Wednesday, October 19

And Pretty Words All in a Row: Tightening Your Narrative Focus

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

First drafts are typically messy. We let our creativity guide us and the story goes where the story goes. It’s not uncommon for a first (or even second) draft to be a bit all over the place. Eventually we’ll get to a point where it’s time to tighten, not only the prose, but the narrative as well.

It’s time to look at your narrative focus.

Narrative focus is the theme or idea that ties a sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter, and book together. It’s what keeps the story flowing because everything is lining up like lovely little story roads. It helps keep the pace moving as events and details are building upon one another and making the reader feel like the story is going somewhere.

Like so many things in writing, narrative focus affects the macro and micro levels of your story.

Sentences
Have you ever read a run-on sentence? Odds are it lost its focus. It’s trying to do too many things at once and you’re not really sure what the point of the sentence is. Or you’ll find a sentence that’s trying to cram something in that doesn’t really go with the rest of it.
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.
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.

Try keeping the focus of each topic together.
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.
Better, but there’s still trouble here, because what do firecrackers have to do with going for keys? This kind of narrative wobble is common when you’re trying to slip in details and aren’t sure how they fit. This can lead to unfocused paragraphs.

Paragraphs
Remember English class? One topic per paragraph? That still holds true in writing.
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 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.

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

Try breaking those unfocused paragraphs up into individual thoughts, then adding transition sentences to lead the reader where you want them to go story wise. Show what’s important and take them to the next important detail. You might even try dramatizing the scene a little 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, left critical gear behind. Like a 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 even 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 that the last. It’s going somewhere, has a sense of drive and even stakes. It went from a loose paragraph to an actual scene.

Scenes
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 that’s a scene that lost its narrative focus. While you will certainly have multiple topics in a scene, keeping them focused keeps the story moving scene to scene, same as it does paragraph to paragraph.

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 even 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.

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

Think about how your story flows and how that information is conveyed to your reader. Then make sure it’s all flowing in the right direction.

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? 

For another example of narrative focus in a scene, try this.

Looking for tips on 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, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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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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