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Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Tyranny of 'Narrative Drive'

He who would pun would pick a pocket.
Most writing advice columns will start by telling you that it doesn't matter what you write, what your 'style' is, and that there are no rules. This is bullshit.

Okay, so it's not a complete lie, but it is an over-simplification. It's the sort of polite thing people say when they don't want to discourage you. Like, "You write quite well for someone your age," or, "Yes, it really suits you, but I like the other one better."

There are rules. They're broad and flexible and can be applied in a huge variety of ways, but rules they are and exist they do. One of these rules has to do with the requirement for 'narrative drive'. This is a vague one to define, but it basically boils down to the feeling that stuff is actually happening and that the story is actually going somewhere.

I hate to say it, but anyone who tells you this isn't important is flat out lying to your face, albeit with (usually) benign motives.

Probably the most important aspect of narrative drive is a sense of momentum. I believe it's actually true that things like pace and frequency of incident don't really matter - a lot of readers prefer slow, contemplative works. What kills momentum, however, is the lack of a unifying idea or set of ideas, lack of consistency in pacing, and the lack of coherence in incident.

Here's three broad principles which, when kept in mind, should help to preserve narrative drive.


Treat the narrative as your primary delivery system.
This is about having something to say. Before the first word of a story is written, careful consideration needs to be given to the ideas or feelings which the author is trying to get across. Basically, if your plot is not designed as a delivery system for a devastating assault of ideas and emotions, then it's just possible that your story might not be worth reading.

Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating, but it is important to be clear about what you're writing about if you want to avoid producing a story that feels vague, aimless or pointless. It doesn't have to earth-shattering. There's no rule to say that every author must always and only write about the horrors of war, or the insane hubris inherent in human existence. Sometimes, a story which perfectly captures something small - like the desolation of a grey and rainy day, or the heartbreak of life's minor defeats - can be more poignant than any towering epic of literary greatness. But deliver something you must, as people who read writing purely for the sake of beautiful words are called 'poetry readers'.

It could be argued that what I'm saying here is genre specific, but I don't think it is. Remember, I said delivering an idea or a feeling. It really doesn't matter what you're writing, from advertising copy to screenplay to literary doorstopper, it is guaranteed that you will be trying to deliver one or the other. Thrillers deliver excitement, horror promotes dread, sci-fi often shoots for wonder - the list goes on.

By focussing on the idea or feeling you wish to convey, it is far more likely that you will hit upon the best possible vehicle for delivering it, as well as avoiding a story which leaps peripatetically between a dizzying over-abundance of concepts.

The process is a simple one. Some people start with ideas, others with stories, others still with disconnected scenes. Whichever starting point works for you, it's important to pause and determine what you want to make the reader think and/or feel, and then design the rest of your story accordingly. Not to do so is to radically increase your likelihood of producing either an incomplete or a failed manuscript.


If your book is this thick, restart and try again.
When you have an idea of where you want your story to go, it's important that you get there as efficiently as possible. Now, don't get the idea that I'm saying every story needs to tear along at the pace of a Lee Child thriller, but it's still not okay to waste scenes and actions. Just as we apply Chekhov's Gun to story elements, so too should it apply to everything else.

On a very basic level, let's say you start a chapter of a novel knowing that you must achieve the following before you can move on:
  1. A meeting between two characters
  2. A key piece of foreshadowing dialogue
  3. An overall impression of a locale
  4. The introduction of an important object
The immediate tendency is to think of each of these plot and story elements and create a scene perfectly designed to show each of them. When you're one or two chapters in, this approach may very well work best, but if you continue in this way throughout your book, what you're going to end up with is a smoking hot mess. Characters will have to be used, re-used and invented, and your people and events will start moving in repetitive loops. Also, there's a good chance you'll end up with about 700 chapters.

It's a good idea to apply, at the very beginning, the principle of economy. If all the things on the list above need accomplishing, what is the minimum number of scenes and character actions required to do that? Can the characters meet in a venue which is emblematic of the chosen locale, have a conversation in which they foreshadow the plot and then proceed to notice or mention an important object? If you consistently craft in this fashion, even stories not exactly crowded with incident will gain a sense of momentum and purpose. 

It's easy to forget, but what I try to do is imagine that I have to painstakingly hand draw each scene I'm going to create, and then let my constitutional laziness take over. This is generally effective because, as a writer, painstakingly hand drawing every scene is exactly what you have to do.


This is a hipster reading paper anime because it's cool. Don't be that guy.
You may have noticed that much of the foregoing assumes a degree of planning. This leads me to believe that many authors are going to skim through this thinking, "Well, I'm a pantser. None of this applies to me."

A word about pantsers. Nobody who writes anything worth reading does so with zero preparation or planning. 


I like to use public speaking as an analogy. There are speakers who are brilliant at extempore speaking, and those who require careful planning, notes, and so on. Extempore speakers tend to have a few things in common. Firstly and most fundamentally, they have expertise in both speaking and at least one subject. People who can speak extempore can usually do so because they have practiced speaking to the point where they are glibly articulate, and because they know what they're talking about inside out and upside down. On top of this, when observing an extempore speaker, one notices that they do not, in fact, speak entirely off the cuff. When called upon to speak, they will pause, see the broad outline of their argument in their minds, and then set off. 

From this we can see that they don't eschew planning - their whole lives have been a process of planning and preparation for the moment of speaking. This means that all that's left to do on the day can usually be shortened to a second or two of thought. This is emphatically not the same as failing to prepare or plan at all.

Now, you may think that the divine and plentiful flow of your unique genius is sufficient to keep a reader locked in the compelling spell of your literary greatness, and if you do, I won't argue with you. There wouldn't be much point anyway. But if you're a pantser because you've assessed your spontaneous writing to be better than your contrived, then I'd just point out one thing. However good it is, you still need a rudimentary scaffold or path to your destination. And you still need a destination, because the greatest single killer of narrative drive is aimlessness, and the quickest way to kill a reader's interest is to lack narrative drive.

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