Narrative Drive – Do You Have It?

Jordan Dane

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.

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.

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.


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?


Subplot Survival 101

Happy 4th of July!!!

I’ve been in Mexico City this last week so have been out of the loop, but I saw in Friday’s post asking for topic suggestions, a request to deal with the (sometimes) thorny issue of subplots. These usually surface around the middle of the novel and (hopefully!) add  greater depth and complexity to the story. However, sometimes subplots can get unruly, unmanageable, and can mess up your manuscript if you’re not careful.

My current WIP has a number of subplot threads which need to be woven into the larger canvas of the novel, and so I thought I’d try and give some tips on what I’ve discovered as part of my own writing process. An initial caveat – I am an outliner so much of my advice centers on upfront (as well as ongoing) work when working out the plot. For those of you who are ‘pantsers’, although I think much of the advice still stands, you would probably approach the issues in the editing rather than drafting stage. I also highly recommend my fellow TKZ blog mate, James Scott Bell’s, excellent book ‘Plot & Structure‘ for those interested in having a more in-depth analysis into the plotting of their novel.

When approaching the issue of subplots I focus on four main issues:

  • Identification
  • Simplification / Justification
  • Trajectory
  • Resolution

I’ll deal with each of these in turn:

  1. Identification
    When developing the initial outline for my novel, I first ensure that I am clear on the primary premise that forms the basis for the book as this establishes the principal plot which will form the body of the novel. This sounds self-evident but many a book has been derailed by a failure to have a clearly articulated premise and plot – and then what happens? A muddy mixture of plots and subplots which, more often than not, confuse a reader. So if, for instance, the primary plot is a murder investigation, then make sure you are clear on how that investigation will play out before adding   subplots that may add complexity. Once you are clear on the main plot, then you can identify the subplots you want to weave into your novel. When you do identify the subplots you want to incorporate, make sure they add depth rather than merely ‘murk’ to the story!  Subplots could (and often should) focus on deepening the development of your major characters, enhancing the theme that underpins your novel, or providing parallel stories that focus on character relationships and intrigue. One you’ve got these identified the next step is…
  2. Simplification / Justification
    Just like in the identification phase, if there are too many competing subplots a novel may become unnecessarily complex and confusing. That’s not to say you don’t need to have subplots, it just means you want to make sure you don’t have so many that they start to muddy the waters and confuse a reader. I always think it’s important that the subplots add something significant to the story, the loss of which would make the novel less rich and engaging. So if a subplot merely adds an unnecessary layer, diversion, or complexity then bin it and move on to…
  3. Trajectory
    As an outliner, I map out the key plot points for the principal story as well all the subplots. In this way I can ensure a balance in the tension and development of all the key plot threads in the book. It also means I can see how the overall story will pan out with chapters and scenes that progress the main plot as well as the subplots. You don’t want, for example, a subplot to fizzle out or bog down the novel in the middle. Again, its all about adding to the principal story not detracting from it. Finally…
  4. Resolution
    If you do have a number of subplots in your novel, it’s vital that you resolve each of them (as well as the principal plot) so the reader feels a sense of closure and satisfaction. How many books have you read where a subplot seems to just disappear or go nowhere?…this, for me at least, is very frustrating. In my outline, I try to make sure I’ve resolved each of the subplots I’ve introduced. If I want to leave something open for a future book then I want to make sure I’ve done it consciously (and the reader knows this) rather than unconsciously (which will only tick a reader off…).

So these are my key stages when it comes to subplots. Although, as I said, I outline everything, I still have to keep all these issues in mind when I edit my drafts, as inevitably some subplots just don’t pan out or work the way I intended. Then, as often happens, I need to be ruthless in what stays in and what gets chucked.

So fellow TKZers how do you approach the issue of subplots? What would you add to my list, change, or do differently?