I first came across the term ‘Narrative Debt’ in the appendices to the extended edition on the Two Towers DVD and it struck a chord with me. As a pantser I work with narrative debt all the time, so I understood the concept; I just didn’t have a name for it.
To my mind it is a variation on ‘Chekov’s Gun’. Anton Chekov said, ‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it is not going to be fired, it should not be hanging there.’
Which is a tad prescriptive.
But it also has more than a grain of truth in it.
Not surprising. He was, after all, a great writer.
However, a gun can hang on the wall for an entire novel and still not go off, because the protagonist can’t reach it. He/she might be trying to reach it, they might even get their fingers on it, but the antagonist might stop them pulling the trigger, or they might have unloaded it at some point, or the protagonist might die just as they reach the gun.
The writer’s job is to not forget that the gun is there, because the reader won’t. ‘Hang about, they’re in the library. There’s a .357 Magnum in that drawer, in the desk that he/she is standing behind. They put it there, you muppet, just shoot the bugger.’ It is best not to make readers think of your hero as an idiot, unless you intend them to think of the hero as an idiot — which is a difficult trick to pull off.
Narrative debt means, to me, ‘Don’t cheat the reader’. [Caveats apply]
Don’t neglect to tell them something of importance that the POV character would know. (Jack Reacher novels: ‘Echo Burning’: Reacher takes a phone call, gets a one-word answer to a question, but the reader doesn’t know what the answer is until much later.)
Don’t drop in something out of nowhere to fix a plot problem and just leave it there without going back and working it into the plot earlier. (His Dark Materials ‘Amber Spyglass’ too many to mention)
Don’t let a plot, sub-plot, or character just fizzle out and disappear without some kind of closure. (Jason and the Argonauts: Heracles just wanders off halfway through the story and never returns.)
A writer can of course get away with all these things from time to time, (Child and Pullman are very good writers, and Jason and the Argonauts is a couple of thousand years old as a story) but they have to know what they are doing (not entirely sure what the hell Pullman was doing if I am completely honest, very irritating book that). They can’t just do it because it is easier than building a story that works. A writer owes a reader a story that works, that is the contract between the two: ‘Give me your time and I will give you a story worth reading.’
Narrative debt sometimes makes the writing process a lot harder. Tough. That’s the job you sign up to when you decide to become a writer. If you want to just make stuff up that makes no sense, then become a politician (and even they need Spin Doctors to make their nonsense sound reasonable).
A story that works is satisfying. It doesn’t have to tie off every single plot thread in a neat little bow at the end, but it does have to keep its promises to the reader.
I build stories via characters, so most of my narrative debts accrue from interactions between characters and from what I do to them in the process of telling the story.
If I have a character that hates another character and at some point they have to make a decision as to whether or not they save that hated person from some jeopardy, then they have to think about it. They won’t suddenly overturn their entire dynamic with that character just because the plot requires it of them. To be fair, in a first draft they might, but then I will go back and fix it in the second. It is what second drafts are for, fixing plot holes like that.
And usually it is already there in the character, because I know my characters. I treat them as real people. What do you mean you don’t? Oh right, you worked on ‘Lost’ and ‘Heroes’.
In Kinless, I have a character called Kihan. He turns up in the story and makes a decision to do something for this land that he does not know and has no connection with, which will probably result in his death. Several beta readers pointed out that he had no reason to do this in the first draft. However the fix was already there, he had a perfectly valid reason for doing this, it was in the narrative debt relating to the character. He did it because of who he was, what he had been through, and what he wanted to be. And all this leads to what he becomes.
But narrative debt is also a structural thing.
Lovers have to love. Enemies have to fight. Stories have to make sense. A story is a construct. The writer is choosing what to put in and what to leave out. The writer is making choices all the time. The writer’s choices are the story.
Let’s go back to ‘Lord of the Rings’.
Gollum, as a character, had to get his hands on the ring. Aragorn had to become the king. Saruman had to get his come-uppance. Frodo had to be utterly destroyed by his quest to destroy the ring. Those things had to happen because that is the nature of storytelling.
Gollum gets his hands on the ring and in the process destroys it (still the best damn scene in the book). Aragorn had to face up to his fears and surmount them. Saruman betrayed everything he stood for and lost everything because of this betrayal. Frodo had to suffer to get the ring to Mount Doom and such suffering remains with a person. And all the other characters had their own journeys to complete too.
That is narrative debt.
If the ring was destroyed without Gollum getting his hands on it then he would just be an ineffectual monster who was easily defeated. If Aragorn did not grow a pair and step up then he would be an ineffectual hero. If Saruman did all that he did and got off scot free then what is the cost of evil. And if Frodo did all that he did and returned to his previous life without a care, then what is the cost of heroism.
It’s a debt.
It’s a contract with the reader.
The writer makes the deal, ‘Read my story and I won’t let you down, I won’t treat you — the reader — as an idiot, I’ll pay off on the debts my story accrues.’
Otherwise, the reader might as well read Hansard.
PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.