked the memoirist into going. But then the friend bailed on her.

That’s a valid reason for the memoirist to be angry. So we need to add two scenes to provide the context: One in which the friend does the cajoling, and another in which the friend bails. Those two scenes would close the gap.

In instructional nonfiction, gaps can happen when an expert forgets that newbies need to have all the steps broken down for them, sometimes to the foundational basics. I’ve been guilty of telling clients to set their paragraphs to first line indent of .5 inches without telling them where the Format Paragraph dialogue box is or how to get to it.

Break down the steps one by one, keeping in mind the knowledge level of your target readership. How much you can gloss over and how much you need to explain in detail will depend on how much they already know. So now I know to write, “In Word, click on Format and then Paragraph …”

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, book mapping and storybreaking can help you ensure you hit all the points necessary for your readers to follow your story or explanation.

Use Storybreaking to Edit Your Novel

One of the hardest things about editing your book is keeping all of the information straight and in the right order. That’s one reason I advocate for outlining. A plain outline doesn’t suit everyone during the drafting process, but once we reach the editing phase, having a visual depiction of the story will help us edit more efficiently.

One technique that’s not often taught to novel writers is storybreaking, which is a screenwriting technique. Screenwriter Vik Rubenfeld calls storybreaking “The Most Important Hollywood Writing Technique You’ve Never Heard Of.”

When Rubenfeld wrote his article, he expressed surprise that more writers don’t know this technique. He linked to this interview with Vince Gilligan, a screenwriter for The X-Files and one of the creators of Breaking Bad.


If you click through to Rubenfeld’s article, he has a transcript of Gilligan’s comments.

Storybreaking involves identifying each turning point within a narrative. This ensures that we hit all the points we need to and omit those that are not moving the story forward. In Hollywood, this is done at the creation stage, but we can also use it during our editing.

The key point Gilligan makes is that each plot beat the writers identify is indispensable to the scene. He explains that they might spend a week or two on this process for each episode, which might only be a 45-page screenplay. So you might not want to use this technique for an entire book. But if on reading through your first draft you identify weak scenes, storybreaking can be useful for working out what those scenes need to make them indispensable.

Storybreaking can be used in two directions. First, you can use it to figure out, from where the hero is now, what happens next? How does he get from Point A to Point B? Second, you can use it to reverse-engineer the desired ending. If he finishes at Point Z, what were Points Y and X?

Storybreaking can also be used to fill in gaps in a narrative that moves too fast or that loses readers because important information has been skipped over. For example, you might have a first draft in which the hero uses a rocket-propelled grenade to destroy the villain’s private jet. That’s a spectacular climax, but if you haven’t shown how the hero gets access to an RPG, storybreaking can help you figure out how to plant everything that’s needed for your climax.