Monday, November 24, 2008

Narrative Drive

Amy here. When I lived in Washington, DC, I rented a WWII-era studio on Capitol Hill. Fabulous. Every day I walked to work and passed Folger Shakespeare Library; the Supreme Court and Library of Congress; and, the most beautiful building on earth, the United States Capitol. One day, a woman befuddled by her map stopped me and asked, "Where's the Capitol?" I pointed to the ginormous building before us. A couple of Congressional aides strutting by snickered (yes, they absolutely did), and she wilted a little. I reassured her that there's no such thing as a stupid question. None at all.

Having worked for the most convoluted bureaucracy on planet earth, the United States Government, I can say with utmost sincerity that publishing is a close second. Lots of unspoken rules and unknowable expectations. I don't know what I don't know and neither do you. Ask away; we'll give it a go or pose it to one of our special guests. So if you have a question, whatever it may be, know you're safe here:

Q) I have representation for my first novel from a successful agent. Many editors have reviewed my full MS and have said that they enjoyed my writing and characters but found that my novel lacked narrative drive. I have revised extensively a few times, but am getting the same concern with each submission. I used to think that my novel was getting better each time, but for the first time I think it may be getting worse. I'm afraid I'm removing too much in order to achieve the "what happens next" suspense factor. Can you offer any advice about what editors are truly looking for when they assess a novel for narrative drive?

Lynne Griffin
Imagine that every detail you give readers is a stone you ask them to carry for a long journey up a mountain. As the load becomes heavier, the reader will reevaluate his or her load, asking if each is integral to the experience. Once at the mountain top, all the stones the reader carried for no reason will add up to pile of bad feelings and negative impressions of the author.

Narrative drive is story force. If you’re in what you believe to be your final revision, before sending your manuscript to an agent or editor, you must take accountability for every sentence, every word. When you come upon dialogue that says nothing, cut it. When you read scenes that do nothing to move the story forward, sorry, they must go. Glorious phrases that don’t tell the reader something worth carrying—kill those little darlings. When you revise with narrative drive in mind, you will eventually get to the heart of your story. After this humbling experience of accountable revision, you may have to go back to the drawing board to add scenes rich in conflict, loaded with compelling details. Now is the time to rework the piece with the goal of asking your readers to care, inviting them to embrace what you're asking them to hold.

Amy MacKinnon
In a word? Compelling. Suspenseful. Page-turner. Even children's picture books -- take Where the Wild Things Are -- make us care deeply about the character and wonder what will happen on the next page. Do that.

Lisa Marnell
All you have to know is this:

This will drive your narrative and this will force the reader to stay up late into the night to find out what happens. Things must get bleak for the old MC, then bleaker still. She has to want something so, so badly, but in chasing it, she must face the worst decision and struggle of her life.
Now, if you want to know how to achieve this, it's a simple answer as well. YOU must suffer internal angst in the writing and revising. What you must do is - as Amy says - up the stakes. Then, add a surprise, shock yourself. Next, sit somewhere by yourself in the middle of the night and think of one more thing to make it worse for your character. Tell yourself this isn't good enough and make it more compelling. This is not fun. I know. It's actually torture, until you have a breakthrough. This feels like heaven on earth. I know, I had a breakthrough last night.

What you cannot do is think that an okay story is good enough to make it. IT WON'T.

Yes, you can do this if you are not afraid to go back to square one and look at the story again and again, until it sings. You can do this!

Hannah Roveto
Not that a group blog needs narrative drive, but like a novel, we do not want to wallow in repetition, nor do we want to put down words for their own sake. So I offer this as you do revisions. Everyone works differently, but this helps me. Absorb every wise word above, and then sit down with a cup of tea and write an abbreviated summary of each scene, each chapter. Two lined sheets of paper at the most. Identify troublesome passages. Highlight where they are and take a close look at them and how they fit into the whole. Why does the reader need that section? Do we need it at that moment, in that way? What physicality in that scene provides movement and action, even if the passage takes us into a character's thoughts? Does this involve the reader, or simply inform? Sometimes it helps to reread a book like The Time Traveler's Wife, that ties every moment in time, every thought to a purpose. Dig at it and explore the why. Then return to your own work. Sometimes I find when a section is not pushing the narrative forward, something is missing in the story that my brain tried to fill without success. Why did I write that passage, what did I want to say, and how can I deliver with more impact? Doodle your thoughts next to your summary. You will find yourself finding ways of being more compelling, of upping the stakes, and before you know it, you will be adding words and not deleting them, and the result will be exactly what you need.


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Great advice (as always!) ladies. I'll add this . . . I've been where you are. And I found I was too close to the MS. I couldn't see the forest for the trees. I took a leap (at the advice of my agent) and hired an outside editor. She was amazing. In talking to her I had several of those hit-yourself-on-the head V-8-moments.

If you'd like to chat more about it, give me a holler at judylarsen1 at charter dot net

Anonymous said...

Thank you a thousand times. May this post live in the Internet archives until every last novel is written.

Anonymous said...

Great advice - and, Lynne, a belated thank-you for the terrific workshop. Truly one of the best Grub classes I've taken - you were inspiring, knowledgeable, and superbly well-organized to boot. I hope you'll be able to find the time to do another.

p.s. love the new, softer-green look to the site!

Nicole E. Johnson, PhD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lauren @ Pure Text said...

WOW! This metaphor by Lynn Griffin was amazing:

"Imagine that every detail you give readers is a stone you ask them to carry for a long journey up a mountain. As the load becomes heavier, the reader will reevaluate his or her load, asking if each is integral to the experience. Once at the mountain top, all the stones the reader carried for no reason will add up to pile of bad feelings and negative impressions of the author."

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