Wednesday, June 9

Real Life Diagnostic: Using Narrative Focus to Strengthen Scenes

My mind wanders all the time. I can't verbally tell a story or explain something without going into all kinds of tangents and taking forever to get there. My poor husband is always giving me those "there is a point here, right?" looks, and he's totally justified in doing so. Oddly enough, I don't wander (much) in my writing, and that's probably because I learned a very valuable tool:


Narrative Focus.

Narrative focus is the glue that holds a paragraph together, which in turns holds a scene together, and then a story together. Each paragraph drives toward the same idea, and isn't talking willy nilly about things. It helps the author stay in control of the words and lead the reader where they want them to go. It helps build tension and raise stakes, and makes it easier to know what needs to go where. Whether you're an outliner or a pantser, narrative focus can help you keep your story on track.

I'm doing a little combo here, using a sample a reader sent me for Real Life Diagnostics as a wonderful example for narrative focus. I'm guessing there are a lot of folks out there who have similar type work. Strong voice, good writing, but something is off and they can't quite put their finger on it. They might even be getting rejections on partials or getting close on submissions. A lack of narrative focus might be the culprit holding you back.

Original Version:

My name’s Bo Wolf. I’m eleven years old and I never lie. Never. I’m all about telling the truth. There once was a man named George Washington who told his dad that he could never lie and then he became the president of the United States. I’m exactly the same way. If I lived way back then, George and I would be BFF’s. I’m sure of it.

That’s why when I tell you about my totally crazy story- I’m going to tell you the good and the bad. I’ll admit it- I’ve been bullied. I’m sure George had been too.

So there I was, standing in front of the bathroom mirror in the boys’ restroom at school. The last bell of the day had rung and I knew they were out there.

They: Rufus Durfus and Brutus Strunks were the meanest bullies in Los Angeles. I think if you tallied the wedgie count they inflicted on other kids, by the end of the day it would have at least reached thirty-nine… that's an average. I'm totally being honest with you, ‘cause remember, I never lie.

Now if you don’t know what a wedgie is you probably don’t want to know, but I’ll just go ahead and tell you anyway. Dictionary.com defines wedgie as: the condition of having one's underpants or other clothing uncomfortably stuck between the buttocks.

Yep, you better believe it. That’s a wedgie, and when it came to Rufus and Brutus, the underpants came up from the buttocks and over the head. All I could see was white when they did that, okay, and occasionally a lavender color, but that’s just because my mom washed my underwear with her purple shirts.

Due to my savvy awesomeness, I always snuck out the back of school at the end of the day. Of course Rufus and Brutus were always there waiting for me, but at least my fan club would never see me getting picked on.

That’s right, I have a fan club. Jealous? I’d be. I’ll tell you more about them right after this bully part, so be patient.

My Comments in Purple:

My name’s Bo Wolf. I’m eleven years old and I never lie. Never. I’m all about telling the truth. There once was a man named George Washington who told his dad that he could never lie and then he became the president of the United States. I’m exactly the same way. If I lived way back then, George and I would be BFF’s. I’m sure of it.

This is a focused paragraph because the idea here is never lying. Bo compares himself to Washington, so you even gets sense of the character within that idea of lying.

That’s why when I tell you about my totally crazy story- I’m going to tell you the good and the bad. I’ll admit it- I’ve been bullied. I’m sure George had been too.

The theme continues, and the scene stays focused, moving smoothly from never lying to being bullied. Though this never comes up in the sample, (and I don't know if it's true in the story or not) I can easily see Bo's honestly being one of the things getting him bullied.

So there I was, standing in front of the bathroom mirror in the boys’ restroom at school. The last bell of the day had rung and I knew they were out there.

Now we start to leave the introduction and the honesty part behind and shift into the bullying. Each paragraph is leading to the next. It's staying focused and drawing the reader into the story in a logical way.

They: Rufus Durfus and Brutus Strunks were the meanest bullies in Los Angeles. I think if you tallied the wedgie count they inflicted on other kids, by the end of the day it would have at least reached thirty-nine… that's an average. I'm totally being honest with you, ‘cause remember, I never lie.

Here's where we start to go astray. If you were like me, you were curious abut the honesty and the hiding in the bathroom and what happened when Bo left that bathroom. But now we lose some focus and take a tangent to explain who the bullies are. It can be tempting to introduce a character the narrator is about to encounter, but chances are they're going to appear soon anyway. While mentioning the bullies and why Bo is scared of them does help the reader start to worry, the focus in this paragraph isn't on Bo's fears. It's more in the wedgies. To tighten the focus, you could have Bo worry about the wedgies or remember his last wedgie so it connects to the fear of leaving the bathroom idea.

Now if you don’t know what a wedgie is you probably don’t want to know, but I’ll just go ahead and tell you anyway. Dictionary.com defines wedgie as: the condition of having one's underpants or other clothing uncomfortably stuck between the buttocks.

The focus has moved further away from what is going to happen when Bo leaves the bathroom. The wedgies have hijacked the story idea. Stopping to explain something is a common problem when narrative focus is lost, and a good red flag to look for when revising.

Yep, you better believe it. That’s a wedgie, and when it came to Rufus and Brutus, the underpants came up from the buttocks and over the head. All I could see was white when they did that, okay, and occasionally a lavender color, but that’s just because my mom washed my underwear with her purple shirts.

Wedgies have now moved on to laundry, and while it's all quite cute, the curiosity you had about Bo leaving the bathroom and what he might find outside is probably gone now. Chances are, you're waiting for the story to get back on track. You might even be wondering what the story is actually about now.

Due to my savvy awesomeness, I always snuck out the back of school at the end of the day. Of course Rufus and Brutus were always there waiting for me, but at least my fan club would never see me getting picked on.

Another jump here with the introduction of the fan club. There's no connection to the bullies, the wedgies, or the problem at hand. Odds are readers are wondering what the fan club has to do with anything or why Bo even has a fan club. While it's good to make readers wonder, you want them wondering what will happen next, not trying to understand an unconnected detail.

That’s right, I have a fan club. Jealous? I’d be. I’ll tell you more about them right after this bully part, so be patient.

The fan club is likely something important to the story since it's brought up here and promised to be explained later, but since it has no bearing on the story at this moment, it's not something readers need to know yet. It also dips in to the telling realm, as the story is stopping to tell the reader something the author feels they need to know. A good note: if you find yourself telling the reader to be patient, that's another red flag that you might be wandering off track -grin-.

One positive thing about losing focus is that it's probably an indicator of things you want to include in that scene, even if you're not sure yet how to do that. From this sample, I can surmise that Bo doesn't want his fan club to see him being bullied, and that maintaining his reputation is important to him. He usually relies on his sneakiness to escape this fate, but today he might not be able to.

All of these things are great situations to play with, and if they're approached with a tighter narrative focus, this scene will probably rock.

When you find yourself slipping in details that have no bearing on what's going on in the scene, stop and look for ways to lead the story there. In Bo's case, his fear of the bullies and what will happen when he leaves the bathroom is driving the scene. So, to incorporate the fan club, wedgie, and sneaking ideas, try connecting them to those fears. Put the focus on the fear and how those things will ease or heighten those fears.

He's scared of the bullies, so he decides to sneak out. He chooses his escape route in a way so his fan club won't see him. Perhaps he spots a member and that adds to the stakes, because now he might be seen by not only the bullies, but his fan club as well. Maybe he even goes as far as to take off his underwear to they can't give him a wedgie (and what delightful consequences that might have). He sneaks off, but it caught. How many of his fears come true at that moment is up to the author and what they want to do.

If you can connect everything to the goal at hand, the scene will feel more focused and lead the reader where you want them to go. It will also give you other obstacles to overcome and raise the tension and stakes. And when something just doesn't fit in with that goal, you'll know you can cut that out or save it for later.

Narrative focus can work like your own private editor, guiding you to tighter prose, and helping you avoid some common pitfalls like telling, infodumping, or too much back story.

Thanks to our brave author for submitting this piece and letting me nitpick it on the blog.

10 comments:

  1. Another great post. You always explain things so well and the live diagnostics really helped illustrate the point (cute little opening, btw.)

    And I think it's more than fine to lack a bit of narrative focus while talking :)

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  2. I adore these live diagnostics. Now we have a combination of your great ability to explain as well as an example to apply it to - there's concrete passages that this information is working with, it makes it easier to remember and gives a whole new level of understanding.

    I really enjoyed this post on narrative focus, I have a character who wanders (and is supposed to) but this connecting all his wondering thoughts to one main idea just gave me a couple brilliant ideas of my own.

    To the author who submitted this. Great opening. It was entertaining and very sweet.

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  3. Thanks to Janice and our brave author. You really did catch my attention with your opening paragraphs and my mind did wander off when you did. I really wanted to know what was going to happen with the bullies. Thanks for volunteering your work.

    I like Janice's idea of Bo going camando :)

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  4. Ah, on the subject of backstory; I'm trying to revise my prologue because it provides vital information about how the character got bitter, lost his family, ect. But the problem is that it doesn't focus on the main dilema that drives the whole story. It sticks out, frankly. Do I need this info, or can I just dump it? Any clever ideas how I can recall those evnts without leaving the story?

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  5. Thank you just doesn't seem like enough, but it's all I've got. THANK YOU

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  6. I really liked this one a lot. You clearly illustrate how to keep coning down the focus.

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  7. Most welcome all :) Story Weaver, odds are you can cut your prologue and it will improve your story. The reader doesn't need to know how your character got biter, just that he is. Maybe that info will come out naturally somewhere else in the story, at a time where the reader is curious about the character's past.

    Best way to do that is to have something trigger a memory of what happened. Not a full on flashback or anything, but something that causes your character to think "oh no, this was just like when Dad was killed by rabid wombats."

    I've actually been planning a backstory/infodump post, so I'll do something that goes into more detail next week.

    Some earlier posts that might also help:
    http://storyflip.blogspot.com/2010/02/talking-about-past.html

    http://storyflip.blogspot.com/2010/01/back-story-of-our-lives.html

    http://storyflip.blogspot.com/2009/03/dont-sweat-small-stuff-week-back-story.html

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  8. Huh.

    Hm.

    Er.

    Handy.

    :D I've already had critiques tell me that I'm prone to info-dumps, usually just a paragraph here and there. This might be why. I'll be chewing on that cud, thanks.

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  9. To incorporate the fan club, wedgie, and sneaking ideas, try connecting them to those fears. injured

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