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Wednesday, June 3

Why You Should Tighten Your Novel's Narrative Focus

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A loss of narrative focus can lead to a loss of reader interest. 

I read a novel once that started off strong, then wandered into the weeds. It was a shame, because the premise was great and I really wanted to know what happened, but the story grew more confusing and muddied the farther I read.

It completely lost its narrative focus, and in doing so, lost its reader.

If you're unfamiliar with the term, narrative focus is the common idea that ties a sentence, paragraph, scene, or chapter together. It’s what keeps the story flowing because everything lines up in lovely little story roads. It's similar to narrative drive, as it helps keep the pace moving as events and details build upon one another and make readers feel like the story is going somewhere they can clearly follow.

Basically, if you've ever had a four-year-old tell you a story, you've experienced what a lack of narrative focus sounds like. 

Narrative focus affects both the macro and micro levels of your writing. Typically, if there's a lack of narrative focus at the sentence level, odds are it's hard for readers to understand what you're trying to say. A lack of focus at the paragraph level usually leads to confusion about what's important. A lack of focus at the scene level often kills the pacing and makes the scene feel aimless and slow.

Let's look at each of these more closely.

Narrative Focus at the Sentence Level 


Have you ever read a run-on sentence? There's a good chance it lost its focus and tried to do too many things at once. It's clear to the author what it's saying, since they wrote it, but readers have no idea what the point of the sentence was.
Bob ran for the car, jumping over the barrel of firecrackers he still couldn’t light, trying to ignore Sally screaming that she’d never leave the keys in the ignition and he was looking in the wrong place just like she always did.
Um, what?

Do you have any idea what this sentence is trying to say? What’s important here? Going for the car, lighting the barrel of firecrackers, or the keys in the ignition. It's chaos.

Let's try keeping the focus of each topic together--Bob running for the car to get Sally's keys, and the barrel of firecrackers.
Bob ran for the car, ignoring Sally’s screams that she’d never leave the keys in the ignition. He jumped over the barrel of firecrackers he still couldn’t light.
It's better, but there’s still trouble here, because what do firecrackers have to do with going for keys? There's no smooth connection between the keys and the firecrackers, and it's hard for readers to make the jump from one idea to the other.

This kind of narrative wobble is common when we’re trying to slip in details and aren’t sure how they fit. This can lead to unfocused paragraphs.

(Here's more on 4 Ways to Keep Your Sentences From All Sounding the Same)

Narrative Focus at the Paragraph Level 


Remember English class? One topic per paragraph? That still holds true when writing fiction. If this is the paragraph about Bob getting Sally's keys, focus on that. If it's about him and the firecrackers, write another paragraph that supports that idea and action. Trying to show both in the same paragraph frequently lead to readers not understanding what's going on.
Bob ran for the car, ignoring Sally’s screams that she’d never leave the keys in the ignition. He was looking in the wrong place. He was getting tired of her always insulting his intelligence like that. He jumped over the barrel of firecrackers he still couldn’t light. Which they really needed to do if they had any chance of alerting Frank and the others to start the landslide. They’d never get out of this mess alive if they had to take down every single zombie by hand. Even with Sally’s marksman aim, they didn’t have enough ammo.
Could you tell me what this paragraph is about? I doubt it. It’s all over the place. Sure, we get the gist of it--they need to light firecrackers to cause a landslide and kill zombies--but it's muddied and it's easy for readers to lose their way.

Worse--it's not taking advantage of the inherent tension in this situation. Instead of letting the tension build with each of these ideas--getting the keys, alerting Frank, triggering the landslide--the whole scene is micro-summarized.

It’s common to see this type of paragraph when we're still trying to figure out how a scene plays out. Ideas hit us and we write them down, going with the flow. Problem is, sometimes that flow is more of a spray and we end up with a scattered sense of the scene.

Try breaking up those unfocused paragraphs into individual thoughts, then adding transition sentences to lead readers through the action. Show what’s important, then take them to the next important detail. Dramatize the scene instead of just summarizing the action.
“They’re not there, you idiot!” Sally screamed.

Bob ran for the car anyway, picturing her keys dangling from the ignition. Even Sally made mistakes and left critical gear behind. Like her beat up Guns & Roses lighter snug in its leather holder on a key ring.

He jumped over the barrel of firecrackers waiting for a match. Or a lighter. Or hell, even a blowtorch if he found one between here and the car. Didn’t matter how those fuses got lit as long as they did—and fast. Frank was waiting with several tons of rock.

He glanced at the ridge above. Okay sure, maybe a landslide was overkill, but they’d never get out of this mess alive if they had to take down every single zombie by hand. They didn’t have enough ammo. Not even Sally’s freakishly good aim could make up for a lack of bullets.

Leaning through the car window, Bob yanked the keys from the ignition. The lighter winked at him as if sharing a private joke. Yep, Sally was wrong this time, and once they brought down that mountain he’d let her know it. He might not ever let her forget it.

If they survived of course.
Feels more focused, doesn’t it? Not only that, this version is a lot more interesting than the last one. It’s going somewhere, has a sense of drive and even stakes. It went from a loose summary paragraph to action with focus and drive.

(Here's more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

Narrative Focus at the Scene Level 


If you’ve ever gotten back a critique and read comments that said “the story wandered,” or “I didn’t know what the point was,” or "it felt slow," there’s a good chance the scene lost its narrative focus. While you'll certainly have multiple topics and goals in a scene, keeping them focused keeps the story moving from scene to scene, same as it does paragraph to paragraph and sentence to sentence.

Let’s take the above scene and muck it up. The most likely culprits to losing focus--backstory and description.
“They’re not there, you idiot!” Sally screamed. So like her, yelling at him like she had since the day they were married. He really should have jilted her then, and now it was too late.  
Bob ran for the car anyway, picturing her keys dangling from the ignition. Even Sally made mistakes, left critical gear behind. Like a beat up Guns & Roses lighter snug in its leather holder on a key ring.

Dunhouser had teased him about it for months, called him a one-shirt wonder like that actually meant something.

Was Jimmy even still alive? Maybe he’d been eaten by a zombie in a concert T-shirt. Wouldn’t that be a riot?

Bob jumped over the barrel of firecrackers waiting for a match. Or a lighter. Or hell, even a blowtorch if he found one between here and the car. Didn’t matter how those fuses got lit as long as they did—and fast. Frank was waiting with several tons of rock.

He glanced at the ridge above. Gray stone covered in the deep, rich green of the pine trees. Smelled pretty good, better than the rotted flesh they’d all gotten used to. What they really needed was a case of those pine tree things that everyone used to hang from their rear view mirrors. He could hook one on his belt or his jacket pocket and carry that pine-fresh scent everywhere.

Frank was probably loving that smell right this minute up there on the ridge. Okay sure, maybe a landslide was overkill, but they’d never get out of this mess alive if they had to take down every single zombie by hand. They didn’t have enough ammo. Not even Sally’s freakishly good aim could make up for a lack of bullets. 

Leaning through the car window, Bob yanked the keys from the ignition. The lighter winked at him as if sharing a private joke. Yep, Sally was wrong this time, just like she’d been that day he’d told her there was a zombie in the yard. Called him an idiot then, too. They’d see who the real idiot was. Once they brought down that mountain, he’d let her know about her mistake. He might not ever let her forget it either.

If they survived of course.
How much of that did you skim? A little? A lot? None at all? Did you notice how much weaker this version was than the last? Slower, less tense, even if some of the details might have been interesting on their own.

(Here's more on How to Write Scenes (and What Qualifies as a Scene))

Even when the writing is good, if the detail bogs down the story or goes off on a tangent, it can derail the scene. Perhaps cut it, or move it where it flows more naturally and fits the scene instead of sticking out. Irrelevant details can draw focus away from what’s important and cause readers to miss the critical information. Then later, when they need that information to understand what’s going on, they don’t have it and feel lost.

If you have any scenes in your manuscript that aren't working and you're not sure why, check your narrative focus. Examine how your scene flows and how that information is conveyed to your readers. You might discover the problem is too many ideas flowing in too many directions. Tighten the narrative focus and get that scene back on track.

Do you check for narrative focus or do you tighten it on instinct? Do you have any scenes that feel off and you don’t know why? Could a lack of focus be hurting it? 

*Originally published October 2011. Last update June 2020.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

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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13 comments:

  1. Love what you did here. I usually have to go through 3 passes before I get the overkill out. But that's what revisions are for.

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  2. Thanks for giving me the right words to use when I turn in the contest entries I'm judging. I knew something was "off" in the writing, but now I have a name for it!

    When I read my own stuff, I look for flow and transitions--whether or not one phrase, sentence, paragraph leads logically to the next.

    Since I normally have my plot points for the scene figured out, I guess I'm narrowing my narrative focus.

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

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  3. Brilliant post! I love how you break it down, showing it step by step.

    Very helpful!

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  4. This is great advice! Awesome examples, too. I've personally narrowed the focus of a novel by over 100,000 words (yes I WAY over-write when drafting) and it makes a huge difference. After a certain point though, I have to get help from other sets of eyes.

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  5. Anne, indeed. The inspiration for this post was my fifth pass through my current WIP, tightening the plot even more. This one has certainly been a "three steps forward two steps back" kinda manuscript :) But I guess that means the "first draft" will be pretty solid since it keeps getting reworked as I go.

    Terry, most welcome! Sounds like you keep pretty focused. I wonder if outliners have this easier than pansters?

    Janet, thanks! Glad it was helpful.

    Matthew, wow, you cut 100K? You do write long first drafts :) I get it as good as I can, then it goes to my crit groups. I don't send anything in that hasn't been critiqued by my writer pals first.

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  6. Thanks for this! I loved the examples. It will really help when I reread my draft again in a couple weeks (must let it sit *pout*)

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  7. This is so helpful, Janice. Those examples were great. Do you find that a loss of focus happens when people try to "write like they talk?"

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  8. Another great post. I really appreciate your ability to break down each concept and show with examples - this is really helping me in my edits!

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  9. Very interesting. I'm judging a writing contest too. Some of the entries I had read are a little unpolished, so to speak, but saying it lacks focus would be a better way to state it. Hopefully, this'll help me explain my scores better and give better advice.

    Oh, and I'm writing my climax scene right now, where the protagonist finally regains control once and for all and defeat the antagonist. I'm taking a time out of the day to write it out and enjoy that writer's high I got on Draft One.

    I'm still figuring out how to exactly tie in the "Character Development" narrative arc in the scene, though.

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  10. This post was perfect for me. I really needed examples to go by so now everything clicked. I finally get it. :)

    I'm submitting my first two chapters to a scholarship and when I went through for line-by-line editing, I ended up shaving off a good two or three pages just from irrelevant detail. :/ But! The story was improved for it. :)

    Thanks for the post!

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  11. Excellent way of putting it. It's very easy to get tangled up in what you're trying to convey that you often overlook how you're conveying it. Great examples too.

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  12. Danielle, hang in there! You'll see so much more after that rest. But I know it's hard :) especially when you find ways to improve and want to put them into use.

    Jacquelin, you might be right there. Conversations tend to go off in all kinds of directions. Works in real life, but it does lose you in a story.

    Jennifer, thanks! It's both fun and challenging to write them. Who knew bad writing could be hard!

    CO, grats! What works for me is to think about how what they do in the climax teaches them whatever they need for their growth. Like, if they need to learn to trust people, it's only by trusting someone do they succeed.

    Amelia, that's awesome, grats!

    PW, thanks!

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  13. Great post. Thanks for adding the examples they were really help. I will be storing this away for future use.

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