This exercise is about developing a particular habit when it comes to thinking about narrative development, and is actually a drill I first came across within the context of theatrical improv. Called Because, for obvious reasons, it involves taking a mundane opening event and riffing off it in the following manner:
The car battery was flat.
Because the car battery was flat, I took the train.
Because I took the train, I saw a For Sale sign on a property across the bay.
Because I saw a For Sale sign, I texted my husband, and asked him to meet me at the station after work.
Because I asked him to meet me at the station after work, I was surprised when he didn’t show.
Because I was surprised he didn’t show, I assumed he’d mixed the message up, and was waiting for me at the property I’d spotted.
Because I assumed he’d mixed the message up, I found myself alone outside the house that perfectly matched the home we’d both always said we wanted, thinking back over the last few weeks, beginning to worry.
Because I found myself beginning to worry, I phoned him, even though I knew how much that annoyed him.
Because I phoned him, I discovered his phone was switched off….
And so a flat battery gives birth to a tale of deception and infidelity.
The activity is less about generating narrative (although it can be useful for doing this), and more about ensuring that the narrative you want to create has internal consistency. Because is a way of papering over the cracks of plot construction, because it plays to a folk psychology intuition that events in our lives are causally linked, and creates that type of story where it feels as if the unfolding tale represents the inevitable consequence of the starting conditions.
The same process can be used to reverse engineer your stories, laying out the events and seeing where the becauses fall, the theory being that it’s a sound idea to interrogate thoroughly the non-causal linkages, to check what you still have is a story, rather than a collection of incidents.
Bernard Beckett is the 2012 writer in residence at the IIML. During the year he hopes to finish the novel Lullaby, which will complete a trio of metaphysical novels aimed at young adults. The first of these, Genesis, is his most widely read work, and has been translated into over 20 languages. He is also co-writing a screenplay for August and in the early stages of planning for a series of essays on education in New Zealand.
Read Bernard Beckett’s New Zealand Book Council profile.