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(Narrative) Debt and Simple vs. Compound Interest

Monday, March 12, 2007

I think somewhere back in my education, I took some kind of bookkeeping or accounting course—or maybe it was in a math class. What I do vaguely remember learning is the concept of simple versus compound interest. Now, I know it’s more complex than this, but here’s my understanding of it:

Simple Interest: Interest accrues only on the original amount of the debt.

Compound Interest: Interest accrues not only on the original amount, but on the growing total as interest that is not paid off builds up each month (or whatever the debt’s term is).

Now, I know most writers have just read this and thought—eew, I didn’t come here to read about economics.

WAIT! Before you click away, lemme ’splain what I’m talking about.

When we write, every time we introduce a question or a conflict to the story, we are incurring what’s known as narrative debt—in other words, we are building up toward the payoff at the end in the climax, where all of the reader’s expectations will be (or should be) paid in full. When we incur this debt, we have two choices when it comes to the “interest” that goes along with it: simple or compound.

With simple narrative interest, the debt is paid off by the end of the scene/chapter—in other words, the question is answered, the conflict managed/solved before the next chapter starts. The lost dog is found, the contract on the house comes through, the long-anticipated event goes well.

But the underlying foundation of most plots is compound narrative interest—some conflicts or questions linger and the interest compiles and compiles until you have to pay it off or risk losing your reader. This is like maxing out a credit card and then only paying the minimum payment each month. Yes, you’re keeping your account alive and in “good standing” but you’re not paying it off. It’s a big debt-monster sitting there waiting to devour . . . wait, this is about writing, sorry—flashbacks.

Take, for instance, the Suspense genre. Not only are there going to be breathtaking, spine-chilling scenes where our heroes or heroines are in peril, but then—whew!—are safe again, there is an undertone—a compounding interest—of unease or fear that pervades the entire narrative. Even when things seem to be going well, the reader can sense something isn’t quite right. This can be done through tone—through the words the writer chooses to use in the narrative (see my series on Showing vs. Telling for more hints on how to do this). It’s like the duh-dut, duh-dut of the theme song for the movie Jaws. When first watching the movie, you may not even notice the score. But then subconsciously, every time that music starts, you know something bad is going to happen.

Even though we want to avoid both of them in real life, in writing we want both types of interest—the simple interest to keep the reader satisfied with little payoffs that keep the story moving forward, along with the compound interest that keeps the reader turning pages because they have to find out how the ultimate debt of the story will be paid off.

As we solve conflicts or answer questions in our narrative, we should always keep in mind how these solutions/answers feed into the compounding narrative debt. The best way to do this is to create new conflicts or questions with the resolution of the one that came before. If the heroine gets out of one scrape, the escape may create two new ones down the road.

Unlike in life, in writing incurring debt is a good thing. Just like in life, paying it off is a very good thing.

  1. Monday, March 12, 2007 9:43 pm

    What an excellent analogy. I never thought of plot building in this way before. You always clarify things so beautifully.


  2. Tuesday, March 13, 2007 1:04 am

    As a former money guru (not really, but I like the title) I can appreciate this analogy! AND you had me rolling at the same time, LOL!

    Liking your new blog!


  3. Tuesday, March 13, 2007 11:41 am

    Agree with everyone. That’s a great way of analyzing it. Now to go do it.



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