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Wednesday, May 27

A Handy Checklist to Strengthen the Narrative Drive in Your Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A strong narrative drive is crucial to keeping readers hooked.

Like pretty much everyone these days, I have a lot going on in my life. I get distracted, and then I forget things, and that leads to unhappiness in a variety of ways. Making lists helps keep me focused and prevents me from forgetting things (as much, let’s be honest here).

This carries over into my writing.

It’s also a reason I love outlining.

Wait, hang on! Before you pantsers and anti-outliners click away, this isn’t about outlining (per se). It’s about a tool to help writers keep their stories moving forward. It’s about crafting a strong narrative drive, and it doesn’t have to happen in the first draft if that’s not your thing.

I use this tool throughout my entire drafting process. It helps me focus my outlining and brainstorming sessions, it guides me during the first draft, and then it helps me spot weak areas and tighten the story in subsequent drafts. It’s also my go-to tool when I start revisions, and I make it part of my editorial map.

So yeah, super handy.

(Here’s more on A Fun Test to Check Your Scene's Narrative Drive)

Why Crafting a Strong Narrative Draft Is Important to a Strong Novel


Just a quick aside for those who haven’t run into this term before…

Narrative drive is the sense that the story is moving forward and going somewhere. The “narrative” is “driving” the plot, and the scenes all have a point that will lead to a satisfying conclusion for the reader.

If you’ve ever read a novel and wondered if it was going anywhere, or why the characters were doing whatever they were doing in a scene that was starting to bore you, you’ve run into some weak narrative drive.

(Here’s more on Two Reasons Why Your Protagonist Isn't Driving Your Plot) 

We don’t want our novels to be one of those novels, which is why we’re going to make sure we pay attention to our narrative drives, right? And here’s why:

Writing a novel has a lot of parts, and a little help to make sure all the parts work is useful.

It’s the rare writer who can remember every single detail about their book and when and where it happens. And even if you’re one of those writers, what we think is on the page, isn’t always what’s actually there. Our story knowledge can make us see those critical elements even if they’re missing or barely alluded to.

For example, if you know a line of dialogue is packed full of subtext and double meaning, that line might feel like the protagonist’s goal is clear, and their actions make sense. But if readers just read it at face value, they miss the reason it’s there and what it really means. To them, it was a throwaway line.

The act of writing something down also clarifies it for us. We often “feel” the drive in our scenes, and the reasons behind what the characters are doing, but when forced to articulate it—we can’t. And that’s a big red flag there’s an issue with that scene.

(Here’s more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page) 

A quick check for key elements helps spot missing pieces.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to find the holes before I send a draft off to my critique partners—especially the “easy-to-fix, shoulda caught that one, doh!” types. It’s kinda embarrassing, even though we all do it.

But a novel has a lot of pieces, and things do get missed. Subplots start and then stall, we change our minds about a turning point, a better idea hits us after we’ve setup a different backstory, and all of this can knock our scenes out of alignment and open cracks in our tightly wound story. Which okay, is also a narrative focus issue, but in the same ballpark, and also highlighted by this checklist. So win/win.

(Here’s more on And Pretty Words All in a Row: Tightening Your Narrative Focus) 

Knowing what’s missing helps you fix weak areas before they become problems.

This is my favorite part of this tool, and why I use it during the entire drafting process. Problems aren’t always big, story-killing snafus everyone spots right away. They’re often small, not-really-that-bad issues we overlook, because the story works and the book isn’t bad and there’s nothing glaringly bad going on in there.

But it’s not as strong as it could be.

It’s “good” but not “great.”

And that’s a kiss of death right there. That’s how we wind up with “you’re a talented writer, but this isn’t for me” form rejection letters, and three-star “this would have been an awesome book with a little more editing” reviews.

Here’s an example from my current WIP. I’m 100 pages into it, and a few weeks ago, the story took an unexpected turn. Even though I had an outline, I wasn’t sure what happened next. I didn’t want to go off on the wrong track with this new path, so I went back to my outline and re-did my editorial map. This helped me clarify where to go next, but it also revealed a few other things.
  • One chapter introduced a major goal and then never pursued it.
  • Another had a weak goal, and no conflict (even though there’s a ton of action and it’s a very emotionally powerful scene).
  • One scene’s tension would be greatly improved by adding a ticking clock.
  • And the scene I got stuck on had no conflict.
All in all, that’s what I found in sixteen chapters (about 25,000 words) of this first draft. That may not seem like much, but it means 25% of my chapters were weak. A quarter of the book so far.

Fixing those weak spots will improve the whole novel, and I won’t have a first act that feels “sluggish” to my future beta readers. Because those issues I just mentioned? That enough to knock a novel from great down to good.

(Here’s more on How to Create an Editorial Map) 

Fixing weak areas early enough (as in the outlining stage for those who do that), can shorten the drafting time and produce finished drafts faster.

Not every writer will want to do this, and that’s okay. We all have different processes. But for those of you who like to outline and plan ahead, this check list can help you produce cleaner and tighter first drafts, which means fewer revisions over the long haul.

If it normally takes you five drafts per book, and you can knock it down to three, that might result in an extra draft a year (or whatever your time frame is).

So without further ado, here’s…

My Narrative Drive Check List


I’ve added the bracketed parts here, though I don’t use them on my outlines. But I suggest keeping them if you give this a try to remind you what the points on the list are. I’ve been using this for a decade, so I know what I’m checking for.

Goal (What are they trying to do?): This is the whole reason the scene is there—for the protagonist to do something. It’s part one of their agency (you know, that thing that puts the protagonist in charge of their own story).

Motivation (Why are they trying to do it?): This is where most of your narrative drive is going to come from, because what the protagonist wants shows readers where the scene is going, but why the protagonist wants it is what’s driving them to act in the first place. This is part two of a character’s agency.

Conflict (What problem do they face doing it?): This is where all your tension comes from. Will they get the goal? Will they fail? What’s going to happen next? A lack of conflict is the most common reason manuscripts get rejected by agents and editors (and probably readers, though they may not know that).

Stakes (What’s at risk if they don’t do it?): This is how you tap into reader emotions. When they’re not sure what will go wrong and what might happen to the protagonist and characters they care about, they worry. Worry leads to anticipation, and anticipation leads to turning the pages to see what happens next.

Hand-Off (How does this scene cause the next scene to happen?): This is my favorite part of the list. Before I started doing this, I had a lot more “episodic” scenes. The hand-off is the drive part of the narrative drive, and it shows how this scene triggers or leads to the next scene. It’s usually the next scene’s goal, though a goal can carry over from scene to scene if the protagonist is still pursuing it.

What Are Readers Going to Wonder About (What are the story questions, clues, and hints?): This reminds me to check the foreshadows, the clues, the story questions, and not just write a “this is what happens” scene. If all I’m doing is explaining (even in a “shown” way), and there’s nothing to wonder about, readers will get bored. The scene won’t be going anywhere.

Larger Ramifications (What in this scene matters moving forward?): This is another “keeping me on track” reminder. Plenty of things happen in a scene that won’t pay off or become important until later scenes, but it helps me to know where those clues and setups fall. That makes is so much easier to edit later if needed. It’s also a great way to spot scenes that don’t need to be there. If there are no larger ramifications, odds are there’s nothing in that scene that matters to the big picture.

It also lets me keep track of the non-point of view character motivations and goals, because they’re doing things for reasons as well. Or they should be.

Want an example? Here’s this check list for my opening chapter (some details edited because ya know, spoilers).
Goal: To craft the best charm she can to win her spot with the root workers

Motivation: To do what she loves, and to protect her family and the town

Conflict: Hasil wants the spot, and he sabotages her

Stakes: Without good roots to work with, she'll lose her chance at the apprenticeship, and thus not get her dream or be able to protect her family

Hand-off: She has to find a way to craft a strong charm with the broken roots

What are readers going to wonder about: Can she craft a good charm? Did Hasil really [do this thing]? Will she get to fix this? What's she going to do next?

Larger ramifications: Hasil [doing what he did], is why [something bad happened that triggers the entire plot]. [The explanation of how it happened and how these two cause and effect moments created the entire situation of the plot]
Even knowing nothing about this story, I hope you can see how the list and the answers show how the scene moves forward and how it connects to the next scene. And notice that my “larger ramifications” sets up the entire novel. This scene is pivotal to the core of my idea. If this didn’t happen, no book.

This narrative drive check list is a handy tool to help writers strengthen their scenes’ narrative drives, and a strong narrative drive leads to strong a story. Even if you’re not an outliner, test this on one or two scenes and see how it works for you.

Do you check your narrative drive? Does this look like a tool you’d find useful? Why or why not?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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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