Narrative Drive – Do You Have It?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Another author who blurbed one of my books told me, “You have great narrative drive.” I thanked her with a smile and quickly went to look it up. Being a self-taught author, I had never heard the term. Narrative drive is that quality that keeps readers turning the pages, riveted to your work. It’s your innate story telling ability. It’s not complicated when you break it down, but how do you teach it? Can it be taught?

What sets apart highly successful best selling authors from others? Best selling authors can build worlds that readers want to be in and they create memorable characters and plots that are compelling with good pace, but do they have something unique to them and their ability that sets them apart?

Each author strives to create a compelling narrative drive (whether they understand what the term means or not) because they want readers eager to turn the page. That means the author MUST manipulate the world and the characters into the optimal story that involves mystery, suspense and intriguing relationships. This covers all genres of writing.

The author controls what is revealed to the reader and parses it out in the most optimal way by their judgement. They make choices on when to reveal things and how they are to be doled out. Natural born story tellers know how to do this instinctively.

The author is in control of EVERYTHING. He or she manipulates the reader with a titillating story and how that story is shared and how it affects the character relationships. Nothing should come as a surprise to the author.

To create MYSTERY elements, the author is guarded about what to share with the reader and when to share it. There’s misdirection with red herrings or through unreliable narrators, for example.

To create SUSPENSE, the author can have the reader follow along and reveal what they want the reader to know as the main characters discover things. This builds on suspense elements.

To give the reader an INSIDER VIEW, the author may reveal things to the reader that the characters don’t know. Let the readers play God from afar and watch the play that is told in the story.

KEEP A READER CURIOUS and/or WORRIED – Readers are naturally curious folks. Give them something to uncover. A wise author will let a reader’s minds be piqued by carefully placed clues. Or an author might make readers worry for the characters they’ve grown fond of. Make readers care and escalate the danger for the characters. Again, this post might sound geared for crime fiction, but it can apply to any genre. The threat does not have to involve life or death. It can involve the heart or the emotional survival of a family enduring a tragedy or a stigma.

WHAT KILLS NARRATIVE DRIVE
1.) Backstory dumps and long boring expositions can kill a strong page turner.
2.) When one scene doesn’t lead to a cause and effect, the plot may drift without cohesion. The reader gets lost in the amble. Actions must have consequences for the reader to want to come along for the ride.
3.) Cheating at mystery elements, where the author creates intrigue, but the outcome is a let down or a head fake for the reader. That’s when a reader will throw a book against a wall and may never buy an author again.
4.) Cheap surprises without build up is the same type of disappointment. Don’t pull a killer or a bad actor or a story element from thin air to end the book.
5.) No coincidences. An author might get away with a coincidence in the first few pages of a story, but a coincidence should never end the book. Major No-No.

HOW TO FIX A FAULTY NARRATIVE DRIVE:
I believe that each scene in a book should be like a mini-story. It should have a compelling beginning, a journey through the scene with purpose, and an ending that foreshadows what’s to come to create a page turner. Each scene should move the plot forward by 1-3 plot points, making that scene impossible to delete without toppling your story (like the wood block-building game of Jenga.)

I endeavor to build as many of these scenes as possible, even with scenes that build on a relationship as a subplot. The subplot should have a journey through the book as well.

If an author is in control of everything in a book, the fixes come from the author too. Be critical of each scene during the edit phase. I first strip out the unnecessary words to tighten the writing. I layer in the emotional content. Whatever the scene is meant to do–like action or romance or mystery–I layer in MORE of those elements. I read the book aloud to make sure it has cadence and the dialogue sounds real and well-motivated.

1.) Give a character GOALS to every scene. Otherwise what is the purpose for that scene?

2.) Are the motives clear? Are the characters well-motivated? Do their actions make sense and does the scene contribute to building on the plot? If not, how can the scene be revised to make motives stronger or more compelling?

3.) What is the internal and external conflict in the scene? How is conflict layered in? Revise to show the parallels between what a character is confronted with and how it affects them emotionally. Heighten the intensity of a character’s journey.

4.) What’s at stake and is it compelling enough? Are the stakes clear to the reader? What does the character stand to lose? Make the reader care more.

5.) Give the character choices. Good guys or bad, do they face dire consequences for their actions? Do the consequences matter? Make the reader care what happens.

6.) Do the character(s) change in the scene? Is there a journey of growth or development? No throw away scenes. Make each one count.

7.) Be critical of the scenes meant for backstory or too much world building. Do these elements drag on and slow the pace? How much is essential to the story? How much should be reserved as a mystery element? Remember, even the smallest of mysteries can create curiosity in the reader. Make it count. Be judicious.

8.) What is the point of each scene? What makes it impossible to delete? If a scene can be deleted in total without consequence to the overall plot, it should stay gone or parts of it could be stripped and used in other scenes.

9.) Word choices can affect Narrative Drive – Strip out unnecessary words within each sentence to give more impact. Too many adjectives or flowery descriptions can slow pace and confuse the reader on the direction of each scene.

10.) Do your scene and chapter endings fizzle to a dead stop or do they foreshadow what’s coming? Anticipation can build on fear or feelings from readers. Compelling imagery can be an effective way to end a scene that’s based on a relationship. Cliffhangers don’t have to be major to intrigue a reader, but don’t waste a scene or chapter ending without something that makes the reader want to turn the page. That’s a wasted opportunity.

11.) Look for too much described body language in each scene. Too much head movements or blinking eyes or interruption with movement can be a distraction to slow narrative drive. Make sure any character movement means something or adds to the irony or character banter.

DISCUSSION:

1.) Can storytelling be taught? What distinguishes authors from the competition?

2.) What tips do you have on Narrative Drive that you use in your own writing?

3.) What challenges have you experienced in improving your Narrative Drive?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

39 thoughts on “Narrative Drive – Do You Have It?

  1. Wow! A mini-course in writing. Carrying on a bit from #11, I’ve read books where authors seem to be taking the “Use all Five Senses” guideline so much to heart that it seems as though they’re following a checklist. Make sure everything stems from what the character would hear, smell, see, touch, taste, etc. And don’t stop the forward motion to describe something in detail.

    • Boy, you are spot in with the five senses thing, Terry. There are subtle ways to trigger a reader’s senses but it’s not required to run down a checklist every time. Thanks for starting things off.

    • It’s often a genre thing. You can get away with not having the battlefield stench of blood and rotting humans in an epic fantasy. A romance of any type would be flat without sensuality. But even in romance, overkill is overkill. Knowing when to use the special details is part of being a good writer.

      That said, in various studies on brain science, researchers have found that readers while reading fiction with sensual details have parts of their brains including the pleasure centers light up. That makes the fictional world more real as well as making the reader more likely to keep reading and buy your next book.

  2. Excellent summary guide for our writing.

    The one of these I fumble with the most is having a goal for every scene. Sure, it’s easy when they’re about to confront the killer or it’s about a major plot point or a clue, but what about scenes that just set the stage of story-world and its people? Sure, you don’t want mundane daily life stuff, but sometimes I write scenes of protag interacting with someone in story world and, while I can’t articulate a specific goal for the scene, it seems cold and impersonal to leave it out.

    Anybody else have that problem or is it just me?

    • I deal with this in the reverse. I see scenes as if I’m making a movie. But readers want what they want & they have expectations in their mind on relationship scenes, for example. One of my final review edits is to address what you’re talking about. In my stripped out narrative, do I have enough foundational elements, even purely for imagery sake. I have a look at the purpose for scenes to make sure of drive, but I don’t underestimate the importance of scenes that develop that “extra” something that an author’s instinct compels them to write. It’s important to follow your gut, but make it count with real punch. The balance is under your control.

      Great point, BK. Thank you.

    • When I finally met James Scott Bell for the first time over breakfast in San Antonio, we talked about layering in imagery & saving the best for the last page – to give the reader a final tug of emotion or sense of irony saved for the ending. You work in a mystery element that keeps a reader wondering what will happen, but save the answer for an ending that’s memorable. It could be a small thing, plotwise, but it could be a big moment for the reader experience.

      An example – I had my protag growing increasingly distant, as observed by a secondary character who made his mood a mystery for the reader. On the last page, the reader discovers why and it’s hopefully a heart melting moment. I savored the reveal & timed it, knowing that the reader will feel a greater impact with the last image. Something to carry with them, usually while they’re crying as they put the book down.

      • It could be a small thing, plotwise, but it could be a big moment for the reader experience

        Exactly. I call it “resonance,” that last, satisfying note in a grand symphony. My favorite example is at the end of Lethal Weapon when Riggs shows up at Murtaugh’s home on Christmas Eve. Murtaugh’s daughter answers the door and Riggs gives her a “Christmas present” for her father…it’s the hollow-point bullet he’s been carrying around to use on himself someday…with a ribbon around it. “Tell him I won’t be needing it anymore.” It’s the perfect visual of his transformation.

    • The viewpoint character wants what he wants–the killer found, the girl to love him, or what ever. That’s the final goal of the novel. Every scene must move him toward that final goal. So, he is interviewing murder suspects, or presenting flowers and that candy his girl loves, or whatever. If the scene doesn’t do that, you don’t need that scene. If that deleted scene had some plot or character points, character points are parts of the emotional puzzle, then cut the scene.

      The best rule to remember on your problem is that worldbuilding is what is happening around the characters as they move toward their goals. It’s not a separate thing.

      Working with newer writing students, I’ve discovered that some write a scene like this because they are trying to clarify the ideas for themselves, not for the reader. So use the clarity for other scenes and delete that one.

      • “…some write a scene like this because they are trying to clarify the ideas for themselves, not for the reader.”

        This is so TRUE. I’ve seen it many times in aspiring authors. Well said.

  3. 1. Gosh, I hope storytelling can be taught. That’s why I read posts like this. I think authors distinguish themselves through hard work and experience.

    2. I’m not qualified to answer this one!

    3. I’m often confusing the reader. I have stage direction problems. But at least now that I know that’s an issue, I can work on it.

    • Priscilla, I was told in college that storytelling can’t be taught. I believed that “Big Lie” for ten years. But then I learned how, and started to teach others. After 25 years I think there’s enough evidence to disprove the lie.

    • Like Jim. I believe lots can be learned & everyone has a shot at working hard to improve what they do.

      I do believe story telling is what distinguishes authors from each other. We filter our writing through our life experiences to put words on the page. But that’s what makes each of us unique.

      • We filter our writing through our life experiences to put words on the page. But that’s what makes each of us unique.

        Jordan, I was about to write the exact same thing.

        What distinguishes authors from the competition?

        There’s excellent additions to your post in the comments already, so I’ll add story rhythm — the ebb and flow of how each writer strings words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters. Story rhythm is what attracts me to certain writers over others. As an auditory reader, if I can’t feel the beat in their storytelling, I put the book down.

        You’re not alone, my friend. I hadn’t heard the term “narrative drive” till this post. 🙂

  4. Jordan, this post is an instant MFA! Whole books are written about these topics but you condensed the most important tips into a concise, meaty, how-to guide.

    1. Some people are born storytellers; the rest of us have to work at it. Jim is proof it can not only be learned but passed on by teaching others.

    2. The author gets enmeshed inside characters’ heads and sometimes fails to see what a reader would notice. That’s why it’s good to let the ms. rest for a few weeks after finishing the first draft. Then read the story as if it was written by someone else. And have good beta readers and critiquers who point out the Big Duhs.

    3. Hardest challenge is finding plausible reasons why my main character would put herself into dangerous situations that any smart, reasonable person would run away from. Striking a balance between courageous and TSTL (too stupid to live).

    Going to print this post and save! Thanks, Jordan!

  5. Don’t feel bad about not knowing about narrative drive. I teach writing, and I’ve never heard of it. But new terms appear all the time courtesy of some writing book or the other.

    Good article. Fiction Writing 101 all in one spot.

    Some very successful writers with really poor craft have a narrative drive skill which has propelled them into bestsellerdom of many years. So, it’s a very important thing. But I always think how much better they would have done if they’d learned better craft. Learn your craft, kids!

    • Craft is definitely important. If I hadn’t joined some good writer groups, entered contests for feedback, worked with beta readers & read many craft books, I may never have been traditionally published & certainly not as quickly. Learning craft is satisfying for me. Thanks, Marilynn.

  6. Excellent primer, Jordan! You also gave me an idea for my next post here. Thanks.

    Can I add one more thing that repels readers and might send your book flying across the room? (Or in my case, I once heaved a bestseller off a cabin balcony and into the woods):

    The Long-Lost Uncle From Australia. This is when the bad guy shows up in the last couple chapters and the writer has done zero to make him a credible presence previously. The villain has to be there all along, even if he’s hiding in plain sight (mystery) or is identified from the start (thriller).

    • Hahaha! I once read a book that had a local rich socialite turn out to be the villain without foundation AS SHE SCUBA DIVED ACROSS A LAKE TO SURPRISE EVERYONE. Completely out of left field. Thanks, Kris.

    • THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Conan Doyle had the bad guy in plain sight most of the story, but the resemblance between him and the original cursed Baskerville in the painting that Holmes used wasn’t shared with the audience via Watson. So, cheating.

      Also, so few suspects that it’s an easy guess to find the killer. I see this all the time in cozies.

  7. Wow, what a treasure trove of invaluable tips for fiction writers. This is one of most spot-on, well laid out, and informative blog posts I’ve ever read on writing compelling fiction. These tips also help me focus my suggestions as an editor of popular fiction. Thanks so much, Jordan, for taking the time to do this. Sharing!

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