A while back, I was working on a multimedia project. I’d joined the project team for a Skype call which included project mentor, Brian Cain. Brian is a Creative Director who’s worked on HBO’s True Blood and Game of Thrones, among other things. We were discussing something about the narrative driving the project, I can’t recall what, but I do recall Brian’s contribution. He said,
‘everything has to have a narrative purpose.’
Brian’s words have stuck with me. They are golden words, worth remembering.
I’ve been writing and editing for a long time. I’ve written and edited massive policy manuals and reports for non-profit organisations. I’ve drafted and edited countless briefs for government ministers (Queensland Treasury call their briefs billet-doux. Yes, really). I’ve written and edited academic articles, strategic and operational plans, research reports, successful grant applications, budget submissions, Government employment policies, guidelines for multi-million-dollar programs, major consultation reports requiring analysis of thousands of lines of data, evaluation reports and so on and so bloody forth. And, over the past few years, I’ve edited and published picture books, short stories, flash fiction and novellas.
Brian’s words stick with me because they explain a lot. Picture me ten years ago (picturing a small, harried owl is fine), staring at a computer screen, sobbing quietly to myself as I try and edit a major policy document written by a committee of 60 public servants. I’m muttering things like ‘Why is that there?’ ‘How is that relevant?’ ‘Is that even a word?’ ‘Who would read this?’.
Here, I’m struggling to edit because the document I’m working on has no narrative purpose, no intended audience, no consistent author voice. It’s a BIG problem with many Government policies and reports: so many words, so little thought about who’ll read them or why.
But, what is narrative purpose? It’s the reasoning sitting behind every word you’ll ever write—Terry Pratchett imagined it as an element called Narrativium. So, if your antagonist (we’ll call them Cuddles) is climbing a mountain, there’d better be a reason why. When Tolkien sent Frodo and friends over an icy mountain, he used the challenge to reveal things about his characters, their world and their protagonists. It drove the story forward. So, Cuddles needs a reason to go over the mountain.
Yes, yes, Sue. But you’re going on about writing, not editing. True, but narrative purpose also drives editing decisions—development editing decisions, structural editing decisions and most copy-editing decisions.
For instance, in development editing an editor works with you to (SURPRISE) ‘develop’ your story. It’s essential when your narrative purpose isn’t clear. At this stage, your characters may be under-developed or extraneous, your author voice may be inconsistent, and you’ve probably got too much background or logistical information (the stuff writers need to know, but readers don’t) weighing down the plot and pace. Here, editorial advice will be oriented to helping you clarify the purpose of each character, each setting, each bit of dialogue. It’s the same for the other stages of editing, too.
So, when editing or being edited, remember Brian’s words, AND don’t forget to remove the thats—they’re rarely necessary.