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Monday, May 2

Baby You Can Drive My Plot: Narrative Drive

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's not an uncommon situation: You have 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. This probably describes a fair number of first drafts.

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 or lack of stakes. Often a blend of the two, since they're very connected.

Narrative drive is that forward momentum your story achieves when your protag is working hard to get something, and every line is moving the reader toward something they want to discover. It might be finding out who dunnit, stopping the bad guy, realizing the truth, getting the item, saving the girl, 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 book can feel like it's not going anywhere and readers will wonder when the story is going to start. Drive also helps tie your words together so they all point in the same direction, and keep the story from feeling unfocused and rambling.

I've talked about goals before, and they're a large part of what makes narrative drive work. Readers want to see if the protag gets what they're after. A strong goal with a big risk grabs attention better than a weak goal with low stakes.

To see if your flat scenes can be helped by revving up the narrative drive, let's do some flow chart diagnostics:

In your scene...

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

2. No. Try tweaking to make it clear what the protag is after. Sometimes you need to state it, or have someone else say it. But whatever it is, should be clear in the protag'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 a reader really cares 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 protag, and the reader. Look for things that tie into your theme, reveal something about your world and characters, crack open an old wound. Look into your protag and see what's really driving him and why he wants what he wants. Revise and return to #3.

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

6. No. Up 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 up 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 the reader in multiple directions? Sometimes a protag wants more than one thing, and then the reader isn'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 back story? Back story has its places in the story, but unless the reader really wants to know that history, it just slows a story down. If yes, go to #10. If no, go to #11.

10. Yes. Cut the back story, 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? This one can be tricky because it takes a good eye to spot it. Look at your sentences. When you describe things, or show the action, is it colored with the need of your protag to get their goal, or it is just laying out 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 probably would limit your descriptions to those things, and not talk about the breeze blowing in through the windows (unless the protag is afraid the object got 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 protag's goal. Revise and return to #11.

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

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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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.