Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Fun Test to Check Your Scene's Narrative Drive

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Here's a fun diagnostic quiz to help you determine if your plot is doing its narrative job or just laying there without direction.

It's not an uncommon situation: You've finished your book, it's well written, the story is good, but for some reason the plot is just laying there, and you don't know what to do to make it better. It's not bad, but it's not making anyone eager to read it either.

Knowing a book isn't working and not knowing why can be horribly frustrating. I've had my share of flat stories, and I've found that when things aren't clicking, it's usually one of two things--lack of narrative drive (goals) or lack of stakes. Often a blend of the two, since they're very connected.

What is narrative drive?

plotting, scenes, stuck in a scene
Baby, you can drive my plot.
Narrative drive is the forward momentum a story achieves when the protagonist is working hard to achieve a goal, and every line makes readers want to see how that pursuit turns out. It might be finding out who dunnit, stopping the bad guy, realizing the truth, getting the item, saving the girl/boy, etc. Whatever big prize the writer has dangled in front of the hero to make them act.

The key word here is drive. Without that drive, a novel can feel like it's not going anywhere and readers will wonder when the story is going to start. Narrative drive also helps writers tie their words together so they all point in the same direction, and keep the story from feeling unfocused and rambling.

Goals are a large part of what makes narrative drive work. Readers want to see if the protagonist gets what they're after. A strong goal with a big risk grabs attention better than a weak goal with low stakes.

(Here's more on what keeps a story engine running)

To test if a flat scene can be helped by revving up the narrative drive, let's do some flow chart diagnostics:

In the scene...

1. Can you pinpoint exactly what the protagonist wants? If no, go to #2. If yes, go to #3.

2. No. Try tweaking the text to make it clear what goal the protagonist is after. Sometimes you need to state it, or have someone else say it. But whatever it is, should be clear in the protagonist's mind. Revise and return to #1.

3. Yes. Is this a goal worth having? Desperate for a cup of coffee is a strong and clearly defined goal, but it's probably not something readers will care about. If no, go to #4. If yes, go to #5.

4. No. Either pick a new goal to drive the scene, or find a way to make the existing goal matter to both the protagonist, and the reader. Look for things that tie into your theme, reveal something about your world and characters, crack open an old wound. Look at your protagonist and see what's really driving them and why they want what they want. Revise and return to #3.

5. Yes. Are the stakes high enough to warrant fear that the protagonist isn't going to get their goal? If no, go to #6. If yes, go to #7.

6. No. Then raise the stakes. Stakes should have consequences that matter and are life changing in some way. They should also be fairly proportional to the goal at hand, so if there's no way to raise the stakes without making it melodramatic (Oh no! I spilled the milk, the dairy police are going to come put me to death!) then you might have to re-look at your goal. Revise and return to #5.

7. Yes. Are there multiple goals diluting the scene and pulling readers in multiple directions? Sometimes a protagonist wants more than one thing, and then readers aren't sure what they're supposed to focus on or worry about. This can lead to confusion and stall the story. If yes, go to #8. If no, go to #9.

8. Yes. Try eliminating the other goals, or putting less focus on them. Perhaps they can be used to drive another scene instead. Revise and return to #7.

9. No. Is the scene stopping to explore backstory? Backstory has its place in the story, but unless readers really want to know that history at that moment, it just slows a story down. If yes, go to #10. If no, go to #11.

10. Yes. Cut the backstory, or edit out what isn't absolutely necessary. Revise and return to #9.

11. No. Are all the narrative arrows pointing in the same direction? Look at your sentences. When you describe things, or show the action, is it using the point of view to show why the protagonist must get their goal, or does the text just state facts and directions?

For example, if someone is hunting for a lost object, they'll look under stuff, behind stuff, wonder if anyone took it, etc. So you'd focus your descriptions to those things, and not talk about the great view or the soft summer breeze blowing in through the windows (unless the protagonist is afraid the object was taken out through the window). If no, go to #12. If yes, go to #13.

12. No. Tweak your text so it supports and enhances the protagonist's goal. Revise and return to #11.

13. Yes. Is the scene working now? If no, go to #1. If yes, congrats!

Sometimes we get so caught up in describing what we see it in our heads, that we forget a story is more than a list of what's there. It's interesting characters solving interesting problems in interesting ways, and watching characters actively trying to solve those problems is what keeps readers invested in the story. Give your story a strong narrative drive and readers won't want to stop until they get to the end of the road.

Is your narrative drive taking your readers where you want them to go?

*Originally published September 2011. Last update March 2019.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I LOVE this diagnostic flowchart! It's easy to get muddled in scenes. This is very helpful. Thank you.

  2. Beyond being an excellent post... bravo for being able to keep track while writing it!

  3. I love the diagnostic flowchart as well, and I cannot thank you enough for this post. It really helped me clean up a lot of my scenes! Cheers again, Janice. You're a star

  4. Thanks all. LOL, Donna. You'd laugh if you knew how many times I went through it just to make sure it all tracked!

  5. Awesome, and timely, post for me. Thank you! I love the flow chart, it's just what I need for my current WiP.

  6. These are such great tips. I'm judging a contest for unpublished authors at the moment, and I'm seeing so many of these problems.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. Raelyn: Great! I love when that happens. And it seems to happen a lot. :)

    Terry: That would make a great blog post. Might i Be able to tempt you into guest blogging about what you see (sans details of course) as a judge? I bet it would be very interesting and educational.

  8. I love the clarity of the flowchart--really ingenious and helpful!

  9. Thanks! They're so much fun to write I really ought to do more of them.