Narrative Drive: Literary Sat-Nav

Just about to start my series on The Unbreakables and I find myself wondering if I should be adding this to my rule of three  and making it a sturdy four?

Narrative drive. I don’t even know if this is a term I invented. I’ve offered it up for discussion to my fellow writers and received telling silence in return. So silent in fact I keep going back to check that I’d actually posted.


But I turned to google – saviour of the modern writer – and found I am not alone. It exists. It hasn’t quite warranted a stand alone entry in Wikipedia yet, but its the lack of discussion in writerly places that really bothers me. Sadly I think a campaign would get it into the wiki archives faster than into the average writer site’s list of commonly used terms.

As I said I have been singularly ignored whenever I have used the term but if anyone had bothered to answer I imagine the general feel might have been that its one of those modern buzz phrases putting the commerciability into writing and ripping the art out of it. There might be mention of the inability of the modern reader to appreciate anything that isn’t slam, bam and couldn’t-even-stop-to-say- thank-you ma’am.

It would be derided with sad shakes of head and sighs that LotR or Austen wouldn’t be published today. And while I will bow out of any discussion of Tolkien ( I never can seem to get along with fantasy) I’ll say that in actual fact Austen has plenty of drive. She has it on the first page, in the first paragraph.

it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Why? Because it tells us where we are going.

Narrative drive is not action, certainly not of the blow em up sort. It is simply direction. Take it away and you start to get that feeling as you read sort of like when you are lost in the woods and you are fairly sure you are going in circles. Narrative drive is what keeps the reader turning the page. almost sometimes against their will. Ever have that feeling? You don’t want to keep reading, its late, you need to sleep yet the pages just keep turning, the light stays on, you just have to know.

Lots of things contribute to narrative drive. Like the other unbreakables it is an effect, not one specific tool or trick. It pervades your plot, characters, relationships and dialogue – and everything else I can’t be bothered to list – like little sticky thorns catching and holding the readers attention.

The first, easiest way to set it up lies in your  main story arc. Most books can be reduced to a single question – Moby Dick – will he best the whale? Pride and Prejudice – will the Bennet girls get their men? Hunger Games – will Katniss survive? But you have to be careful – how you answer the question is as important as the question itself. Take The Hunger Games. Did anyone really wonder if she would survive? Its written in the first person for starters, but even if it had been put in the third like Harry Potter, readers still expect the hero to triumph. Tragedies are a rarity and usually announce their end in their beginning. It doesn’t take the savviest reader to know that the girl will likely get the boy or even which boy she will get. That the hunted hero will win out. And even in a whodunit style of book where there is a reveal or twist at the end, we can either skip to the back, look it up on Wikipedia or ask a friend. So many options, so little reason to keep reading..

To keep the reader turning pages you have to keep them wanting to know what’s coming in each of those pages, not just the last one. Most authors get the first part, but trip up over this. Pretty descriptions, clever phrasing aren’t enough, neither – strangely enough – is enjoyment. The reader can like it all and still find their mind wandering. You need to keep them curious at all times. This returns to asking questions. Crucially, you have to get your reader asking  questions. Again too many times authors (those published conventionally as much as any others) seem to think they should be the ones asking the questions, but that runs the risk of telling your reader what to think.

Returning to the Hunger Games one of the questions I found naturally arising –  how will she save her sister? – was answered almost immediately. And while there were many solutions which might have led to even more questions, this one was what I call a dead end. It definitively answered and thus shut down that particular thread. Those answers that lead to more questions, that develop possibilities rather than shut them down are far more effective.

Now that may be a personal issue – and that’s the thing with books, you’ll never please everyone –  but the key with narrative drive is that it runs through your entire story. Answer everything too soon or drag it out too much and you get soggy wandering that bores your reader and makes it a chore to pick up the book.

There are books such as the Hobbit which are episodic with little to no continuation between the individual adventures and no real overreaching arc. Very few books do this, most scenes contribute something to the whole. In Harry Potter for instance although initially the adventures such as smuggling out Norbert from the North Tower, picking up the Stone from the vaults, appear unrelated they all tie up in the end. While this is generally preferred ( ie more popular with publishers) there is no reason an episodic tale cannot have narrative drive, if it is to work it should have it just as much as any other. After all with HP we were still reading even tho we had no reason to presume they would conect up eventually. It was only in later books that we started to expect this, largely because of the precedent set in the first.

For the questions that really hook are the smaller, seemingly insignificant questions that pop up as a natural part of your events, relationships, your character’s actions and dialogues – Why wasn’t she sarcastic? Normally she is always sarcastic when answering those kind of questions. Why has the mother never mentioned their grandmother before? Why is she cleanly so intently? I wonder what the grandmother will be like…

These keep everything moving forward, focusing the readers attention without becoming predictable or revealing too much too soon. In fact subplots might be considered a sub heading of narrative drive. It is these threads that work like feathery off-shoots of the main spine that will really keep your reader’s curiosity peaked, regardless of your basic structure – whodunit, episodic adventure or character study. Or something I can’t think of a name for 😛

A great example of unconventional structure which still has drive is the Simpsons. If you managed to guess where the story would lead before the half way point you’d probably watched too many. They rambled with frequent abrupt tangents, even when quite far into the episode, and yet it was this very quality, unpredictability, not just in terms of the plot but the characters and their relationships, that kept me hooked.

simpsons family

As I said how you achieve that is up to you.  Burgeoning romance, engaging characters, an interesting world – which are all not only subjective but frustratingly vague. Almost as bad as saying I will know it when I see it 😀 It is often easier to define what will pull us out of a book. I see a phrase approximating, ‘she was special more special than she could possibly have imagined’ and I close the book. But the chosen one remains a popular trope. The easiest way is to know what you want to see in a book, to never write something that you think you are supposed to write, but always be driven by what the reader in you instinctively seeks out.







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