This article, by Paula Munier, appeared in the recent edition of The Florida Writer. She says that as a reader, a writer and an agent, she reads thousands of stories a year, or at least the opening pages. And the reason she often stops reading is a lack of narrative thrust.
She goes on to say: “Narrative thrust is the taut building of a story, beat by beat, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, using the complexities of plot an character to propel the story forward in a dramatic arc that peaks at the climax. You must write each scene to that it logically leads to the next as if you were connecting a model train, car by car. . .
“Narrative thrust provides momentum for a story; it’s the gas that fuels your story’s engine. . . . Just think of the last story that kept you up all night, the last novel you couldn’t read fast enough and yet didn’t want to end. But, recognizing narrative thrust as a reader and knowing how to create it as a writer are two very different things.
She talks then about Story Questions and says that they are posed at macro, meso and micro levels, and that the job of a writer is to build them all into your prose. “A macro story question is the big question that drives the entire plot: Will Cinderella marry her prince? The meso story question drives each scene: Will Cinderella’s step mother let her go to the ball once she’s finished her chores? And micro questions are scattered through the narrative at every opportunity – the more the better.” She uses this example from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: ‘The house whirled around two or three times and rose slowly through the air. (Where is the house going?) Dorothy felt as if she were going up in a balloon. (What will happen to Dorothy?)’
“Just as important is pacing, the rate of your narrative thrust. Pacing is the gait of your storytelling – and a slow horse is a dead horse. The very word ‘pacing’ has become a touchstone in the industry today; if I had a dollar for every editor who complained publicly or privately about so-called ‘pacing problems’ plaguing today’s submissions, I’d have a lot more dollars – and a lot more deals. “
She recommends these do’s and don’t’s regarding pacing:
- Make things happen!
- Have your protagonist drive the action. When the hero is passive or inactive, the reader’s interest lags.
- Raise the stakes for your heroine: give her bigger obstacles to overcome as the story progresses
- Add a ticking clock if possible: if he doesn’t find the bomb by 2 pm, it goes off!
- Write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow.
- Do aim for clarity.
- Don’t confuse foreshadowing and forecasting. In foreshadowing, you use tone and style to create a mood or evoke a feeling to help create suspense. Forecasting tells the reader what’s going to happen and eliminates suspense.
- Don’t tell the reader that something is going to happen before it happens: “If he had know then that his life would change . . .” It destroys the suspense.
- Don’t belabor the descriptions. Stick to one telling detail.
- Don’t let your characters talk too much. Dialogue should not replace action.
I agree with most of what Ms Munier says. I would point out that A God in Ruins, which I reviewed in a previous post, skips around in time so that one scene does not build on another directly. But, as I said in the review, this technique works because Kate Atkinson uses it to build suspense. It isn’t necessary to tell the story 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. It can also be told effectively 2, 3, 1, 4. The point about descriptions: this is a tricky one. I have noticed that recent prize-winning novels do not stick to the ‘one detail’ rule. In some cases the descriptions are quite lengthy and detailed but the writing is beautiful – almost poetic and a joy to read. So I think that if you’re going to offer more than one detail, make sure it’s captivating!