Saturday, March 7

Day Seven: Focus the Narrative Drive

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Congratulations! We made it through week one.

Welcome to Day Seven of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. This first stage is all about getting the story and plot worked out, and identifying any holes or problems to guide us in our revisions and let us know where we need to focus our time. We’ll be analyzing plot and narrative structure, and making sure the novel is working as a whole.  

We’ve analyzed and tweaked our plot structure and character arcs for a week now, so it’s time to do one last run through to make sure everything is indeed unfolding as we want it to.

Today, we’re going to check our narrative drive in case we knocked things out of alignment with our week of fiddling.

1. Check to Ensure There’s a Strong Narrative Drive

Narrative drive is the force that moves the story along. It's the reason the characters do what they do and makes the story feel as though it's going somewhere and not just wandering aimlessly. After all the work we’ve done so far, this should be in pretty good shape. Take a look at your scene analysis and ask for each scene:
  • Does the protagonist have a plan of action?
  • Is the motivation for that action clear?
  • Is there a story point (author’s perspective) to every scene?
  • Is there a story question (reader’s perspective) in every scene?
  • Are these points and questions clear from the start of the scene?
  • Is the protagonist making decisions that change how the story unfolds?
  • If you took the scene out, would the plot change?

2. Identify What Changes in the Scene

The whole point of a scene is to move the story forward in some way, so if nothing at all changes, that’s a good indication that the scene is unnecessary or needs more work to serve the story.

What changed with the goal? The protagonist should be closer to or farther from that goal for having gone through this scene. If she's not, then what was the point of the scene?

What changed in the stakes? What about the situation got worse? Maybe new information shed light on an existing problem, or an action didn't go as planned. Maybe things that were impersonal are now personal.

What changed in the conflict? The conflict might now be harder or more personal, or it could have shifted to something that will destroy the protagonist if left unresolved. As tension comes from conflict, this is an area where changes can have a major impact on the story.

What changed in the motivations? Characters who started out with good intentions might have sunk into more selfish wants as the scene unfolded. The good guy might be sick of always playing by the rules and decided to cut loose, or the character with ambiguous allegiances picked a side.

What changed in the plot? Three in a row of the same type of scene with the same resolution will feel repetitious and make the story feel stagnant.

What changed in the setting? When the setting changes, it often heralds a change in another area.

Not every scene will have or need every one of these changes, but it's worth looking at each one to see if a change would strengthen the scene. It can also be helpful to consider the point of the scene, both from the author's standpoint (what you want to show by having this scene there) and the character's standpoint (how she sees the scene and what she wants from it). If the point is to explain something, odds are there's not enough change going on.

This concludes week one (we made it!). We should be feeling pretty good about our plots and character arcs and how they unfold in the novel. Tomorrow, we’ll move on to characters and setting, deepening both our story people and their worlds.

Tomorrow: Flesh Out the Character Development

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released 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, and The Truman Award in 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, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Hi Janice – thanks for the great series! I had a POV question come up during the goals section. Will POV be something we cover?

    Here’s the issue: I found several scenes where the POV character isn’t the one behind the scene goal, although they do have the most to lose. So, for example, in one scene, the POV character is the hero, but his scene goal is to just get through one more miserable work day. The heroine shows up to give him money (which is the real point of the scene) so I guess technically it should be in her POV. But we need to be in his POV to understand his reaction. So now I’m wondering if I need to giver her the POV for the scene, and go into his in a subsequent sequel. But that seems overkill.

    So I’m either overthinking it, or I’ve uncovered a potential problem with the story mechanics. Thoughts? Is this the place to ask things like this? Thanks!

    1. Yes, POV comes next week.

      It sounds like your POV has a goal (to get through the day). The money might be *your* goal as the author, or the heroine's goal, but the POV has other plans. Non-POV characters can also have goals and plans in a scene, and often those goals conflict with, support, or complicate the POV character's.

      If his goal is to get through the day, then that's what he's doing. The money is going to affect that day and potentially his goal, depending on your story, but it's not driving that scene.

      Goals don't have to be huge things, you just want your characters doing something and not just sitting around waiting for stuff to happen to them.

      Does that help?

    2. That helps a lot. I equated a mundane goal with a weak goal, but trying to get through the day is exactly what the hero is doing right then -- and the poor guy *is* suffering, so that's good :) THANKS!

  2. I think I need at least a day of undivided attention for each of these steps, they are so thorough! But that would be in a perfect world...

    1. That's possible :) I've had a few of these steps I needed a few days to complete myself. It if takes a little longer, no worries :) It's not a race, just a path to follow.

  3. I am on the path. Racing would be unwise. I may finish last. Thanks for scaffolding the revision steps so well. This is EXACTLY what I needed!

    1. Yay! Nothing wrong with last, because you'll still be a winner for finishing :)